Every year, we see a new class of star athletes enter the NFL through the draft. In fact, we just witnessed 262 college star athletes hear their name called just a week ago. The real question is whether or not those athletes will successfully transition into star athletes at the next level.
While some of them will – and some sooner than others – most of the players that get drafted will become an afterthought and/or find themselves out of the league in a few years (if that). It goes to show that star athletes at the college level aren’t always star athletes at the NFL level.
There’s no guarantees and no promises when joining the league through the draft. Getting there is one thing, but proving yourself and showing that you can run with the best of them is a whole different story. With millions of dollars at stake, coaches and front office members need results.
Star Athletes Who Joined the NFL as Undrafted Free Agents
What’s crazy is that some of the best, most profitable star athletes from this year’s incoming class (as we’ve seen in previous years) weren’t drafted at all. They never heard their name called during the NFL Draft, despite having productive and successful collegiate careers.
These players take a different path to the NFL. They’re signed as undrafted free agents – usually within days of the draft ending – and are given a second chance at competing. Once signed, they have the same opportunity as everyone else – prove your worth, and you’re in.
And every year, a handful of players step up to the plate and crush it. They don’t always get an opportunity right out of the gate, but they continue to earn that opportunity over time and give their team no reason but to play them. In fact, let’s take a look at some of those players!
20. P Jeff Feagles
Jeff Feagles played football, basketball, and baseball at Gerard High School before playing one season of football at Scottsdale Community College. He then played for the University of Miami for three seasons, recording 119 punts for 4,659 yards, an average of 39.2 yards per punt.
Despite going undrafted in the 1988 NFL Draft, Feagles spent 22 seasons in the league with the Giants, Seahawks, Cardinals, Eagles, and Patriots. He never missed a game and finished his career with 1,713 punts, 71,211 yards, and 41.6 yards per punt. He also won a Super Bowl.
19. K Adam Vinatieri
Adam Vinatieri played football, wrestling, basketball, soccer, and track at Central High School. In football, he was a quarterback and middle linebacker, but eventually switched to kicker. He played four years at South Dakota State as kicker and punter – he’s their all-time leading scorer.
Despite going undrafted in the 1996 NFL Draft, he spent 24 seasons in the league with the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots. In 365 games played, he hit 599 of his 715 field goals (83.8%) and 874 of his 898 extra points (97.3%). He hit 45 field goals from over 50 yards.
18. K Justin Tucker
Justin Tucker played soccer and football at Westlake High School – he was teammates with Nick Foles. Though he played wide receiver, safety, and kicker, he narrowed it down to kicker and punter at the University of Texas. In four years, he made 40 of 48 field goals (83.3%).
Despite going undrafted in the 2012 NFL Draft, Tucker is now entering his 11th season in the league – all of which with the Baltimore Ravens. He has played 161 games, making 326 of his 358 field goals. His field goal percentage of 91.1% is currently the best percentage all-time.
17. QB Tony Romo
Tony Romo played Little League baseball and played football, basketball, golf, and tennis. He garnered some interest from college basketball teams, but decided to play football at Eastern Illinois University. In three years, he threw for 7,816 yards, 82 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions.
Despite going undrafted in the 2003 NFL Draft, the Cowboys assured their interest and signed him as an undrafted free agent. He made his first start in 2006 and was full-time starter by 2007. In 156 games, he had a 78-49 record, 34,183 yards, 248 touchdowns, and 117 interceptions.
16. RB Joe Perry
Joe Perry played four sports at David Starr Jordan High School. He was rejected by UCLA, but scored 22 touchdowns in his lone season at Compton Junior College. His talent finally caught the eye of UCLA, but he decided to enlist in the Navy and played for Naval Air Station Alameda.
Despite going undrafted, he garnered interest from the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers – eventually becoming the 49ers’ first African American player. He spent 16 seasons in the league, rushing for 9,723 yards and 71 touchdowns – as well as 12 receiving touchdowns.
15. OT/K Lou Groza
Lou Groza played football, basketball, and baseball at Martins Ferry High School – he was captain in both baseball and football. He played three games for Ohio State University before enlisting in the Army. In 1945, he served as a surgical technician with the 96th Infantry Division.
Despite going undrafted at the time, he received a contract from his former college coach – who was the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns. He played offensive line and kicker for 21 seasons in the league, playing in 268 games, making 264 field goals, and 810 extra points.
14. WR Wes Welker
Wes Welker played football at Heritage Hall High School in Oklahoma City, but was barely recruited due to his height. He ended up playing four years at Texas Tech and appeared in 50 games for the Red Raiders – recording 259 catches, 3,069 yards, and 21 touchdowns.
Despite going undrafted in the 2004 NFL Draft, he was quickly signed as an undrafted free agent. He didn’t make his first NFL catch until the 2005 season, but ended up playing 12 years in the league. He finished his career with 903 catches, 9,924 yards, and 50 touchdowns.
13. OT Jason Peters
Jason Peters played football and basketball at Queen City High School in Texas before playing for the University of Arkansas’ football team. He spent one season on the defensive line before switching to tight end, where he had 27 catches for 288 yards and 4 touchdowns in 36 games.
Despite going undrafted in the 2004 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills signed Peters as an undrafted free agent. That’s when he transitioned to offensive tackle, where he spent the next 17 seasons in the league. He’s a Super Bowl champion and was also named to nine Pro Bowls in that time.
12. QB Warren Moon
Warren Moon played football at Alexander Hamilton High School, becoming the starting quarterback during his junior year. He spent one season at West Los Angeles College before joining the University of Washington – where he threw for 3,277 yards and 19 touchdowns.
He decided to forego the draft and joined the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL. After an extremely successful CFL career, he joined the Houston Oilers in 1984 and spent 17 seasons in the NFL. He finished his career with a 102-101 record, 49,325 yards, 291 touchdowns, and 233 picks.
11. CB Willie Wood
Willie Wood played football at Armstrong High School and spent one season at Coalinga Junior College in 1956. The following year, he started a career at USC and played three seasons with the Trojans. In 30 games, he threw for 772 yards, seven touchdowns, and eight interceptions.
Despite going undrafted in the 1960 NFL Draft, Wood signed with the Green Bay Packers and transitioned from quarterback to safety. He spent 12 seasons in the league – all with Green Bay – and finished his career with 48 interceptions, 7 championships, and 8 Pro Bowl appearances.
10. CB Emmitt Thomas
Emmitt Thomas played football at Marshall High School in Texas before attending Bishop College in Dallas. He went undrafted in the 1966 NFL Draft, but was quickly signed as an undrafted free agent by the Kansas City Chiefs and played 13 seasons with the team.
During his 13-year NFL career, Thomas embarked on a Hall of Fame career as a cornerback. He played in 181 games (157 starts) and recorded 58 interceptions, 5 touchdowns, 1 forced fumble, 7 fumble recoveries, and three championships. He led the league in interceptions twice.
9. CB Willie Brown
Willie Brown played football at Taylor High School in Yazoo City, Mississippi before playing football at Grambling State. Although he played well, he went undrafted in the 1963 NFL Draft after leaving school. He was later signed as an undrafted free agent by the Houston Oilers.
He didn’t last long in Houston and was released during training camp, but landed on the Denver Broncos and was a starting cornerback mid-season. He spent 16 seasons in the league, recording 54 interceptions, 2 touchdowns, 1 safety, 2.0 sacks, and 4 fumble recoveries.
8. CB Emlen Tunnell
Nicknamed ‘The Gremlin,’ Emlen Tunnell played running back for Radnor High School and was a star player in 1940 and 1941. He took his talents to the University of Toledo, where he played football and basketball. After a stint with the Coast Guard, he played for the University of Iowa.
Despite going undrafted in the 1948 draft, Tunnel was signed as an undrafted free agent by the New York Giants. He spent 14 seasons in the NFL (11 with the Giants, 3 with Green Bay), where he had 79 interceptions, 4 touchdowns, 12 forced fumbles, and 16 fumble recoveries.
7. LB London Fletcher
London Fletcher excelled in football and basketball at Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School in Cleveland, Ohio before enrolling at John Carroll University. He again excelled at football and basketball, recording 202 tackles as a senior – which remains a school record to this day.
Despite going undrafted in the 1998 NFL Draft, Fletcher signed as an undrafted free agent with the St. Louis Rams. He spent 16 seasons in the league, recording 2,039 tackles, 109 tackles for loss, 39.0 sacks, 2 safeties, 23 interceptions, 19 forced fumbles, and 12 fumble recoveries.
6. RB Priest Holmes
Priest Holmes played football at John Marshall High School, where he rushed for 2,061 yards as a senior. He enrolled at the University of Texas and played on their football team for four years. During that time, he rushed for 1,276 yards and 20 touchdowns (13 TDs as a senior).
Despite going undrafted in the 1997 NFL Draft, Holmes signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent. He had a breakout season in 1998 and an incredible six-year stint with the Chiefs. He spent 10 years in the league and rushed for 8,172 yards and 86 touchdowns.
5. DB Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane
Richard Lane, commonly known as Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane, played basketball and football and L.C. Anderson High School. He later played one season of football at Scottsbluff Junior College before serving four years in the Army – where he played well for the Fort Ord football team.
While working at an aircraft plant, he decided to ask the Los Angeles Rams for a tryout. He later made the team and embarked on a Hall of Fame, 14-year career in the NFL. He caught 14 interceptions his rookie year and finished his career with 68 picks, 1 safety, and 6 touchdowns.
4. DL John Randle
John Randle played football at Hearne High School before playing two years of college football at Trinity Valley Community College and two years at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. He went undrafted in 1990, but earned a tryout for his brother’s team – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That tryout didn’t lead to a contract, but he was later signed as an undrafted free agent by the Minnesota Vikings. He spent 14 seasons in the league – 11 with the Vikings. He finished his career with 556 tackles, 137.5 sacks, 29 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries, and one pick.
3. LB James Harrison
James Harrison played football and track at Coventry High School and while he played well, his off-the-field issues resulted in top colleges rescinding their scholarship offers. He was a walk-on at Kent State University and played in 24 games after sitting out his freshman year.
Despite going undrafted in 2002, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed him as an undrafted free agent. He went from being a practice squad player to one of the most feared defensive players ever. He played in 193 career games and recorded 811 tackles, 128 tackles for loss, and 84.5 sacks.
2. TE Antonio Gates
Antonio Gates played football at Central High School and wanted to play football and basketball at Michigan State University. When that fell through, he decided to pursue basketball at Eastern Michigan University before transferring to Kent State. He never played college football.
NBA scouts weren’t interested in Gates, but there were as many as 19 NFL teams that called him for a tryout. He eventually signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent and spent 16 seasons with the team. He retired with 955 catches, 11,841 yards, and 116 TDs.
1. QB Kurt Warner
Kurt Warner has one of the most interesting football careers in NFL history. He played football at Regis High School before enrolling at the University of Northern Iowa. He was the team’s third string quarterback until his senior year, eventually being named Offensive Player of the Year.
Warner went undrafted in 1994 and earned a tryout with the Packers, but that didn’t work out and he was working at a grocery store shortly after. He then got a shot in the Arena Football League and eventually signed with the St. Louis Rams in 1997. He made his first start in 1999.
He spent 12 seasons in the league and threw for 32,344 yards and 208 touchdowns. He was a two-time MVP and won the Super Bowl in 1999. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017.
Star Athletes That Went Undrafted in Other Sports
Star athletes going undrafted before having incredible careers at the pro level is nothing new to the sports community and it certainly isn’t limited to just the NFL. It’s something that happens in other sports every single year and it’s what makes sports so exciting as you witness greatness.
Fred VanVleet, Udonis Haslem, Ben Wallace, Avery Johnson, John Starks, and Bruce Bowen are all NBA star athletes that went undrafted. Larry Walker, Bruce Sutter, Kirby Yates, Larry Bowa, Kevin Millar, and Bobby Bonilla are MLB star athletes that went undrafted.
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Let’s not forget about the NHL – Ed Belfour, Sergei Bobrovsky, Dan Boyle, Dino Ciccarelli, Mike Giordano, Steve Duchesne, Geoff Courtnall, Tim Kerr, and Wayne Gretzky all went undrafted. Don’t worry, college star athletes will continue to emerge despite going undrafted.
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