We have seen a number of undrafted athletes turn into stars since 2000. As you'd expect, a large majority of the guys who were left out of the draft never really had a shot at success in the NFL and a lot of guys squandered away the chances they did get.
But we don't care about the failures with the list. We're looking for the best. We don’t care about the guys who were signed after the draft then fell back into obscurity. We care about the guys who signed in obscurity and then became a star.
Since 2000, there's been a lot of undrafted talent. Furthermore, there's a lot of guys who went undrafted that deserved to be picked in the first round. When looking back, a good chunk of the guys on this list should have been first round draft picks. This surely wasn't known back then, but after years of gameplay we can now identify how much talent really did go undrafted. And there was a lot.
Not everyone on this list was deserving of a first round draft pick, but most of the guys were. And for those who didn't make the first round cut, we'll tell you when and where they should have been drafted too.
Of course, these picks would have been mocked and laughed at relentlessly back in the day. But with hindsight, we can alter the past mistakes and make sure these stars are properly drafted as we rank the top 15 undrafted stars.
15 Malcolm Butler: New England Patriots, No. 62
Malcolm Butler hasn’t been in the league long (he went undrafted in 2014) but he’s proving to be one of the league’s bright stars. And when looking at who is going to draft Butler, we have to keep him on the Patriots. Butler’s main claim to fame at this point came in the final minute of New England’s Super Bowl win over Seattle.
Butler became a household sensation as he became the deciding factor in the game when he intercepted Russell Wilson on the goal line with 20 seconds left, leading to a 28-24 Patriots victory. Butler was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2015 and was a second-team All-Pro selection in 2016.
He’s got to stay on the Patriots because of the Super Bowl success, but he deserves to be drafted high up. Butler can move up on this list if he continues his success, it’s just far too early in his career to know for sure.
14 Miles Austin: Miami Dolphins, No. 82
Miles Austin had a couple of really good seasons that allowed him to make the list. Austin proved to be a star during a brief stretch in Dallas. Austin, who went undrafted in 2006, ended up playing through the 2015 season. His best years came in 2009 and 2010 and he was selected to the Pro Bowl during both of those seasons.
In 2009, Austin was the NFC receiving yards leader with 1,320 yards. He also caught 11 touchdown passes that year. Austin, who also caught for more than 1,000 yards in 2010, holds the Cowboys single-game receiving yards record at 250 yards.
But Austin did have a lot of mediocre time surrounding the rest of his career. He was by no means deserving of a high draft pick, but a middle-round pick with the Miami Dolphins, who botched their pick, would have been just fine.
13 John Kuhn: Houston Texans, No. 73
Fullbacks often go undrafted and have lengthy careers. John Kuhn has been one of the most known fullbacks because of his time since Green Bay. Because of the nature of his position, Kuhn doesn’t stuff the stat sheet like many guys who run out of the backfield. Kuhn has played in 164 games during his career, but he’s totaled just 656 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns (he also has 642 receiving yards with nine touchdowns).
Still, Kuhn has managed three Pro Bowl selections and has been part of two Super Bowl winning teams. No doubt, Kuhn deserved to be drafted. But for a fullback, he’s not going as high as a lot of guys who will show up on this list later. In 2005, Kuhn would have been a solid middle round pick by the Houston Texans.
12 Mike Tolbert: Washington Redskins, No. 48
This is the second and final fullback to show up on the list of top undrafted stars since 2000. Kuhn and Tolbert have both been to a few Pro Bowls and Tolbert doesn’t have any Super Bowl rings, but his skill outmatches Kuhn. That’s why Tolbert outranks Kuhn and sees a higher draft spot. Tolbert has done more with the chances he’s been given despite not playing as much as Kuhn.
Kuhn had a few extra seasons, but Tolbert has multiple seasons with more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage. Kuhn normally doesn’t see numbers near anything like that. Plus, Tolbert is getting better with age. Since turning 30 in 2015, he’s made two Pro Bowls. Again, being a full back keeps Tolbert from the first round. But he’s a good fit for the Washington Redskins in the second round.
11 Brent Grimes: Atlanta Falcons, No. 37
Brent Grimes has been a very consistent force in the NFL except for 2006-2007 and 2012. Grimes went undrafted in 2006 and didn’t begin playing consistently in the NFL until the 2008 season. And in 2012 Grimes missed the entire season after tearing his Achilles in the first game.
Other than those few years, Grimes has been a very good cornerback. He’s been selected to the Pro Bowl four times and has missed just one game since his injury in 2012. Because of the on and off success during his early years, Grimes does not fit the mold of a first rounder. But he is deserving of a pick in the second round by the Falcons, who drafted a cornerback that didn’t match up to Grimes accomplishments.
10 Chris Harris: Baltimore Ravens, No. 27
The first few years of Chris Harris’ career were good, but the three seasons since have been amazing for the young star. Harris has played each of his six seasons in Denver and has played in all but one game (that was back in 2012). He went undrafted in 2011, but has proven all those who passed him up wrong. Harris has been getting better with age. Since 2014 when he turned 25, Harris has made the Pro Bowl each year.
The cornerback has been great lately, and it seems like the young star is getting better. If he can maintain production and avoid injury over the next few years, he could very well top this list. For now, Harris is a solid late first round draft pick. And the Baltimore Ravens have the perfect mix of veterans that will help him out in those early years.
9 Arian Foster: Indianapolis Colts, No. 27
Arian Foster’s ranking on this list plummeted since he retired Oct. 2016. Foster just couldn’t avoid injuries during his career that seemed way too short. Foster was in the NFL for eight seasons, but he only had meaningful playing time in four of those seasons. But when Foster did play, he posted great numbers. Foster rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the four seasons he played more than 13 games. In 2010, he led the league in rushing yards (1,616), rushing yards per game (101) and rushing touchdowns (16). Again, Foster led the league in rushing touchdowns (15) in 2015.
If Foster had managed more playing time, he would have been a lock in the top-10 picks of the first round. But he’s still worth a late first round pick as he was one of the league’s best running backs between 2010 and 2014. That’s why he should have been drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, who originally drafted Donald Brown at the end of the first round in 2009.
8 Doug Baldwin: Detroit Lions, No. 44
If Doug Baldwin can continue with the rate he has been catching the ball over the past couple of seasons, he will be climbing this list fairly quickly. Baldwin’s first year’s in the league were terrible or even bad, they were just average. He recorded more than 50 receptions in three of his first for seasons and caught just 15 touchdowns through those first four years.
But the 2016 Pro Bowl wide receiver has seen a steep uptick in production since 2015. In 2015, Baldwin was the co-leader in touchdown receptions and he tallied 1,069 receiving yards. In 2016 he had 94 receptions for 1,128 yards and seven touchdowns. Baldwin caught 75 percent of his targets in each of those seasons.
Baldwin went undrafted back in 2011, but he’s proved to be the fourth-best wide receiver out of that draft class (A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Randall Cobb were drafted early that year). So, we’ll place Baldwin right after the third wide receiver that year, making him Detroit’s second pick (the Lions originally drafted WR Titus Young).
7 Josh Cribbs: Philadelphia Eagles, No. 31
Although Josh Cribbs isn’t playing anymore, the wide receiver/kick returner goes down as one of the best undrafted stars of the 2000s. Cribbs, who played just about his entire career in Cleveland, is one of the greatest kick returners in NFL history. He’s the all-time kickoff return touchdown leader. Actually he’s tied for the lead. His eight touchdown returns are tied with Leon Washington.
Cribbs was also a three-time Pro Bowl selection and he was the all-purpose yards leader in 2007. Cribbs was also named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade team. Cribbs, who was a college quarterback turned wide receiver, proved to be worthy of a late first round draft pick in 2005, and the Philadelphia Eagles could have used his talent through those years.
6 James Harrison: New Orleans Saints, No. 26
James Harrison still plays like he has a chip on his shoulder from not being drafted. Harrison has always seemed to be angry about something when he’s playing on the field, and it could be the fact that he’s been pissed this whole time because so many teams passed him up back in 2002. But Harrison’s career is deserving of a first round pick.
Harrison, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, has been a part of two Super Bowl championships and was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2008. The main reason Harrison deserves a first round spot is because of his absolute dominance between 2007 and 2011.
Although Harrison doesn’t crack the first half of the first round, he’s a good addition to the Saints defense (who could use some help) with the 25th pick overall.
5 Cameron Wake: Dallas Cowboys, No. 20
Except for the 2015 season, Cameron Wake has been a consistent threat for the Miami defense and he seems to be getting better with age. Wake is currently 34, but he’s coming off of one of his best seasons in Miami. In 2016 (after just playing in seven games in 2015) Wake was selected to the Pro Bowl. That was his fifth Pro Bowl selection since he began in the league in 2009.
In total, Wake has 81.5 sacks including four seasons with more than 10 recorded sacks. He’s forced 21 fumbles, has forced a safety and even recorded his first interception last season. Twenty defensive ends were selected in 2005, but Wake was not one of him, though he deserved to be. The perfect fit would have been with the Cowboys in the first round. Originally, Dallas drafted Marcus Spears, who has been good, just not as good as Wake.
4 Tony Romo: Jacksonville Jaguars, No. 7
Sure, Tony Romo lost his starting gig because of a rookie, well and partly because of injury. But Romo still deserves a spot on a starting roster and has numbers that exemplify successful career. Romo, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, has a won a lot with a career record of 248-117. Romo has just one season with a subpar record. That was in 2010 when he won just one game, but that was also because he played in just six games.
The only knock against Romo is that he’s had a few seasons where injuries have kept him off the field. Other than that, he’s been a star. Romo went undrafted in the 2003 NFL Draft. Looking back, Romo is deserving of a first-round pick. With the seventh overall pick, Jacksonville would have been much better off with Romo instead of Byron Leftwich.
3 Wes Welker: Detroit Lions, No. 7
In what turned into a long career for this wide receiver, Wes Welker has proved he was worthy to be drafted in the first round during the 2004 draft. Welker never got his name called that year, but he overwhelmingly proved he should have been on the draft board.
Welker led the league in receptions three times (2007, 2009 and 2011) and he was a five-time Pro Bowl selection starting in 2008 and ending in the 2012 season. In five different seasons, Welker had more than 100 receptions and he had more than 1,000 receiving yards each of those years.
Welker’s career isn’t Hall of Fame worthy as he finished just shy of 10,000 receiving yards and 50 touchdowns, but it was worthy of a first-round pick. That year Roy Williams was taken seventh overall, but Welker was better and he deserved that spot.
2 Jason Peters: Oakland Raiders, No. 2
Fans around the league tend to agree – first round offensive tackles are a boring pick. But everyone on the field will attest to their absolute necessity. Without a good O-line, offensive attacks become so much less threatening and defenses will just pick apart the weaknesses.
That’s way Jason Peters is also deserving of a first round spot, rather than going undrafted during the 2004 draft. Peterson began with the Bills and still currently plays for the Eagles. He’s been selected to the Pro Bowl nine times and has missed just a handful of games in his career. He’s even caught two touchdowns.
Sure, offensive linemen may be boring to fans, and Peters may be unknown to most watching the game, but he ranks among the best players to go undrafted since 2000. Heck, he ranks among the best players since 2000. That’s why he’s more than deserving of the second spot in 2004. He’s drafted by the Raiders, who originally selected offensive tackle Robert Gallery.
1 Antonio Gates: Detroit Lions, No. 2
Tight ends don’t normally find themselves amongst top first round draft picks, but Antonio Gates deserved that honor. Of course, it would have been impossible to know how good the former basketball star was going to be in the NFL. But as we look back at his career, it’s blatantly obvious that he’s been among the best tight ends of his time.
Gates, who was named to NFL 2000s All-Decade team, has been selected to the Pro Bowl eight times and has caught for more than 1,000 yards twice. Gates production has calmed down significantly over the past couple of years, but you have to expect that from a guy who’s played 14 seasons for the San Diego Chargers.
The Detroit Lions have to take Gates with the No. 2 pick. The Lions originally drafted a wide receiver who didn’t do much, and the best wide receiver in the draft was Anquan Boldin. There’s no doubting that Gates had been a bigger factor to the Chargers than Boldin has ever been.
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