20 College Walk-Ons That Earned Amazing NFL Careers

20 College Walk-Ons That Earned Amazing NFL Careers

NFL players come from a lot of unique backgrounds and each had a unique journey to the NFL, but college walk-ons were asked to overcome much more than other players. They weren’t necessarily given the same opportunities early in their football careers, but that didn’t stop them. 

In fact, that lack of interest from college scouts and lack of scholarship opportunities fueled them to greatness both on and off the field. College walk-ons learn early on that nothing is going to be handed to them, which is why college walk-ons often work the hardest and give the most effort. 

That’s not to say players on a scholarship don’t work hard or care about the game, but walk-ons certainly have a little more juice in that tank — a chip on the shoulder, as some say. They weren’t recruited. They weren’t wanted. They weren’t going to get anywhere unless they worked for it.

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Which NFL Players Were Once College Walk-Ons?

20 College Walk-Ons That Earned Amazing NFL Careers
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Through the years, we’ve witnessed several college walk-ons go on to have amazing careers in the NFL. They helped pave the way for future college walk-ons and are the reason why coaches continue to give walk-ons more opportunities on the football field — when they earn it, of course. 

With that said, you’d be surprised at which NFL players were once college walk-ons. It doesn’t get talked about often enough and most people eventually forget they were ever a walk-on. It’s a little disappointing, but it’s also a testament to just how incredible their NFL career is or was. 

If you’re wondering which NFL players were once college walk-ons, you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to highlight 20 memorable names from the past and present that had to fight their way onto a college roster before finding success in the toughest league in the world.

20. TE Dennis Pitta

College: BYU

NFL Career: 2010-2016 (6 seasons)

Teams: Baltimore Ravens

Career Stats: 66 games, 330 targets, 224 receptions, 2,098 receiving yards, 13 receiving touchdowns

Dennis Pitta walked on at BYU as a wide receiver, but quickly transitioned to a tight end at the direction of his head coach. He finished his college career with the most receptions in campus history, as well as the third-most receiving yards and sixth most receiving touchdowns. 

He was eventually drafted in the fourth round by the Baltimore Ravens in 2010. After an uneventful rookie year, he played well over the next two seasons before injuries plagued his 2013, 2014, and 2015 seasons. He returned in 2016 and lit it up, but retired the following year. 

19. OL Spencer Long

College: University of Nebraska

NFL Career: 2014-2019 (6 seasons)

Teams: Washington Redskins, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills

Career Stats: 67 games played, 44 games started, 1 kick return for 12 yards

Spencer Long was a walk-on at the University of Nebraska in 2009 after playing defensive end in high school. He redshirted that season and didn’t make his first appearance until 2011. He would start every game for the Cornhuskers in 2011 and 2012, but suffered an injury in 2013. 

Despite the injury, Long was drafted in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins. He appeared in five games as a rookie and was a regular starter for the team over the next three years. After a short stint in the AFC East, Long announced his retirement in 2020.

18. OL Matt Paradis

College: Boise State University

NFL Career: 2015-present (7 seasons)

Teams: Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers

Career Stats: 98 games played, 98 games started, 5 fumble recoveries

Matt Paradis played eight-man football at Council High School. Although he didn’t receive any scholarship offers, he walked on at Boise State and redshirted his first year. He transitioned from defense to offense his freshman year and was starting center by his junior season.

After a successful career at Boise State, Paradis was drafted in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos. He spent that season on the practice squad, but was a full-time starter in 2015 and has been ever since. He won a Super Bowl with the Broncos in 2016. 

17. OL Joe Berger

College: Michigan Technological University

NFL Career: 2005-2017 (12 seasons)

Teams: Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys

Career Stats: 145 games played, 84 games started, 3 tackles, 1 fumble recovery

Joe Berger played two years of varsity football in high school as a linebacker and offensive lineman. He walked on at Michigan Tech and was immediately converted into an offensive tackle. He earned 31 starts at tackle during his four-year college career at Michigan Tech. 

Berger was drafted in the sixth round of the 2005 draft by the Carolina Panthers. He didn’t see consistent playing time until 2009 and became a mainstay on the Vikings’ offensive line for seven seasons, earning 64 starts over that span — 46 of which came in his final three seasons.

16. S T.J. Ward

College: University of Oregon

NFL Career: 2010-2017 (8 seasons)

Teams: Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Career Stats: 107 games, 607 tackles, 8 interceptions, 44 passes defensed, 8.5 sacks, 29 tackles for loss, 10 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries, 2 defensive touchdowns

T.J. Ward played for the legendary De La Salle high school in the midst of their 151-game winning streak. Unfortunately, an injury his senior year resulted in a lack of college offers. He eventually walked on at Oregon and didn’t earn a starting spot until his senior year in 2009. 

Despite only one year as a college starter, the Cleveland Browns drafted Ward in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft. He was the team’s starting strong safety for four years before signing with the Denver Broncos for three years. He retired after one season in Tampa Bay.

15. S Rashad Johnson

College: University of Alabama

NFL Career: 2009-2016 (8 seasons)

Teams: Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans

Career Stats: 114 games, 384 tackles, 1.0 sack, 7 tackles for loss, 15 interceptions, 31 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries, 3 defensive touchdowns

Rashad Johnson only received two offers out of high school and they were to small colleges, but he had bigger dreams. Instead, he decided to walk on at Alabama as a running back. By his redshirt sophomore season, he transitioned to safety and finally earned his full scholarship. 

His success at safety resulted in Johnson being drafted in the third round of the 2009 draft by the Arizona Cardinals. He spent his first seven years in the league with Arizona and eventually became their full-time starter in 2014. He signed with Tennessee in 2016 and retired in 2018.

14. DE Ziggy Ansah

College: BYU

NFL Career: 2013-2020 (8 seasons)

Teams: Detroit Lions, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers

Career Stats: 93 games, 236 tackles, 50.5 sacks, 63 tackles for loss, 118 quarterback hits, 12 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries 4 passes defensed

Ziggy Ansah, born Ezekiel Ansah in Ghana, moved to the US in 2008 to attend BYU on an academic scholarship. He was cut from the basketball team twice and played a year on the track team before walking on to their football squad. He recorded 4.5 sacks his senior year.

Ansah was drafted seventh overall by the Detroit Lions in 2013. He was an immediate starter and spent his first six years in the league with Detroit, recording 48.0 sacks in that span. He then had one-year stints with the 49ers (2019) and Seahawks (2020), but lacked playing time. 

13. LB Joe Schobert

College: University of Wisconsin

NFL Career: 2016-present (6 seasons)

Teams: Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh Steelers

Career Stats: 87 games, 616 tackles, 11.0 sacks, 22 tackles for loss, 25 quarterback hits, 9 interceptions, 28 passes defensed, 10 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, 1 defensive touchdown

Joe Schobert was a running back, safety, and return specialist in high school. Despite no D-I scholarship offers, Schobert eventually walked on at Wisconsin. He spent four years as a linebacker on campus, recording 79 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 5 forced fumbles his senior year.

His impressive senior year resulted in Schobert being drafted in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. He became a regular starter in 2017 and led the league in tackles. He has recorded more than 100 combined tackles in each of the past four seasons. 

12. OL Jack Conklin

College: Michigan State University

NFL Career: 2016-present (6 seasons)

Teams: Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns

Career Stats: 78 games played, 78 games started, 1 fumble recovery, 1 tackle

Jack Conklin played football and basketball in high school before joining the Michigan State football team as a walk-on. As a redshirt freshman, he was a regular starter at offensive tackle and was a First-Team All-American by his junior year. He decided to skip his senior season. 

It was a good decision for Conklin and one that resulted in him being drafted eighth overall in 2016 by the Tennessee Titans. He was their starting tackle for four years before signing with the Cleveland Browns ahead of the 2020 season. Today, he’s one of the best tackles in the league. 

11. S Jim Leonhard

College: University of Wisconsin

NFL Career: 2005-2014 (10 seasons)

Teams: Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos

Career Stats: 142 games, 431 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss, 14 quarterback hits, 14 interceptions, 35 passes defensed, 3 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, 1 defensive touchdown

Jim Leonhard played safety and quarterback at Flambeau High School, but failed to receive a D-I scholarship offer. He decided to walk-on at Wisconsin and tied the school record for most career interceptions. Despite his success, he didn’t earn a scholarship until his senior year.

Not only was Jim Leonhard a walk-on in college, but he went undrafted in 2005 and later signed with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent. He started to prove himself in the NFL and became a regular full-time starter with the Ravens in 2008 and eventually the Jets in 2009. 

10. OL Ricky Wagner

College: University of Wisconsin

NFL Career: 2013-2020 (8 seasons)

Teams: Baltimore Ravens, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers

Career Stats: 118 games played, 96 games started, 3 fumble recoveries

Ricky Wagner was a wide receiver in high school, but only so he could avoid injury and save himself for the basketball season. He eventually walked on as a tight end at Fresno State and transitioned to offensive tackle. He was a regular starter at tackle by his sophomore season.

His success at Fresno State resulted in Wagner being drafted in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens. While he only started two games his rookie year, he became a full-time starter for Baltimore and the Detroit Lions from 2014-2020. He’s currently a free agent.

9. OL Logan Mankins

College: Fresno State University

NFL Career: 2005-2015 (11 seasons)

Teams: New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Career Stats: 161 games played, 161 games started, 1 fumble recovery

Logan Mankins started to turn heads at Mariposa High School, but didn’t receive any offers to play college ball. Instead, he decided to join Fresno State as a walk-on and redshirted the 2000 season. He was the team’s starting left tackle the following year and the team’s MVP in 2004.

His success at Fresno State caught the eye of the New England Patriots, who drafted him 32nd overall in 2005. He spent nine years and started 130 games as a guard in front of Tom Brady. He finished his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, only missing one game in two years.

8. QB Baker Mayfield

College: Texas Tech University, University of Oklahoma

NFL Career: 2018-present (4 seasons)

Teams: Cleveland Browns

Career Stats: 56 games, 28-27 record, 13,281 passing yards, 1,108 completions, 62.2% completion percentage, 85 touchdowns, 49 interceptions, 5 rushing touchdowns 

Baker Mayfield was a three-star recruit out of high school and walked-on at Texas Tech. In 2013, he became the first true freshman walk-on QB to start an FBS season opener. After one year, he walked on at Oklahoma and became the first walk-on to win the Heisman Trophy.

His incredible run didn’t end there. Mayfield was eventually drafted first overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2018 and has been the team’s starting quarterback ever since. He has recorded at least 3,500 passing yards and 22 touchdowns in each of his first three seasons in the NFL. 

7. WR Santana Moss

College: University of Miami (Florida)

NFL Career: 2001-2014 (14 seasons)

Teams: New York Jets, Washington Redskins

Career Stats: 197 games, 1,268 targets, 732 receptions, 10,283 receiving yards, 66 receiving touchdowns, 3 punt return touchdowns

Santana Moss was a wide receiver and return specialist in high school, but had to earn his stripes as a college walk-on with the Miami Hurricanes. It didn’t take him long to earn that scholarship, doing so after just three games. He’s the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards.

After four years of college ball, Moss was drafted 16th overall by the New York Jets in 2001. He started to make an impact in 2002 and had his breakout year in 2003 with 1,105 yards and 10 touchdowns. Moss recorded a career-high 1,483 yards in 2005 and 93 receptions in 2010.

6. CB Josh Norman

College: Coastal Carolina University

NFL Career: 2012-present (10 seasons)

Teams: Carolina Panthers, Washington Redskins, Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers

Career Stats: 128 games, 472 tackles, 1.0 sack, 13 tackles for loss, 16 interceptions, 87 passes defensed, 18 forced fumbles, 7 fumble recoveries, 3 defensive touchdowns

Josh Norman was a two-way football player in high school, but also played track, basketball, and baseball. After not receiving any scholarship offers, he joined the Coastal Carolina football team as a walk-on in 2008. He became an immediate difference maker on the football field. 

After his strong play in college, Norman was drafted in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers. After a strong rookie year, he had a rough sophomore campaign. Since then, he has been one of the top cornerbacks in the league and is reinventing himself as of late.

5. WR Jordy Nelson

College: Kansas State University

NFL Career: 2008-2018 (10 seasons)

Teams: Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders

Career Stats: 151 games, 924 targets, 613 receptions, 8,587 receiving yards, 72 receiving touchdowns

Jordy Nelson not only excelled as a dual-threat quarterback in high school, but also at track and basketball. He was a walk-on at Kansas State in 2003, but didn’t earn meaningful playing time as a receiver until 2005. He had 122 catches, 1,606 yards, and 11 touchdowns as a senior. 

After a successful college career, Nelson was drafted in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. He made an immediate impact, but broke out in 2011 with 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns — despite only starting 9 games. He was a force to be reckoned with.

4. K Stephen Gostkowski

College: University of Memphis

NFL Career: 2006-2020 (15 seasons)

Teams: New England Patriots, Tennessee Titans

Career Stats: 219 games, 454 field goals attempted, 392 field goals made, 86.3% field goal percentage, 98.2% extra point percentage

Stephen Gostkowski was a skilled soccer, football, and baseball player in high school. He was originally given a scholarship to play baseball at Memphis, but also decided to join the football team as a walk-on. He would go on to score 369 points as a kicker — which is a school record.

After four successful years at Memphis, Gostkowski was drafted in the fourth round of the 2006 draft by the New England Patriots. Alongside Tom Brady, Gostkowski won three championships and currently holds the record for most consecutive extra points made with 479 extra points. 

3. LB Clay Matthews III

College: USC

NFL Career: 2009-2019 (11 seasons)

Teams: Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams

Career Stats: 156 games, 519 tackles, 91.5 sacks, 130 tackles for loss, 200 quarterback hits, 6 interceptions, 44 passes defensed, 17 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, 3 defensive touchdowns

Clay Matthews comes from a family of professional football players, so it might be surprising to see him on this list of college walk-ons — but he is. After only receiving offers from small colleges, Matthews chose to attend USC and join their football team as a walk-on player. 

After excelling as a special teams player in college, Matthews was drafted 26th overall by the Green Bay Packers in 2009. He spent 10 years with them and recorded 83.5 sacks in that span before signing with the Los Angeles Rams in 2019. He hasn’t played a snap of football since.

2. WR Antonio Brown

College: Central Michigan University

NFL Career: 2010-present (12 seasons)

Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Career Stats: 144 games, 1,387 targets, 915 receptions, 12,164 receiving yards, 83 receiving touchdowns, 4 punt return touchdowns, 1 kick return touchdown

Antonio Brown was a running back, quarterback, wide receiver, and punt returner in high school. Brown struggled to find a spot on a college roster, but joined Central Michigan’s football team as a walk-on in 2007. He dominated in each of his three seasons for Central Michigan.

Despite his consistent play in college, Brown didn’t receive a lot of attention from NFL scouts. He was eventually drafted in the sixth round of the 2010 draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since then, he has become one of the most explosive and talented wide receivers in the game. 

1. DE J.J. Watt

College: Central Michigan University, University of Wisconsin

NFL Career: 2011-present (11 seasons)

Teams: Houston Texans, Arizona Cardinals

Career Stats: 135 games, 547 tackles, 102.0 sacks, 177 tackles for loss, 292 quarterback hits, 2 interceptions, 63 passes defensed, 26 forced fumbles, 16 fumble recoveries, 3 defensive touchdowns, 1 safety

J.J. Watt played football, track, basketball, and baseball in high school, but was just a two-star football recruit. He accepted a scholarship to play for Central Michigan as a tight end. After one year, he gave up his scholarship and became a walk-on defensive end at Wisconsin-Madison.

After a successful two years at Wisconsin, Watt was drafted first overall by the Houston Texans in 2011. He spent 10 years with the team and amassed 16.0 sacks in four different seasons — including 20.5 sacks in two different seasons. In 2021, he chose to sign with the Cardinals. 

Recent College Walk-Ons to Win the Burlsworth Trophy

Did you know the FBS has an end-of-the-season award named the Burlsworth Trophy? It’s awarded each year to the most outstanding player in the FBS that started their career as a walk-on. The trophy was named after one of the greatest walk-ons ever, Brandon Burlsworth.

The first player to win the award was C Sean Bedford in 2010. The next four winners were QB Austin Davis in 2011, QB Matt McGloin in 2012, WR Jared Abbrederis in 2013, and WR Justin Hardy in 2014. In 2015 and 2016, QB Baker Mayfield became the first player to win it twice. 

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Mayfield almost won it again in 2017, but was beaten out by QB Luke Falk — who was a finalist the previous two years when Baker won. WR Hunter Renfrow won in 2018, DE Kenny Willekes won in 2019, and the most recent winner of the trophy was C Jimmy Morrissey in 2020.

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