Unknown to Unbelievable: Undrafted NFL Players Who Became Stars
The NFL Draft has fans salivating every time it rolls around. That is, until the first two rounds come to a close, and the weekend-long marathon ensues.
As many players are selected every year, the overwhelming number of college football teams almost guarantees scouts missed some gems.
These are the guys who defy all expectations, proving to the world that no matter the perceived limitations, they are top tier NFL talents.
Wes Welker was, without a doubt, one of the most electric wide receivers throughout the entirety of his 12-year NFL career. Only standing at 5-foot-9, Welker’s unimposing stature clearly took precedent over what was an outstanding, continually improving, college career at Texas Tech.
After graduating in 2004, Welker wasn’t even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine. Welker eventually signed with the San Diego Chargers but lasted all of one game before being cut. Then-coach Marty Schottenheimer (rightfully) admits that cutting the offensive talent was the biggest regret of his career.
Welker found a home in Miami, where the Dolphins utilized his college specialty as a kick returner and quickly became a difference-maker. New England saw Welker’s potential and signed him as a free agent in 2007, and the shifty wideout proved an integral part of the Patriots’ undefeated season.
Tom Brady’s go-to slot receiver was a monster through his tenure with the Pats, earning five Pro Bowl and two All-Pro selections while helping the team reach two Super Bowls. He then followed that up with a third Super Bowl appearance with the Denver Broncos.
Upon his retirement, Welker finished with a slew of NFL records, including his designation as the all-time leader in receptions for an undrafted player (903).
The story of Kurt Warner rising to fame is a Hollywood script so over-the-top, moviegoers would consider the cinematic story too unrealistic. For starters, the Hall of Fame quarterback wasn’t even a starter on his college team, University of Northern Iowa, until his senior year!
Upon graduation, Warner was invited to the Green Bay Packers’ training camp after going un-picked in the 1994 NFL Draft.
Warner’s next stop on the road greatness? Stocking groceries at an Iowa grocery store and working as a graduate assistant coach at his alma mater.
To keep working towards his NFL dream, Warner turned to the Arena Football League, joining the Iowa Barnstormers in 1995. Warner lit up the league until 1997, when he finally earned a contract with the St. Louis Rams. But he still had to prove himself further for a season in NFL Europe.
When the Rams’ starting quarterback, Trent Green, tore his ACL in the 1999 preseason, Warner was thrust into the starting role, only to blow the public away with an unforgettable season that ended with a MVP award and Super Bowl XXXIV trophy.
By the end of his Hall of Fame career, Warner added two more Super Bowl appearances and a second MVP award among a list of other honors.
As a high schooler, Adam Vinatieri was a fantastic all-around athlete, lettering in an incredible five sports. The South Dakota native stayed home to continue his football career in college, attending South Dakota State University.
Vinatieri spent 1995 overseas, serving as both a placekicker and punter for the Amsterdam Admirals in the NFL Europe. The following year, the New England Patriots signed what would turn out to be their franchise kicker for the next 12 years.
Season after season, Vinatieri was exceptional, kicking with such confidence that he earned not one, but two nicknames, “Mr. Clutch” and “Iceman,” for his constant reliability. (Seriously, what KICKER earns TWO nicknames?) Vinatieri will also forever have a special place in New Englanders’ hearts for his role in bringing home three Super Bowl championships with some unforgettable game-winners. His overtime-forcing kick through snow and wind in the “Tuck Rule” game in 2001 might be the greatest clutch kick in NFL history.
Vinatieri hasn’t just crushed his competition with the Pats. In 2006, Mr. Clutch switched sides to the rival Indianapolis Colts. Go figure, in his first season with the team, he was once again a Super Bowl champion.
Beyond the championships and three All-Pro selections, what may be most impressive of all is how he’s withstood the test of time, playing over two decades in the league.
It was a long, arduous journey for James Harrison to become one of the most fearsome linebackers in NFL history. Coming out of high school, powerhouse programs across the nation had extended scholarships to Harrison, but legal issues resulted in many of the schools rescinding their offers.
The Ohio-born linebacker stayed in state, attending Kent State, where he had to walk on and sit out the entirety of his freshman year.
Despite graduating with exceptional stats and standout performances, Harrison went undrafted in 2002 due to being “too short” for linebacker at six feet and “too light” to move forward to defensive line.
Looking back, it’s comical to think “small” could ever describe Harrison, a titan of the weight room fondly referred to as “Silverback” and “Deebo” (from Friday) for his massive, intimidating physique. Still, it took Harrison getting cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers three times in his first season, spending most of his time on the practice squad and the following season with the Baltimore Ravens before he finally got his break.
In 2004, an injury opened up an opportunity for Harrison – he was considering retirement at the time – to rejoin the Steelers.
The rest is history, as Harrison went on to have an unreal NFL career spanning 16 seasons of play, including five straight Pro Bowl selections, Defensive Player of the Year award (2008) and two Super Bowl championships.
Warren Moon has the distinct honor of being the first African-American quarterback to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The journey to the Hall had to first start in community college since, no major schools initially showed interest.
One year at West Los Angeles College earned Moon a spot on the University of Washington’s roster, where he capped off his collegiate career upsetting the heavily favored Michigan Wolverines in the 1978 Rose Bowl.
All that and… still no NFL interest.
Off to the Canadian Football League.
The Edmonton Eskimos’ signing of Moon was a sweeter addition than Stevia in the morning cup of coffee. No one could stop him. From 1978-83, the entirety of Moon’s CFL career, he led the Eskimos to five consecutive Grey Cup victories.
That was finally enough to land Moon a job quarterbacking in the NFL. Back in the States, Moon enjoyed a long and fruitful career spanning 21 seasons primarily with the Houston Oilers, including nine Pro Bowl seasons in a 10-year span.
Willie Brown grew up a big fish in a small, southern pond. Raised in the small (and fantastically named) town of Yazoo City, MS, the talented cornerback attended the tiny D-I school Grambling State in Louisiana. No NFL suitors to be seen upon his departure in 1963.
Brown was first signed by the Houston Oilers (then of the American Football League), though he didn’t make it past training camp with the team.
The Oilers’ loss was the Denver Broncos’ gain, as Brown quickly became a staple to their secondary.
Brown spent four seasons in Denver before he was traded to the Oakland Raiders in 1967. There, the accomplished cornerback went from a top talent to a bonafide superstar. From Oakland to LA, it was nothing but good times in silver and black all 12 years with the team.
By the time he retired in 1978, Brown had collected a pile of individual awards and honors, but the three most important things were his one.. two.. three Super Bowl rings.
Brown was a first ballot Hall of Famer (1984) and is still considered to be one of the greatest players in NFL history. He’s also the subject of one of the most iconic clips ever by NFL Films, the close-up of Brown returning a pick-six in Super Bowl XI, his shoulders churning and his helmet shifting on his head and his “speeds” downfield in slo-mo.
It’s crazy to think that Antonio Gates – one of the all-time leaders in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns – could have flown under the radar and gone unselected in the 2003 NFL Draft. Then again, considering Gates only played college basketball, that makes a whole lot of sense.
Gates hooped hard at Kent State (where he coincidentally attended while James Harrison was there) leading his team to the school’s first two NCAA Tournament appearances ever. His 6-foot-4 stocky frame, however, simply didn’t fit the mold for a future in the NBA.
It didn’t matter that Gates hadn’t played college football, his athleticism was undeniable and teams wanted to test the waters. The San Diego Chargers ended up getting to the basketball star first and, after putting him through one workout, signed him.
As it turned out, the Chargers realized they landed far more than a supreme athlete, they got a franchise tight end who would help revolutionize the position.
Gates went from backup to starter by the end of his rookie season (2003), following that up with eight straight Pro Bowl seasons.
From a basketball star with upside to the all-time tight end touchdown leader. The Chargers may get a lot wrong, but they sure got this one right.
Love him or hate him (there really is no in between), there’s no argument in the world strong enough to diminish just how incredible the NFL journey of former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was.
It was easy to hate on his disappointing playoff history with the Cowboys, but the fact he even had the opportunity is a marvel.
Romo rose to prominence in college as a quarterback at Eastern Illinois University, a Division I-AA school (now FCS). He racked up passing yards at blistering pace, earning the Walter Payton Award for best player in the nation.
Despite the accolades, the only reason Romo was invited to the 2003 NFL Combine was as an extra passer to throw to prospects.
Although he wasn’t drafted, Romo was courted by the Cowboys and signed with the team in free agency. For the first couple years, uncertainty loomed over Romo, as he was stuck in a third-string role that actually saw him being used a holder for kicks for his first couple seasons.
By 2006, Romo was elevated to second string behind Drew Bledsoe and had taken his place as the starter by season’s end. The rest is history, as Romo became the face of America’s Team, earning four Pro Bowl selections in what was one of the more polarizing careers of the decade.
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking Kansas Jayhawks is the school’s powerhouse basketball program. The second thing is the perpetually abysmal football program. Not so fast though, there have been some good times and cornerback Chris Harris was a huge part of it.
Harris was a lockdown corner from the get-go with the Jayhawks, helping Kansas to arguably its best season in school history as a freshman, beating Virginia Tech to win the 2007 Orange Bowl. That was followed up by another bowl victory and two more outstanding seasons that left his mark as one of the greatest KU football players in history.
All of Harris’ collegiate accomplishments were just enough to get him… not drafted. With a surplus of defensive backs, Harris wasn’t even invited to the NFL Combine, though he still landed a roster spot with the Denver Broncos, and what a steal that turned out to be.
Harris immediately made an impact in the secondary his rookie season and was a regular starter by his second year. Harris has since blossomed into a cornerstone of the Broncos formidable defense, helping the team to two Super Bowl appearances and a championship in 2015.
The All-Pro corner has been a shining example of just how deep the collegiate competition really is for such talent to not even earn an invite to the combine.
With a helmet and pads on, wide receivers Danny Amendola and Wes Welker are essentially the same person – they’re small, shifty, speedy and deceptively dominant. Really though, it’s kind of weird how much in common the two actually do share.
The 5-foot-11 (we’ll give him the extra inch) wide receiver spent four years at Texas Tech where he tore up opposing defenses as a slot receiver and punt returner on his way to four straight bowl appearances.
Of course, Amendola still went undrafted.
The hit HBO docu-series Hard Knocks showed the Dallas Cowboys signing Amendola in 2008, offering us an inside look at his journey to make an NFL roster. Amendola was eventually cut, later being signed to the practice squad where he’d spend the rest of the season before joining the Philadelphia Eagles, where he was cut again without seeing even a snap of game time.
Amendola’s big break came with the St. Louis Rams, where he broke out onto the scene in a big way before two straight years of injury hampered his rise to stardom.
The big return came with the New England Patriots, where he fit like a glove to the Tom Brady-led offense. Two Super Bowl rings later and the undersized slot receiver is looking like one gigantic missed opportunity by the rest of the league.
Before injuries finally dragged him down as they do to so many NFL players, Priest Holmes was one of the most feared running backs in the league. Standing at all of 5-foot-9, Holmes was a mini wrecking ball willing to bang heads and ready to bulldoze anyone in his path.
In college, Holmes was a phenom on the field as the lead back for the Texas Longhorns until a knee injury sidelined his junior year, resulting in a breakout season for running backs Shon Mitchell and future NFL star Ricky Williams.
Holmes signed with the Baltimore Ravens in 1997, looking to prove to the league that they missed out on a star. It didn’t take long at all to prove just that, as he broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark in his second season with the team followed by a Super Bowl championship in 2000.
Since Jamal Lewis taking the reins as Baltimore’s feature back, Holmes left for Kansas City the following year, leaving an indescribable impact in his wake. Holmes led the league in rushing his first year with the team and was named Offensive Player of the Year the following season.
Injuries cut off the career that looked to be on the path for all-time greatness, but the KC HOFer’s legacy will still always remain a bright light in two franchise histories.
First things first, Dick “Night Train” Lane absolutely deserves a spot on the Mount Rushmore of athlete nicknames… no contest. Amazing Lane’s nickname is, he boasted and even more incredible NFL career.
Lane’s journey is inspirational for more than his talent on the gridiron.
Found abandoned in a dumpster as a baby, Lane grew up poor in Austin, TX, attending a segregated high school for African-Americans as a multi-sport athlete. After graduation, he briefly played baseball on a Negro Leagues farm team while helping his adoptive mother at her tavern.
Lane’s next stop was Scottsbluff Junior College (Scottsbluff, NE) followed by a four-year stint in the Army where he was able to continue playing football, always standing out above his competition. In a bold move that paid dividends (to say the least), Lane stopped by the Los Angeles Rams office on his way to work, showed all the clippings he’d saved singing his praise over the years and asked for a tryout.
The defensive back got way more than a tryout out of it, he got a 14-year career that took him from Los Angeles to Chicago and Detroit. Lane, one of the hardest hitters in NFL history, left the league with numerous defensive records (like 14 interceptions in a single season), earning him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
If there’s one thing that the Minnesota Vikings have always been good at, it’s assembling one of the most fearsome defenses in the league year in and out. Among the many memorable defensive studs to have crushed opposing team is the formidable John Randle.
Randle was a monster amongst men who would strike fear into the eyes of even the toughest tailbacks. That wasn’t always the case, however. While his older brother, Ervin, attended Texas powerhouse Baylor before getting drafted in the third round (1985), he had to work his way up a much longer ladder.
Randle started at Trinity Valley Community College before transferring to the D-II Texas A&M—Kingsville. Despite going undrafted, an opportunity arose with his brother’s team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, though he was considered to small to play defensive line.
The Vikings took a chance on him and found they’d scored a defensive tackle born to be a sack machine. During his 11 years in Minnesota (1990-00), Randle’s peak hit in 1993 when he rattled off six straight All-Pro seasons, cementing a Hall of Fame career of laying the boom.
From Arkansas to Texas and all across the nation, safety Cliff Harris left a lasting impression wherever he went. As senior, Harris left high school on a hard-to-beat high note, completing an undefeated season (11-0).
Harris got a scholarship at the small D-II school in-state at Ouachita Baptist University where his father also played. He proved himself willing of the scholarship as a standout defensive back.
A telling sign of the lasting impression he left lies in plain sight, as the Cliff Harris Award is given to the country’s top defensive player in Division II, III and NAIA colleges.
Coming out of such a small school, it wasn’t exactly surprising that Harris went undrafted in 1970, but what he was able to do as a rookie after being signed by the Dallas Cowboys certainly was. Harris beat out the Cowboys’ third-round pick, Charlie Waters, to secure the starting free safety job as a rookie and held down his position throughout his 10-year career in Dallas.
The only games Harris did miss as a rookie was the result of his military service. That really only adds to his legendary status, considering he returned in time to win a Super Bowl. No big deal, right?
Harris retired a two-time Super Bowl champion with four straight first team All-Pro honors. Serving for his country while playing for America’s Team made his nickname, Captain Crash, well-deserved.
Sometimes, looking back at older eras of football feels like watching an entirely different sport. Lou “The Toe” Groza is the perfect example of how different the athletes were. As the nickname would suggest, Groza was a legendary placekicker who doubled as an… offensive tackle?
Groza came attended Ohio State University on a scholarship, playing both positions on the freshman team, but enlisted in the Army in 1943. Groza served as a surgical technician around the Pacific theater.
While surrounded by atrocities, something amazing happened.
Groza received a package from Paul Brown, OSU’s football coach, containing a contract to play professionally for a new pro team called the Cleveland Browns. The rest is history. Groza went on to play 21 seasons all with the Browns.
While pioneering the possibilities of a placekicker – he had a boot that could go deep back by pinpoint accuracy – Groza also played tackle for a large chunk of his career.
The Hall of Fame career was laden with individual accolades, NFL records and a boatload of championships.
In short, the hapless Browns sure could use another toe like Groza’s these days.