Top Undrafted Sports Stars of the 2000s

Sid QuashieFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2017

Top Undrafted Sports Stars of the 2000s

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    Fred Vuich/Associated Press

    There’s an old saying that it’s not how you start, but how you finish. That is applicable to the top undrafted sports stars of the 2000s, because even though they signed with a professional sports team, they started much further behind in the pecking order than drafted players. And yet they didn’t let that stop them from excelling at their game.

    The athletes on this list were all undrafted free agents who ended up earning All-Star distinction, winning individual awards, putting up impressive numbers or becoming key cogs on playoff or championship teams. And some were even good enough to merit Hall of Fame consideration.

    Note: This list is confined to athletes whose first professional year in their respective leagues was 2000 or later. There are no representatives from MLB, because the finest undrafted players in American baseball all started their careers prior to 2000, including Kevin Mitchell, Bobby Bonilla and Kevin Millar.

Wes Welker

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Welker is the poster child for how willpower, uncanny route-running skills and self-belief can propel an undersized receiver into unexpected success.

    Welker signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2005 and played two seasons for the franchise before landing with the New England Patriots in 2007.

    His finest statistical season came in 2011 when he caught 122 passes for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns.

    Welker signed with the Denver Broncos in 2013 and continued to be a productive receiver for quarterback Peyton Manning.

    But concussions pretty much ended his career, and Welker hasn’t played since an eight-game stint with the then-St. Louis Rams in 2015.

    He earned Pro Bowl honors five times and was a two-time All-Pro.

James Harrison

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Harrison is a throwback linebacker, the kind of ferocious, give-no-inch player whose intimidating attitude is similar to that of all-time greats such as Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary.

    At 38, Harrison is still terrifying quarterbacks and retains the fierce pass-rushing skills and bone-crunching tackles that define a great defender.

    Every team passed on Harrison in the 2002 NFL draft, likely because he came out of unheralded Kent State and was considered undersized at only 6 feet.

    But the Pittsburgh Steelers signed him as a free agent, cut him, then re-signed him in 2004.

    He remained with the team until 2013 when he signed with the Cincinnati Bengals for one season, then returned to the Steelers in 2014.

    Through 14 years in the league, Harrison has eight interceptions, nine fumble recoveries and 81.5 sacks.

    He is also a two-time Super Bowl champion who has made five Pro Bowl teams, earned two All-Pro first-team and two second-team honors and was named AFC Defensive Player of the Year and NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008.

    Harrison is a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame. Per Brett Pollakoff of Fox Sports, he is one of the NFL’s eight best undrafted players of all time.

Jason Peters

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Peters, 34, had played defensive end and tight end with the Arkansas Razorbacks, so when he signed with the Buffalo Bills after going undrafted in 2004, it was as an offensive player.

    But then he converted to offensive tackle and played with the Bills through 2008, then signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009 and remains one of the team’s best players.

    Peters has played in nine Pro Bowls and has earned three All-Pro first-team and two second-team honors.

    Phil Sheridan of ESPN.com wrote that Peters merits inclusion in any list of the best undrafted players in NFL history, which is probably why, in 2014, the Eagles signed him to a four-year, $41 million contract with $15 million guaranteed, per Spotrac.

Antonio Gates

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    What makes Gates’ story remarkable is that he never played college football.

    Instead, Gates, 36, starred as a power forward at Kent State University and helped lead the team to the Elite Eight in the 2002 tournament.

    Gates decided to make a go at the NFL in 2003 after realizing that NBA scouts felt that he was too small to play power forward, working out for the then-San Diego Chargers.

    The team signed him after that workout. Over 14 full seasons, Gates has 897 receptions for 11,192 yards and 111 touchdowns.

    On Jan. 1, Gates tied Tony Gonzalez for most touchdown receptions (111) by a tight end in NFL history.

    Per Ricky Henne of Chargers.com, Gates expressed gratitude about tying the record:

    “It’s a blessing. ... I think it’s special. I really do. I’m honored and it’s a privilege to be able to hear my name called in an NFL stadium. As a kid that’s what you dream about. Fortunately, some of those dreams have come true for myself.”

    Brad Gagnon of CBSSports.com wrote that Gates is a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame, but that his chances to win a Super Bowl were slim given the Chargers’ history of performing below expectations.

Chris Kunitz

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    Fred Vuich/Associated Press

    Kunitz, 37, is a left wing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champions. Per Shelly Anderson of Pittsburgh Magazine, he had 264 hits in the 2015-16 season, 100 more than any of his Penguins teammates.

    After leading the Ferris State Bulldogs to their first NCAA tournament appearance in the school’s history in 2003, Kunitz went undrafted and was signed as a free agent by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

    He was assigned to the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, the team’s American Hockey League affiliate for the 2004-05 season, and made the full squad in the 2006 season.

    He was a valuable member of Anaheim’s Stanley Cup-winning team in 2007 and remained a key player on the squad until he signed with the Penguins in 2008.

    Kunitz is a three-time Stanley Cup winner and was named a first-team All-Star in the 2012-13 season.

    Brett Slawson of the Hockey Writers listed Kunitz as an honorable mention on his list of the best undrafted players in NHL history.

Niklas Backstrom

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Although Backstrom, 38, began his professional career in 1996, he was not drafted by any NHL teams and played for HIFK in the Finnish Liiga, Finland's version of the NHL.

    Backstrom signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Wild in 2006 and played nine seasons for the Wild and one season with the Calgary Flames (2015-16).

    Backstrom won 196 games with a save percentage of .914, a goals-against average of 2.49 and 28 shutouts.

    Dustin Nelson of the Hockey Writers ranked Backstrom as the best undrafted free agent in Wild history, citing his All-Star team honor in the 2008 season, the William M. Jennings Trophy (awarded for fewest goals scored against with a minimum of 25 games) in the 2006 season and the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award (best save percentage) in 2006.

Wesley Matthews

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Matthews, 30, had four solid years at Marquette University but did not hear his name called in the 2009 NBA draft.

    Matthews signed a one-year free-agent contract with the Utah Jazz in 2009, then agreed to a five-year contract with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2010.

    He tore his Achilles tendon in March 2015, but that didn’t prevent him from signing a four-year deal with the Dallas Mavericks in July 2015.

    Per Ross Kelly of CBS New York, Matthews’ play has earned him third place on his list of the greatest undrafted NBA players of all time. Kelly wrote that Matthews should have been drafted, especially since he started for four years on a Marquette squad that made the tournament every year he played.

    Matthews has slowly played his way back to form with the Dallas Mavericks. Through 40 games this season, he is averaging 15.1 points (one point higher than his career average), 3.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

Tony Romo

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Despite setting records playing quarterback for Eastern Illinois University of the Ohio Valley Conference in Division I-AA and being named a three-time All-American, Romo, 36, was not selected in the 2003 NFL draft and signed as a free agent with the Dallas Cowboys.

    Three years later in 2006, Romo became the Cowboys' starting quarterback and had a vice-like grip on the job until this past season, when an injury gave rookie Dak Prescott an opportunity that he turned into an MVP-caliber campaign.

    Despite persistent criticism by football fans for not being a winner, Romo’s career numbers are quite impressive.

    Romo has played in four Pro Bowls and has a stat line of 248 touchdowns and 34,183 yards with a 65.3 completion percentage and a passer rating of 97.1.

    He is the franchise leader in passing yards and touchdowns. Per Brett Pollakoff of Fox Sports, Romo is one of the eight greatest undrafted players in the history of the NFL.

Raja Bell

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Bell, 40, is a retired NBA shooting guard who led Florida International University to the NCAA tournament in 1999, but no team took a flier on him in the 1999 NBA draft.

    He signed a free-agent contract with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2000 but only played five games with the team that season.

    He played a full tilt with Philadelphia the next season, then played for a number of different teams during his 12-year career, including the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors.

    He made the NBA All-Defensive first team in 2007 and second team in 2008.

    Ross Kelly of CBS New York ranked Bell as the eighth-best undrafted player in NBA history, citing his three-point shooting and his skills as one of the first wave of three-and-D wings before it became de rigueur in the NBA.