Best Second Act in NFL History

The best second acts in NFL history: Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Steve Young, Cris Carter, Willie Davis and Henry Jordan, George Blanda, Randy Moss, Bobby Mitchell, Willie Brown, “Night Train” Lane…..

Here are the best second acts in the league.

1. Drew Brees

Brees’ Saints choice as a 2006 free agent changed a franchise’s fortunes. The Saints notched one playoff win in 29 pre-Brees seasons; they now have nine. But 13 years ago Brees was coming off a significant shoulder setback — one that gave the Dolphins doubts. With the Saints, he became the NFL’s passing-yardage leader and this season will likely break Manning’s touchdown pass mark. The Super Bowl XLIV MVP is almost certainly the greatest free agent signing in NFL history. Eleven of his 12 Pro Bowls coming as a Saint, Brees’ choice to link up with Sean Payton made him a first-ballot Hall of Fame lock.

2. Peyton Manning

Manning played roughly two-and-a-half seasons of elite football in Denver. He ranks this high because of how much his diminished version accomplished. A key section of the five-time MVP’s greatest-ever case hinges on what he did with inferior arm strength after four neck surgeries. The Broncos’ trajectory spikes during the Manning years, when he added two more All-Pro honors and managed to shatter Tom Brady’s single-season touchdown pass record despite the physical limitations. Manning did just enough in the 2015 playoffs to help the Broncos to a Super Bowl title. The team has struggled with stronger-armed passers since.

3. Steve Young

Had the Buccaneers’ first Young trade agreement — with the St. Louis Cardinals — gone through, NFL history would look different. But the Bucs sent him to San Francisco in 1987, helping the 49ers extend their Super Bowl window for a near-20-year period. Young forced a quarterback battle with Joe Montana, but after losing those competitions delivered underrated artistry in the 1990s. Young started for only eight years as a 49er, but among QBs, only Peyton Manning (seven) has more All-Pro honors since the merger than the southpaw’s three. Young’s 1994 Super Bowl MVP season featured a weird-looking 70 percent completion rate.

4. Cris Carter

Known for his Hall of Fame run with the Vikings, Carter compiled 19 touchdowns in three late-1980s Eagles seasons. But the talented wideout’s substance-abuse issues prompted Buddy Ryan to cut him. Carter’s rise came with a bevy of Vikings quarterbacks — including Rich Gannon, Jim McMahon, Warren Moon and a Randall Cunningham reunion — and overlapped with the franchise’s ’90s success. For sheer catching ability, Carter is at or near the top. He posted consecutive 122-reception seasons and then ripped off a five-year stretch of 10-plus touchdowns, finishing with 130 TDs (fourth all time).

5. Willie Davis and Henry Jordan

The 1960s Packers defenses housed Hall of Famers on all three levels, but the ones up front both came to Green Bay in similar fashion. In consecutive years, Vince Lombardi dealt middling compensation to the Browns for defensive linemen. Acquiring Jordan (in 1959) and Davis (1960), Green Bay’s coach-GM further solidified the his team’s legendary roster. A defensive tackle and end, respectively, Jordan and Davis each played two seasons with the Browns. They combined for 10 All-Pros as Packers, each a starter on all five of Green Bay’s ’60s championship teams.

6. George Blanda

Blanda had fascinating second and third acts. He first spent 10 seasons with the Bears, who did not use him much as a quarterback. Blanda retired after the 1958 season but returned to football when the AFL formed in 1960, immediately making the Oilers the league’s first power. Piloting a wide-open offense featuring Pro Bowlers Charley Hennigan and Bill Groman, Blanda guided the Oilers to back-to-back AFL titles in 1960-61. In ’61, he threw 36 touchdown passes. That record stood until Dan Marino’s 1984 season. Blanda did not retire until after the 1975 season, at 48, following nine years as the Raiders’ kicker.

7. Randy Moss

It qualifies as a second act if a player recommits after losing interest in his craft, and Moss’ Oakland-to-New England transformation ranks up there in modern sports history. Criticized for loafing (42.5 yards per game) on a 2-14 Raiders team, Moss fetched Oakland only a fourth-round pick. He showed in Week 1 of 2007 the trade was a historic bargain for his new team, detonating on the Jets for 183 yards. Sixteen weeks later, Moss broke Rice’s 20-year-old record with 23 receiving TDs (albeit in four more games than Rice had in ’87). Moss remained productive throughout his Pats tenure and coasted into the Hall of Fame.

8. Bobby Mitchell

When the Browns disbanded the Mitchell-Jim Brown backfield after four seasons, it changed the former’s career. Upon acquiring Mitchell in 1962, the Redskins moved him to wide receiver and observed Mitchell become one of the game’s best. The future Hall of Famer’s ’62 and ’63 performances — a combined 2,820 yards — each ranked in the all-time NFL/AFL top five at the time. Washington formed a Hall of Fame tandem of its own, pairing Mitchell with wideout Charley Taylor. Even though Mitchell missed out on the Browns’ 1964 championship, he locked up his Canton journey after the trade.

9. Willie Brown

Brown does not qualify as one of the Raiders’ late-career steals because Brown enjoyed his prime in Oakland. The Broncos saw the cornerback earn two Pro Bowls in his four Denver seasons. But Lou Saban, in his first offseason overseeing personnel, made an intra-division trade for a mediocre return in 1967. Brown made the next seven Pro Bowls as a Raider, and when his 16-year career wrapped in 1978, the Silver and Black legend had five All-Pro honors. Brown, the subject of one of the Super Bowl’s great radio calls, became a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

10. “Night Train” Lane

One of the greatest defenders in NFL history was traded twice in his prime, the first (from the Rams to the Cardinals) because of a contractual stalemate and the second in 1960 (to the Lions) for a player who primarily served as the Cards’ kicker. The terrifying tackler/gifted ball-hawk set a still-standing single-season interception record (14) with the Rams, but he made 51 of his 68 INTs after the trades. All of Lane’s Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors (seven and three, respectively) came after the deals too.

11. Marshawn Lynch

A trade package headlined by a fourth-round pick sent a 24-year-old Lynch to Seattle. The Bills had Fred Jackson and recent first-round pick C.J. Spiller set to take over, and Lynch’s career had lost steam after a strong start. “Beast Mode” proved valuable that season, the “Beastquake” moment undoubtedly an all-time NFL run, and became essential to the Seahawks’ 2010s resurgence. A Pro Bowler in the year between Matt Hasselbeck and Russell Wilson, Lynch (65 TDs with Seattle) dominated with Wilson. The Seahawks deployed top-five rushing attacks from 2012-14, the franchise’s indisputable apex.

12. Andy Robustelli

While this is an example of a great player thriving for two franchises, Robustelli’s impact on the Giants indeed marked a significant line of demarcation. When traded from the Rams to the Giants in 1956, the Hall of Fame defensive end helped anchor Tom Landry’s 4-3 defense and lift Big Blue to a runaway NFL championship. In Robustelli’s nine New York seasons, the Giants qualified for six NFL title games. He booked four of his six All-Pro honors as a Giant and reshaped the franchise’s mid-century path.

13. Charlie Joiner

Joiner exited Cincinnati as the B-side to an Isaac Curtis-led receiving corps, and while the Bengals obtained high-end sack artist Coy Bacon in a 1976 deal, Joiner became a bigger part of NFL folklore in San Diego. The former Oilers fourth-rounder predated Don Coryell’s arrival and became a 1,000-yard receiver in the Chargers’ previous offense. But when Kellen Winslow and John Jefferson joined him, the Bolts’ Air Coryell attack took off. Joiner went to four Pro Bowls as a Charger, played a key role in the ’81 team’s divisional-round thriller in Miami and retired as the league’s all-time leading receiver.

14. Wes Welker

The Patriots’ Tom Brady-era passing attack did not ignite until 2007, and one of the catalysts became the standard against which future slot receivers are measured. An auxiliary target in Miami, Welker became a PPR deity in New England after Bill Belichick sent second- and seventh-round picks to the Dolphins. The role Julian Edelman plays peaked during Welker’s six-season Patriots stint, which included five Pro Bowls and two All-Pro honors. For perspective, Edelman has never made a Pro Bowl, and no slot receiver since Welker has earned a first-team All-Pro bid. Brady’s statistical peak involved a heavy dose of Welker.

15. Rich Gannon

An interesting scenario: What if the Chiefs went with Gannon instead of signing Elvis Grbac? Gannon showed promise as Steve Bono’s backup and had been the primary Vikings starter in the early 1990s. But once he signed with the Raiders in 1999 at age 34, Gannon gave the Silver and Black another late-career success story. Gannon led the Raiders to three playoff brackets, made four Pro Bowls (and two All-Pro teams, sticking out in that regard) and was the 2002 MVP. The Raiders’ final glimpse of Oakland brilliance (barring something unexpected in 2019) came with Gannon.

16. Jim Plunkett

After the 49ers gave up a bounty for Plunkett in 1976, they cut him two years later. The Raiders, amid their island-of-misfit-toys success, stashed Plunkett behind Stabler for two seasons. When the Raiders’ Stabler-for-Dan Pastorini trade did not produce the starter they’d hoped, Plunkett stepped in and helped the Raiders become the first wild-card team to win a Super Bowl. Al Davis attempted to make 1980 first-rounder Marc Wilson his starter, but Plunkett’s second act ended up including the Super Bowl XVIII title as well. The Plunkett-Tom Flores Raiders period remains underappreciated.

17. Charles Woodson

The Raiders went 2-14 in 2006. This came months after they did not make an offer to keep Woodson, their top player for years. But Woodson had battled injuries in recent seasons, and his interception numbers had dropped since his run of Pro Bowls stopped in 2001 (six picks between 2002-05). Woodson signed a seven-year deal and solidified Hall of Fame status, intercepting 38 passes as a Packer. His 2009 (nine INTs, three TDs, four forced fumbles), which ended in the Defensive Player of the Year Award, is an all-time DB season. The former Heisman winner then played a key role for the Pack’s 2010 Super Bowl champion.

18. Priest Holmes

A solid but below-Pro Bowl-level back with the Ravens, Holmes saw his first NFL team draft Jamal Lewis to replace him. That worked out well for both parties. After he backed up Lewis on Baltimore’s Super Bowl champion team, Holmes made one of the best decisions in free agency history by signing with the Chiefs. As Kansas City built one of the best offensive lines in NFL annals — featuring Hall of Famers Will Shields and Willie Roaf — Holmes became an early-aughts star. He earned three straight All-Pro honors and set an NFL record with 27 touchdowns in 2003.

19. Daryle Lamonica

The Bills held on to Lamonica for four seasons as Jack Kemp’s backup but in 1967 traded him to the Raiders for a package fronted by AFL All-Pro wideout Art Powell. The Silver and Black won the long game. Their new quarterback earned AFL MVP honors in 1967 and steered Oakland to Super Bowl II. “The Mad Bomber” went to three more Pro Bowls during a six-season stretch as the Raiders’ top QB, with two such seasons featuring 30-plus touchdown passes. Lamonica delayed Ken Stabler’s starter stretch for three seasons. Powell lasted only one season with the Bills.

20. Charles Haley

Fed up with Haley’s antics, the 49ers traded him to the Cowboys prior to the 1992 season. That timing proved pivotal. The deal came just prior to the NFC elites starting an arms race, and the 49ers regretted sending their best pass rusher to the team that became their chief impediment to reconquering the NFL. The Hall of Fame defensive end cost Dallas neither a first- nor second-round pick, and his two additional Pro Bowls proved the 49ers wrong. The volatile defender’s relocation led to an NFC power shift, one that ended with Haley collecting five total Super Bowl rings.

21. Kurt Warner

Warner’s first act was so memorable it would not be outside the realm of possibility a movie one day tells the Hy-Vee-to-Arena League-to-MVP story. The middle of the Hall of Famer’s career, however, featured a lengthy swoon. He played in just nine Rams games after Super Bowl XXXVI and was Eli Manning’s stopgap in 2004. The Cardinals had designs on having Warner give way to Matt Leinart, but the 30-something took his job back and delivered three strong seasons from 2007-09. He and Larry Fitzgerald nearly catapulted a 9-7 Cards team to the Super Bowl XLIII title, a season cementing Warner’s Canton bust.

22. Rod Woodson

Woodson’s knack for landing on Super Bowl-caliber teams hit a snag shortly after his second act started. After the Packers upset the 49ers in the 1997 NFC title game, the 49ers cut Woodson despite signing him a year prior. This opened the door to the cornerback great morphing into a top-tier safety. The Ravens capitalized on the aging corner’s skills in 1998, but their supercharged defenses of the ensuing three years featured him at safety. Woodson parlayed his mid-30s position change into four more Pro Bowls (one with the 2002 Raiders), 24 INTs (five pick-6s) and a place on the 2000 Ravens’ generational Super Bowl defense.

23. Jason Peters

With the Bills, Peters was an upper-echelon tackle on a team going nowhere. A 2009 trade to the Eagles made him a likely Hall of Famer. Peters has been protecting Eagle quarterbacks so long he was Donovan McNabb’s final Eagles left tackle. Peters posted seven of his nine Pro Bowls as an Eagle and managed to come back after two severe leg injuries. The second of his two All-Pro seasons (2013) helped LeSean McCoy to a rushing title, and the 37-year-old has stuck around for the start of the Carson Wentz era. Peters’ presence has helped make Philly’s line one of the NFL’s best in recent years.

24. Brandon Marshall

While Marshall did not sustain his post-Broncos acts for too long, the well-traveled receiver’s successful second, third and fourth acts make him probably the greatest pass-catching mercenary in NFL history. One of the players dealt during Josh McDaniels’ criticized tenure as Broncos coach, Marshall went on to record 1,200-yard seasons with the Dolphins, Bears and Jets. Despite the Bears and Jets having to trade less for him than the Dolphins did in 2010, Marshall (seven 1,100-yard seasons) holds both franchises’ single-season receiving-yardage records.

25. Jay Novacek

Before full-fledged free agency debuted in 1993, teams could keep most of their rosters intact. Certain players whom franchises didn’t wish to protect became Plan B free agents. Novacek’s five-year Cardinals tenure ended with just six starts and the team not protecting him. It went much better for the receiving tight end in Dallas. Novacek started for five Cowboys teams, made five Pro Bowls and suited up for three victorious Super Bowl efforts. The former sixth-round St. Louis pick caught touchdown passes in two Super Bowls, his final game being the Cowboys’ Super Bowl XXX win over the Steelers.

26. Bill Bergey

The linebacker’s mid-career trade cost the Eagles considerable draft capital (two first-rounders and a second) that Bergey himself said was an overpay, but he elevated his profile considerably in the NFC. Overlooked as a Bengal, Bergey produced five straight Pro Bowl or All-Pro seasons upon arriving in Philadelphia in 1975. His 27 interceptions are 11th all time among linebackers. The former second-round Bengals pick concluded his career by, at 35, helping the Eagles form 1980’s No. 1 defense — one that helped the team to Super Bowl XV.

27. Drew Hill

Before the Rams traded Hill to the Oilers in 1985, he was a sparsely used deep threat/return specialist. The first year Hill was in Houston, his 1,169 receiving yards were fifth in the NFL. That marked the first of five Hill 1,000-yard seasons in Houston, and three of those occurred before Jack Pardee brought the run-and-shoot to south Texas. The oldest cog on what became a deep Oiler receiving corps, Hill finished his seven-season Houston run with 7,477 yards. That number remains second for all Oilers and Titans pass-catchers.

28. Joe Horn

The Chiefs of the late 1990s also employed a deep receiving corps. Andre Rison and Derrick Alexander played in front of Horn for most of his Kansas City stay, but once he signed with New Orleans in 2000, it became clear he deserved more playing time. Horn immediately became the Saints’ WR1, going off for 1,340 yards (nearly 1,000 more than his best 1990s season) in his first Louisiana season. Horn delivered three more 1,200-yard seasons during the Saints’ Aaron Brooks era, made four Pro Bowls and, yeah, the 2003 cellphone thing.

29. Keenan McCardell

On the final batch of Browns 1.0 teams, McCardell did not see too much work. The former 12th-round Redskins pick, however, enhanced his profile immediately in 1996, and it coincided with the Jaguars’ surprising rise. The then-second-year franchise began a string of four straight playoff berths, and McCardell became Jimmy Smith’s overqualified sidekick. While McCardell made only one Pro Bowl with the Jags, he produced four 1,100-yard seasons before leaving and starting for the Buccaneers’ 2002 Super Bowl team. McCardell ended up playing 16 seasons, being one of 12 post-merger wideouts to do so.

30. Lorenzo Neal

Here is a list of skill-position players since the 1970 merger to earn First-Team All-Pro acclaim at age 37 or later: Lorenzo Neal. Even if the parameters are expanded to 36- or 35-year-olds, only Tony Gonzalez joins the ageless fullback. Neal played for four teams from 1993-03 but made his mark blocking for LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego. The 16-year veteran, whom the Buccaneers cut in 1999, earned All-Pro acclaim in 2006 and ’07. Tomlinson-fronted fantasy teams reaped rewards from Neal’s work. The Hall of Famer’s 31 touchdowns in ’06 represent a since-unapproached NFL record.

Read Also:

The best second acts in NFL history

NFL history is littered with players whose careers changed after a key relocation. In an effort to highlight the players who went through a major change by switching teams, rather than limiting the options to the greats who stayed in different cities, here are the best second acts in the league.

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