All legends have to start somewhere—in the NFL, “somewhere” is training camp.
For rookie free agents and low-round draft picks, the first training camp in an NFL player’s career can either set him up for a 10-year career or leave him looking for a new line of work in a few short weeks.
For most players, the idea of making the team, never mind emerging into one of the league’s top stars, is a goal that is near-impossible in itself. With 53-man rosters and 90 players in training camp, simple math derives the fact that most players will never make an NFL roster.
These players were not just able to beat the odds to earn a job for an NFL team—they have become recognized as among the best at their position.
And it all started on their first day of training camp, asking which direction the locker room was in.
After failing to make the Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2005, Wake’s NFL career was bleak at best. It was not until he joined the BC Lions in the CFL two years later did Wake begin to pop up on NFL radars again.
After changing his position from defensive end to outside linebacker, Wake was revitalized, having found a position that fits his body type. A completely different player than when he was in Giants camp, Wake won Most Outstanding Defensive Player in both of his campaigns in the CFL (2007 and 2008).
Finally, Wake had the attention of the NFL and was able to land a four-year contract with the Dolphins in 2009. He had two sacks, four tackles for loss and a forced fumble in his NFL debut.
Four years later, and Wake is considered to be one of the best defensive players in the league, having recorded 43 sacks in his four-year career, including 15 in 2012 to earn him a spot as a first-team All-Pro.
Very few players are actually able to land just a practice squad spot after making the jump from the CFL, but Wake has been able to turn his fading career around on a dime to transform into one of the most feared pass-rushers in the modern game.
Not only did Wes Welker go undrafted out of Texas Tech in 2004—he was not even invited to the annual scouting combine.
Welker did initially make the Chargers roster in 2004 but was released soon after to make room for safety Clinton Hart. It was not long before then-head coach Marty Schottenheimer called the move “the worst mistake he ever made,” per NESN.com.
Welker eventually found a home with the Miami Dolphins and rose to the top of the depth chart by the 2006 season, leading the team in receptions (67).
Knowing how difficult he was to cover as a division rival, Bill Belichick found a way to trade for Welker in 2007. The combination of Welker and Randy Moss led to a historic regular season for the Patriots, who were just one miracle pass away from ending the season at a perfect 19-0.
With Welker now a Denver Bronco, it is almost difficult to fathom that despite his record-setting success in New England, he never won a Super Bowl ring.
Even if Welker leaves the game without ever being crowned champion, no one could have imagined that the former Texas Tech product was going to be such a dangerous force in the NFL.
Brandon Moore has redefined the term “unknown commodity.” Undrafted out of Illinois as a defensive tackle, Brandon Moore has turned out to be a Pro Bowl guard after he made the conversion to the offensive side of the ball in the professional ranks.
However, Moore was hardly an instant sensation when he made his position switch. He paid his dues in NFL Europe in 2003 before he finally found a home as a starter with the Jets.
Unfortunately for Moore, he will be forever known as the innocent victim of the “butt fumble” catastrophe, but to his teammates and coaches, he will be more remembered for his calming presence in the locker room in addition to being a model of consistency at his position.
However, Moore has quietly become one of the best guards of his generation, paving the way for players like Curtis Martin and Thomas Jones. He was a vital part of a Jets offensive line that led the league in rushing in 2009. At age 33, Moore can still be a viable asset to a lot of teams.
When healthy, few offensive tackles are as dominant in so many areas of the game as Jason Peters. However, the athletically gifted lineman was never a hot commodity in the draft like his play on the field would suggest.
Peters actually played tight end at Arkansas, but his size (over 300 lbs) made it impossible for him to play anything but offensive line at the next level. As a result, Peters went undrafted, as teams were unsure of how well he would be able to pick up a new position so late in his amateur career.
After earning a spot on the practice squad in his rookie season, it took just two years before Peters was the Bills’ starting right tackle. Fast-forward to 2013, and Jason Peters is considered the gold standard of offensive tackle play (if he is healthy).
Coming off two Achilles injuries, it remains to be seen whether or not he can be the same dominant force he was in 2011. Either way, the fact that Peters has turned into the premier player at his position with such little pre-NFL experience at tackle is beyond impressive.
Victor Cruz had a breakout season to remember in 2011 that had all of New York City doing the salsa, but the Giants' star slot receiver came dangerously close to not having much of a career to speak of.
Because of his incessant tendency to make mental mistakes, the Giants’ coaching staff was ready to give up on the undrafted UMass product in 2010. Had it not been for some intervention from the Giants’ higher-ups, Cruz could have been on the chopping block, as Mike Garafolo of The Star-Ledger reports:
“'He was saved by some upper-echelon Giants front-office people,' senior vice president of player evaluation Chris Mara said. 'I’ll put it that way.'”
Now, Victor Cruz has a $45 million contract under his belt—not something many thought he would have when he was running incorrect routes and dropping passes in practice.
The NFL’s active consecutive game streak champion, London Fletcher was never supposed to have the decorated career he has enjoyed.
The John Carroll graduate was one of two players to make the St. Louis Rams as an undrafted free agent in 1998. After 15 years, Fletcher has won a Super Bowl and made four Pro Bowls. His name has become synonymous with consistency and durability, as he has not yet lost a step at the ripe age of 38.
Fletcher has always been the “forgotten” linebacker of his generation as Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher have stolen most of the media spotlight. However, true fans of the game know just how much of an impact Fletcher has had on the game and how impressive his character and leadership skills are.
While Danny Amendola may have been a fan favorite after he was closely followed in Hard Knocks when he was with the Cowboys. To his coaches, however, he was just another undersized receiver who wouldn’t be able to last in the NFL.
Since being claimed by the Rams, Amendola has emerged as one of the most prolific slot receivers in the game, as he was the heart of the Rams’ passing game during his tenure in St. Louis.
The only thing that has held back Amendola from being considered as a perennial Pro Bowl player is that he struggles to be available every week. Since 2009, Amendola has only played in 16 games once and missed 15 games in 2011.
Now, Amendola will be tasked with replacing the similarly sized (and fellow Texas Tech alum) Wes Welker in New England. If Amendola is able to stay healthy, he has the ability to make the transition from a fan favorite go over much more smoothly.
Regardless of whether or not he is able to fill such large shoes, Amendola has crafted a productive career for an undrafted player out of Texas Tech.
Unlike the other players on this list, Colston was actually drafted—252nd overall.
Why was one of the league’s most prolific receivers available so late in the draft? In short, Colston had some of the least impressive combine numbers in recent memory for a player as talented as he was.
His 4.52 40-yard dash, as per Gregg Doyel of CBS SportsLine.com, left Colston with no unique traits that made him stand out.
Colston has lived up to his lack of top-end speed, but he has become a much more crafty route-runner and acrobatic catcher than anyone could have imagined.
As rare as it is to see these players develop such a tremendous reputation in the league from such humble beginnings, there will always be the overlooked or under-drafted player to prove every scout wrong and expose the scouting process as the inexact science it is.
In the end, wherever a player was drafted or what school he went to is all thrown out the window when training camp opens. If a player is truly impressive enough in training camp, he will eventually find a home in the NFL—even if the team he is playing for is unable to see the talent in front of it.