The Best Undrafted Free Agents In NFL History

Football | 8/19/19

NFL teams have tried their very best to turn scouting into a science. It’s a year long process where each potential draftee’s game tape is studied and players are further analyzed during the NFL combine. Without fail, though, promising players continue to fall through the cracks and go undrafted.

Many of these undrafted players have gone on to spectacular careers. Some have won league MVP awards. Some have led their team to Super Bowl wins. And some have even been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. Below is a list, in no particular order, of the greatest undrafted Free Agents of all time.

Kurt Warner Bagged Groceries Until He Got His Shot

GettyImages-95505800
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Kurt Warner only started for one year of his college career at the University of Northern Iowa. While he played very well in his senior season but it wasn’t enough to be drafted into the league. He didn’t impress during a tryout with the Packers and ended up bagging groceries at a local supermarket.

He didn’t give up, though, and Warner became the backup for the St. Louis Rams. Once he got his shot, the Quarterback made the most of it and led the “Greatest Show on Turf” to the 1999 Super Bowl Title. Warner played in two other Super Bowls and was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Wayne Chrebet Was An Improbably Success Story

GettyImages-51559717
Bernie Nunez/Getty Images
Bernie Nunez/Getty Images

Chrebet is one of the greatest undrafted free agents largely because of the audacity of his story. The Wide Receiver played at Hofsta which is not typically a football factory. He began training camp 11th on the depth chart and was stopped by security guards who didn’t believe he was an NFL player.

By the time he started the season, he was a invaluable part of the Jets team. During his improbable career, Chrebet caught 508 passes and scored 41 touchdowns. In 2014, he was inducted into the Jets Ring of Honor.

Jim Langer Bounced Around Then Became A Pro Bowler

Jim_Langer_in_1969,_SDSU
Courtesy of South Dakota State
Courtesy of South Dakota State

Jim Langer was a standout Linebacker for South Dakota State University. The Browns cut him following his first training camp and he signed on with the Dolphins. Miami converted him to Center and after two years on the bench, he became a fixture in their lineup.

He fast became an integral part of the offensive line and made six Pro Bowls during the 1970’s. Langer who was also named to three First Team All-Pro squads, was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame following his career.

Adam Vinatieri Has Now Played For 24 Seasons

GettyImages-459348802
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Adam Vinatieri is the second player on this list who played collegiately at South Dakota State University. Most promising kickers and punters are drafted but Vinatieri somehow fell through the cracks. The Patriots, who brought him in on a tryout, got more than their money’s worth.

Vinatieri now in his 24th season has made his reputation by being incredible in the clutch. The specialist has game-winning kicks in two Super Bowls and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame as soon as he decides to end his career.

Antonio Gates Played Basketball In College Then Tried Out For The NFL

2_udh
Getty
Getty

Antonio Gates began his college career at Michigan State hoping to play football and basketball. He was told he could only play one or the other and chose basketball, eventually transferring to Kent State. As he wasn’t considered an NBA prospect, he hosted a tryout for NFL teams and was signed by the San Diego Chargers.

He had a quick transition to football and made the Pro Bowl in just his second season, the first of nine. He caught 116 touchdown passes in his career. Gates retired after last season and will likely be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Tony Romo Spent Three Years On The Bench

1_udh
Getty
Getty

Quarterback is the hardest position for any NFL team to fill. Sometimes teams wait twenty years for their franchise savior and sometimes they fall right into their laps. That happened for the Cowboys when undrafted Tony Romo became an eventual star for the team.

Dallas held Romo on their bench for three seasons until he eventually got his chance in 2006. The Quarterback ran with the opportunity and made four Pro Bowls for Dallas. While never going deep into the playoffs, Romo was an excellent player for all of his fourteen seasons.

Willie Brown Wasn’t Scouted Because He Attended An All-Black College

GettyImages-1006165102
Digital First Media Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images
Digital First Media Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images

Willie Brown was eligible to be selected in the 1963 draft, but was not picked. Brown had played collegiately at Grambling State and the NFL still hadn’t begun properly scouting players at traditionally black colleges. Brown signed with the Broncos and was eventually dealt to the Raiders.

The Cornerback became a star in Oakland as a Pro Bowl-caliber player. He also won three Super Bowl rings with the Raiders. Following his playing career, Brown became a defensive back coach and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

John Randle Packed On Some Weight Then Dominated His Position

GettyImages-762126613
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

John Randle, who played his college ball at Texas A&M Kingsville, wasn’t drafted due to his small stature. He was a Defensive Tackle who only weighed 244 pounds. The Vikings signed Randle and put him on the team after he made a commitment to getting his weight up to at least 250.

Once he put on a few pounds, Randle became an NFL superstar. While small for his position, he won thanks to his elite quickness and power. The six-time All-Pro recorded 137.5 sacks in his career and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.

Joe Jacoby’s Undrafted Status Still Leaves Us Confused

GettyImages-662613426
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images – 662613426
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images – 662613426

The Washington Redskins of the 1980s and early ’90s had a mini-dynasty, winning three Super Bowls in nine years. An incredibly important part of those teams was the famed “Hogs” offensive line. Joe Jacoby who played tackle was an integral part of that unit.

Jacoby went undrafted out of Louisville, but was signed by the Redskins and became a starter early in his career. He became a four-time Pro Bowler and was inducted into the Redskins Hall of Fame.

Jason Peters Started In A New Position As A Project

GettyImages-662613426
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images – 662613426
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images – 662613426

There are few things more valuable in the National Football League than a high profile Left Tackle. Coming out of Arkansas, Jason Peters had the potential to become a Pro Bowl offensive lineman, he just hadn’t played the position yet. He had been a Tight End and Defensive Tackle in college.

The Bills took a chance on his enormous athleticism and took Peters in as a project. Within two years he was a starter and shortly after that, he was a star. Still active with the Eagles, Peters has played in nine Pro Bowls and is a potential Hall of Famer.

Rod Smith Surprised A Lot Of People By Becoming A Pro Bowler

GettyImages-72841656
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images – 72841656
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images – 72841656

The are hundreds of college football teams in the nation and it could be tough for scouts to properly asses all of the players. Rod Smith was a standout at Division II Missouri Southern State University, but was not drafted. He later signed with the Denver Broncos.

Smith spent his entire career with the Broncos and was a member of two Super Bowl winners. He also made three Pro Bowls and led the NFL in receptions with 113 in 2001. Smith was later inducted into the Broncos Ring of Fame.

Wes Welker Was Short And Slow

GettyImages-460789004
Andy Lyons/Getty Images – 460789004
Andy Lyons/Getty Images – 460789004

Texas Tech Wide Receiver Wes Welker was largely ignored by the NFL after he measured in under 5 ft 9 in and ran his 40 in 4.65 seconds. What Welker did have, though, was elite short area quickness and incredible hands. The Dolphins took a shot on him.

Welker was a strong player for the Dolphins and took his career to the next level after signing with the Patriots. The Wide Receiver made five Pro Bowl teams and led the NFL in receptions three times. He also won two Super Bowl rings with the Pats and one with the Broncos.

Marion Motley Was A Star Despite Societal Norms At The Time

GettyImages-77928590
Vic Stein/Getty Images – 77928590
Vic Stein/Getty Images – 77928590

That Marion Motley was not drafted by the NFL had less to do with his ability than it had to do with societal norms at the time. After serving in the Navy, Motley received a tryout with the Cleveland Browns and impressed enough to make the team.

He was an immediate phenom, weighing in at 240 pounds and punishing any defender who tried to tackle him. The Fullback was named to numerous Pro Bowls and led the Browns to the 1950 Championship. The Canton, Ohio native was later inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Chris Harris Jr. Wasn’t Even Invited To The NFL Combine

GettyImages-1065228300
Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images – 1065228300
Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images – 1065228300

In today’s wide-open passing NFL, teams don’t start just two Cornerbacks, they now start three. The slot corner can be a tough position to play as inside receivers are normally quick and shifty. Chris Harris Jr. plays the slot corner position at an elite level.

Despite a strong career at Kansas, Harris Jr. was not even invited to the scouting combine. It did not take him long to prove his worth as he made the All-Rookie team in his first season. Since then, he has been named to four Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl ring

Larry Little Proves The 1970s Dolphins Front Office Knew What They Were Doing

GettyImages-79475740
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images for Reebok – 79475740
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images for Reebok – 79475740

Amazingly, the great 1970’s Dolphins team had not only one undrafted Hall of Famer on their offensive line but two. Guard Larry Little signed with the Denver Broncos out of Bethune-Cookman and was later traded to the Dolphins. He would play in Miami for the next twelve seasons.

Little was a five-time All-Pro while with the Dolphins. He was also a two-time Super Bowl winner. The Guard was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993 and later became the Head Coach at his alma mater.

Priest Holmes Was Stuck Behind A Heisman Trophy Winner In College

GettyImages-110586849
Joe Robbins/Getty Images – 110586849
Joe Robbins/Getty Images – 110586849

The fact that the NFL missed on Running Back Priest Holmes is actually somewhat understandable. As a member of the Texas Longhorns, Holmes was stuck behind Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams. He had done enough in limited time, though, to be signed by the Baltimore Ravens.

When Holmes signed with the Chiefs in 2001, his career really took off. He became a scoring machine, leading the NFL in TD’s during 2002 and 2003. He was electric for between ’01 and ’03 making the All Pro team each season.

James Harrison Took Some Time To Break Out In The NFL

GettyImages-459750018
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images – 459750018
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images – 459750018

A key to winning football games is putting significant pressure on the Quarterback. James Harrison not only brought pressure, he did so in a tremendously aggressive fashion. Harrison went undrafted in 2002, with his small stature being one of the primary reasons.

While the Steelers signed him originally, he took a circuitous path to become an NFL star. He didn’t really make an impact until his breakout year in 2007. Harrison made five straight Pro Bowls and was the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year.

Brian Waters Found A New Role In The NFL And It Paid Off

GettyImages-103752061
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images – 103752061
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images – 103752061

Oftentimes, a player may go undrafted because they don’t excel at the position they played in college. But savvy NFL teams will look at traits that may make a player useful at another position. The Cowboys signed Brian Waters in hopes to convert him from a Tight End to a Guard.

Dallas wasn’t quite patient enough with Waters and lost him to the Chiefs. While in Kansas City, Waters became a star making six Pro Bowls over the course of his career. Waters retired from football in 2014.

Dick Lane Served In The Army Then Became An All-Pro NFL Player

GettyImages-514981336
Courtesy of Getty Images – 514981336
Courtesy of Getty Images – 514981336

Growing up in Austin, Texas, Dick Lane played football in High School and College before serving in the Army. On a whim, Lane stopped into the Los Angeles Rams office and asked for a tryout. The tryout was successful and over the next fourteen seasons, the cornerback became a star.

Lane spent time in Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit. He was known as a ferocious tacklet and made First Team All Pro seven times. Lane was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974.

Warren Moon Dominated The CFL For Five Seasons Before Reaching The NFL

GettyImages-82043974
Joseph Patronite/Getty Images – 82043974
Joseph Patronite/Getty Images – 82043974

Warren Moon, who played collegiately at the University of Washington, had a strange path to the NFL. After going undrafted in 1977, he signed with the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos and led his team to 5 Grey Cups. He was signed in 1983 by the Oilers.

Moon started in Houston right away and helped the team become an AFC powerhouse. Moon would play in nine Pro Bowls during his career and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Despite playing 6 seasons in Canada, the quarterback still managed to throw for 49,325 yards in his career.