The path to the NFL is different for everyone. Some are fortunate enough to get drafted in the first round and have an immediate impact once on the field. Others fall in the draft, wait a few years and finally get their opportunity to start.
With this list we recognize the top NFL players who were terrible at first, but finished their NFL careers as stars. Not every player on this list may be considered terrible at first by the viewers, but every player on this list earned their spot as a star in the NFL the hard way and were not good enough at the beginning of their careers.
We live in an age where we want to label people from the get-go and we’re in such a rush to label a player as a boom or bust so quickly after being drafted. As if rookies are supposed to be team leaders from the get go and are supposed to adjust to NFL speed from the moment they graduate college. This list is a reminder that patience is a virtue and you shouldn’t be so quick to judge a player from his first few games, or even his first couple of seasons.
The quick emergence of Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson from their rookie years and the influx of star rookie wide receivers last year has spoiled fans and now they expect every first round pick to make an immediate impact. That’s not always the case and hopefully this list will give you a different perspective.
I am certain that we left a number of players off the list that may belong here and encourage readers to comment below with their opinion or anyone they think deserved to be on the list.
15. Arian Foster
Coming out of college, Arian Foster apparently was not deemed good enough to be drafted and was able to secure a spot on a terrible Texans team as an undrafted free agent.
His first season was up and down with such a bad squad, but when he got the chance to start full time in 2010, he rose to stardom.
Foster won the rushing title that year and stayed consistent until an injury kept him out last year and he should be back this year ready to roll.
In his five NFL seasons he has made four Pro Bowls and is the all time leading rusher for the Texans despite a very rough start to his NFL career.
14. Antonio Gates
Gates, another undrafted NFL player has a bit of a different story than Foster. Before football, Gates was a college basketball player and was basically told that he was too small for his position in basketball to make the NBA.
So he decided to try his hand at football and it was not very pretty at first. Despite playing basketball throughout college, he was able to impress a number of NFL teams in his arranged workouts with scouts.
His first season with the Chargers was a learning curve as he learned the game of football and once the second season came around he was a full time starter with devastating red zone abilities. He revolutionized the tight end position and now we frequently see ex basketball players trying their chance at the NFL.
13. Terry Bradshaw
Terry Bradshaw would eventually go on to lead a Steelers dynasty in the 1970s, but his career started out with a disastrous 1970 rookie campaign. He threw 24 interceptions and had an atrocious quarterback rating of 32.4. If social media was around in Bradshaw’s day, he would have been labeled a bust. His second season wasn’t much better, throwing 22 interceptions, although he did add to his touchdown total. It wasn’t until Bradshaw’s sixth season that he threw for more touchdowns than interceptions. Oh, and he ended up winning four Super Bowls.
12. London Fletcher
Fletcher played basketball in college just like Gates, but he finished college playing football and thought he had secured a spot in the NFL draft.
Unfortunately, he was passed up by every team because of his height and lack of experience at the linebacker position. After the draft, the Rams took a chance with him and signed Fletcher to be a special teams contributor.
In his rookie season, he excelled at special teams, but was not good enough to break the starting line or see much time on the field. Once he forced into the starting lineup because of injuries, he never looked back and went on to become one of the best linebackers to play the game.
11. Alex Smith
Alex Smith seemed like a huge bust in his first few seasons in San Francisco. He failed big time in his rookie season, throwing just one touchdown pass to 11 interceptions in his nine games played. Smith wasn’t much better in his next few seasons, often battling for a starting job. It wasn’t until Jim Harbaugh’s arrival that Smith began to take off. While he’s never risen to elite status, he has become a very servicable starting quarterback and has carved out a career that’s turned out a lot better than we once thought it would.
10. Priest Holmes
Priest Holmes also went undrafted and was fortunate enough to sign with the Baltimore Ravens and remained on the team for three seasons as a backup, although he did get to win a Super Bowl with them.
He was not good enough to break the starting line up in Baltimore and they let him go after the Super Bowl season. Kansas City was in need a running back and took a chance with Holmes making him the starting running back in 2001.
That year he played lights out and made three Pro Bowls. He even broke the single season rushing touchdown record in 2003 with 27. Unfortunately a severe spinal injury cut his blooming career short.
9. Wes Welker
Welker had a tough time his first few years in the league, going undrafted, getting signed then immediately cut, landing a spot with Miami and barely holding onto his roster spot as a kick returner, not a receiver.
Once he was traded to New England, (right in time for Tom Brady to be playing lights out) Welker took his receiving game to another level and broke NFL records playing alongside Tom Brady.
Unfortunately, when he made it to the Super Bowl his team was defeated by the New York Giants (twice), but he turned a tough start into an impressive NFL career.
8. Adam Vinatieri
Vinatieri is the only kicker on the list, but what an awesome career that will go down in NFL history making him one of the best to ever play.
However, he went undrafted into the NFL and had to fight through adversity (like a lot of players on this list) before he became the Vinatieri everyone knows today who has been to five Super Bowls, won four of them and has been to the Pro Bowl three times.
To accomplish what he did as an undrafted player is amazing and he now holds multiple NFL records that may not be broken for a long time (because he is still playing at 40 years old!)
7. Joe Horn
Joe Horn also started his professional football career in the CFL be cause he was unable to make an NFL roster out of college.
However, it only took one season in the CFL for him to earn an NFL contract with the Chiefs where he spent four seasons without having a significant impact.
Once he landed in New Orleans with Drew Brees and company, Horn broke out of mediocrity and became one of the most dominant receivers in the league at the time.
In his six seasons with the Saints Horn was able to break their team records for receiving yard and touchdowns and made four Pro Bowls.
6. Eli Manning
Yes I know, Eli has won a couple Super Bowls and established himself as a top quarterback in the NFL.
However, he actually played terrible his first few years in the league and had the big issue on draft day because the Chargers selected him. (He was also benched for a season).
Many Chargers fans enjoyed the struggles Ely had when he entered the NFL, but now all they can do is wonder what if, just as they do with Peyton Manning.
Anyhow, Eli went on to have an exceptional NFL career winning two Super Bowls and showed the world that he has his own shadow.
5. Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning was a highly touted no.1 pick in 1998. Many were split on whether he or Ryan Leaf would be the better quarterback. Many probably still didn’t know what to think in their rookie seasons, as Manning threw 28 interceptions in his rookie season. While Manning showed promise, he caused a lot of turnovers and the Colts went 3-13. Manning was soon able to cut down on his mistakes and became arguably the greatest quarterback of his generation, although our no.2 entrant on this list might have something to say about that.
4. Rich Gannon
Rich Gannon was actually one of the few players drafted on this list, but his career started slower than anyone else by far and he still managed to find a path to NFL stardom.
The problem is that his path to becoming a great football player took three teams in his first 10 or 11 years with nothing but unimpressive results until he joined the Raiders.
Once he joined the Raiders, Gannon had a breakout season and continued to improve each season after earning four Pro Bowl appearances with two Pro Bowl MVP trophies and a regular season MVP before his dreadful performance in the Super Bowl toward the end of his career.
3. James Harrison
Harrison is another undrafted player who truly had to earn his way into the NFL playing on practice squads for a couple years before he made an official roster. He was cut multiple times and only played special teams when he finally made the roster.
Five years after coming into the league he became a starter and never looked back. Since then he has been to five Pro Bowls, won Defensive Player of the Year and won a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
2. Troy Aikman
Troy Aikman was taken with the first overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft and was seen as a savior for a Cowboys franchise going through a dark period. Times would get the darkest before the dawn, as Aikman’s rookie season was a disaster. His completion percentage was a lowly 52.9% and he would throw 18 interceptions to just nine touchdowns. The team went 1-15. Luckily, they were able to select Emmitt Smith the following year and as the team grew around Aikman, so did he and he went on to have a Hall of Fame career.
1. Kurt Warner
Could there really be anyone else as the number one player? Warner’s path to the NFL was long and treacherous with stints in two other professional leagues before getting a shot in the NFL.
After going undrafted, he signed with the Packers and was released before the season. From there it was bagging groceries waiting for another opportunity. That opportunity was Arena Football followed with a European League before landing with the St. Louis Rams.
He was 3rd on the depth chart and due to injuries was forced into the starting lineup in the 1999 season, which is where his tough road to the NFL finally paid off.
He went on to break multiple records, take the Rams to two Super Bowls and win one of them, take the lowly (at the time) Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl, make four Pro Bowl appearances, win Super Bowl MVP, regular season MVP twice and also won the Walter Payton Award.
Warner had an amazing story and an even better career. From bags to riches.
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