So you’re drafting in the first round and think that one of those cannon-armed studs with 50 touchdown passes and less than ten interceptions in their last college season is going to be your franchise quarterback. Sure, you may end up with the next John Elway or Peyton Manning, but then again, you may get the next Ryan Leaf or JaMarcus Russell. In many ways, drafting a quarterback in the first round is often a risky proposition, and we’ve seen NFL scouts get swayed way too often by arm strength, college stats, bowl appearances, and other misleading metrics.
A lot of the NFL’s best quarterbacks were draft day afterthoughts who got picked really late. Who would’ve thought that Tom Brady would become a future Hall of Famer, or for a more recent example, who’d have guessed Tyrod Taylor would have more success with the Bills than recent first-rounders J.P. Losman and E.J. Manuel? But there are some signal-callers who somehow had successful pro careers despite not being drafted at all.
It may have been due to a lack of notoriety in college, mediocre physical attributes, or being at the wrong place at the wrong time in the run-up to the NFL draft. But whatever the reason was, these 15 quarterbacks were ignored on draft day, but nonetheless did well for themselves in the pros.
15 BRIAN HOYER
Due to a bad senior season at Michigan State, Hoyer’s stock had fallen ahead of the 2009 NFL draft. While there was talk of the Patriots picking him in the seventh round, they went with Julian Edelman instead, eventually converting him to WR. Nonetheless, Hoyer signed with New England, where he spent most of his time holding the clipboard. Likewise, he played similar roles for Pittsburgh and Arizona, and it was only due to injuries that he became the (expansion) Cleveland Browns’ umpteenth starting QB.
That happened late in 2013, and Hoyer started out hot, but flamed out quickly when the Browns made him a full-time starter in 2014. He did play much better for Houston in 2015, and this year, he just might replace the currently-injured Jay Cutler as the Bears’ starting QB. Hoyer may be a journeyman, but as we’re seeing, he seems to be aging like a fine wine.
14 DIETER BROCK
Dieter Brock was a true one-hit wonder in the NFL. But what a wonder he was for the L.A. Rams in 1985. After getting snubbed in the 1974 NFL draft, Brock spent the next ten years playing up north in the CFL, winning Most Outstanding Player honors in 1980 and 1981, but not ever winning the league’s championship, the Grey Cup. Due to his CFL success, he signed a rookie deal with the Rams in 1985 at the ripe old age of 33.
He may have been one of the oldest rookies in recent memory, but Brock had quite the season in 1985, setting rookie records for the Rams (16 TDs, 2,658 passing yards, a then-solid 81.8 QB rating) and leading the team to the NFC Championship. Soon after the Chicago Bears’ stifling defense shut out the Rams in that game, Brock retired from pro football.
13 JON KITNA
The good news for Jon Kitna was that he threw 42 touchdowns and 14 interceptions at a 63.1% passing clip as a college senior. The bad news? He played for NAIA school Central Washington, and was actually planning to enter coaching after his college career was done. But Seattle Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson liked what he saw in Kitna, and decided to give the local kid a chance.
For most of his career, Kitna was one of those quarterbacks who were just there in the starting lineup – not good enough to be All-Pro, but not too much of a liability behind center. (Except in 2001, that is.) Kitna was also a good mentor to Bengals first-overall pick Carson Palmer, and was gracious enough to eventually hand the starting job over, even if he was fresh off a career-best 2003 season. He ended his career in 2013 after 16 seasons with four NFL teams.
12 ERIK KRAMER
Like many of the quarterbacks in this list, Erik Kramer first got attention away from home, playing in the CFL after being passed up in the draft. After three years with the Calgary Stampeders, Kramer joined the Detroit Lions in 1991. He then moved on to the Chicago Bears after his part-time starting job with the Lions, and that’s where, for a brief period of time, he was a productive NFL quarterback. His best year, by far, came in 1995, when he had 29 TDs, 10 INTs, and a QB rating of 93.5, though he was out of the NFL after the 1999 season.
Unfortunately, you may remember Kramer these days for the sad story of his post-NFL life. His son Griffen, then only 18, had died in 2011 due to a heroin overdose, and Kramer himself had survived a suicide attempt in 2015.
11 JAKE DELHOMME
One year after Kitna, Jake Delhomme became yet another example of the local hero signing with his hometown team as an undrafted free agent. The New Orleans Saints assigned Delhomme to NFL Europe, then brought him back after a successful championship run with Frankfurt. Even in backup duty, he was extremely popular among Saints fans, and eventually proved he deserved to be an NFL starter, albeit with the Carolina Panthers, who signed him in 2003 and promoted him early in the season over veteran Rodney Peete.
Although Delhomme was never in the top echelon of starting quarterbacks, he stood out as a master of the fourth-quarter comeback. He retired in 2011 as Carolina’s career leader in fourth-quarter comeback wins with 17, which overshadows his middling 126-101 TD-INT ratio and 81.3 passer rating.
10 TOM FLORES
While technically not a former NFL quarterback, Flores did play for the Oakland Raiders in the old AFL for most of his playing career, which ended right before both leagues merged. Flores played in the CFL and in California’s semi-pro circuit after he went undrafted in 1958. And when the AFL came calling in 1960, Flores made it to the Raiders’ lineup, becoming the first Hispanic starting QB in American pro football.
Flores’ career numbers are poor by today’s standards (93 TD, 92 INT, 67.6 QB rating), and his arm strength was nothing special, but he did make one Pro Bowl, and was one of the steadier quarterbacks in AFL history. He later gained much more fame as a two-time Super Bowl champion as the Raiders’ head coach in the 1980s.
9 JIM ZORN
Today’s fans know Jim Zorn as arguably one of the worst head coaches of the 21st century. But he wasn’t a bad NFL quarterback in his day, latching on with the powerful Dallas Cowboys in 1975 as an undrafted free agent. He was then claimed off waivers by the expansion Seattle Seahawks, where the left-handed quarterback grew with the team and was good enough to make second-team All-Pro in 1978. His main forte was as a scrambler, where he used his good mobility to score the occasional touchdown on the ground.
Zorn played in the NFL till 1987, but was beaten out as the Seahawks’ starting QB in 1983 by an even more obscure college player whom we’ll be meeting later on in this list.
8 JEFF GARCIA
When Joe Montana passed the torch to Steve Young, everyone knew who Young was – a highly-regarded prospect in college, and a former supplemental first-rounder whose NFL success was long overdue at that point. But when Young passed the torch to Jeff Garcia, it was more of a case of “Jeff who”? for San Francisco 49ers fans. After not getting drafted in 1994, Garcia then played the next few years in Canada, and his success in the CFL brought him to the 49ers’ attention.
Garcia wasn’t legendary like Montana and Young were, and didn't have standout physical attributes either. But from 1999 to 2003, he parlayed his quarterbacking intangibles into very good numbers, including a combined 63 TDs and 22 INTs in 2000 and 2001. After two forgettable years with Cleveland and Detroit, he had three good years with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, before returning to the Eagles to close out his career in 2009.
7 GARY DANIELSON
Like the aforementioned Brian Hoyer, Danielson was a Big Ten quarterback who had a good junior year and a subpar senior year. But subpar may be an understatement in this case – Danielson threw just two TD passes and got picked 11 times, while connecting on just 36.2% of his passes. He was, as expected, undrafted in 1974, and made his pro football debut in the World Football League instead of the NFL.
The Detroit Lions took an interest in Danielson’s strong arm in 1976, and he had a long, decent NFL career (1976-88) with slightly above-average stats for the time – 81 TDs, 78 INTs, and a 76.6 QB rating. He still holds the Lions’ record for most touchdown passes in a game, having thrown five in a 1978 game against the Vikings.
6 BOBBY HEBERT
And once again, we’ve got a local QB from Louisiana who became a productive pro with the Saints despite not getting drafted. Hebert, however, didn’t start out with the Saints, but rather with the USFL’s Michigan Panthers. The “Cajun Cannon” became the short-lived league’s all-time passing yardage leader with 13,137 yards in just three seasons, and once the league folded, he signed with New Orleans as a part-time starter, and not a very good one at first.
With Hebert taking over as a full-time starter in 1987, the Saints shed their erstwhile status as the “Aint’s,” making the playoffs for the first time ever in that season, and again from 1990 to 1992. He then had his only Pro Bowl season in 1993 with the Falcons, ceded his starting role to Jeff George in 1994, and returned to the starting lineup in his final season in 1996. And it was all thanks to a little misunderstanding between George and then-head coach June Jones that happened to be televised.
5 TONY ROMO
Drew Bledsoe had a good NFL career, but he had the misfortune of pulling a Wally Pipp twice in his career – injuries led Tom Brady to replace him in the Patriots, and inefficiency led Tony Romo to replace him in the Cowboys. And as we learned in 2006, Romo turned out to be a pleasant surprise for “America’s Team,” despite not coming from a Division I-A school, and not having an elite throwing arm. He simply got the job done, and he rewarded the Cowboys’ patience after three years as an undrafted backup out of Eastern Illinois.
Romo has since made the Pro Bowl four times and made second-team All-Pro in 2014, and at 36, his career is likely to be winding down in a couple years. And wouldn’t it be ironic if his current injury leads to rookie Dak Prescott becoming “the man” for Dallas in the 2016 season?
4 JIM HART
It shouldn’t be much a surprise that the St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals went into an extended funk soon after Jim Hart left the team in 1983. While one may go “meh” upon seeing his career numbers (209-247 TD-INT ratio, 66.6 QB rating), Hart had one of the strongest arms in the NFL during his prime. He was also the centerpiece of coach Don Coryell’s innovative, pass-happy “Air Coryell” attack in the early-mid-‘70s. Not bad at all for someone who had been ignored by both the NFL and AFL in the 1966 draft!
Once again, Hart’s numbers are more of a product of the era he played in than anything else. But he lasted 19 pro seasons (18 for the Cards, one final year for the Redskins), was a great comeback player on top of his physical tools, and probably deserves some Hall of Fame consideration as one of the top QBs of his time.
3 WARREN MOON
The late-1970s were still not a good time to be an African-American quarterback. As such, Warren Moon was snubbed in the 1978 draft despite having a rocket arm, decent size, and above-average athleticism, as well as a solid college career. He had his first pro football success in the CFL, and when time came for him to return back home, NFL teams were clamoring for his services, what with five Grey Cup wins in six CFL seasons.
With the Houston Oilers, Moon didn’t get off to the hottest start in the NFL. But as Oilers management kept surrounding him with talented receivers, he took full advantage of the situation, emerging as one of the best signal-callers of the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, despite already being in his 30s. Moon also played for Minnesota, Seattle, and Kansas City, and retired in 2000 at the age of 44, after 17 NFL seasons and a whopping 23 pro seasons, CFL experience included.
For his accomplishments, he became the first undrafted QB, first black QB, and first CFL Hall of Famer inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
2 DAVE KRIEG
Once again, we’ve got another Seattle Seahawks QB who succeeded despite not being drafted. And while Dave Krieg was the most obscure of those players in college, he was the most successful in the NFL, despite hailing from a tiny school in Wisconsin that no longer exists. Krieg had taken the long, hard route to stardom, trying out for the Seahawks in 1980 and working his way up the depth chart, until Jim Zorn’s (see above) fading performance promoted Krieg to the starting lineup early in the 1983 season. Teaming with wide receiver Steve Largent and running back Curt Warner (no, not THAT former grocery clerk), Krieg took the Seahawks to their first playoff appearance in 1983, and later on held off draft busts such as Dan McGuire and Kelly Stouffer while showing everyone he belongs in the NFL.
He didn’t have a great arm, he wasn’t particularly big (6’1”-193), and he wasn’t from USC or Notre Dame or Miami. But Krieg’s accuracy, leadership, and other intangibles gave him three Pro Bowl appearances and a host of Seahawks records in 19 pro seasons.
1 KURT WARNER
From grocery clerk to Arena League and NFL Europe standout to one of the top NFL quarterbacks of his era. How cool is that? Playing in obscurity for Northern Iowa, Warner was passed up by everyone in the 1994 NFL draft, and failed to make the cut as a free agent with the Green Bay Packers, as they had Brett Favre, Mark Brunell, and Ty Detmer at quarterback. And that’s where his unlikely success story began, as he went from strength to strength until he was signed by the St. Louis Rams in 1998 as a third-stringer.
Due to injuries to Trent Green, Warner was promoted to starter in 1999, with head coach Dick Vermeil showing extraordinary blind faith in the hitherto-unknown former backup. That faith yielded 4,353 passing yards with 41 TD passes, and an extremely potent Rams offense led by Warner. He was named MVP in 1999 and 2001, and just when everyone had written him off as past his prime, Warner proved he had a lot more gas left in the tank in his last few seasons in Arizona. He replaced the ineffective Matt Leinart early in 2007, and had three great final years that culminated with the Cardinals’ first-ever Super Bowl appearance.