Every year, all the hype around the NFL draft is built up around players that will likely be picked in the first round. While many of those players do turn out to have great careers, they aren’t the only ones. Every so often a gem is found waiting at the back end of the draft to be picked up as a developmental player that polishes into a Hall of Famer.
The risk versus the reward when drafting a player in a later round has much less of a margin than when picking in an earlier round. If a player drafted in the seventh round can’t manage to make his way into the starting lineup, it isn’t as devastating as if a player who is selected in the first round has the same outcome. It is also more rewarding when it is your team that picks the player that leads your team to multiple championships.
A great number of these players were also great in college, however a number of factors such as what conference or division a school is in, the size of the school, and even the physical size of the player can hep decide if a team finds it in their best interest to take a chance on a player that has played against lesser competition or will be smaller than their opponents.
Fortunately for some players, the size of their heart and the desire to put in the work ultimately led to their success. Here is a list of some of the greatest players in NFL history that were looked over repeatedly before a willing team finally gave them a shot.
*All stats were taken from Pro-Football-Reference.com.
20. Robert Mathis, LB – Indianapolis Colts
2003 – Round 5, Pick 138; Super Bowl Champion; 5x Pro Bowl; 1x All-Pro;Defensive Player of the Year; Colts All-Time Sacks Leader; 487 Tackles; 111 Sacks; 50 Forced Fumbles
When Robert Mathis finished his college career at Alabama A&M University with 20 sacks and, being one of the best defensive players in NCAA I-AA, he knew he was worthy of being one of the best linebackers in the NFL. However being from a small school, many professional scouts found it easy to pass on him. Mathis has, and still is, one of the greatest defensive forces in the NFL, consistently making Pro Bowls and winning a Super Bowl with the Colts.
19. Richard Dent, DE – Chicago Bears
1983 – Round 8, Pick 203; 2x Super Bowl Championship; Super Bowl MVP; 4x Pro Bowl; 1x All-Pro;Pro Football Hall of Fame; 137.5 Sacks; 8 Interceptions; 2 Touchdowns
If you’re talking about bang for your buck in the draft, the Bears wrote the book with their selection of Richard Dent. Dent set the tone for the dominating Bears defense of the 1985 season, recording 17.0 sacks and shutting out both playoff opponents on their way to winning the Super Bowl and ultimately being named the games MVP.
18. Andre Reed, WR – Buffalo Bills
1985 – Round 4, Pick 86; 7x Pro Bowl; Pro Football Hall of Fame; 951 Receptions; 13,198 Yards; 87 Touchdowns
Though Andre Reed is one of the best players on this list to never win a Super Bowl, he did manage to make four consecutive appearances in the game during the Buffalo Bills famous run in the early 90s. Reed ranks in the top 11 of nearly every major receiving statistic and has the third most receiving yards in Super Bowl history.
17. Matt Birk, C – Minnesota Vikings
1998 – Round 6, Pick 173; Super Bowl Champion; 6x Pro Bowl
There were thirty-one offensive linemen that were drafted in 1996 before the Vikings took a chance on a Harvard Economics graduate. Matt Birk became a mainstay on the Minnesota Vikings offensive line for ten years where he made every one of his Pro Bowls, before ultimately leaving Minnesota for Baltimore to win a Super Bowl. Birk retired as one of the greatest Ivy League players in NFL history.
16. Bob Hayes, WR – Dallas Cowboys
1964 – Round 7, Pick 88; Super Bowl Champion; 3x Pro Bowl; 2x All-Pro; Pro Football Hall of Fame; 371 Receptions; 7,414 Yards; 71 Touchdowns
The Dallas Cowboys actually drafted Bob Hayes before he could be drafted, using a “future draft pick” to choose him a year before he was professionally eligible. Hayes, who at the time was better known for his track and field abilities than his skills on the gridiron, was often the fastest player on the field, making it easy for him open up the defense and become one of the best wideouts in Cowboys history.
15. Zach Thomas, LB – Miami Dolphins
1996 – Round 5, Pick 154; 7x Pro Bowl; 4x All-Pro; 2000s All Decade Team; 1,727 Tackles; 20.5 Sacks; 17 Interceptions; 16 Forced Fumbles
Zach Thomas was one of many players in NFL history to fall to later rounds of the draft because of his size rather than skill set. Thomas was one of the best players in Texas Tech history and was a finalist for the Dick Butkus award as a senior. However, being under six-feet tall is often a red flag for NFL scouts and the Dolphins were able to wait to find the face of their franchise in the fifth round.
14. Jake Scott, S – Miami Dolphins
1970 – Round 7, Pick 159; 2x Super Bowl Champion; Super Bowl MVP; 5x Pro Bowl; 2x All-pro; 49 Interceptions
Few NFL players have began their professional careers in the Canadian Football League. That is however exactly what Jake Scott did when he turned 20 and was eligible to leave the University of Georgia to play professionally. He returned kicks and played some defensive back for the BC Lions before ultimately being given a shot by the Dolphins the following year. Scott would play 126 games over nine seasons and become the Super Bowl MVP of the Miami Dolphins 1972 undefeated team.
13. Rayfield Wright, OT – Dallas Cowboys
1967 – Round 7, Pick 182; 2x Super Bowl Champion; 6x Pro Bowl; 3x All-Pro; 1970s All-Decade Team; Pro Football Hall of Fame
The Dallas Cowboys had numerous late round picks turn out to be core players for championship teams in the mid ‘60s. For six consecutive seasons, Rayfield Wright made the Pro Bowl, was named an All-Pro and served as Co-Captain for two Super Bowl winning teams. In college Wright also played punter, defensive tackle, tight end, and free safety, leading many teammates to say he was one of the most athletic players on the Cowboys.
12. Joe Schmidt, LB – Detroit Lions
1953 – Round 7, Pick 85; 2x NFL Champion; 10x Pro Bowl; 8x All-Pro; 1950s All-Decade Team; 24 Interceptions; 294 Interception Return Yards; 2 Touchdowns; Pro Football Hall of Fame
It’s hard to believe that at one point the Lions were actually drafting good players and winning championships. The Lions were one of the NFL’s best teams during the 1950s and Joe Schmidt was a pivotal member of those hard-nosed defenses that dominated the decade. Schmidt is also one of just six Detroit Lions to have their number retired.
11. Jim Ringo, C – Green Bay Packers
1953 – Round 7, Pick 79; 2x NFL Champion; 10x Pro Bowl; 6x All-Pro; 1960s All-Decade Team; Pro Football Hall of Fame; 187 Games
Jim Ringo was considered small coming out of college, weighing only 232 lbs., and falling all the way to the seventh round. The Packers received a gem as Ringo used his smarts and athleticism to overcome his size. Ringo retired as one of the games best centers and had the Packers not traded Ringo before the 1965 season, he may have added three more championships to an already impressive resume.
10. Raymond Berry, WR – Baltimore Colts
1954 – Round 20, Pick 232; 2x NFL Champion; 6x Pro Bowl; 3x All-Pro; 1950’s all time decades team, 3x Receptions Leader; Pro Football Hall of Fame; 631 Receptions; 9,275 Yards; 68 Touchdowns
Throughout Raymond Berry’s career, he waited for his opportunity and then made the most of it. He was drafted late, yet turned his career into one of the greatest in colts history. He served as wide receivers coach for a bad New England Patriots team until given the opportunity and taking them to the Super Bowl. It should also be noted that Berry was one of the most sure-handed players in the business, dropping just two passes and fumbling only twice during his career.
9. Leroy Kelly – RB – Cleveland Browns
1964 – Round 8; Pick 110; NFL Champion; 6x Pro bowl; NFL MVP; 3x All-Pro; 2x Rushing Champion; 1960s All-Decade Team; Pro Football Hall of Fame; 7,274 Rushing Yards; 74 Touchdowns
A lot of people forget just how good the player who replaced Jim Brown actually was. When eighth round draft pick Leroy Kelly was called upon to fill Brown’s shoes at the beginning of the 1966 season, he did as good as one could do and he spent the next eight years running all the way to Canton. Had Kelly’s predecessor, Brown, not been such a great player for the NFL, Kelly would be more of a household name.
8. Mike Webster, C – Pittsburgh Steelers
1974 – Round 5, Pick 125; 4x Super Bowl Champion; 9x Pro Bowl; 5x All-Pro; 1980s All-Decade Team; 1970s All-Decade team; Pro Football Hall of Fame
Mike Webster is one of four Hall of Famers drafted by the Steelers in 1974, easily the most productive draft by a team in the history of the NFL. Webster was a stud protecting Terry Bradshaw during his career, becoming one of the greatest quarterback-center duos in NFL history. Iron Mike is also the only player on this list to be named to the NFL All-Decade Team in two different decades.
7. Rosey Brown, OT- New York Giants
1953 – Round 27, Pick 321; NFL Champion; 9x Pro Bowl; 5x All-Pro; 1950s All-Decade team; Pro Football Hall of Fame
Rosey Brown wasn’t highly coveted coming out of small Morgan State University. However the Giants did their homework after noticing Brown’s name appear in the Pittsburgh Courier for making their 1952 Black All-American Team. Brown turned out to be a huge steal and became one of the greatest defensive tackles to ever wear Giants Blue.
6. Terrell Davis, RB – Denver Broncos
1995 – Round 6, Pick 196; 2x Super Bowl Champion; Super Bowl MVP; NFL MVP; 3x Pro Bowl; 3x All-Pro; 1990s All-Decade Team; Broncos All-Time Career Leader; Rushing Yards (7,607), Touchdowns (60)
The first of two Broncos on this list to help carry John Elway to winning the two Super Bowl Championships that had eluded him for the greater part of his career. Terrell Davis was not just one of the greatest players in Broncos history, he was also one of the greatest runners in NFL history.
5. Shannon Sharpe, TE – Denver Broncos
1990 – Round 7, Pick 192; 3x Super Bowl Champion; 8x Pro Bowl; 4x All-Pro; 1990s All-Decade team; Pro Football Hall of Fame; 815 Receptions; 10,060 Yards; 62 Touchdowns
When the Denver Broncos were making the second to last pick of the seventh round of the 1990 NFL draft, they probably were not assuming they would receive a player that would be a major contributor two two Super Bowl Championship runs and retire as the all-time NFL leader in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns for a tight end.
4. Deacon Jones, DE – Los Angeles Rams
1961 – Round 14, Pick 186; 8x Pro Bowl Selection; 5x All-Pro Selection; 1960s All-Decade Team; Pro Football Hall of Fame; 173.5 Sacks; 2 Interceptions
When you think about NFL players who were the best at getting to the quarterback, Deacon Jones should be one of the first to come to mind. In fact, this 14th round draft pick was the first to use the term “sack.” Saying “sacking a quarterback is just like you devastate a city or you cream a multitude of people. I mean it’s just like you put all the offensive players in one bag and I just take a baseball bat and beat on the bag.”
3. Roger Staubach, QB – Dallas Cowboys
1964 – Round 10, Pick 129; 2x Super Bowl Champion; Super Bowl MVP; NFL MVP; 6x Pro Bowl; 1970s All-Decade team; Pro Football Hall of Fame; Passing Yards; 153 Touchdowns
The quarterback that turned the Dallas Cowboys into America’s team wasn’t drafted in the first round and wasn;t expected to turn the franchise into the dominating presence that it was. Instead Roger Staubach was picked in the 10th round and remains one of the best if not the best, quarterback in the Cowboys’ rich history.
2. Bart Starr, QB – Green Bay Packers
1956 – Round 17, Pick 200; 5x Super Bowl Champion/NFL Champion, 4x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, 1966 NFL MVP; 2x Super Bowl MVP; 1960s All-Decade Team, Pro Football Hall of Fame, 24,718 yards, 152 touchdowns
When you’re counting the quarterbacks with the most Super Bowl rings, the list is actually quite small, consisting of only Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady. But when you are counting total NFL Championships, the cheese stands alongside them, with three NFL Championships and two Super Bowl Titles. It’s hard to believe every team passed on him at least 12 times.
1. Tom Brady, QB – New England Patriots
2000 – Round 6, Pick 199; 4x Super Bowl Champion; 3x Time Super Bowl MVP; 2x NFL MVP; 10x Pro Bowl; 2000s All-Decade Team; 53,258 Passing Yards, 392 Touchdowns
Everyone already knows the story. In 2000, six quarterbacks were taken before the lanky, slow Tom Brady fell into the laps of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, forming the greatest QB and head-coach tandem in NFL history. Not only is Tom Brady well decorated in championships, he is also one of the greatest passers in NFL history.
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