The 25 Best Undrafted Free Agent Signings in NFL History

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVMay 3, 2013

The 25 Best Undrafted Free Agent Signings in NFL History

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    Being drafted by an NFL team is no guarantee for a long, successful football career. What makes a player last in the league is a combination of talent, hard work, timing and luck.

    Though the shot is longer for an undrafted rookie to take hold of a roster spot and work his way toward becoming a starter with lasting impact in the NFL, it's not impossible.

    Here, we look at the 25 best undrafted free agent players in NFL history, based on how well they performed on the field and the length of their careers.

25. KR/WR Josh Cribbs, Kent State

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    Current free agent kick returner and sometimes-receiver Josh Cribbs went undrafted and joined the Cleveland Browns in 2005. Though his receiving numbers are sparse—107 career catches for 1,161 yards and seven scores in eight seasons—his return numbers are phenomenal.

    He's returned 387 career kickoffs for 10,015 yards and eight touchdowns, along with 195 punt returns for 2,154 yards and three scores. Cribbs ranks sixth-overall in league history in return yardage. That is not bad for an undrafted player from Kent State.

24. QB Jeff Garcia, San Jose State

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    Undrafted quarterback Jeff Garcia from San Jose State never led a team to a Super Bowl, but his staying power in the NFL makes him worthy of being on this list. 

    Entering the league in 1999 after being an undrafted free agent passer who first played in the CFL after college, Garcia became the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback. He then went on to make four Pro Bowl appearances in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2007the first three with the 49ers and the final one with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Over the course of his career, Garcia played for the 49ers, the Buccaneers, the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles (twice), the UFL's Omaha Nighthawks and, he most recently played in a backup role for the Houston Texans in 2011.

    In the NFL, Garcia has a total of 25,537 passing yards and 161 touchdowns to 83 interceptions. He also now helps train quarterbacks.

23. WR Wayne Chrebet, Hofstra

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    Hofstra wide receiver Wayne Chrebet was a walk-on for the New York Jets who ultimately ended up with the second-most receptions and the fifth-most yards from scrimmage in franchise history. 

    He played for the Jets from 1995-2005, catching 580 passes for 7,365 yards and 41 touchdowns, with 379 of those catches being third-down conversions (earning him the nickname of "Mr. Third Down").

    Though he never earned a Pro Bowl nod, Chrebet's long, productive career is enough to make him one of the best undrafted players in NFL history.

22. S Donnie Shell, South Carolina State

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    Undrafted South Carolina State safety Donnie Shell joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974. Within four years, he would become a Pro Bowler—an accolade he was rewarded with five times in his career. He was a four-time All-Pro and was named Steelers team MVP in 1980, all while helping the team to four Super Bowl championships as part of their famed "Steel Curtain" defense.

    Only one player, Mike Webster, has played in more games for the Steelers than Shell, who appeared in 201. He has a career total of 51 interceptions for a total of 490 yards and two touchdowns. His last year in the league—still with the Steelers—was 1987.

21. QB Tony Romo, Eastern Illinois

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    Eastern Illinois quarterback Tony Romo was an undrafted pickup by the Dallas Cowboys in 2003. He remained a backup on the roster until 2006, when then-starter Drew Bledsoe was injured and Romo was put in the starting position.

    His fill-in performance against the New York Giants that season wasn't perfect, but it still earned him the No. 1 job. His career thus far hasn't been perfect, either, but he's managed to help lead the Cowboys to playoff appearances in 2006, 2007 and 2009.

    So far in his career, Romo has completed 2,097 passes for 25,737 yards, and he has thrown 177 touchdowns to 91 interceptions. 

20. OG Larry Little, Bethune-Cookman

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    Undrafted Bethune-Cookman offensive guard Larry Little joined the then-AFL San Diego Chargers in 1967. He was then traded to the Miami Dolphins in 1969, where he remained for the rest of his career, through the merger that brought the Dolphins to the NFL and all the way until his final season in 1980.

    Little's career is a trophy case. He reached the Pro Bowl five times, was a five-time All-Pro and won two Super Bowl rings before being named not just to the NFL 1970s All-Decade team but also to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.

    Without question, Little is one of the best offensive guards in league history, not just among players who went undrafted.

19. C Jeff Saturday, North Carolina

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    Center Jeff Saturday is best-known for his time with the Indianapolis Colts, but he was actually brought into the league by the Baltimore Ravens, who picked up the undrafted player in 1998.

    They cut him before the season started, though, and he then wound up being signed by the Colts in 1999, where he began starting at left guard in November of that same year. He then moved to the starting center position in 2000.

    Saturday was part of a Colts offensive line that gave up the fewest sacks in the league in 2004, 2005 and 2006. He is a six-time Pro Bowler, a two-time first-team All-Pro, and boasts a Super Bowl victory.

    After 12 seasons with the Colts, Saturday played for the Green Bay Packers in 2012 before retiring from the game. He's appeared in 211 total games with 202 career starts. 

18. WR Rod Smith, Missouri Southern

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    Missouri Southern wide receiver Rod Smith was originally signed by the New England Patriots as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1994, but he was quickly released and then picked up by the Denver Broncos, where he played out a stellar, 10-season career.

    Smith started 158 games for the Broncos, catching 849 passes for 11,389 yards and 68 touchdowns over the course of his career—all of which are NFL records for undrafted players as well as being Denver Broncos franchise records.

    For his efforts, Smith reached the Pro Bowl three times (2000, 2001 and 2005), was an All-Pro twice (2000 and 2001) and has two Super Bowl rings to his name. 

17. LB London Fletcher, John Carroll

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    Linebacker London 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. He then became an unrestricted free agent in 2002, landing with the Buffalo Bills, where he played for five seasons. Fletcher then went to the Washington Redskins in 2007, where he remains presently, although he has said that he may retire before the 2013 season kicks off.

    Fletcher has a career total of 1,320 solo tackles and 608 assisted tackles, 37 sacks, 12 fumble recoveries and 23 interceptions. He's a four-time Pro Bowler, was a second-team All-Pro twice and led the league in tackles in 2011.

16. RB Priest Holmes, Texas

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    Running back Priest Holmes was an undrafted free agent pickup of the Baltimore Ravens' in 1997. He became their starting back in 1998, rushing 233 times for 1,008 yards. Despite the good season, the Ravens chose to have rookie Jamal Lewis be their starter in 2000; Priest was his backup and the Ravens won the Super Bowl.

    In 2001, the Kansas City Chiefs signed Holmes. That year, he led the league in rushing with 1,555 yards, as well as in total yards from scrimmage with 2,169. Holmes rushed for 1,650 yards the following year (with 2,287 yards from scrimmage), and then he rushed for 1,420 yards in 2003, when he also broke Marshall Faulk's single-season rushing touchdown record with 27 scores.

    A spinal injury cut Holmes' 2005 season short and he never fully healed, leading to his retirement in 2007. Holmes is the Chiefs' all-time leader in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns. He is also a three-time Pro Bowler, a three-time All-Pro and was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2002.

15. K Adam Vinatieri, South Dakota State

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    Adam Vinateiri was an undrafted free agent pickup of the New England Patriots in 1996, where he ended up playing for 10 years. He then joined the Indianapolis Colts in 2006, where he remains to this day.

    Vinateiri is the only kicker to have four Super Bowl rings, three of which he won with the Patriots and the other with the Colts. With the Patriots, he kicked 18 game-winning field goals with one minute or less remaining in the game, including the postseason. He is the team's all-time leading scorer with 1,156 points.

    No kicker in history has kicked as many postseason field goals as Vinateiri. He is a two-time Pro Bowler and a two-time first-team All-Pro. He has a career field goal percentage of 82.6 after making 413 out of his 500 career attempts. He has 1,867 career points. 

14. CB Willie Brown, Grambling State

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    Cornerback Willie Brown was initially picked up as an undrafted free agent by the Houston Oilers in 1963, but he was cut during training camp and was then signed by the then-AFL Denver Broncos later that year. He became a starter during his rookie year, and in his second season there, he notched nine interceptions, earning him a spot in the AFL's All-Star Game.

    In 1967, Brown was traded to the Oakland Raiders, where he played out the rest of his career, eventually retiring after the 1978 season. He has a career total of 54 interceptions for 472 yards and two touchdowns. He appeared in five AFC All-Star Games and four Pro Bowls, and he returned an interception for a 75-yard touchdown in Super Bowl XI, which the Raiders won.

    Brown was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984.

13. RB Arian Foster, Tennessee

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    Running back Arian Foster was an undrafted free agency pickup by the Houston Texans in 2009. He played in six games his rookie year, including one start, and had 54 rushes for 257 yards and three touchdowns. 

    Foster took over starting duties for Steve Slaton the following year, and managed to break Priest Holmes' record for single-season yards from scrimmage for an undrafted player. He had 1,616 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns and 2,220 total yards from scrimmage—all of which led the league in 2010—and averaged 101 yards per game. It resulted in a Pro Bowl berth.

    Though Foster suffered a hamstring injury to start out the 2011 season, he still had 1,841 total yards from scrimmage, including 1,224 rushing yards. He then had 1,424 rushing yards in 2012 and led the league with 15 rushing touchdowns. He also went to the Pro Bowl both seasons.

12. OG Brian Waters, North Texas

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    Offensive guard Brian Waters entered the league in 1999 when the Dallas Cowboys picked up the undrafted free agent rookie with the intent of making him a tight end. Alas, that was not meant to be—he was cut by the Cowboys that summer and didn't return to the NFL until 2000, when the Kansas City Chiefs picked up Waters for their offensive line.

    Waters then went on to spend 11 seasons with the Chiefs, and after an eight-rushing touchdown performance by the Chiefs in a win over the Atlanta Falcons in 2004, he was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week, the first time an offensive lineman had won the award since 1992.

    The Chiefs released Waters in 2011 and he then played for the New England Patriots, reaching the Pro Bowl in his first season there. He chose not to report to the Patriots in 2012, though, and he was released from his contract earlier in 2013. 

    Waters has made the Pro Bowl six times in his career and is a two-time All-Pro selection. He also won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2009.

11. RB Marion Motley, Nevada

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    Nevada product Marion Motley was taken on by the Cleveland Browns after he requested a tryout in 1946, and he ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968, becoming the second African-American player to make it in.

    Motley had 828 career carries for 4,720 yards and 5,827 total yards from scrimmage in his nine years in the league. He led the league in rushing in 1950, with 810 yards, which led to his lone Pro Bowl appearance. He was named to the NFL's 75th-Anniversary All-Time Team in 1994.

10. WR Wes Welker, Texas Tech

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    The San Diego Chargers picked up undrafted rookie wide receiver Wes Welker in 2004 but released him after the first game of the season. The Miami Dolphins then picked him up, and he played there for three seasons, working primarily as a kick and punt returnerthough in his final season with the team he did have 67 receptions for 687 yards and a touchdown.

    What happened next cements Welker's name among the greatest undrafted free agents in NFL history. In 2007, he was traded to the New England Patriots. Immediately, he made a major impact, catching 112 passes (the most in the league that year) for 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns. 

    In all but one year in New England since this time, Welker has had at least 1,100 receiving yards and has routinely caught well over 100 passes. He shares Cris Carter's record for most seasons with over 120 receptions (two), and he holds the Patriots' records for total receptions, single-season receptions and receiving yards. He also holds the Dolphins' records for kick and punt return yardage and all-purpose yardage. 

    Welker is a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro. He's now a member of the Denver Broncos, where he's likely to make as big of a difference as he did in New England.

9. DB Emlen Tunnell, Iowa

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    Defensive back Emlen Tunnell was an undrafted free agent acquisition of the New York Giants in 1948, where he played for 11 seasons before heading to the Green Bay Packers for three more years.

    Tunnell reached the Pro Bowl nine times in his career and was named an All-Pro eight times. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was named to the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team.

    Tunnell had 79 career interceptions—the second-most in NFL historytotaling 1,282 yards. 

8. RB Joe Perry, Compton Community College

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    Running back Joe Perry was an undrafted free agent who joined the San Francisco 49ers in 1948. He played until 1961, when he played for two years with the Baltimore Colts before returning to the Niners for one final season in 1963.

    Perry led the league in rushing yards, carries and yards from scrimmage in 1953 and 1954; rushing yards in 1949; rushing yards per game in 1949, 1953 and 1954; and touchdowns in 1949, 1953 and 1954. He had 1,929 career rushes for 9,723 yards and 71 touchdowns. He also has 11,744 career yards from scrimmage and 83 combined scores.

    The first player to rush for 1,000 or more yards in back-to-back seasons, Perry was a Pro Bowler three times, a two-time first team All-Pro and was named to the NFL's 1950s All-Decade Team as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

7. LB James Harrison, Kent State

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    Linebacker James Harrison was an undrafted free agent signing of the Pittsburgh Steelers' in 2002, but he spent much of his early time on the practice squad after being released and re-signed. He didn't really take hold on the roster until 2004, where he primarily played special teams. He had three starts in 2005 and one in 2006. Then, in 2007, he finally became a starter.

    Harrison then became a pass-rushing force in Pittsburgh, notching 64 career sacks and 617 tackles along with 29 forced fumbles and five interceptions. His 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLII is the second-longest in Super Bowl history.

    Harrison has been voted to five Pro Bowls and is a four-time All-Pro. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 and was the Steelers team MVP in 2007 and 2008. He is currently playing with the Cincinnati Bengals, who signed him after the Steelers released him earlier in 2013.

6. DT John Randle, Texas A&M-Kingsville

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    Defensive tackle John Randle joined the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 1990, where he played through the 2000 season before spending three years with the Seattle Seahawks.

    Randle started eight games in his second season, recording 9.5 sacks. He became a full-time starter in 1992, totaling 11.5 sacks that season, his first in a string of eight consecutive years with double-digit sacks (he had nine overall). His 15.5 sacks in 1997 was a league high. He has a career total of 137.5 sacks, the seventh-most in NFL history.

    Randle made the Pro Bowl seven times, was an All-Pro six times, is a member of the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team and was selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010.

5. TE Antonio Gates, Kent State

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    Tight end Antonio Gates joined the San Diego Chargers in 2003 as an undrafted free agent after choosing football over basketball. 

    Gates' time in San Diego started modestly. In his 11 rookie-season starts, he amassed 389 yards and two scores on 24 receptions. His production increased drastically in his second year, when he had 81 receptions for 964 yards and 13 scores. Gates has five seasons with 900 or more receiving yards, including two (2005, 2009) with over 1,100.

    Gates is an eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro who was named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, and he was also awarded the NFL Alumni's Tight End of the Year Award in 2005. To date, he has 642 career catches for 8,321 yards and 83 touchdowns.

4. K Lou Groza, Ohio State

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    Lou Groza was invited to join the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent by team owner Paul Brown in 1945, when Groza was still serving in World War II. He joined the Browns in 1946, after the conclusion of the war.

    Groza is a kicking legend, playing for the Browns for the entirety of his 21-year career. He was the NFL's scoring leader in 1957, and he is the Browns' all-time scoring leader with 1,608 points. He's reached the Pro Bowl nine times, was a four-time first-team All-Pro, led the league in field goals made five times, has an NCAA kicking award named after him and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

3. QB Warren Moon, Washington

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    Quarterback Warren Moon went undrafted in the NFL, so he chose to join the CFL, spending six seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos and leading them to five straight Grey Cup championships from 1978 to 1982.

    He joined the Houston Oilers in 1984, but then moved on to the Minnesota Vikings in 1994, the Seattle Seahawks in 1997 and the Kansas City Chiefs for his final two years in the NFL in 1999.

    Moon completed 3,988 of his 6,823 NFL-career pass attempts for 49,325 yards, 291 touchdowns and 233 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,736 yards and 22 touchdowns. 

    Moon reached the Pro Bowl nine times and was a three-time All-Pro selection. He ranks fifth in all-time in passing yards and he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

2. CB Richard "Night Train" Lane, Scottsbluff Junior College

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    Richard "Night Train" Lane tried out for the Los Angeles Rams in 1952, making the team as an undrafted rookie. In his rookie season, he set an NFL record for interceptions in a single season with 14, which still stands today. 

    Lane was traded to the then-Chicago Cardinals in 1954, where he spent six seasons, and then he was traded to the Detroit Lions for six more. In his career, Lane totaled 68 interceptions for 1,207 yards. He reached the Pro Bowl seven times, was a six-time first-team All-Pro, a four-time second team All-Pro and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968.

1. QB Kurt Warner, Northern Iowa

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    The best undrafted free agent in NFL history is quarterback Kurt Warner, who helped architect the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" from 1999-2001, and then later returned to the Super Bowl at the helm of the Arizona Cardinals offense in 2009.

    Warner was initially a 1994 undrafted free agent signing of the Green Bay Packers, but he was released prior to the regular season. Instead, he opted to join the Arena Football League's Iowa Barnstormers, where he had great success.

    In 1998, the St. Louis Rams signed Warner, and he spent time in the NFL's European League before coming back to the Rams to be their third-string quarterback. Injury forced Warner into the starting spot in 1999, which led to the Rams reaching and winning the Super Bowl, where Warner was named the game's MVP. The Rams returned to the Super Bowl in 2001, but lost to the New England Patriots.

    Warner spent 2004 as the New York Giants' starting quarterback and then joined the Arizona Cardinals in 2005. The Cardinals reached the Super Bowl with Warner as their starter in 2008, ultimately losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    In his NFL career, Warner has completed 2,666 of his 4,070 pass attempts for 32,344 yards, 208 touchdowns and 128 interceptions. He's a four-time Pro Bowler, was named an All-Pro twice, was NFL MVP twice and Super Bowl MVP once. He also holds the top three Super Bowl passing records.

    (Unless otherwise noted, all information sourced from Pro Football Reference and Wikipedia)

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