Biggest trades of the decade
Eli Manning (left) and Philip Rivers have blossomed into Pro Bowl quarterbacks since being traded for each other at the 2004 draft.
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1. Randy Moss to the Patriots from the Raiders for a fourth-round pick; April 29, 2007
On draft weekend, the team-minded Patriots shocked the NFL by dealing for Moss, whose talent as a game-changing receiver had supposedly atrophied during his two mostly desultory seasons in Oakland. But Moss, as it turns out, was merely disinterested in losing, and his reemergence in New England coincided with the team's history-making Super Bowl season. Moss caught 98 passes for 1,493 yards and had a single-season NFL record 23 touchdowns. All in all, not bad production in exchange for a fourth-round pick that Oakland used to select little-known University of Cincinnati cornerback John Bowie.
2. Philip Rivers to the Chargers from the Giants for Eli Manning and first-, third- and fifth-round picks; April 24, 2004
The course of two franchises on opposite coasts were significantly affected by the blockbuster draft-day deal that saw first-round quarterbacks Manning (taken first overall) and Rivers (No. 4) traded for one another shortly after being selected by the Chargers and Giants, respectively. It's difficult to pinpoint a bigger win-win trade in NFL history. The Giants landed the franchise quarterback who led them to that memorable Super Bowl XLII upset of the undefeated Patriots four years later, and the Chargers eventually reaped a windfall that included three future Pro Bowl players -- Rivers, linebacker Shawne Merriman and kicker Nate Kaeding -- and a veteran starting left offensive tackle in Roman Oben. The two teams have made four playoff appearances each since striking their high-profile deal.
3. Jon Gruden to the Bucs from the Raiders for two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million; Feb. 18, 2002
Not content to field a perennial playoff team that habitually came up short once January arrived, Bucs owners Bryan and Joel Glazer fired beloved coach Tony Dungy and went looking for a replacement in January 2002. After fits and starts lasting almost two months, the Tampa Bay coaching search eventually turned toward Gruden, who had led Oakland to three straight playoff trips in four seasons. The Bucs sent a pirate's treasure to the Raiders in exchange for Gruden, but the move quickly paid off big time when he led the team Dungy had built to the franchise's only Super Bowl title, in January 2003.
4. Terrell Owens to the Eagles from the Niners; March 16, 2004
You might forget that Owens blocked San Francisco's original deal with Baltimore, balking at the idea of joining the quarterback-challenged Ravens in the spring of 2004. Owens wanted to become an Eagle and play with Donovan McNabb, and he eventually got his wish when the three teams involved worked out a compromise that the league office helped broker. (The Eagles sent a fifth-round pick to Baltimore and defensive end Brandon Whiting to San Francisco. The Ravens also recovered a second-round pick that they sent to the Niners for Owens.) The deal was a bonanza for Philadelphia that season, as Owens' big-play impact got the Eagles finally over their NFC title game hump and into the Super Bowl. But by 2005, Owens and McNabb were at war, and the Eagles' season was a casualty of the conflict.
5. Wes Welker to the Patriots from the Dolphins for second- and seventh-round picks; March 5, 2007
We'll grant you that Welker being shipped to New England didn't generate the front-page headlines that the Moss trade would later inspire, but those bookend deals in the offseason of 2007 now look like the steals of the decade, parts I and II. With Miami, the undrafted Welker had bedeviled New England twice a season in AFC East battles, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick was an open admirer of his quick and elusive play-making style in the short passing game. Since sending two draft picks to Miami for Welker, New England's passing game has been the envy of the rest of the NFL, and his production has been unparalleled. As he did in 2007, Welker leads the NFL in receptions this season, with 95 in just 10 games, and his 318 catches in the past three years are the most in the league.
Best free-agent signings
1. Priest Holmes, Chiefs; April 21, 2001
There was no room in Baltimore's backfield after the Ravens drafted Jamal Lewis fifth overall in 2000, so the undrafted Holmes accepted a low-budget free-agent deal from Kansas City, where new coach Dick Vermeil promised him a featured role. He got it, and then some. Holmes went on to record 3˝ of the most spectacularly productive seasons ever turned in by an NFL running back. In a 54-game span from 2001-2004, Holmes totaled 5,482 yards rushing, 225 receptions for 2,163 receiving yards and 78 combined touchdowns. He made All-Pro and the AFC Pro Bowl team three times.
2. Drew Brees, Saints; March 14, 2006
Squeezed out in San Diego by the drafting of Philip Rivers in 2004, Brees hit the free-agent market in early 2006 and was being seriously pursued by just two teams: the Saints and Dolphins. Miami's doctors had some qualms about the state of Brees' surgically repaired throwing shoulder, and Dolphins coach Nick Saban listened to them and hesitated just long enough to convince Brees that New Orleans was his only serious suitor. Since becoming a Saint, Brees hasn't missed a start in the past four years, and has thrown 117 touchdowns passes, with more than 17,000 yards passing.
3. Mike Vrabel, Patriots; March 16, 2001
The Patriots signed the little-known linebacker away from Pittsburgh, where in four years he had never started a game and served mostly as one of the Steelers' special teams cogs. But in New England, the versatile Vrabel was a perfect fit for Bill Belichick's complicated defense, and he went on to contribute mightily to three Super Bowl champions and earn Pro Bowl recognition in 2007. In his eight seasons in New England, Vrabel recorded 48 sacks and 11 interceptions, and routinely finished among the team's tackle leaders. In his role as a goal-line tight end, Vrabel caught 10 passes for 10 touchdowns with the Patriots, including two in the postseason.
4. Charles Woodson, Packers; May 1, 2006
After struggling with injuries and declining productivity his last two seasons in Oakland, Woodson signed a seven-year, $52 million deal with the Packers and quickly revived his career, leading the NFC in interceptions in 2006 with eight. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2008, and in his three-plus seasons in Green Bay he has more interceptions (26 to 17), touchdowns (6 to 2) and sacks (6 to 5˝) than he totaled in his eight-year tenure in Oakland. Woodson is in the midst of another outstanding season this year, and the 12th-year veteran is still considered among the game's elite cornerbacks.
5. Brett Favre, Vikings; Aug. 18, 2009
We're only 12 games into the Vikings' Favre era, but so far it's the stuff of fairy tales. Despite turning 40 in early October, Favre is having the greatest statistical season of his 19-year career, and he's led the Vikings to a 10-2 record and a two-game lead in the NFC North. Favre, the NFL's all-time leading interception thrower with 315, has had just five passes picked off, to go with his 26 touchdowns. And he has career highs in passer rating (108.5), completion percentage (69.0) and average gain per pass attempt (7.8).