Every year, multiple prospects fly under the radar in the NFL Draft. When analysts go back and do a “redraft”, there are almost always a couple of players picked in the later rounds that played well enough as rookies to earn a spot in the first round of the hypothetical draft.
While it’s no surprise when someone picked in the 5th, 6th or 7th round goes on to have a decorated NFL career, it is crazy to see someone who went undrafted become an NFL superstar. With the NFL Draft coming up, let’s go back and look at some of the biggest names in the history of the league to go undrafted.
10. Wes Welker:
Coming out of Texas Tech, Welker went undrafted but signed with the Chargers as a free agent. Welker was cut by the Chargers after the first week of the season and later signed with the Dolphins. In a game against the Patriots, Welker became the second player in NFL history to return a kick and a punt, kick an extra point and a field goal, and also tackle a player in a single game. Bill Belichick must have been impressed as the Patriots eventually traded second and seventh round picks to the ‘Phins for Welker. Welker became one of Tom Brady’s all-time favorite targets and the rest was history. He went on to play with Peyton Manning and the Broncos before retiring. Today, Welker is a wide receivers coach for the San Francisco 49ers.
9. Michael Bennett:
Bennett entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M. He was signed by the Seattle Seahawks and made the final roster, but was eventually waived a few weeks into the season. He then signed with the Buccaneers where he made a name for himself in the absence of Gerald McCoy. After his stint in Tampa, Bennett went back to Seattle where he became a star. Bennett was a key part of the famous Seattle Seahawks defense that destroyed Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl. He went on to play for the Eagles, Patriots and Cowboys before retiring in 2020.
8. Jason Peters:
Peters’ path to NFL stardom is definitely among the most-interesting. Coming out of high school, Peters signed with the University of Arkansas with the expectation of playing defensive end. In his second season, he switched t0 tight end where he had limited success catching the ball. As a junior, he caught four touchdowns and received All-SEC honors. Because he was a much better blocking tight end than pass catching, Peters declared for the NFL Draft as an offensive tackle. He signed with the Bills where he excelled for years before being traded to the Eagles where he earned two All-Pro selections. Despite having to change positions twice and going undrafted, Peters went on to be one of the best offensive linemen in NFL history, winning a Super Bowl in 2018 and being named to the NFL’s 2010 All-Decade team.
7. Priest Holmes:
Despite having a really good career for the Texas Longhorns, Holmes was not drafted. He signed with the Baltimore Ravens where he had success as a backup on a Super Bowl winning team. In 2001, Holmes signed with the Kansas City Chiefs where he became the first undrafted player to lead the NFL in rushing. In 2003, he broke Marshall Faulk’s touchdown record and almost broke his own record in 2004 before suffering a season-ending injury. With injuries becoming more and more frequent, Holmes was eventually replaced by Larry Johnson. After over a year on the sideline, he eventually made a comeback, but retired after reactivating his neck injury in 2007.
6. James Harrison:
Harrison was a walk-on at Kent State where he had about as dominant a career as a player could have. Despite putting up big numbers, Harrison went undrafted mostly because he was too small to play the defensive line. Harrison landed a spot on the Steelers practice squad where he apparently had trouble remembering the plays and was eventually cut. After a short stint with the Ravens and playing in Europe, Harrison landed a second chance with the Steelers where he improved drastically. He became a dominant force and recorded the longest defensive touchdown in Super Bowl history. Harrison eventually went on to play for the Bengals and Patriots before retiring in 2017.
5. Adam Vinatieri
While kickers don’t usually get drafted until late anyway, it’s still kind of crazy that the best one of all-time didn’t get drafted at all. After a historic career at North Dakota State, Vinatieri went undrafted and signed with the Amsterdam Admirals of the World League of American Football. Following his stint in Europe, Vinatieri signed with the New England Patriots and the rest is history. He became a household name following his clutch kicks during the Patriots’ three Super Bowl runs between 2001 and 2004. Vinatieri went on to play for the Colts for 13 years.
4. Antonio Gates:
Gates’ path to the NFL was about as unconventional as it gets. He originally attended Michigan State with the hopes of playing football for Nick Saban and basketball for Tom Izzo. Saban said he could only play football, so Gates transferred to Eastern Michigan University. He transferred from EMU to a junior college and eventually went to Kent State where he would only play basketball. While at Kent State, Gates lead the Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 10 seed. Gates averaged over 20 points per game as a senior for Kent State but was too short to play forward in the NBA. Even though he never played football in college, Gates landed a tryout with the San Diego Chargers and was immediately signed. He earned a starting spot with the Chargers in his rookie year and scored 13 touchdowns in his second season. Gates retired in 2020 as the NFL’s all-time leading touchdown-scoring tight end.
3. Warren Moon:
Despite leading the Washington Huskies to a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan, Moon wasn’t looked at as much of an NFL prospect. Prior to the draft, he signed with the Edminton Eskimos of the CFL. Following six seasons in the CFL, Moon was the subject of a bidding war in which the Houston Oilers won. He went on to turn the Oilers’ franchise around and was at one point the NFL’s highest-paid player. Moon was a nine-time Pro Bowler, one-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year and twice led the NFL in passing yards.
2. Kurt Warner:
Warner attended the University of Northern Iowa where he rode the bench until his senior year when he was named the conference’s MVP. In 1994, he was invited to the Packers training camp but was cut before the season started. Between his release from the Packers and his 1999 MVP season, Warner stocked shelves at a grocery store, was a graduate assistant at UNI and played in the Arena Football League. He was eventually signed by the Rams but played in Europe before starting his tenure in the NFL. Warner won two MVPs and a Super Bowl with the Rams, had limited success with the Giants, and turned his career back around with the Cardinals, where he appeared in a Super Bowl.
1. Tony Romo:
After initially not being invited to the NFL Combine, Romo participated as a thrower in the wide receiver drills. Despite having a ridiculously decorated college career playing for Eastern Illinois, Romo went undrafted. He was signed by the Cowboys and after a few seasons as a backup, he eventually won the starting role over Drew Bledsoe. Romo never won any MVPs or Super Bowls, but he was a beloved QB for the Dallas Cowboys and with that came a bunch of fame. Reaching the playoffs was never an issue, but Romo’s Cowboys teams never made it further than the divisional round. Although he had a ton of success as a player, it’s possible he goes down as a better announcer.
If there’s anything you can learn from this post, it’s to never give up. Many think that when a player goes undrafted that his career is over, but each of the guys listed above have proved that sentiment to be wrong.