Each year, hundreds of former college football players wait to hear their name called during the NFL Draft. With only seven rounds in the draft these days, there are a lot of people that never get to see their dream realized, as only 256 names were called in the 2015 edition of the entry draft. The dream isn’t completely dead for those that weren’t picked, though, as undrafted free agents are often called upon to help fill out the roster for teams.
Some of those players get cut within just a few days, some hang around on the practice squad for a couple of years and some even get to see the field during the regular season. For those that are given the chance, making a big first impression is vital. While most get put back onto the bench, a certain few become staples for their teams for years to come.
The NFL is filled with a ton of undrafted talent, and some of the best players in league history never got drafted. Many of the best players in the league today never got on stage for the NFL Draft, and have helped their teams win Super Bowls. So who are the 15 best undrafted players that are currently in the league? We ranked them in terms of current productivity instead of career production. Wes Welker is an honorable mention, but he’s not on an NFL roster currently. Here are the 15 that we picked.
15 James Harrison
If this list were made five years ago, James Harrison would have a good shot at being the number one player. Coming out of Kent State, Harrison was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers after the 2002 NFL Draft, but only played one game in his first two years. Harrison then spent some time on the Ravens’ practice squad before playing one season with the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe. Harrison came back to the Steelers and became a big part of their defense, earning five Pro Bowl appearances and four All-Pro teams. Harrison then went to the Bengals for a season before coming back to the Steelers in 2014. Harrison’s best year saw him collect 16 sacks in 2008 and a Super Bowl victory.
14 Tramon Williams
All of the teams in the 2006 NFL Draft passed on Tramon Williams, and the Houston Texans picked him up afterward, but dropped him before the season even started. The Packers then brought the cornerback onto their squad where he progressed into a starter and was a big part of the Packers Super Bowl XLV victory. Williams has made one Pro Bowl in his career, and has racked up 29 total interceptions. The Packers didn’t re-sign Williams after the 2014 season, and he will now be starting for the Cleveland Browns in 2015.
13 Mike Tolbert
Mike Tolbert is a massive guy (in terms of width) at 5-foot-9 and 250 pounds. Nobody ended up selecting the fullback in the 2008 NFL Draft, and the product from Coastal Carolina was signed by the Chargers, starting seven games in his rookie season. It didn’t look promising for Tolbert in terms of carrying the ball as he only had 37 rushing yards, but his value in the passing game kept him around, where he finally became a viable rusher for the Chargers. Tolbert was then signed by the Panthers and made his first All-Pro team in 2013. Tolbert missed half of the season in 2014, but is expected to be a big part of Carolina’s offense in 2015.
12 Brandon Browner
Coming out of Oregon State, there was no hype whatsoever surrounding Brandon Browner. After the Broncos picked him up after the 2005 NFL Draft, Browner never saw the field. Browner didn’t even play football in 2006 and played for four seasons with the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL. Browner eventually came back to the States to play with the Seattle Seahawks, making the Pro Bowl in his first season with the team. Browner played one season with the Patriots, helping the squad to win the Super Bowl before signing with the Saints this offseason. In his career, Browner has 11 interceptions and 130 total tackles.
11 Vontaze Burfict
When coming out of high school, Vontaze Burfict was being called the best prospect that the Arizona State Sun Devils ever signed. After a rollercoaster career that showcased some personality issues, Burfict surprisingly went undrafted in 2012, but was quickly signed by the Cincinnati Bengals. Burfict ended up starting 14 of the 16 games in his rookie season, even leading the Bengals in tackles. The next year, Burfict was selected to his first Pro Bowl, which led to a four year contract extension. Burfict struggled in 2014 and was injured after five games, but he’s expected to be back in the starting lineup when the 2015 season rolls around.
10 C.J. Anderson
C.J. Anderson is one of the young guns on the list, and can work his way up if he continues to live up to the potential that the Broncos have given him. Anderson went undrafted out of Cal in 2013 and only saw seven carries in his rookie season with Denver. Anderson was given a chance to get some starts in 2014 when multiple Denver running backs went down with injury and he thrived to the tune of 849 yards and eight touchdowns on just 179 carries. Anderson is expected to be the starter in the backfield behind Peyton Manning in 2015, so the sky is the limit for this undrafted star.
9 Marcel Reece
Marcel Reece made his name at the University of Washington as an H-Back and a track star. Scouts didn’t think he was thin enough to be a receiver or big enough to be a tight end, so he went undrafted in 2008. Reece spent one year with the Dolphins before moving to Oakland to become the Raiders’ fullback. Reece had some difficulties making the position transition, but has since thrived in the backfield. Reece has shown his speed, but probably doesn’t get enough opportunities to showcase his running skills. Still, Reece has made the last three Pro Bowls and is a great third down back to have.
8 John Kuhn
John Kuhn is the first of two players on the list that came from the small Shippensburg College. Kuhn was signed by his local team, the Steelers, after the 2005 NFL Draft and saw some playing time in 2006. After being released, Kuhn went to Green Bay and has been a staple and fan favorite for the Packers ever since. Kuhn is the master of ruining fantasy football dreams with his one yard touchdown runs, and he has reached three Pro Bowls in his career, being named to the first team All-Pro squad in 2014.
7 Victor Cruz
UMass has historically been known more as a basketball school, but they were able to produce wide receiver Victor Cruz, who was signed by the Giants after the 2010 NFL Draft. Cruz might be a bit forgotten after his injury in 2014 that opened the way for Odell Beckham, Jr., but people will remember how good he can be when he gets back in 2015. Cruz burst onto the scene with 1,536 yards in his first full season in 2011, but hasn’t seen his production quite match that mark since then. Still, Cruz is solid when not injured and should fit nicely into the Giants’ system with Beckham on the other side.
6 Brent Grimes
It’s hard to be a heralded prospect in the NFL when you come from Shippensburg College, but that’s what Brent Grimes was dealing with back in 2006. After being signed by the Atlanta Falcons, Grimes didn’t see much playing time and shipped off to Hamburg to play for the Sea Devils in the now defunct NFL Europe. Grimes came back to the Falcons and moved over to the Miami Dolphins in 2013, and has been a solid performer in both spots. Grimes has made the last two Pro Bowls, even becoming a second team All-Pro in 2014 with five interceptions and 48 tackles.
5 Antonio Gates
After graduating high school in Detroit, Antonio Gates went to Michigan State and Eastern Michigan before finally landing at Kent State. Despite only playing basketball at Kent State, the Chargers signed the 6-foot-4, 255 pound behemoth as a tight end after the 2003 NFL Draft. It was a low risk chance that ended up giving a ton of rewards as he has made eight Pro Bowls, five All-Pro teams and owns the records for receptions, yards and touchdowns in Chargers history. Gates has slowed down a bit from his prime, but 821 yards and 12 touchdowns is nothing to scoff at from the tight end position.
4 Cameron Wake
The Giants must not have known what they had on their hands when they signed Cameron Wake after the 2005 NFL Draft. Wake was only on the practice squad for the Giants when they released him and he found his way to Canada, playing two seasons for the BC Lions in the CFL. Wake then came back to America and quickly became a success with the Dolphins. Wake has been a four time Pro Bowler for Miami and was a second team All-Pro in 2014 with 11.5 sacks. His best season came in 2012 when he racked up 15 sacks.
3 Arian Foster
Early in his career, some thought that Arian Foster was another off the radar and undrafted running back that was a product of Gary Kubiak’s zone rushing scheme. Foster went undrafted out of Tennessee in 2009 and has thrived no matter who is in charge of coaching the Texans and excelling through some poor quarterback play. In his career, Foster has 6,309 rushing yards and 53 touchdowns on the ground. Foster has also been named to four Pro Bowls, with his most recent coming last year when he had more than 1,500 all-purpose yards in just 13 games.
2 Jason Peters
It’s hard to believe that nobody wanted Jason Peters in the 2004 NFL Draft when he declared from Arkansas. Peters signed with the Buffalo Bills as a tight end, but moved over to tackle and played his first two seasons as a member of the special teams unit. In 2006, Peters got his chance to be a starting tackle with Buffalo, and moved over to left tackle the next year. After a contract dispute, Peters was shipped to Philadelphia for a first round pick and has been a staple of the offensive line for years. Peters has been a six time All-Pro and has only missed one Pro Bowl in the last eight seasons.
1 Tony Romo
Tony Romo was a star in the small town of Charleston, Illinois while playing with the FCS Eastern Illinois University Panthers. Before Jimmy Garoppolo came around, Romo held just about every quarterbacking record at the school. Romo didn’t hear his name called in the 2003 NFL Draft, but still managed to sign a deal with the Dallas Cowboys where he spent a couple of years as a holder. When Drew Bledsoe wasn’t performing up to par, Romo came in to replace him and never relinquished the job. Now, 35 years old, Romo has reached four Pro Bowl games and now has as many Cowboys records as he does Eastern Illinois records.