NFL scouts and general managers spend tireless hours watching collegiate players in order to make what they hope are the best decisions on who to pursue. It’s a great feeling when a draft pick ends up becoming a great NFL player and it’s an even better feeling when that pick comes in the later rounds. The only thing better? Finding an undrafted player who was passed over by every single team and watching him blossom into a star.
All 32 teams in the NFL have begun their respective training camps which means the regular season is just around the corner. There are hundreds of rookies around the league trying to prove themselves and earn a spot on the final 53-man roster. Obviously the higher picks have a much better shot at making it because teams have a hard time cutting someone that was taken in the first few rounds loose.
The later round picks have to go above and beyond to prove that they should have been taken much sooner than they were, and sometimes you’ll see a sixth or seventh round draft pick become a star in the NFL. As rare as that can be, it’s even more unlikely for a player who wasn’t drafted to earn coveted spot on someone’s roster, let alone become a star.
That doesn’t mean it never happens though. There is always a chance of finding that diamond in the rough, the players who were overlooked by 32 different teams and end their college careers without having a job in the NFL…yet. Some of those undrafted players end up becoming great players who win Super Bowl’s and make it into the Hall of Fame.
They may be rare, but over the years there have been several players who weren’t drafted and still became superstars in the NFL. While I can’t list them all, here is my top 10 undrafted players.
10- Jeff Saturday (Center) North Carolina
Saturday went undrafted largely due to his size despite being a team captain and an All-ACC player at the University of North Carolina. He signed with the Baltimore Ravens in June of 1998 but was cut six weeks later and returned to North Carolina to manage an electrical supply store. His former college roommate, Nate Hobgood-Chittick, was a defensive tackle playing for the Indianapolis Colts and got Saturday a tryout in following the ’98 season.
The Colts signed Saturday as a free agent and in his second season he was their starting center, snapping the ball to Peyton Manning. Saturday went on to be selected to six Pro Bowl’s and won Super Bowl XLI with Indy. He also led an offensive line that gave up the fewest sacks in the NFL in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
9- Wes Welker (Wide Receiver) Texas Tech
After putting up some great numbers while at Texas Tech, including an NCAA record-tying eight punt return touchdowns, Welker wasn’t even invited to the NFL Combine. He would sign with the San Diego Chargers and made the team out of training camp but was cut after Week 1.
He was offered a contract with the Miami Dolphins and immediately began standing out on special teams. He immediately turned into the Dolphins’ ultimate utility player and in a game against the New England Patriots in 2004, Welker became just the second player in NFL history to return a punt and a kickoff, kick an extra point and a field goal, and make a tackle in a single game.
The Patriots traded a 2nd and 7th round pick to the Dolphins for Welker after the 2006 season. Welker would go to five consecutive Pro Bowl’s and lead the league in receptions three times while with the Patriots.
8- Priest Holmes (Running Back) University of Texas
A knee injury suffered in college set Holmes back and when he was finally healthy, Texas was giving most of its handoffs to Ricky Williams and Shon Mitchell. In 1997 Holmes signed as a free agent with Baltimore and a year later he rushed for over 1,000 yards with the Ravens. The good times didn’t last for Holmes in Baltimore though, ultimately losing his starting job to a rookie named Jamal Lewis in 2000.
He signed an inexpensive contract with Kansas City in the offseason and exceeded all expectations by becoming the NFL’s leading rusher in 2001, the only undrafted player to do so at the time (Arian Foster did it in 2010). The following season he accumulated 2,287 total yards from scrimmage and scored 24 touchdowns, winning the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year award. The year after that he broke Marshall Faulk’s record for touchdowns in a season with 27.
7- Adam Vinateri (Kicker) South Dakota State
After a quiet but successful collegiate career with South Dakota State in which he was a four-year letterman as a placekicker and punter, Vinateri went undrafted and took his talents across the Atlantic to the World League of American Football (now known as NFL Europe) in 1995. The following year Vinateri returned to the U.S. and signed with the New England Patriots.
He quickly established himself as the Patriots kicker and would become known as one of the most clutch and consistent kickers in the NFL. In the 2001 playoffs, his game-tying and game-winning field goals against the Oakland Raiders in the snow (the “tuck rule game”) were big enough, but his 48-yard field goal as time expired won Super Bowl XXXVI for New England.
At the age of 41, Vinateri is still known as one of the best kickers in the league and has no intention of calling it quits any time soon.
6- Rod Smith (Wide Receiver) Missouri Southern
When you are a college wide receiver and you break conference records for receiving yards and touchdowns, that will usually get you drafted. Unfortunately for Rod Smith, his Division II college records weren’t enough to earn him being selected in the 1994 NFL Draft. He signed on with New England but was cut shortly afterwards.
The Denver Broncos swooped in and signed Smith and it didn’t take long for him to show that they made the right decision. The very first reception of his 14-year career was a last-minute, game-winning 43-yard touchdown catch from the king of comebacks, John Elway. Smith played a major role in Denver’s back-to-back Super Bowl victories. He made five receptions for 152 yards in Super Bowl XXXIII, including an 80-yard touchdown catch.
Smith would go to three Pro Bowl’s and is the only undrafted player with over 10,000 receiving yards.
5- Antonio Gates (Tight End) Kent State
If it had been up to Antonio Gates, he never would’ve played a down in the NFL. Gates bounced around several universities and junior colleges looking for the right basketball program until finally landing at Kent State. There, Gates led the Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight in 2002 but was told by scouts that he was too much of a “tweener” to have success in the NBA. Gates arranged a workout in front of NFL scouts despite never playing a down of football in college and as many as 19 teams contacted him based on that tryout. He chose to work out first for the San Diego Chargers and they were wise to sign him quickly before any other team could snatch him up.
Following a mediocre rookie season in 2003, Gates exploded onto the scene in ’04 and was selected to his first of eight consecutive Pro Bowl’s. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 2000’s and is a five-time All-Pro. Gates is 12th on the all-time receiving touchdown’s list with 87 and is just 802 receiving yards away from reaching 10,000 for his career.
4- John Randle (Defensive Tackle) Texas A&M Kingsville
Another player who was initially labeled as too small for the NFL, John Randle saw the 1990 NFL Draft come and go without hearing his name called. His brother, Ervin Randle, was a linebacker for Tampa Bay and got John a tryout with the Bucs but he was ultimately not offered a contract. Randle continued to pursue his NFL dream and was eventually signed by the Minnesota Vikings during their 1990 training camp.
Randle would made the Vikings extremely happy for offering him a contract, recording 9.5 sacks in his second season before registering double-digit sacks in each of the following eight seasons. He currently ranks seventh on the all-time sacks list with 137.5, tied with former Chicago Bears great Richard Dent. Randle went to seven Pro Bowl’s, was a six-time All-Pro and is a member of the NFL 1990’s All-Decade Team. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
3- Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane (Cornerback) Scottsbluff Junior College
Holding one of the all-time coolest nicknames in NFL history, Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane never graduated from college, dropping out in order to join the U.S. Army. He served four years in the Army before getting a job at an aircraft factory. One day, at the age of 27, Lane decided that he didn’t like his job and showed up at the Los Angeles Rams training camp looking for a new one.
In his rookie season in 1952, Lane intercepted 14 passes and returned two for touchdowns (keep in mind the NFL season was only 12 games long back then). Aside from making interceptions, Lane was known for his aggressive tackling style that earned its own nickname, the Night Train Necktie. His 14-year career included seven Pro Bowl selections. He was a six-time All-Pro and was named to the NFL’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, its 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and the 1950’s All-Decade Team.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974.
2- Warren Moon (Quarterback) University of Washington
Moon’s college career was pretty uneventful, aside from being named the MVP of the 1978 Rose Bowl, and he was passed over in the NFL Draft. With no takers as a free-agent, Moon turned to the Canadian Football League and signed with the Edmonton Eskimos. He would lead his new north of the border team to five consecutive Grey Cups and was named the offensive MVP in two of those title games.
In 1982, Moon’s second-to-last season in the CFL, he became the first professional quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards in a single season. He eclipsed the 5k total again the following year, winning the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Award, and decided that the time had come to move on to the NFL.
He chose to sign with the Houston Oilers who just happened to be coached by Hugh Campbell, his former coach in Edmonton. Moon ended up playing 17 years in the NFL (in addition to the six he played in the CFL) and was selected to nine Pro Bowl’s. He was an All-Pro three times and was in the top five in passing yards, attempts, completions and touchdowns when he retired in 2000. Moon is one of just two people to be inducted into both the CFL Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
1- Kurt Warner (Quarterback) University of Northern Iowa
Of all the players on this list, nobody personifies the qualities of an undrafted player-turned NFL superstar than Kurt Warner. He didn’t become the starter of Northern Iowa’s football team until his senior year and watched the 1994 NFL Draft pass him by. Warner received an invite to the Green Bay Packers’ training camp but was released before the season after competing with Brett Favre, Mark Brunell and Ty Detmer.
Warner’s next move was to take a job stocking shelves at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa for $5.50 an hour. With the NFL not interested, Warner turned to the Arena Football League in 1995 and signed with the Iowa Barnstormers. He quickly became a star in the AFL and was named to the AFL’s First-Team All-Arena in 1996 and 1997, leading the Barnstormers to the Arena Bowl in both seasons.
Before the 1997 Arena Football season, Warner wanted to take another shot at his NFL dream. He requested a tryout with the Chicago Bears but a freak injury to his throwing elbow (he was bitten by a spider during his honeymoon) kept him from attending.
A year later, Warner was finally signed by an NFL team when the St. Louis Rams gave him a shot. He was sent to the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe during the summer of ’98 and led the league in touchdowns and passing yards. Warner returned to the NFL for the ’98 season and was the Rams third-string quarterback behind Tony Banks and Steve Bono.
The following season Warner was promoted to backup behind newly signed free-agent Trent Green. During the ’99 preseason, Green tore his ACL and was out for the year. Suddenly, Warner was a starting quarterback in the NFL and he didn’t let the opportunity pass him by. He put up one of the best statistical seasons for a quarterback, leading the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ to a Super Bowl championship.
Warner retired after the 2009 season, having reached three Super Bowl’s and being selected to four Pro Bowl’s. He was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player twice, a two-time All-Pro and was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV. He also holds the record for most career Super Bowl passing yards with 1,156. His entire career is a great example of perseverance and one of the all-time best comeback stories in professional sports. It’s only a matter of time before Warner finds himself being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.