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The missing piece is out there, though it might cost you an arm and a leg to get it. Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the "Top 10 Franchise-Changing Free Agent Signings."
For this list, we’re taking a look at athletes whose arrival via free agency brought their teams to the next level, whether those teams were struggling franchises or previously successful ones that had been going through dry spells. We’re only looking at players who signed with their teams while out of contract, so players who arrived via trade or signed for a team while under contract elsewhere are not eligible.
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#10: Reggie White, Green Bay Packers (1993)
Not known for signing big-name free agents, it came as a shock when the biggest fish in the NFL free agency pond decided to take his talents to Green Bay, Wisconsin. White, a defensive end with a unique talent for getting to opposing quarterbacks, didn’t take long to establish himself in his new home. The Packers, having not made the playoffs in 10 seasons, became a force to be reckoned with. With White, the Packers would make the playoffs every season, while winning a Super Bowl in ‘97 and being runner-up the following year. White won Defensive Player of the Year in his last season with the team, cementing his legacy as one of the all-time greats.
#9: Brett Hull, Dallas Stars (1998)
When this hard-shooting player arrived in Dallas, hope was running high for the franchise that had just relocated from Minnesota in 1993. Though the Stars had a very successful season in 1997-98, they bowed out in the Western Conference Final to eventual champions Detroit. The following year, however, they had beaten the Buffalo Sabres to take home hockey’s ultimate prize. Much of their success that season was due in part to Hull’s ability to put pucks in the back of the net. Scoring the triple-overtime series-winning goal in Game 6 sealed his legendary status amongst the Stars faithful. He would score 24 points in the following postseason en route to another Stanley Cup Finals appearance.
#8: Reggie Jackson, New York Yankees (1976)
Having not won a World Series title in 14 years, the Yankees finally appeared poised to make a significant run when they signed All-Star outfielder Reggie Jackson in the fall of 1976. It didn’t take long for “Mr. October” to make his mark, as he’d help lead them to consecutive titles in 1977 and ‘78—picking up the award for World Series MVP in the former. While Jackson is often remembered for his spectacular three-home-run performance in Game 6 of the ‘77 series, it was his temperamental and hostile relationship with Yankees manager Billy Martin that often made headlines. With Martin resigning in ‘78, Jackson had the last laugh by taking home yet another World Series trophy.
#7: Randy Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks (1999)
After agreeing to terms on a four-year, $52.4 million dollar contract, Randy Johnson went to work for his new team—a franchise with only one season under its belt. Upon winning consecutive Cy Young Awards for being the National League’s best pitcher in 1999 and 2000, “The Big Unit” helped guide the team to its first World Series appearance, and win, in 2001. Johnson shared the World Series MVP award with fellow pitcher and teammate Curt Schilling. During his time as a Diamondback from 1999 to 2004, Johnson was dominant, earning 103 wins and winning two additional Cy Young Awards. It’s safe to say his addition to Arizona’s pitching rotation was one of the best decisions the franchise ever made.
#6: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (2006)
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans was in desperate need of something to cheer for. Luckily, a strong-armed quarterback by the name of Drew Brees just happened to be a free agent. Upon signing a six-year deal worth $60 million, the Texas native quickly transformed the Saints to Super Bowl contenders. He led the team to an NFC Championship game in 2006, and a Super Bowl title three years later. Along the way, Brees has racked up some impressive personal statistics and awards, including the record for most 5,000-yard seasons by a quarterback and a Super Bowl MVP trophy. Not bad for a QB many suspected wouldn’t last long after a 2005 rotator cuff injury.
#5: Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns (2004)
The year before Nash returned to Phoenix after six seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, the Suns posted an abysmal record of 29 and 53. Thus, when the franchise acquired him the following season, hope was running high in the desert city. Nash quickly went to work turning the Suns into championship contenders. During his first season, the team posted an outstanding record of 62 and 20, with the speedy point guard taking home the league’s trophy for regular season MVP. While the furthest the Suns ever got with Nash as its leader was a Conference Final, his ability to dominate the court with superior passing skill made the team a scary one to play against.
#4: Shaquille O'Neal, Los Angeles Lakers (1996)
Having fallen into a dry spell after the Magic Johnson-led dominance of the 1980s, the Lakers were searching for answers in the summer of ‘96. The answer came in the form of a 7’1”, 325 lb center known as Shaq. After signing with the team, Shaq—along with a young, extremely talented shooting guard by the name of Kobe Bryant—returned the squad to its former glory. Leading the Lakers to three consecutive NBA championships between 2000 and 2002, and picking up the finals MVP award in all three, Shaq was nearly unstoppable. During his eight seasons with the Lakers, the team would post a record of 435-189. In other words, signing the big man was a masterstroke.
#3: Kurt Warner, St. Louis Rams (1998)
When the Rams signed a 27-year-old arena football player to serve as their backup quarterback, few could have predicted the impact he would have on the franchise. With Warner at the helm, St. Louis went from being one of the worst teams of the ‘90s to Super Bowl champions. After an injury to Trent Green in 1999, Warner was asked to step up—and step up he did. In a true NFL Cinderella story, Warner went from a virtual nobody to winning two NFL MVP awards, one Super Bowl MVP award, and his leadership turning the Rams into the “Greatest Show on Turf.” Pretty impressive for a guy who was bagging groceries only two years earlier.
#2: Andrea Pirlo, Juventus (2011)
This Italian soccer legend has a list of achievements so long they deserve their own video. So when he decided to sign with the Turin-based football club Juventus in 2011, fans were understandably excited. It didn’t take long for Pirlo to leave a mark on his new team, leading them to a Serie A title in his first year. The next three seasons would lead to three more championships, as well as a laundry list of awards for the free-kick specialist. Seeing as how Juventus hadn’t won a title since they were stripped of it in 2006 after a match-fixing scandal, this free agent signing is clearly one that paid dividends for the franchise.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
- Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos (2012)
- Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins (2006)
- Deion Sanders, San Francisco 49ers / Dallas Cowboys (1994/1995)
#1: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers (2014)
Few athletes have garnered the same level of attention as King James. After leaving his hometown Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat, many fans turned their back on the former first overall pick. However, when he returned – four years and two NBA championships later—the city was quick to let bygones be bygones. In his first year back, LeBron led the Cavs to a 53-29 record and a berth in the NBA finals. While the season ended in tears, hope was running high for the rejuvenated squad. The following season, LeBron led his team to a stunning come-from-behind victory over the defending champion Golden State Warriors, earning the city of Cleveland its first professional sports title in 52 years.
Do you agree with our list? Who’s your favorite franchise-changing free agent signing? For more entertaining Top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.