The NFL Draft is coming soon, and with it the hopes and dreams of many young men will either be answered or put on hold for the consolation bracket that is free agency. Despite all the film and games watched and attended by experts, the mock drafts, interviews and all-around scrutiny, there will still be many players left with no alternative but to pursue the path of free agency. It might sound like a long shot, but there have still been quite a few players who have gone on to have successful NFL careers despite being passed over by all the so called experts.
Some players, like Antonio Gates, didn't receive consideration because they were already star players in another sport. Gates led his Kent State basketball team to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament before giving football a try in free agency. Other players, like Dick Lane, were busy serving their country in the military, struggling to find some work following the war. He managed to do more than find a roster spot, landing not only in the NFL but also on 10 All-Pro teams. Then there are the cases of the overlooked quarterbacks. Warren Moon and Kurt Warner might have had trouble convincing scouts and GMs that they could play in the NFL, but Moon has a bronze bust in Canton (Hall of Fame) and Warner should follow suit after just missing the cut for Canton this year.
The following 20 players fall into these categories and more. In the end, they were not considered good enough to warrant a draft pick from any of the NFL's 32 teams, however, they certainly managed to make an impact on the game. These 20 players remain proof that the dream of playing in the NFL doesn't have to die following a draft that didn't include their name being called. As the years go by, the biggest surprise goes from how they made it in the NFL, to how all the experts managed to miss them on draft day.
20 London Fletcher, LB
London Fletcher had over 2,000 tackles in his career, but still seems to lack the respect that he deserves. He was one of the most consistent middle linebackers in NFL history, despite having a height that falls pretty well short of six feet tall. Fletcher was always a great athlete, earning letters for both football and basketball in high school while contributing to two state title winning basketball teams. He ended up going to a Division III college, John Carroll University, where he amassed 202 tackles as a senior to earn the honors of Division III National Linebacker of the Year (1997). Unfortunately, not many Division III players make it to the NFL and Fletcher went undrafted in 1998.
19 Wes Welker, WR
Wes Welker might not be that big or fast, but he has amazingly caught at least 111 passes in five different seasons. In addition to this feat, Welker also holds the Miami Dolphins all-time records for kickoff returns, kickoff return yardage and total punt returns. He has been remarkably productive throughout his career, despite his lack of size and elite speed. Welker was a high school star in Oklahoma but wasn't highly sought after and ended up falling back into a scholarship at Texas Tech. He had a stellar career at Texas Tech, with 259 receptions for 3,019 yards and 20 touchdowns, while setting an NCAA mark for his to his career total of eight punt return touchdowns.
18 Priest Holmes, RB
Priest Holmes went from being undrafted to gaining over 1,000 yards of rushing in his second season in the NFL. Holmes had the pedigree, being a high school star from the football crazed state of Texas, and staying close to home going to the University of Texas. He had some success at Texas, but a serious knee injury sidelined him following his junior year. Ricky Williams emerged as the starter and Holmes ended up being relegated to third string status. He ended up rushing for only 1,276 yards at Texas, but did have 20 touchdowns. Holmes signed with the Baltimore Ravens after going undrafted in 1997.
Holmes struggled to get noticed his rookie year, but did gain 1,008 yards in only 13 starts in his sophomore campaign. Supplanted by Ricky Williams in college, Holmes was again displaced at Baltimore, by Jamal Lewis. He ended up signing with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2001, and went on a three-year tear. Holmes rushed for over 1,400 yards in three consecutive seasons with the Chiefs, accounting for over 2,000 yards of total offense each year, while scoring a total of 56 touchdowns, and catching 206 passes. In 2005, Holmes suffered a spinal chord injury that ended up leading to his retirement from football. As an undrafted running back, Holmes still managed to have 82 NFL starts, and an even more remarkable 94 touchdowns.
17 Brian Waters, G
Brian Waters is a pretty huge guy to go unrecognized in the 1999 NFL Draft. At 6-foot-3, 320 pounds, Waters was a massive offensive lineman who wasn't even an offensive lineman in college. Waters attended North Texas State University, where he played tight end, defensive end, and fullback. He caught 85 passes for 975 yards and nine touchdowns, while also registering 45 tackles and 5 quarterback sacks. After getting little attention from the NFL experts, Waters signed with the Dallas Cowboys, was promptly cut, and ended up signing with Kansas City to play with the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe where he was going to be converted to an offensive lineman.
16 Tony Romo, QB
Tony Romo might have his moments that have Dallas Cowboys fans pulling out their hair, but he has still been one of the most consistent Cowboys over the last nine years. Although he has yet to achieve the same level of success as Roger Staubach or Troy Aikman, Romo has been one of the NFL's most consistent quarterbacks of his time. The path to NFL stardom has not been easy for Romo. He played college football at Eastern Illinois, an NCAA Division 1-AA school. At Eastern Illinois, he passed for 8,212 yards and 85 touchdowns. Romo had a rather average showing at the 2003 NFL Draft Combine, crippling his chances and causing him to go undrafted.
15 Adam Vinatieri, K
Adam Vinatieri has played in more Super Bowls (6) during his career than most NFL players get to play in playoff games. Although Vinatieri has been a model of consistency, making good on 83.7% of his field goal attempts, his path into the league was not easy. The odds were stacked against him after finishing up his college career at the Division II South Dakota State. Vinatieri went undrafted in 1995 and wound up signing with the Amsterdam Admirals of what was then called, the World League of American Football. In 1996, the New England Patriots signed him to a contract, marking the start of his NFL career.
14 Rod Smith, WR
Rod Smith had quite a career for a guy with humble beginnings that go back to his childhood spent growing up in Texarkana, Arkansas. At Missouri Southern, Smith became a star, setting conference records for receiving yards, 3,043 yards, and touchdowns, 34 touchdowns. Despite his skills and promise, Smith went undrafted in 1994, eventually joining the Denver Broncos after getting cut by the Patriots.
13 Marion Motley, FB/LB
Marion Motley was ahead of his time in the way he could move his big body, with what was then considered to be quite mammoth at 240 pounds. He stood only about 6-foot-1, but was equipped with great speed and quick feet. Motley ended up serving in the military during World War II coming back to work at his home in Canton, Ohio. While enlisted, Motley played football for a service team, coached by the legendary Paul Brown. Brown offered him a tryout for the Cleveland Browns AAFC football team, and Motley started his professional football career in 1946.
12 Willie Brown, CB
Willie Brown was one of the original shut-down cornerbacks in the NFL. He was a physical corner who could tie up receivers, and tackle like a linebacker in run support. Brown ended up playing for Eddie Robinson's highly successful program at Grambling State. He was a tremendous athlete, but still went undrafted at the conclusion of the 1963 NFL Draft. Brown was originally signed and cut by the AFL's Houston Oilers, and eventually made his way to the Denver Broncos, where he started his 16-year career.
11 Arian Foster, RB
Arian Foster has already had quite an amazing career for an undrafted player, despite a career that now stands at just six seasons. Foster started playing running back his senior year at Mission Bay High School in San Diego. After a solid junior season for the Tennessee Volunteers, where he rushed for 1,193 yards, Foster stayed at Tennessee for his senior season. He struggled his senior year, gaining only 563 yards. His struggles were so immense that his work ethic and attitude also came under fire.
10 Larry Little, G
Larry Little made it the hard way. He played college football at Bethune-Cookman and went undrafted in 1967 thanks in large part to playing at such a small school. Once he got his chance in the NFL, he became a consistent force and an integral part of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins football team. Little was short for a lineman, 6-foot-1, and stocky, 265 pounds, but could really move on pulling plays, while also knocking people off the ball on inside dives. Little went on to the NFL and only missed two games in a span of 10 seasons, making him remarkably durable.
9 Joe Perry, RB
Joe Perry was part of the "Million Dollar Backfield" of the 49ers, that also included Hugh McElhenny, John Henry Johnson and Y.A. Tittle. To this day, this full-house backfield remains the only full-house backfield to have all its members inducted into the Hall of Fame. Perry was originally a speedster who went into the military, coming home to Compton Junior College. Perry played alongside McElhenny, earning two consecutive national championships. In 1948, McElhenny went on to the University of Washington, while Perry was signed by the San Francisco 49ers.
8 James Harrison, LB
James Harrison played college football for the powerhouse program of Kent State. He led the team in tackles his junior season, and recorded 15 sacks during his senior year. Despite that, Harrison went undrafted in 2002 and ended up with the Steelers. He was considered to be too short to play linebacker and lacked the weight to play defensive line, but he had a motor, big play ability and aggressive nature. Harrison has had his troubles on and off the field with his mouth and erratic behavior, but his results have been worthy of the "Hall".
7 John Randle, DT
John Randle was one of the most explosive defensive tackles in NFL history, yet he was undrafted. Randle was not a major recruit in high school and ended up playing college football at Trinity Community College and Texas A&M Kingsville in the state of Texas. At 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds, Randle was considered too small to play DT in the NFL. He was finally given his chance by the Minnesota Vikings, after getting cut by Tampa Bay. By his second season with the Vikings, Randle's play started to make his signing an act of pure genius.
6 Lou Groza, K/OT
There have been a few memorable big men who were kickers, but not so many who where big enough to play offensive tackle. Lou Groza was 250 pounds and could kick field goals over 50 yards at a time when kickers struggled to hit 40 yards. Groza even went to a major college football program, Ohio State, but enlisted in the U.S. Army to aid the war efforts in the Pacific region. He never got drafted and ended up getting a contract from the legendary Paul Brown to play for the Browns while he was still in the Army.
5 Antonio Gates, TE
Antonio Gates averaged 20.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game as a senior for the Kent State Golden Flash. He even led Kent State to the Elite Eight in 2002. He was a star, however, he was only 6-foot-4 and making it in the NBA as a forward was viewed as highly unrealistic. Instead, Gates expressed interest in the NFL despite never playing a down of football in college. Many NFL teams were eager to see what Gates was capable of doing but he ended up signing with the first team that worked him out, the San Diego Chargers.
4 Emlen Tunnell, S
Emlen Tunnell was unfit to serve in the U.S. Army and Navy due to a severe neck injury, but somehow made it into the NFL where he managed to have a successful career. Tunnell played quarterback, halfback and on defense while at the University of Iowa, leading the team in passing during one season and receiving in another. He quit school to try his luck in the NFL, becoming the first African-American player on the New York Giants after going undrafted in 1948. Despite the neck injury, Tunnell ended up playing in, what was then a record, 143 consecutive games.
3 Warren Moon, QB
Warren Moon always seemed to have something to prove. He never received much attention when he came out of high school in Los Angeles and had to enroll in West Los Angeles College in order to continue playing quarterback. Once he proved he could play there, only a few four-year schools were interested in him as a quarterback. He ended up going to Washington, leading the Huskies to a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan, while earning MVP honors. Moon still lacked the attention he deserved, going undrafted and playing in Canada. There, he led the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos to five consecutive Grey Cup victories before finally getting his shot in the NFL with the Houston Oilers.
2 Kurt Warner, QB
Kurt Warner went undrafted in 1994 and was invited to the Green Bay Packers training camp to compete with Mark Brunell and Ty Detmer to back up Brett Favre. Warner, who went on to stock groceries in Cedar Falls, Iowa, went on to play in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe, where he was highly successful. He led the Iowa Barnstormers to two consecutive Arena Bowl appearances, earning a first-team All-Arena selection in both seasons. Following his brief stint in NFL Europe, Warner finally got his chance in 1999 when Trent Green tore his ACL in a Rams preseason game.
1 Dick Lane, CB
Dick Lane played cornerback in the NFL for three different teams during his stellar 14-year career. Lane, originally a wide receiver, served in the U.S. Army for four years before walking into the Los Angeles Rams training camp looking for a job. The Rams had two Hall of Fame receivers playing in front of him and switched him to the defensive side of the ball. Lane ended up going to seven Pro Bowls and was a first-team or second-team All-Pro in 10 of his 14 NFL seasons. In his rookie year (1952), Lane established a mark that still stands to this day by intercepting 14 passes.
Most of the modern era cornerbacks who excel at man coverage owe Dick "Night Train" Lane for revolutionizing the way the position is now played. Lane was able to act like he was beaten, only to close the gap on a receiver and knock the ball away or get in front for the pick. In addition to his coverage skills, He was also a fearsome hitter who knew how to knock players off their feet and make receivers think twice about going up to catch the ball. Lane has been recognized as one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974.
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