The 25 Best Undrafted Free-Agent Signings in NFL History
The NFL draft is a crapshoot.
Every year, fans across the country crowd into sports bars or around their own televisions to watch as their team selects the next Kurt Warner, John Randle or James Harrison.
Except, none of those players were drafted.
The fact of the matter is that evaluating talent is an imperfect process—that is, NFL teams are basically guessing with each pick.
The guesses are educated, generally speaking, but made without hard proof behind them.
Need proof of your own?
Here are 25 guys who were passed over in every round of the draft and still went on to have spectacular careers.
25. Wayne Chrebet, Hofstra
Wayne Chrebet came up with many big catches.
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In 1995, Wayne Chrebet became the first player to make an NFL roster out of Hofstra since 1964.
He set all-time receiving marks at Hofstra—the former training facility of the New York Jets—before being passed on by every team in the '95 NFL draft.
However, the Jets would eventually give him a free-agent contract, and he made them look good for it.
Chrebet now ranks as one of the best receivers in Jets history. He's second all-time in catches for the Jets with 580 and fifth in receiving yards with 7,365.
He ranks third in NFL history in receptions by a player who wasn't drafted.
24. Jim Langer, South Dakota State
Jim Langer is one of the best centers of all time. Photo: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Jim Langer was one of the best centers to ever play in the NFL.
Though he originally played linebacker at South Dakota State, he made the transition to center when he signed with the Cleveland Browns after going undrafted in 1970. Soon thereafter, the Miami Dolphins would pick up the most dominant center of the 1970s.
Langer saw limited action in his first two seasons with Miami but became the starter in 1972. From 1973-78, Langer was in the Pro Bowl every season. He was a first-team All-Pro selection during four of those seasons, and a second-team All-Pro choice during the other two.
He was a member of one of the most dominant offensive lines ever and played every snap of the Dolphins' undefeated 1972 season.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987 and is one of three Hall of Famers from that Dolphins offensive line.
23. Tony Romo, Eastern Illinois
Tony Romo can still climb this list.
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As of the end of the 2011 NFL season, Tony Romo's career passer rating is the second best of all time. His yards per attempt, 8.1, ranks fourth all-time.
And yet, many will scoff at his appearance on this list.
It's true that Romo has suffered in the postseason, including this infamous fumbled field goal.
But he has been truly prolific in the regular season, breaking numerous Dallas Cowboys records held by greats like Troy Aikman and Danny White.
He's already been to three Pro Bowls, despite taking the starting job from Drew Bledsoe less than six full seasons ago and missing the majority of the 2010 season.
Only 32 years old, Romo will likely continue to climb this list.
22. Donnie Shell, South Carolina State
Donnie Shell was a mainstay on the Steel Curtain. Photo: Total Sports Enterprises.
From 1978-82, there wasn't a more productive and frightening corner in the league than Donnie Shell.
Voted to the Pro Bowl five straight seasons and an All-Pro in four of them, Shell was a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers' famed Steel Curtain defense of the '70s.
His personal success came along with the success of the team, which he helped to win four Super Bowls.
Shell played in 201 games as a Steeler, which is second in franchise history. He finished behind only Mike Webster who appeared in 220 games.
His absence from the Hall of Fame is a curious and notable one.
21. Jeff Saturday, North Carolina
Jeff Saturday anchored the Colts line for years.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Jeff Saturday went undrafted in 1998, despite being a two-time All-ACC selection at North Carolina.
He was signed and waived by the Baltimore Ravens after the '98 NFL draft, and remained a free agent for all of 1998.
He was then picked up by the Indianapolis Colts in January of 1999 and soon became a mainstay along one of the most dominant offensive lines of the decade.
Working in concord with Peyton Manning, Saturday and the Colts were able to orchestrate one of the most efficient and successful offenses of the 2000s. Along the way, Saturday was named to five Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams, including two first-team All-Pro selections.
Saturday famously recorded a fumble recovery touchdown in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, which the Colts won 38-34 to get to their first Super Bowl with Peyton Manning. They won the Super Bowl 29-17 against the Chicago Bears.
20. London Fletcher, John Carroll
London Fletcher is made of adamantium.
Rob Carr/Getty Images
London Fletcher is a rare breed in the NFL.
There are plenty of players who can run, jump and hit at a high level. But very few have ever done it with the consistency that Fletcher has.
In his 14-year career, he has never missed a game, playing in 224 straight.
During his ridiculous ironman streak, he's amassed 1,782 tackles, 18 forced fumbles, 18 interceptions and 34 sacks.
He's also been named to three Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl with the Rams in the 1999 NFL season.
And he's not done, yet.
19. Larry Little, Bethune-Cookman
Larry Little helped pave the way to the Dolphins' 1972 perfect season. Photo: Sportsattic2.com
Though Larry Little went undrafted in 1967, he hardly let that derail his career.
Little first spent two seasons with the AFL's San Diego Chargers before being traded to the AFL's Miami Dolphins in 1969. He was an AFL All-Star that season.
Following the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, Little and the Dolphins took the NFL by storm. Playing at guard, Little teamed up with one of the most fearsome offensive lines in the league, which paved the way for backs such as Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris and Paul Warfield.
Little was named to five Pro Bowls from 1970-75 and won two Super Bowls with the Dolphins. He retired in 1980 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993.
18. Priest Holmes, Texas
Priest Holmes was the best back in the league for a few years.
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Despite being undrafted in 1997, Priest Holmes became one of the most dynamic running backs in the league.
Signed by the Baltimore Ravens as a rookie free agent, Holmes rushed for just over 2,000 yards in his first four seasons with the team.
Again a free agent, Holmes signed with the Kansas City Chiefs and promptly broke into superstardom. He led the league in rushing in 2001, his first with the Chiefs, with 1,555 yards.
In 2002, Holmes missed two games but still rushed for 1,615 yards and 21 touchdowns, earning him AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors.
He followed that up with a record-setting 27-touchdown performance in 2003—a record which has since been broken twice and now sits at 31 (LaDainian Tomlinson).
Holmes and Emmitt Smith are the only two players in NFL history to rush for 20-plus touchdowns in back-to-back seasons.
Holmes was named to the Pro Bowl from 2001-03 and was an All-Pro in each of those campaigns, too. He won a Super Bowl with the Ravens after the 2000 NFL season.
17. Rod Smith, Missouri Southern State
Rod Smith is the all-time leading receiver among undrafted players.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
If you know anything about Missouri Southern State, you know more than I do.
Rod Smith came out of there and was passed up by every team during the 1995 draft. He subsequently signed with the Denver Broncos.
Something tells me both parties are happy with the way things turned out. He snared 849 passes for 11,389 yards and 68 touchdowns in his illustrious career, spent entirely in Denver. Those numbers are all tops in NFL history among undrafted players.
During his time with the Broncos, he turned in three Pro Bowl seasons, two All-Pro selections and was a member of two Super Bowl champion teams.
He may someday find himself in Canton, but for now, he's still waiting.
16. Adam Vinatieri, South Dakota State
Vinatieri is the most clutch kicker, and perhaps player, of all time.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Adam Vinatieri has to go down as one of the most clutch players to ever play the game of football.
All this guy does is hit crucial field goals to send his teams on to glory. Ask Mike Vanderjagt how difficult that is.
Without ever having the biggest leg, Vinatieri launched himself into eternal football lore by tying and then winning the 2002 AFC divisional playoff game—also known as the "Tuck Rule Game"—in a bona fide blizzard.
He went on to kick game-winning field goals in two Super Bowls, and ultimately, ended up with four Super Bowl rings.
Vinatieri is a member of the 2000s All-Decade Team and was named to two Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams.
15. Marion Motley, Nevada
Marion Motley was well ahead of his time. Photo: BehindtheSteelCurtain.com
While it is impossible to compare players of different eras with complete accuracy and fairness, there are certain accomplishments and titles that sound awesome, regardless of time period.
Four consecutive league championships in the AAFC. All-time leading rusher of the AAFC. Won the NFL title in 1950, his first year in the league, while leading the league in rushing.
In October of 1950, he set a record that held for 52 years, before being broken by Michael Vick. He rushed for 188 yards on 11 carries against the Steelers—a 17.1 yards-per-carry average. Vick ran for 173 yards on 10 carries against the Minnesota Vikings in December 2002, for a 17.3 average. A minimum of 10 carries is required to qualify for the record.
In short, Motley was a beast who ran with reckless abandon. He was a back who was far ahead of his time.
He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1968, becoming the second African-American player voted in. He was also named to the 1940s All-Decade Team and the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
14. Arian Foster, Tennessee
Arian Foster is just getting started, and he's already a terror.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Of anyone appearing on this list, Arian Foster has by far the least NFL experience.
It's not even close.
With only two full seasons as the starter with the Houston Texans, some will question his placement so high among other greats, even Hall of Famers.
But consider what this man has done.
In 35 career games, Foster has 3,097 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry in the process. Not to mention, he led the Texans to the first postseason victory in franchise history, despite working with third-string quarterback T.J. Yates and an injury-hampered Andre Johnson.
In just two seasons as the starter, Foster has twice been to the Pro Bowl and twice been an All-Pro selection. He's just 25 years old and has shown no signs of slowing down.
So while he may be placed a bit high on current production, he's certainly going to deserve this spot and maybe an even higher one in the years to come.
13. Wes Welker, Texas Tech
Welker has been one of the most prolific wide receivers in the league since joining the Patriots.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
All Wes Welker has done since going undrafted in 2004 is show the NFL that bigger is not always better.
Since being cut by the San Diego Chargers, he set Dolphins all-time records for total kickoff returns, kickoff return yardage, total punt returns and return touchdowns. Then, he was traded to the Patriots and has since been selected to the Pro Bowl, the All-Pro team or both in every season.
He is the only receiver in NFL history to have at least 110 catches in three different seasons and has led the NFL in receptions three times.
His rapport with Tom Brady is legendary, and assuming they can ever agree to a new contract, Welker will continue to be Tom's favorite target. This guy is a beast.
12. Willie Brown, Grambling
Willie Brown was a sensational corner for the Raiders. Photo: TheEyePatch.com
Willie Brown may deserve an even higher rating than this, depending on how you value corners.
He came out of Grambling in 1963 and signed with the Denver Broncos. By his second season with the Broncos, he had become a star, being named an AFL All-Star five of the next six seasons. He also helped the Oakland Raiders win the AFL Championship in 1967—his first year with the team.
He was a member of the first four Pro Bowl rosters after the AFL-NFL merger and helped the Raiders win Super Bowl XI in 1977.
Brown was named a member of the AFL All-Time Team, as well as the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team. He was named the 50th-greatest player of all time in 1999 by Sporting News—the highest-ranked Raider on the list.
He was also inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984—his first year of eligibility.
11. Brian Waters, North Texas
Brian Waters is one of the most dominant interior linemen to ever play in the NFL.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
The trouble with the NFL is that some positions cannot be judged by stats. Some positions do not have built-in measurements of success.
Such is the case for offensive linemen.
While I could tell you that Waters has reached six Pro Bowls and twice been an All-Pro, that would not do his career justice.
Waters was so dominant at his peak that, in 2004, he was once named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week—an honor never before bestowed to a lineman in the AFC. No lineman had received it since 1992.
To further exemplify his status as one of the greats, he received the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2009. The award celebrates a player's off-field contributions to the game and the community, as well as his on-field exploits.
10. James Harrison, Kent State
James Harrison is a player the league won't soon forget.
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
James Harrison is a player the league keeps wishing would disappear, but he just keeps coming back.
While the NFL cracks down on cheap shots and headhunting, James Harrison keeps pushing the boundaries of how much pain he can dole out.
But simply being a dirty player doesn't make you a great one. Being a great player makes you a great player.
And few would argue that Harrison is not a great player.
Critics can question his morals, values and overall state of mind, but his play speaks for itself.
He has been a leader on two Super Bowl-winning teams. He has been named to the last five Pro Bowls. He has been selected to the All-Pro team four of the last five years. Simply put, this guy gets it done.
By the way, he was the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year.
Harrison also made one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history in the Steelers' victory over the Arizona Cardinals in 2009. With zero seconds remaining in the first half, he returned a Kurt Warner interception 100 yards for a touchdown. The Steelers ultimately won by four points.
Love him or hate him, fans and players alike fear James Harrison.
9. Antonio Gates, Kent State
Antonio Gates helped change the NFL.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Antonio Gates' story doesn't completely revolve around his accolades, which are considerable.
No, Gates helped change how the entire league views tight ends. He was a guy who could separate and catch the ball but had limited blocking skills as a tight end. And, through his enormous success, that became OK.
The NFL is now comfortable selecting guys like Coby Fleener in the second round. Fleener can't block at all, but he's 6'6" and can run faster than 90 percent of the linebackers in the league. That's good enough for the NFL.
Gates convinced them through sheer power of numbers. His 593 catches, 7,783 yards and 76 touchdowns all rank near the top of the all-time tight end marks.
And he learned to block, too.
His skills got him into eight Pro Bowls, on five All-Pro teams, the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team and the San Diego Chargers 50th Anniversary Team.
8. Emlen Tunnell, Iowa
Emlen Tunnell was the first black player inducted into the Hall of Fame. Photo: Associated Press
Undrafted out of Iowa in 1948, Emlen Tunnell went on to have one of the greatest careers at defensive back in history.
As the first African-American player to ever play for the New York Giants, Tunnell had significant pressure on him to succeed—and quickly.
Starting in 1950, Tunnell appeared in eight straight Pro Bowls—and nine out of the next 10. From 1949-57, he was selected as an All-Pro eight out of nine seasons.
He retired as the NFL's all-time leader in interceptions and now sits in second with 79. Paul Krause had 81.
He was also a winner of two NFL championships—1956 and '61. Tunnell was named to the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team.
Emlen Tunnell became the first African-American player inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1967.
7. Joe Perry, Compton Community College
Joe Perry was a member of the 49ers famed "Million Dollar Backfield." Photo: George Rose/Getty Images
Joe Perry wasn't the biggest back. He wasn't the strongest or the most elusive.
He was the fastest.
With his world-class speed, Perry ran himself straight to glory. Upon his retirement, he was the NFL's all-time leading rusher at 9,723 yards. He was three times the rushing champion and three times a Pro Bowler.
Perry averaged an incredible five yards per carry for his entire career.
The 49ers runner was a member of the famed "Million Dollar Backfield" which featured Hall of Famers Perry, Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson. Together, the foursome comprised the only full-house backfield to have all four members enshrined in Canton.
Perry was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1969.
6. John Randle, Texas A&M-Kingsville
John Randle is probably the best defensive tackle of all time.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
When a defensive tackle records 10 sacks in a single season, he's had himself a heck of a season. If he can do that twice, he's on his way to being somebody.
If he can do it eight times, his name is John Randle.
Undrafted in 1990, Randle tried out for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—the team his brother played linebacker for. Thinking he was too small for the position, the Bucs passed on Randle. He eventually found a home with the Minnesota Vikings.
Tough luck for the Bucs, who could've had themselves a Hall of Fame defensive tackle.
From 1993-98, Randle was named to the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team each season. He added another Pro Bowl appearance in 2001 with the Seattle Seahawks.
His on-field reputation for trash talking and painting his face made him well-liked among fans, while his 137.5 career sacks made him a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
His sack count stands as the career record for a defensive tackle. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
5. Lou Groza, Ohio State
Lou Groza is one of the most interesting players in history. Photo: ProFootballHoF.com
Lou "The Toe" Groza had an extremely long and productive career, playing from 1946-67.
The Toe excelled at both placekicking and offensive tackle. He was six times named All-NFL as a tackle and made nine Pro Bowls in his career.
He led the NFL in field goals 1950, 1952-54 and 1957. In 1950, his field goal with 30 seconds left won the NFL Championship Game. In 1957, he co-led the NFL in scoring.
Groza didn't play from 1959-61. When he returned to the Browns, he only played as a kicker, eliminating offensive tackle from his job description.
He's also the namesake for the award given to the top collegiate kicker in the country each season.
Lou was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.
4. Willie Wood, USC
Willie Wood helped define what the safety position should be. Photo: ProFootballHoF.com
Willie Wood is probably the best safety to ever play for the Green Bay Packers.
As with any team as storied as they are, that's a heavy statement.
Wood helped the Packers secure championships in 1961, '62 and '65. He also led them to victories in Super Bowl I and II.
In his 12-year career, he recorded 48 interceptions, which he returned for 699 yards and two touchdowns. He also regularly returned punts for the Pack.
Wood reached eight Pro Bowls, making the trip every season from 1964-70. He was also a seven-time All-Pro selection, including five first-team All-Pro choices. He's a member of the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team.
He was the first African-American quarterback in the history of what is now the Pac-12 conference. He later became the first African-African coach in professional football, and then, the first African-American coach in the Canadian Football League.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.
3. Kurt Warner, Northern Iowa
Kurt Warner is one of the greatest Cinderella stories in NFL history.
Al Bello/Getty Images
When you look at Kurt Warner's stats, to know he was undrafted is mind-boggling.
Two NFL MVPs. One Super Bowl MVP. Seventh-highest career passer rating of all time. Third-highest completion percentage of all time. Over 32,000 passing yards.
He owns the three highest single-game passing yard totals in Super Bowl history.
That's doing work.
Although he only won one Super Bowl, he took the Rams to two of them and the Arizona Cardinals to their first in franchise history.
To top it all off, he won the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2008 and the Bart Starr Man of the Year Award in 2009.
What else is left to say about this guy?
He's not eligible for the Hall of Fame just yet, but he'll get in on his first ballot.
2. Warren Moon, Washington
Warren Moon put on a hell of a show for an undrafted quarterback.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Warren Moon is difficult to place in NFL history, since he played a large chunk of his career in the Canadian Football League.
But boy, did he put up some numbers.
After putting the University of Washington back on the map, he headed down a roller-coaster ride through professional football.
He ranks third in professional football history in passing yards, second in completions, second in touchdowns and second in attempts.
He's one of only two men enshrined in both the CFL and NFL Halls of Fame.
And his list of accolades is immense.
A nine-time Pro Bowler from 1988-97, three-time All-Pro selection, five consecutive Grey Cup victories, 1990 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, 1990 NEA NFL MVP and two Grey Cup MVPs among numerous other honors.
But Moon's influence goes beyond the numbers. He tore down the quarterback color barrier in the NFL and showed professional football that African-American players could play the quarterback position at a high level.
He was the first African-American quarterback enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame and paved the way for guys like Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb and now Cam Newton.
He was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame in 2001 and the NFL Hall of Fame in 2006.
1. Dick "Night Train" Lane
Night Train Lane is one of the greatest players of all time, drafted or not. Photo: SportsUntapped.com
Dick "Night Train" Lane attended community college for one year before dropping out and going into the United States Army for four years.
After simply showing up at a Rams practice facility for a tryout, Night Train was awarded a position as a defensive back. Originally, Lane had wanted to be a receiver, but the Rams already had two future Hall of Fame receivers, so that wasn't going to happen.
All parties involved turned out winners, as Lane developed into one of the best players in professional football history. His 68 career interceptions rank third all-time, and his 1,207 interception return yards are nothing to scoff at either.
He set the NFL record for interceptions in a season in his rookie campaign, which still stands today. The number is 14, even though seasons back then only lasted 12 games.
Lane was also known as a vicious tackler, often targeting opposing players' heads and necks, which was a legal tactic at the time.
He was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and was named an All-Pro an astonishing 10 times. Six of those 10 were first-team All-Pro choices.
Night Train is also a member of the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team and the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.
Night Train ranks No. 1 on this list because he's the best player at his position in NFL history. He defined the cornerback position in a way that no other player can or has, and that deserves extreme recognition.
While Warren Moon and Kurt Warner were certainly amazing players in their own right, neither of them can say they were the greatest at their position.
Night Train Lane can.