Every Year's Best Undrafted NFL Player Since 2000

Mr. Irrelevant is the “loving” nickname that the media has anointed to last player taken in the NFL draft. This pandering and borderline offensive name oddly rings true. No “Mr. Irrelevant” has ever made a Pro-Bowl. It has seemingly become better for a player to get passed up and go undrafted than become Mr. Irrelevant.

Year-after-year undrafted free agents make substantial impacts for their respective teams. Some become Pro-Bowlers, some become Super Bowl champions, some win awards, and some even become amongst the best players at their position. While Mr. Irrelevant seems to always become irrelevant, the undrafted rookies, who have to wait by their phones after the draft come to an end, often have much better careers. Yes, most of them don’t make it past training camp, but a select few will raise their team to great heights.

We went year-by-year and picked out the undrafted free agent that we felt was the best that year. These are the guys who make analysts and nerds read the 40 yard dash times of guys from schools they didn’t know existed. These are the stars in the NFL that you never saw coming, and the players that make the day after the draft interesting. To make this list, we looked at statistics, awards and accolades, playoff appearances, and career longevity.

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17 2000 – Shaun O’Hara 

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In 2000 the Cleveland Browns made the brilliant choice of signing Rutgers’ walk-on center Shaun O’Hara. While a Brown, O'Hara started 38 of 54 games at three different positions across the offensive line. Obviously the Browns weren’t able to keep O’Hara when other teams started calling because everybody wanted out of that organization in the early 2000s, or really anytime. O’Hara took a three-year $5.4 million contract offer from the New York Giants and never looked back. While in the big apple, O’Hara was named to three Pro-Bowls and was a force protecting quarterback Eli Manning as they won Super Bowl XLII. Following an injury plagued 2010 season, O’Hara was cut and chose to retire instead of attempting a comeback with a different team. Not bad for a kid who received no scholarships out of high school.

16 2001 – Antonio Pierce

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The undrafted free agent class from 2001 featured a trio of kickers who made a serious impact in the NFL. Jay Feely led the league in field goals in 2002, Rob Bironas has the tie for the record most game-winning field goals in a season, and Lawrence Tynes was a big part of the Giants' 2 Super Bowl wins since 2000. However, for this list we went with a different undrafted free agent who helped the Giants earn a win in Super Bowl XLII. We’ve already mentioned two other members of that squad, but defensive end Antonio Pierce made for a key asset in the Giants’ Super Bowl run. He was initially on the rival Washington Redskins, but the Giants snapped him up as soon as they could. Famously, Pierce made a key stop against the Green Bay Packers in 2008 NFC Championship game to break up a would-be game-winning touchdown and keep the Super Bowl dream alive. Without that stop, the Giants may have never played in what many think of as the greatest Super Bowl ever played.

15 2002 – James Harrison 

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This group of undrafted free agents helped to set up one of the most heated and famous rivalries in the NFL. Long time Steelers’ cornerback Ryan Clark came out of this class, as did Ravens’ linebacker Bart Scott. These two men put a lot of heat into the rivalry between the two AFC North teams by using some of the harshest trash talk and violent hits that game had seen at the time. However, both of those Pro-Bowlers fail to live up to the prowess of linebacker James Harrison. The Kent State product was thought to be too small to be a great pass rusher in the NFL, so teams passed on him. After being initially cut by the Steelers, Harrison was given a shot by the Ravens. The Ravens’ weren’t impressed and cut ties with Harrison after the 2004 season. Not long later, he ended up back on the Steelers and turned into one of the premier players in the NFL. He’s been named to the Pro-Bowl 5 times, has won two Super Bowls, and was named defensive player of the year in 2008. Even after an attempted retirement, Harrison has been a fixture for the Steelers and is one of the last vestiges of the defense that won two championships in Pittsburgh. The future Hall-of-Famer may be one of the best undrafted free agents of all time.

14 2003 – Antonio Gates

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2003 alone changed the way that teams and fans looked at incoming crops of undrafted free agents. The group featured eight Pro-Bowlers, and that doesn’t include Cullen Jenkins and Fred Jackson who were borderline-Pro-Bowlers for their entire career. 2003 produced a pair of players who helped define their entire generation of football. First was the Dallas Cowboy’s golden-boy Tony Romo. Romo has been called a-lot of things; a surprise, a bust, a miracle-worker, a pathetic wash-up, a hero, a villain, a party boy, a leader. At one point or another all of these terms fit, but Romo cemented himself as one of the best quarterbacks during his time and will be remembered fondly by football fans around the globe. However, Antonio Gates edges Romo out as the best undrafted free agent of 2003. The second straight Kent State alumni on this list, Gates has played his whole career with the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers and changed the way the league thought of tight ends. He has the most touchdown receptions amongst tight ends, and is looking to put distance between himself and Tony Gonzalez at the top. He is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer and paved the way for the tight end heavy league we see now. Without Gates we may never have seen schemes that allow for players like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, or Travis Kelce to be the players they have been.

13 2004 – Wes Welker

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The 2004 undrafted free agent class didn’t feature the powerhouses that 2003 did, but that’s not to say it didn’t have some standouts. Jason Peters and Tyson Clabo put together very impressive careers on various offensive lines. Vonta Leach was arguably the best fullback of his generation and was a three-time All-Pro. Then there was Wes Welker. Statistically, Welker is clearly the best player out of the undrafted class and may be one of the top players out of the entire draft. Welker was a mediocre special teams player, at best, during his first three seasons. During those years, with the Chargers and Dolphins, Welker scored 1 touchdown and fumbled the ball 12 times. Then Bill Belichick and Tom Brady got their hands on the slot receiver and everything changed. For 6 seasons in New England, Welker became one of the most feared receivers in the game. He scored 37 touchdowns and racked up over 7,000 yards. He has the most seasons with more than 100 receptions of any NFL receiver and is tied for the most games with 15 or more catches. After leaving New England, Welker lost a lot of what made him great (Brady and Belichick) and slowly faded into obscurity playing out his last few years in Denver and St. Louis.

12 2005 – Josh Cribbs

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The Browns were bound to do something right at some point, right? Despite being the NFL’s laughing stock, the Browns hit gold every now and again, and in 2005 they did just that by signing punt/kick returner Josh Cribbs (the third Kent State product on this list). The three-time Pro-Bowler was one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL because of his ability to score whenever he touched the ball. The undrafted free agent class in 2005 was a stacked class. Robbie Gould was a Pro-Bowl kicker, Brandon Browner had some great seasons in Seattle, and Lorenzo Alexander is still effective for his team. Cameron Wake has been a premier pass rusher for the Dolphins for multiple years now and his statistics make him a solid choice to be the best player from the group, but Cribbs’ impact for his team is hard to measure with stats. Cribbs was one of the few bright spots for Cleveland through their terrible years, that still continue today, and he was the lone reason to watch a Browns game for a number of years. Few players ever get that honor.

11 2006 – Brent Grimes

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Though the Dallas Cowboys clearly had the best class of undrafted free agents in 2006, none of their players earned the spot here. Former Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin had two Pro-Bowl years and led the NFC in receiving yards in 2009 following the team’s release of Terrell Owens. Sam Hurd and Stephen Bowen also had successful years in Dallas and earned big contracts with other teams. However, Brent Grimes, the undersized cornerback out of Shippensburg-University of Pennsylvania (we also had never heard of it), made the biggest impact of any undrafted free agent of that year. The four time Pro-Bowler may be more well known for his wife’s tweets than his play on the field, but he has been a fantastic player his whole career. He had some good years with the Falcons, but really blossomed in Miami where he earned three straight Pro-Bowl trips. He has gotten over a number of career threatening injuries, and is still playing at a very high level in Tampa Bay. He recorded four interceptions this past season.

10 2007 – Pierre Thomas

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There have been few running backs that played in the NFL who were less appreciated than Pierre Thomas was. He doesn’t have any Pro-Bowls to his name, nor did he ever lead the league in rushing yards (or even come close). That being said, Thomas was an instrumental piece for the Saints when they took the NFL by storm and won the Super Bowl. Thomas could do a little bit of everything; he was a powerful runner, an effective blocker, a dangerous pass catcher (especially with screen passes), and even made his mark on special team plays. He did have the perk of playing behind one of the NFL’s most dominant offensive lines, and with one of the leagues’ greatest quarterbacks, but that should not diminish from his career. Thomas led the Saints in rushing yards in 2008, 2009, and 2013, and scored multiple playoff touchdowns during their legendary Super Bowl run. Pierre Thomas’ play for the Saints is a huge reason why fans were able to forgive the team for drafting Reggie Bush a year prior.

9 2008 – Jerrell Freeman

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2008 was a pretty great year to be an undrafted running back. Danny Woodhead is a dangerous weapon for any team when he’s healthy, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has 42 NFL rushing touchdowns to his name, Mike Tolbert is currently one of the top fullbacks in the NFL, and Marcel Reece was named to four Pro-Bowls. However, the best undrafted free agent who came out of the 2008 draft was linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Freeman, who was signed by the Titans in 2008, didn’t play in the NFL until 2012. He spent a few years in Canada learning the sport, and then returned to dominate the NFL for the Indianapolis Colts. In his first game, Freeman returned an interception for a touchdown, and never looked back. When healthy, Freeman is one of the best tacklers in the league and is always a threat to pick up 120+ tackles a season. His time in the NFL has been short, but in those few years he racked up 478 tackles, 12 sacks and forced 10 turnovers. In a back-heavy year, it is a linebacker that takes the top spot.

8 2009 – Michael Bennett

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With all due respect to Arian Foster, there have been few other undrafted free agents who elevated the league quite like Michael Bennett has. Foster, one of the best running backs of this generation, helped to change the way fans looked at running backs. He helped to prove that sometimes the most dominant backs weren’t coming from the early draft rounds. However, his time in the sun has come to an end and after a failed year in Miami, Foster retired from the NFL. Bennett on the other hand may just be getting started. The Seahawks defensive end was named to his second straight Pro-Bowl and signed a three-year $31.5 million contract extension at the end of 2016. Bennett produces on the field in a big way, picking up 45.5 sack so far in his career and notably playing well when it matters most (3.5 career playoff sacks). He is also one of the most entertaining personalities in the NFL. He is constantly making jokes and any interview he does is worth tuning in for just to see what he has to say. Foster had a few amazing seasons, but Bennett’s longevity gave him the edge over the former Texan.

7 2010 – LeGarrette Blount

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The undrafted class of 2010 has a handful of standout names. Running back Chris Ivory earned the AFC rushing title in 2015, but his career may be on the downturn as his ever-expanding list of injuries catches up with him. Sam Shields is arguably the most talented player in the group, but concussions have completely derailed a once very promising career in Green Bay. And there’s Victor Cruz, probably the most famous name of the bunch. After he helped lead the Giants to a Super Bowl, injuries and the rise of Odell Beckham Jr. have made Cruz a forgotten face in the NFL. In college LeGarrette Blount was expected to be an NFL talent, but some character concerns and the infamous punch in Boise made teams avoid the bruising back. Blount jumped around the NFL finding various levels of success in Tampa Bay and New England. His rookie season he ran for over 1000 yards, a feat he would not duplicate until 2016. While the other “great” undrafted players have faded, Blount has only gotten better. You’ll be able to watch Blount, who led all running backs this season with 18 touchdowns, as he and the Patriots meet the Falcons in the Super Bowl. It’s good to see a man get his act together and excel at what he loves.

6 2011 – Doug Baldwin

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The Seattle Seahawks are one of the most surprisingly put-together teams in the NFL. They have a third round pick starting at quarterback, their best defensive playmaker is a fifth round cornerback, and their best offensive weapon is the best undrafted player from 2011. With all due respect to cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and kicker Dan Bailey, wide receiver Doug Baldwin has out paced them to find his way onto our list. Baldwin wasted no time in showing the world how good he could be. He was the first undrafted rookie to lead his team in receptions and receiving yards. He only got better following his rookie season, though it didn’t hurt to get Russell Wilson in 2012. He led the NFL with 14 receiving scores in 2015, and had a career high 1,128 yards in 2016. Baldwin is one of the top receivers in the NFL and it’s a credit to the Seahawks for signing and keeping an undrafted rookie with his level of talent.

5 2012 – Justin Tucker

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2012 could be called the year of undrafted special teams players. However, that phrase is a mouthful and we really doubt that it’ll catch on. 2012 gave the NFL the best punter and kicker in the league today. That year, names like Cole Beasley and Tashaun Gipson dotted the undrafted free agent list, but the real story starts with Vontaze Burfict falling out of the draft. By the end of his career, he could be remembered as the best-undrafted free agent ever, but his dirty plays and drive to physically hurt other players remove him from consideration at this point. He may be good, but his talent is not worth the headache he brings. Should his play style change, maybe this spot could see a change. Punter Johnny Hekker, on the other hand, is a well-mannered player, and is going to his third Pro-Bowl. He is one of the few bright spots for an otherwise pathetic Los Angeles Rams team. Despite Hekker’s obvious greatness, it’s the Ravens’ kicker Justin Tucker that really takes the prize as the best undrafted free agent. Tucker is the most accurate kicker in NFL history, and he backed that up by making every kick that he was able to get off in the 2016 season (one was blocked). Tucker holds the records for most 50 yard field goals made in one game and in one season. The kicker helped the Ravens win Super Bowl XLVII and has been the team’s MVP since coming out of college.

4 2013 – Adam Thielen

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Before November of 2016 the best undrafted free agent of 2013 was easily Broncos’ running back CJ Anderson. He helped his team win Super Bowl 50 and was named to a Pro Bowl in 2014. It looked like his only real competition was from teammate Brandon McManus who is a B-level kicker at best. However, following Andersons’ most recent knee injury, the door was opened for a new name. In 2016, Anderson, while very good, has proven to be incredibly injury prone and in need of a complimentary back. Meanwhile in 2016, Adam Thielen may have made a case to be the best wide receiver in Minnesota. Thielen didn’t make much of an impact his first two seasons in the NFL. He played very well on special teams, but couldn’t really get on the field when the offense was out. That changed in 2016 as Thielen led his team in receiving yards. What’s most impressive is that he beat out teammates Kyle Rudolph and Stefon Diggs, who both had 19+ more targets than he. The trio of Thielen, Diggs, and rookie Laquon Treadwell make for a potentially great future for the Vikings, who have been looking for new wide receivers since Percy Harvin was traded years ago.

3 2014 – Malcolm Butler

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How can you look at the undrafted free agent class of 2014 and possibly think anyone by Malcolm Butler deserves this spot? Seriously, shoot us a comment because we would love to know. Allen Hurns and Willie Snead are talented receivers, Chandler Catanzaro and Cairo Santos are good kickers (but nor Justin Tucker level, which is the only way to make this list), and Zach Orr had a lot of potential before his surprise retirement this offseason. None of them even touch Butler’s talent. Malcolm Butler sealed a Super Bowl win for his New England Patriots by picking off Russell Wilson in the end zone. End of conversation. Tom Brady may have won Super Bowl MVP, but many felt that Butler deserved it. Butler could find his name on this list for that one play alone, but he has also become one of the best cover corners in the game. In 2015 he was named to the Pro-Bowl and was a second team All-Pro in 2016. He will be in his second career Super Bowl and will be looking to outshine his last appearance.

2 2015 – Zach Zenner

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Michael Bennett has called this man the “best white running back in the NFL.” Jokes aside, we think Zenner may be the best undrafted player from 2015, and that’s saying something. 2015 had players like Thomas Rawls, Tyrell Williams, and David Irving signed after the draft ended, but they haven’t made the impact that Zenner has. Rawls, while very talented, has been constantly injured and fighting with the management and coaches in Seattle. This has led to speculation that his days in Seattle are coming to an end. David Irving may have started for a playoff defense in Dallas, but he was a starter there in 2015 when the Cowboys had one of the worst pass-rushing corps. in NFL history. Williams had a good 2016 campaign, but it’s hard to really judge him due to the sheer amount of injuries on his team and all-around bad play of the Chargers. Zenner stepped up when his team needed him the most, and he helped lead the Lions to a playoff berth. It’s tough to go from fourth string running back, to the featured back in the middle of a playoff run, but Zenner handled the pressure well and has earned a spot in the NFL for at least a couple more years.

1 2016 – Michael Pierce

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The 2016 crop of undrafted free agents is nearly impossible to judge. Most of the players weren’t able to show much of anything seeing very limited time on the field. Many of those who played “often” were forced to get on the field earlier than they should have. There are two names that really stood out to us: Redskins’ running back Robert Kelley and Ravens’ defensive tackle Michael Pierce. Kelley started 9 games for the Redskins and scored 7 times. However, he had more games with single digit rushing yards than games with triple digit rushing yards and got hurt towards the end of the season. Michael Pierce edged Kelley off the list by playing at a high level for all 16 games. Baltimore started the year with a very talented defensive line led by Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams, and still Pierce found a way to get ample playing time. It seems like Baltimore won the lottery by signing Pierce, but only time will tell.

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