Free agency was a foreign concept in the NFL before the early 1990s. There were some players who moved between teams before that, but it was mostly toward the end of their careers. Teams still had a major say on players’ contractual rights.
Picking a Super Bowl champion, much like filling out a march madness bracket, used to be about who drafted and developed the best teams. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams showed by winning titles the past two seasons with their second teams, the league has become more and more willing to add players from outside the organization to help get the job done.
Before free agency became more formalized in 1993, a court ruling gave players their first look at what it could be like in 1992. Philadelphia Eagles tight end Keith Jackson, New England Patriots defensive end Garin Veris, Browns receiver Webster Slaughter and Detroit Lions running back D.J. Dozier was granted restraining orders and was allowed to be free agents for five days.
Jackson went to the Dolphins, Slaughter moved to the Oilers and Veris ended up with the 49ers. Dozier remained stuck in Detroit.
The Minister of Defense
Reggie White, a Hall of Fame player who played with the USFL’s Memphis Showboats in addition to the Eagles, Packers, and Carolina Panthers, was in another lawsuit against the NFL the result of which made free agency a lot more accessible to players. Once a settlement was reached — including franchise and transition tags the players grew to hate — White took advantage of his newfound freedom to sign a four-year, $17 million deal with the Packers.
White, who finished his career with 198 sacks, became a key cog for Green Bay’s defense. The Packers would make a trip to Super Bowls XXXI and XXXII thanks to White’s help. Green Bay hadn’t been to a Super Bowl in 29 years before Green Bay beat New England 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI, in which White set a Super Bowl record with three sacks.
This freedom thing feels good
While teams were initially slow on signing players looking for new homes, 82 would end up on new teams. While not every player would make an impact on their new team, many would end up filling key roles.
Long before Deion Sanders became the head man of the Jackson State football program, he was a notorious beneficiary of free agency. Sanders, who spent the first five years of his career with the Atlanta Falcons, would also play five years in Dallas, two in Baltimore and one in San Francisco and Washington.
Eager to leave for Atlanta and compete with a title, Sanders signed with San Francisco in 1994 on a one-year, $1.2 million deal. Sanders had a massive season, intercepting six passes and leading the NFL with 303 interception return yards and three touchdowns. It was a cathartic season for the 49ers, who finally got past the rival Dallas Cowboys and pounded San Diego 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX.
However, Deion’s love affair with San Francisco didn’t extend any farther. He quickly hopped teams the next season, signing with Dallas on a five-year, $30-million deal that included a $12.99 million sign bonus. Sanders would again help his new team win a Super Bowl, as the Cowboys beat Pittsburgh 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX.
Rod Woodson didn’t like how the Steelers treated him toward the end of his 10-year tenure in Pittsburgh. The defensive back then figured he would test the free agency waters in 1997. Woodson would end up taking less money from San Francisco to head out west. After one season in San Francisco, Woodson would find a home in Baltimore.
After shifting to safety in 1999 with the Ravens. Woodson found the fountain of youth, leading the league with seven interceptions and two returns for touchdowns. In 2000, he would intercept four passes and would be a key figure on one of the best defenses in league history that would lead Baltimore to the Super Bowl XXXV title.
After his time ended in Baltimore, Woodson would move on to Oakland as part of a team with other key veteran free agents — like Jerry Rice and Rich Gannon — would help lead the Raiders to their most recent Super Bowl appearance.