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Opinion: The greatest free-agent quarterbacks in NFL history

Touchdown Wire logo Touchdown Wire 3/12/2018 Chris Chase

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Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Kirk Cousins has gone 24-23-1 in the last three seasons and, for this, will likely become the highest-paid player in NFL history. Why? It's the same reason you spend three months salary on a diamond ring or $2 million on a Wu-Tang album: scarcity. Free agent quarterbacks don't come around that often, let alone free agents who some think could help a playoff team become Super Bowl champs. (Some, not all.)

Last year, Jay Cutler, Mike Glennon, Brian Hoyer and Colin Kaepernick were the "prizes" in free agency. In the past decade, Matt Cassel, Brock Osweiler, Ryan Mallett and Jason Campbell have led QB classes. Yeah, it's been that ugly. Almost every quarterback who's hit the open market in the 25 years of modern free agency has been backup-level or worse. The reason is simple: Teams that aren't owned by Daniel Snyder simply don't let their biggest asset walk out the door for nothing.

As a result, it wasn't easy coming up with a list of the best free-agent quarterbacks ever. The plan was to make a list twice this long but, when it came down to it, picking between the bench-warming stints of Chris Simms and Jason Campbell proved impossible. Sometimes greatness can't be measured.

10. Randall Cunningham (1997 Minnesota Vikings)

a man holding a baseball bat in front of a crowd: Agence France-Presse © Agence France-Presse Agence France-Presse Any team could have had Randall Cunningham in 1997. He had taken a forced retirement the year before when no teams showed interest but returned when the Vikings signed him to back up Brad Johnson. When Johnson got hurt, Cunningham took over and in 1998 led the Vikings to one of the greatest offensive seasons in NFL history. Was he simply a cog in a machine led by Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Robert Smith and the best offensive line in the NFC? Maybe. But for a year, anyway, what a cog he was.

9. Jake Plummer (2003 Denver Broncos)

a man smiling for the camera: Getty © Getty Getty After six seasons in Arizona, Plummer signed with the Broncos in free agency and rejuvenated a career that had barely been juvenated before. He went 9-2 in his first season, 10-6 in his second and 13-3 in his third - each of which led to playoff berths. (The last one featured a divisional playoff win over Tom Brady and the Patriots.) Plummer only played four years in Denver but they were crucial in the franchise emerging from the shadow of the John Elway era. 

8. Kerry Collins (1999 New York Giants)

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Agence France-Presse © Agence France-Presse Agence France-Presse "'I've been called a racist, a drunk and a quitter," Kerry Collins said in 1999. "Other than that, I'm fine." The troubled quarterback was passed over by most NFL teams following his controversial time in Carolina but the Giants took a gamble and were rewarded for it - as much as one can be rewarded by signing a middle-of-the-road quarterback in free agency. He led the team to the Super Bowl in 2000 and had another playoff berth as well, but overall he was just two games over .500 in the Big Apple.

7 . Brad Johnson (1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

a baseball player wearing a red shirt: Getty © Getty Getty Try, for a moment, to imagine the following scenario, far-fetched though it may be. A productive quarterback goes unappreciated on a team owned by Dan Snyder and hits free agency while the owner plays with a shiny new toy. Except in this story, the toy isn't Alex Smith but a rusty, past-his-prime, mustachioed Jeff George. Johnson would go on to win a Super Bowl in Tampa.

6. Jake Delhomme (2003 Carolina Panthers)

a football player wearing a helmet: Getty © Getty Getty Delhomme wasn't a big prize in the 2003 free-agent market. He was signed to play backup to Rodney Peete, a position he didn't hold for long, replacing the incumbent QB at halftime of Week 1. Delhomme brought the team back from a 17-0 deficit, led Carolina to the victory and then 10 more after it before a near-miss Super Bowl loss against the Patriots. Delhomme was back in the playoffs in 2005 and 2008 but, by that last year, was a liability who threw five interceptions in a wild-card defeat. 

5. Brett Favre (2009 Minnesota Vikings)

a man wearing a helmet holding a baseball bat: Getty © Getty Getty Spurs rattling and bones grinding, Brett Favre sauntered out for one last high-noon showdown. He'd been forced out of Green Bay, had a forgettable stint with the Jets and retired twice, all before he was lured back to the NFC North for a final ride with his one-time rivals. With his patented blend of moxie, stubble and regret, Favre came within one pass of leading the Vikings to a Super Bowl. It was intercepted and instead of becoming a conquering hero, Favre went down as a complicated chapter in the franchise's long, sad history. He was just good enough for Vikings fans to temporarily forget they'd spent the previous 15 years hating him but not great enough to clear their consciences once he was gone.

4. Kurt Warner (2005 Arizona Cardinals)

a person wearing a costume: Getty © Getty Getty The story of Kurt Warner is an unlikely triumph, in two parts. The first came after he emerged from anonymity as a 28-year-old backup to lead the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl. The second came after Warner was cut by the Giants, signed with the Cardinals on a one-year deal worth basically nothing and spent the next three seasons moving up and down the depth chart alongside quarterbacking luminaries such as Josh McCown and Matt Leinart. The 37-year-old went 8-8 as a starter in those seasons and looked to be done before winning the starting job in 2008 and leading the Cardinals to one of the most unexpected Super Bowl appearances in history. It was the second act to what should be a Hall of Fame career. 

3. Rich Gannon (1999 Oakland Raiders)

a man in a uniform standing in front of a crowd: Getty © Getty Getty When the Raiders signed a 33-year-old Rich Gannon in 1999, the 11-year NFL veteran was getting his first chance as a full-time starter. After 12 wins in the previous five years, though, expectations weren't exactly high. A solid, if unspectacular, 8-8 season followed. Then Gannon and Jon Gruden's Raiders caught fire, winning the AFC East three-straight years. The QB was an All-Pro in 2000, was probably better in a Pro Bowl season in 2001 and then came his pièce de résistance, an MVP campaign and a Super Bowl bid in 2002. His three seasons with the team were the most successful the franchise had since its 1970s heyday and still stand as the last time the team won its division. 

2. Peyton Manning (2012 (Denver Broncos)

a crowd of people watching a baseball game: Getty © Getty Getty

It's hard to remember now, but the Broncos were considered long shots to win the Peyton Manning sweepstakes in 2012. Washington, Miami, Seattle Arizona, Tennessee and the New York Jets were all considered bigger favorites to get the Colts' legend coming off his yearlong injury layoff. It just happened that when Manning chose the Broncos, it all fit so well that Denver had seemed like the favorite all along. Manning won a Super Bowl, an MVP award and put together the greatest regular season in NFL history during his four years in the Mile High City. The brevity of his time in Denver is the only reason Manning is No. 2 on this list. At his height, he was the greatest free agent (of any position) in history. If free agency is a lottery, consider Peyton the Powerball to Cousins' scratch-off ticket. 

1. Drew Brees (2006 New Orleans Saints)

a person holding a microphone: Getty © Getty Getty Up until Cousins, Drew Brees was the only young, star quarterback to hit free agency. He did it more like Manning than Cousins though, suffering a major injury and getting ousted from his team in a peaceful coup. He signed with New Orleans and has turned the franchise around in his 12 seasons under center. He led the team to its only Super Bowl win, turned the Saints into a perennial playoff contender after decades of mediocrity, won two Offensive Player of the Year awards, is set to break every major passing record and has been a hero in a New Orleans community that had been battered by Hurricane Katrina a few months before Brees came to town. The Saints were lucky to get him. In one of the NFL's classic blunders, Miami passed on Brees for Daunte Culpepper.

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