The NFL Draft is must-see TV. Not only can NFL teams select its franchise quarterback, give players a shot in the league who others have counted out (aka Tom Brady who was selected in the sixth round and became one of the best NFL quarterbacks in history), and make trades in hopes of getting an impact player to fill a place of need or to get the best player on ‘the board’ at the time of the pick.
The draft is a wonderful place where dreams come true for multiple student-athletes who’ve worked so hard throughout their lives to get to that point. It’s a place where families can celebrate their loved ones success, knowing their lifestyles are likely about to change from that point on. One incredible example from the 2021 draft was Penei Sewell, who grew up in a shack with his family on an island, his family then moving to America, Sewell working hard, getting to the University of Oregon, and becoming one of the top prospects in recent history in the draft with the Detroit Lions selecting him seventh overall.
Seeing Sewell and his family celebrate together, soaking in the moment, reflecting on all they went through to get to that point…it was something special. Something priceless.
Yet, there also are priceless moments that happen after the draft, as well. Not only do teams select in the NFL Drafts’ seven rounds, players are given an opportunity as undrafted free agents. Whether that happens shortly after the draft or years down the line, there are wonderful stories in the NFL’s history where undrafted players have incredible, sustained success in the league.
This list is all about that. About the underdogs. The counted out. The…undrafted. They didn’t let that deter them and kept working, eventually finding themselves in the NFL and being key contributors to their teams. They are great examples of not letting circumstances define your outcome, but continuing to grind and chase your dreams. No matter what.
So, let’s put that underrated GM cap on and see who some of the best undrafted NFL players were/are and assemble on both sides of the ball:
Here Are Some of the Best Undrafted NFL Players If They Were All on One Team.
Thanks to NFL.com’s Gil Brandt‘s compilation of ‘Top 30 undrafted players in NFL history’, Bleacher Report’s David Kenyon‘s ‘Ranking the Best Undrafted NFL Players Since 2000’, and Bleacher Report’s Andrea Hangst‘s ‘The 25 Best Undrafted Free Agent Signings in NFL History’, which were good resources in selecting the players who made this roster. And shout out to Pro Football Reference and the Pro Football Hall of Fame for a lot of these stats.
Quarterback: Kurt Warner
This is a given. Kurt Warner is a Super Bowl champion, Hall of Famer, four-time Pro Bowler, two-time All-Pro, two-time MVP, and the 2008 Walter Payton Man of the Year. Now, that statline within itself would normally equate to a first round pick. Hey, even a first-pick-in-the-draft-type-of-player. But, if you didn’t already know, Warner wasn’t even drafted (per Biorgraphy.com).
Here’s just a snippet of what is truly an incredible story of how Warner eventually made his way to the NFL leading his team to a Super Bowl victory after stocking grocery store shelves.
“He took a job in Cedar Falls stocking supermarket shelves for $5.50 an hour, trained during the day at his old college, and told anyone who would listen that he’d be an NFL quarterback some day. In 1995, Warner was asked to play for the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League. There, his accurate and strong arm set a host of league passing records and eventually caught the attention of the Rams, a struggling NFL franchise that sent him overseas to play in the NFL’s European league in the spring of 1998.”Birography.com
All you can say is, ‘wow’. The perseverance, the determination to make it, the faith…Warner realized this journey and his career is bigger than himself.
“…the born-again Christian is quick to credit God not only for his success, but also for determining where he’s played throughout the course of his career,” Biorgraphy.com stated. “In 2001, with his wife Brenda, Warner established First Things First, a charity that helps those in need. The Warners’ generosity extends even to going out to eat. Often, Kurt picks up the check for a family at another table. Warner’s kids choose the unsuspecting customers, who are never told who paid their bill.
“First things first,” Warner said ‘on the postgame stage’ per Sports Spectrum’s Kevin Mercer after winning the Super Bowl, “I’ve got to thank my Lord and Savior up above — thank You, Jesus!”
Warner’s story is so inspiring, a movie about his life is set to release this year called ‘American Underdog’.
An exemplary example of arguably the best undrafted NFL player the game has seen. Just as NFL.com’s Gil Brandt ranked Warner as the top undrafted player in NFL history, many would agree. Kurt Warner embodied what a successful NFL career after going undrafted can be.
Running Back: Priest Holmes
Priest Holmes was a Super Bowl champion, three-time Pro Bowler, was named All-Pro three times, and the 2002 AP Offensive Player of the Year. What were teams thinking when they didn’t draft this guy?!
Holmes had a solid decade-long NFL career with the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens and, per his website, “At the time of his departure from the NFL, Holmes held the Chiefs franchise records for all-time total touchdowns, rushing touchdowns and total rushing yards.”
Holmes also has helped give back to the community. Per his website, “Prior to his retirement from the NFL, he founded the Priest Holmes Foundation (PHF) in 2005. PHF is committed to encouraging education and enhancing the lives of children in our community. Through comprehensive programs and scholarships the foundation will help lay the groundwork to empower students to achieve brighter and more prosperous futures. In 2002, Priest Holmes was named the Pillar of Character for Fairness by the Northside Education Foundation.”
Have to give a shoutout here to Phillip Lindsay. Was so close to placing him here as he played at the University of Colorado then suited up with his hometown team the Denver Broncos, becoming “the first undrafted player in @NFL history to begin his career with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons” according to the Broncos. Remember seeing how he was even staying at his parents’ home while playing with the Broncos, as well, saving that money.
Such a cool story. Lindsay gets the honorable mention.
Fullback: Joe Perry
Sixteen NFL seasons, 9,723 rushing yards, 260 receptions, 513 career points. These are numbers that scream first round running back pick. But what Perry did before even pursuing a pro football career was admirable as he served our country.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame states that “Joe Perry put Compton Junior College on the football map when he scored 22 touchdowns in one season. However, before he completed his college football career, he was called into military service. He was playing football for the Alameda, California Naval Training Station team when spotted by a player from the San Francisco 49ers of the new All-America Football Conference. The player reported his find to the 49ers’ hierarchy who offered Joe a contract. Upon his discharge from the military in 1948, Perry accepted their proposal…he became the first player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons”.
Wide Receivers: Rod Smith, Wes Welker
Outta’ Mississippi Southern, Rod Smith became a three-time Pro Bowl receiver and two-time Super Bowl champion.
“From undrafted to playing with the elite three times, and two Super Bowl’s,” Smith said in an Instagram post. “I think I did OK! #therodeffect #hustlinsecrets”.
Outta’ Texas Tech, Welker became a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro. According to 49ers.com, “From 2004-06, Welker put up the second most all-purpose yards (6,216) in NFL history in a player’s first three seasons, trailing only Gale Sayers“.
It’s safe to say that Warner would have a day throwing dimes to Smith and Welker.
Offensive Linemen: Lou Groza, Joe Jacoby, Jason Peters
I know, a full offensive line requires five dudes up front. For this list, we’re rollin’ with three. Call it a 7v7 team (with a sub). It’ll be the same on ‘D’, as well.
First of all, the Browns training facility is on ‘Lou Groza Drive’. Seriously! From undrafted to having a street named after you, that’s incredible. And he played two positions. On offense and special teams. Offensive tackle and kicker. Those are positions you may not usually put together but for Groza, he did both excellently. So, we’ve got our kicker on the team, too!
“The last remaining member of the original 1946 Browns team, the big offensive tackle and placekicking artist played 21 years, more than any other pro player up to that time. Many fans remember Groza primarily as a kicker, the first specialist who became so proficient that the Browns started thinking of making field goals, instead of touchdowns, when the going was rough and time was running short. Lou, who was one of pro football’s finest offensive tackles, particularly in the middle years of his long tenure, preferred to think of himself first as a tackle who just happened to be the Browns’ field-goal kicker because he ‘had the talent.'”Pro Football Hall of Fame
Joe Jacboy was a three-time Super Bowl champion, four-time Pro Bowler, and two-time All-Pro.
According to NFL Alumni, “a member of the original ‘Hogs’ and storied squad that won three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and ’90s, (was) preparing to launch a new venture in the (greater Washington) region as part of a larger effort to provide job opportunities to former professional athletes.”
Super Bowl champion, nine-time Pro Bowler, and two-time All-Pro selection. This dude can straight up block! After all, his Instagram handle is @thebodyguard71 per his Instagram. And the bodyguard isn’t done yet. According to NFL.com’s Kevin Patra, “Jason Peters plans on playing an 18th NFL season after starting eight games for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2020.”
With these dudes up front, Warner’s got Hall of Fame-type blocking to protect him from any pass rush, no matter the era.
Defensive Linemen: John Randle, Coy Bacon
From undrafted to the Hall of Fame. Let’s start out on defense with John Randle. Similar to Warner, Randle was able to become one of the best to play the game after not being drafted. Randle played college ball at Texas A&M-Kingsville and in the NFL ended up being a seven-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro.
Per the Pro Football Hall of Fame: “Randle showed signs of becoming one of the NFL’s most dominant pass rushers during his second NFL season when he recorded 9.5 sacks. The following year he added 11.5 sacks which marked the first of eight straight seasons with double-digit sack totals.”
Coy Bacon may just hold the NFL record for most sacks in a season and he was able to do so all the while being undrafted.
According to SI.com’s Clark Judge, “(t)he official NFL record for sacks in one season is 22-1/2, set in 2001 by Hall-of-Famer Michael Strahan. The unofficial record is 26, set in 1976 by Coy Bacon.”
Per Sports-Reference’s Mike Lynch, “The NFL has only officially counted player sacks since 1982, which means sack records and leaderboards present an incomplete history of pass rushing…thanks to decades of research by John Turney and Nick Webster, we have a very thorough accounting of the statistic all the way back to 1960.” This research with Pro Football Reference concluded that Bacon had 21.5 sacks in 1976.
Linebackers: James Harrison, London Fletcher
With Harrison on ‘D’, I’m sure him and Warner would have some banter back-and-forth on that Super Bowl when Harrison’s Pittsburgh Steelers barely beat Warner’s Arizona Cardinals.
The two-time Super Bowl champion, 2008 AP Defensive Player of the Year, five-time Pro Bowler, and two-time All-Pro (per Pro Football Reference) had a great career after playing college ball at Kent State.
According to Bleacher Report’s Andrea Hangst, “Fletcher was initially picked up by the St. Louis Rams as an undrafted free agent in 1998, and he made their 53-man roster in his first season. After playing in all 16 regular-season games and being named the team’s Rookie of the Year, he became their starting middle linebacker the following season. He appeared in two Super Bowls with the Rams, winning one during the 1999 season.”
So, Fletcher would have that Super Bowl experience, especially winning one already with this team’s quarterback.
Cornerbacks: Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane, Emlen Tunnell
Not only was Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game, you have to hear how he eventually got to the league:
“Dick Lane was an Army veteran ‘looking for a good job’ when he stopped in the offices of the Los Angeles Rams in 1952 and asked for a tryout,” the Pro Football Hall of Fame states. “All he had for credentials was a battered scrapbook, which chronicled his football experiences in high school, junior college and the Army. The defending-champion Rams’ coach Joe Stydahar saw just enough “good press” in the scrapbook to offer Lane a trial.”
Fourteen NFL seasons, 68 interceptions, 1,207 return yards, seven Pro Bowls, and six All-NFL selections throughout his career (after he had his rookie year in ’52 per Pro Football Reference), Lane made it to the Hall of Fame.
Emlen Tunnell will not only go down, like Lane, as one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game, he also was a trailblazer in the sport.
“Tunnell became the first African American to play for the Giants,” the Pro Football Hall of Fame stated. “He was also the first African American to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Even though Em proved to be an exceptional special teams player, it was on defense that he made his lasting mark.”
And, also similar to Lane, served our country honorably before playing in the NFL.
“Tunnell entered pro football as a free agent in 1948 after having spent time at the University of Toledo and Iowa as well as time in the Coast Guard. At Toledo he suffered a broken neck. His injury was severe enough that both the Army and Navy rejected his enlistment efforts during World War II. The Coast Guard finally accepted Em for duty. Following his Coast Guard service, Tunnell returned to college at the University of Iowa. He left Iowa after the 1947 season. Most pro teams thought Tunnell would play a third year at Iowa so he was not drafted in 1948. Deciding to seek a pro job on his own, he approached the New York Giants, who eventually offered him a contract.”The Pro Football Hall of Fame
Safety: Cliff Harris
Outta’ Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas, Cliff Harris would become one of the best safties in the game.
According to Pro Football Reference, Harris was a Hall of Famer, two-time Super Bowl champion, six-time Pro Bowler, and three-time All-Pro selection, playing his whole career with the Dallas Cowboys, grabbing 29 total interceptions.
Each of these players has a special story of how they got to the NFL after not being drafted and Harris was no exception.
“In 1970, the Dallas Cowboys, like every other team in the National Football League, opted not to select safety Cliff Harris during any of the 17 rounds of the annual player draft. …However, after watching films of tiny Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, the Cowboys scouting department and coaching staff agreed he was worth a free agent tryout. Harris signed with the Cowboys as a free agent…In addition to 29 career interceptions, “Captain Crash” also accounted for 16 opponents’ fumble recoveries. During the first half of his career he was also utilized by the Cowboys as a punt and kickoff return specialist.”The Pro Football Hall of Fame
Harris also served our country admirably, as well. Being a safety was a fitting position for him as he also served in the military, helping keep our country safe.
“Harris earned a starter’s berth as a free safety, but his rookie season was interrupted by obligatory military service,” the Pro Football Hall of Fame stated. “He returned the following year in time for training camp and regained his starter’s role. It was a role he would not relinquish during his 10-year career.”
There you have it, football fans. The all-time undrafted team.
Now, it’s your turn. Go get your dreams, even when they may be counting you out. You may be the underdog, but so were all these dudes. And look what they were able to overcome.
Charlie Lapastora is a sports/news multimedia journalist who’s reported, written, produced, anchored, shot video/edited on different NBC, ABC, and FOX shows in multiple TV markets, along with digital & new media companies. Charlie has traveled the country telling national sports, news, feature, and original stories on a cable news network, airing on top 10 TV markets, satellite radio, and digital platforms. He is passionate about his faith, family—being a husband to whom he calls the G.O.A.T. of women—about reppin’ his home state of Michigan and Detroit teams (yes, including the Lions), good coffee, and loves how sports brings people together. He’s traveled the world leading and coaching sports camps and has also worked at the Detroit Pistons and LA Clippers’ NBA teams.
- 1 Here Are Some of the Best Undrafted NFL Players If They Were All on One Team.
- 2 Offense
- 3 Quarterback: Kurt Warner
- 4 Running Back: Priest Holmes
- 5 Fullback: Joe Perry
- 6 Wide Receivers: Rod Smith, Wes Welker
- 7 Smith
- 8 Welker
- 9 Offensive Linemen: Lou Groza, Joe Jacoby, Jason Peters
- 10 Groza
- 11 Jacoby
- 12 Peters
- 13 Defense
- 14 Defensive Linemen: John Randle, Coy Bacon
- 15 Randle
- 16 Bacon
- 17 Linebackers: James Harrison, London Fletcher
- 18 Harrison
- 19 Fletcher
- 20 Cornerbacks: Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane, Emlen Tunnell
- 21 Lane
- 22 Tunnell
- 23 Safety: Cliff Harris
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