Who were the best undrafted players in NFL history?
Didn’t hear your name called on day one of the draft? Nor day two? What about day three? All is not lost, here are players that the NFL almost passed up.
The NFL draft is the starting point for the professional career of many great players. Some top picks go on to have stellar careers and others rise from the bottom of the pack. But what happens if your favorite player goes undrafted? Is that the end of the road for their gridiron dreams?
Not necessarily. There are around 3500 eligible players in each draft class and with only 262 seats at the table, there is still a great amount of untapped talent out there. When you factor in injuries, retirements, and draft busts, teams will be shopping around for the top free agents on the market.
Here are some of the best all-time undrafted players. This is a small sample of ten, including five Hall of Famers and a couple who should join their ranks sooner or later.
After going undrafted in 1997 out of Southwestern Louisiana University (now University of Louisiana Lafayette), Delhomme was signed to the practice squad by the Saints. He spent some time in Europe backing up Kurt Warner and eventually made his way to the Carolina Panthers, where he won the starting job from Rodney Peete and led the Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII. Widely seen as one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever, the Patriots won it on Adam Vinatieri’s last-second field goal, giving one Thomas Brady his second Super Bowl victory.
The three-time All-Pro wide receiver was signed by the Dallas Cowboys in 1973 after going undrafted out of Tulsa. He teamed up with Tony Hill and Tony Dorsett to help the Cowboys become the first team to have two 1000-yard receivers and a 1000-yard running back in 1979. A tragic car crash in 1984 ended his career prematurely but in his time with Dallas, he helped them get to three Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl XII. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2021.
The All-SEC tight end out of Arkansas was expected to go in the fourth round of the 2004 draft, but was eventually undrafted and picked up as a free agent by the Buffalo Bills. They transitioned him to tackle and he spent five years with Buffalo and then moved on to the Philadelphia Eagles. After nine Pro Bowl appearances, he signed a one year deal in 2021 with the Chicago Bears. When he does finish his playing days, it is likely that a bronze bust awaits him in Canton.
Standing at only 5′9″ tall, the linebacker from Montclair State was seen as too small to play in the NFL. After going undrafted in 1981, he was signed and released after the preseason by the Cleveland Browns. The Toronto Argonauts repeated the performance in 1982. It took the USFL and the Philadelphia Stars to give him a break where he quickly became, along with Reggie White, one of the best defensive players in the league. When the Stars coach Jim Mora moved over to the New Orleans Saints, he brought Mills with hims and he became the center of the ferocious Dome Patrol defense, earning four Pro Bowl selections in New Orleans. Jim Mora called him “the best player I ever coached.” He finished up in Carolina, where he won his fifth Pro Bowl appearance. He was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and passed away in 2005 at the age of 45. Mills was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2022.
The Texas Tech standout, with the NCAA record for punt return yards and second-most punts returned for touchdown, went undrafted in 2004. The San Diego Chargers picked him up as a free agent and released him after one game. Marty Schottenheimer calls Welker’s release the “biggest mistake I ever made.” He went on to sign with the Miami Dolphins and after three seasons was traded to the New England Patriots. He had an insane career with the Pats setting franchise records in receiving yardage, most receptions in a single game, most yards in a game, longest reception and career receptions. He made it to five straight Pro Bowls and led the league in receptions three times.
Coming out of the military, Joe Perry signed with the San Francisco 49ers for $4500 in 1948. The uncommonly fast fullback was nicknamed The Jet and became the first African-American to be named NFL MVP and the first player to rush for over 1000 yards in consecutive seasons. He retired in 1963 as the NFL’s all time leading rusher and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1969.
After an awe-inspiring college career in Washington, Moon failed to convince the NFL and went north to Edmonton. He became a Canadian football legend, winning five consecutive Grey Cups, still a CFL record, and was twice named as MVP. This attracted the attention of the Houston Oilers and they signed him and he immediately lit the NFL up. During his 17-year NFL career, Moon made nine Pro Bowls and was the 1990 Offensive Player of the Year. He is the only player to be in both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as well as the NFL Hall of Fame.
Going undrafted out of South Dakota State in 1996, Vinatieri spent a year in Amsterdam before being picked up by the Patriots. He became an elite clutch kicker and was the deciding factor in two of their three Super Bowl victories during his tenure, gifting Tom Brady a legacy. Moving on to the Colts, he won another Super Bowl making five total. In 2021, he finished his spectacular 24-year career as the NFL’s all-time leading scorer with 2673 points. He becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2025 and is an absolute shoe-in.
The Eastern Illinois standout was not even invited to attend the combine in 2003 and was signed by the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent on the insistence of then-assistant coach Sean Payton. When Payton went to the Saints he tried to take Romo with him, but Jerry Jones refused. Going from holder to starter in 2006, he made four Pro Bowl appearances and finished his 14 year career with the NFL record for the highest fourth-quarter passer rating.
Easily the standout in this list, the greatest undrafted player in NFL history is Kurt Warner. Undrafted in 1994, he was signed and released by the Green Bay Packers and wound up in Arena Football. Supporting his former Marine wife and two children, one disabled, by working a minimum-wage supermarket job, he spent two seasons in Europe and was picked up in 1998 by the St Louis Rams. Becoming their starting quarterback after Trent Green’s knee injury, Warner led the Rams to the Super Bowl and won MVP in his first season as a starter. He returned to the Super Bowl two years later, only to lose to an Adam Vinatieri kick. He moved on to Arizona and became the second-quickest quarterback to reach 20,000 yards in NFL history, needing only one game more than Dan Marino to accomplish the feat. Enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2017, he is the greatest that almost never was.