Countless athletes have walked onto NFL fields, but few have made an impact for their teams. Even fewer have walked onto the field as undrafted free agents to help their teams succeed. There seems to exist a strange notion that teams only find Hall-of-Fame bound players early in the draft and if they don’t draft these players, their franchises will fall apart. Other players will disagree with this statement. In fact, I’m certain the ones listed here would argue otherwise.
A unique breed of player has prevailed throughout NFL history, one who has come from nothing, sometimes literally nothing, to climb to the top of the NFL. Through great effort, perseverance and dedication to master their craft, these players represent what hard working Americans want most in their athletes, people they can relate too.
These players were not first round draft picks. Teams did not select them in the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth or even seventh round. Instead, these players fought their way onto an NFL roster and did their best to make an impression on a crowded playing field. Some of them were cut more than once, while others spent time on the practice squad. One player had to change positions to make the final roster and two others had to prove their worth by playing in the now defunct NFL Europe. At the time of their original signing, teams offered them deals that pale in comparison to the money their colleagues made.
You know these players. You’ve seen their highlights on ESPN, Facebook and YouTube. Maybe, some of them even helped your team win the Super Bowl. In fact, one did. These are the top undrafted players to play in the NFL since 2000. And yes, you might be surprised with who tops the list as the best undrafted free agent of them all.
10. Danny Woodhead, RB, Signed in 2009 by the New York Jets
I am not sure where this guy came from, but one day the Jets released him and the next day, he was tearing his former team apart with the New England Patriots. During the 2008 draft, the 5-foot-7-inch Danny Woodhead watched as teams past over him to select other small running backs, such as Ray Rice and lesser known players like Thomas Brown and Mike Hart.
Woodhead, a product of Division II Chadron State, ran into a number record books at his alma mater. He became the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher with 7,962 yards and won the Harlon Hill Award twice, which is Division II’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Like in college, few NFL scouts showed interest in Woodhead and he wasn’t invited to the 2008 NFL Combine. Signed as an undrafted free agent for the Jets, the team released him prior to their game against New England in 2010. The Patriots, always willing to try a player out, scooped up Woodhead that same week and put him on the field against his former team.
In 2010, Woodhead found his mark with the Patriots and averaged 5.6 yards per carry to go along with five touchdowns. Three years later, Woodhead signed a two year, $3.5 million contract with San Diego. After Woodhead departed for San Diego, many fans in New England wondered whether the Patriots had made the same mistake as the Jets. In the short term, they did. On 106 attempts last year, Woodhead rushed for 429 yards and caught 76 receptions for 605 yards. On the opposite end, the Patriots elected to replace Woodhead with versatile running back Shane Vereen. Vereen was hurt for much of the season and finished with only 208 rushing yards on 44 attempts. He did, however, notch 47 receptions.
9. Josh Cribbs, KR/WR, Signed in 2005 by the Cleveland Browns
Josh Cribbs took an unusual journey to the NFL. In college, he was a quarterback with the skills of a wide receiver, but the Browns requested he put his quarterback dreams aside and focus solely on catching the football. In an interview with Rich Cimini of ESPN New York, Cribbs replied, “I think I would have made it as a quarterback, but when I worked out for the Browns before the (2005) draft, they told me I’d pretty much make the team if I switched positions.” So, he switched positions.
Cribbs’ stay at receiver didn’t last long, but he became a fixture as a punt and kickoff returner. As a kick returner, he was named to the 2000’s NFL All-Decades Team and as of 2012, he was also ranked fifth in total return touchdowns (11) and seventh all-time in kickoff return yards (8,873).
At Kent State, Cribbs set a variety of records for the Golden Flashes football team. As a quarterback, he set records for completions (616), attempts (1,123) and touchdowns scored (41). His skills translated to the NFL and in 2006, Cribbs had earned his large pay day; he signed a six year, $5.8 million contract with the Browns. In recent years, Cribbs has fallen off the NFL radar because of performance issues and injuries; however, that doesn’t take away from his past accomplishments. He is still one of the most dynamic returners ever to run on an NFL field.
8. Victor Cruz, WR, Signed in 2010 by the New York Giants
Victor Cruz is the definition of perseverance. He fought through poor grades, physical limitations and a tough lifestyle to make it to the pro level. While Cruz was born into a tough neighborhood that passed around more drugs than footballs, he was able to overcome the difficult environment. Although many others he knew were likely defined by their surroundings, Cruz fought hard to define his.
Initially, because of poor high school grades, Cruz ventured around New England to a couple of college football programs. He stopped first at Bridgton Academy in Maine to boost his scores and play the game he loved. Next, he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, but the school forced him to leave because of, once again, poor grades. If things weren’t tough enough, his father’s death put another burden on the receiver’s shoulders. He not only had to hold up the weight of his professional career, but also his family’s livelihood.
Cruz said his father’s death made him take his life more seriously because “I [Cruz] had to be the man of the family.” The University of Massachusetts accepted him back into their program and Cruz started 22 games, finishing with 131 receptions for close to 2,000 receiving yards. Finally, in 2010, he found his permanent home with the New York Giants when they offered him a contract as an undrafted free agent. With New York, Cruz went on to reach greatness faster than it took him to arrive at the pro level. He helped the Giants beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 46 and in July 2013, signed a five year, $43 million extension with New York.
7. Jason Peters, OT, Signed in 2004 by the Buffalo Bills
Jason Peters entered the league as an undrafted tight end out of the University of Arkansas and converted to offensive tackle during his second season in the NFL. Only three other undrafted offensive lineman, Jim Otto, Lou Groza and Jay Hilgenberg, have been selected to more Pro Bowls than Peters.
Prior to the draft, scouts had a number of positive things to say about Peters’ tight end skills, but nothing good to say about his ability to play offensive line. Sports Illustrated noted that he was “not quick off the snap or explosive into blocks. Gets lazy and leans on opponents rather than blocking them…Not overly alert or a prospect that shows great wherewithal.” After signing with the Bills, the team released, resigned and then placed Peters on their practice squad before they promoted him to their active roster.
A couple of years later he had permanently entrenched himself as a starting tackle and the Bills rewarded him with a five year, $15 million contract extension. A few years after his extension, his time in Buffalo ended when he requested a more lucrative contract. Instead of dishing out the money, the Bills traded Peters to the Eagles where he signed a four year, $51.45 million extension.
At the time of being traded, then Eagles coach Andy Reid called Peters, “the best left tackle in football” and noted his power and athleticism. Peters earned back-to-back Pro Bowls with the Bills in 2007 and 2008, as well as Associated Press All Pro Honors both years. He was selected to the Pro Bowl with the Eagles from 2009 to 2011 and was named to the Pro Bowl this past season.
6. James Harrison, LB, Signed in 2002 by the Pittsburgh Steelers
Due to their overly aggressive style of play, the NFL would love for players like James Harrison to disappear. Ten years ago, most gurus and analysts across the league knew little about him. In his early years, Harrison spent time on and off the Steelers’ practice squad. Pittsburgh released the linebacker three times before the Ravens picked him up. Once signed, Baltimore quickly sent Harrison to NFL Europe to play with the Rhein Fire, but again, cut him in June. After bouncing back and forth between teams and leagues, he finally gained a foothold back in the Steel City.
While many question his playing style, few question his determination and grit to succeed. In late July 2004, the Steelers requested that Harrison rejoin their team and he began working his way back up the NFL ladder. As the years progressed, so did Harrison’s status as a defensive play maker; in 2008 he was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year. His greatest career feat might have come in Super Bowl 42 when he intercepted quarterback Kurt Warner and ran the length of the field for a touchdown.
Harrison is an old school, hard hitting breed of player. In 2011, Sports Illustrated listed Harrison as the “meanest player” currently playing and between 2010 and 2011, the NFL fined the linebacker roughly $125,000 for illegal hits. So why does the dirtiest player belong on this list? He’s listed simply because I don’t know of many undrafted free agents who were released numerous times and still made it to the pinnacle of professional sports. As Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Harrison took Wilde’s quote straight to the bank.
5. Brian Waters, OT, Signed in 2000 by the Kansas City Chiefs
Let’s address one thing before I argue his standing amongst the undrafted players in 2000. Some might argue the Cowboys picked up Brian Waters in 1999 before the Chiefs did in 2000. Yes, this is true. The Cowboys also released Waters and the future offensive lineman took about a year off before Kansas City brought him on board. The Chiefs convinced Waters to switch from tight end to offensive line and then sent him to Europe to play with the Berlin Thunder. In doing so, they hoped to convert him to center. Eventually, Waters reunited with the Chiefs as a guard.
Waters never started as a lineman in college. He played in 44 games as a tight end for the University of North Texas and then switched to defensive line as a senior. In three years on offense, Waters hauled in 86 receptions for 975 yards and nine touchdowns. On defense, he recorded five sacks and over 40 tackles.
In the pros, Waters became instrumental in helping the Chiefs’ running game flourish. In 2010, he propelled running back Jamaal Charles to a franchise record 259 yards rushing in one game. In 2004, the NFL even nominated Waters as the AFC Offensive Player of the Week for helping the Chiefs’ running backs rush for an NFL record eight touchdowns against Atlanta. No guard in the NFL had ever claimed that honor. When Kansas City released Waters in 2011, it not only left a hole on the team’s offensive line, but also in the locker room and community. In 2009, Waters received the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for his contributions on and off the field.
4. Wes Welker, WR, Signed in 2004 by the San Diego Chargers
To this day, Wes Welker still vies for respect. Both college and pro scouts largely ignored the diminutive receiver and as a pro, many analysts had labeled him a product of Tom Brady and the Patriots’ system. Of course, the latter might have been true until he signed with Denver and caught 73 passes for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first season with the team. While that ranked as his lowest reception total since 2006 (the year before he played with Brady), Welker was also in a Denver offensive loaded with explosive talent.
After a successful career in high school football, Welker’s ascent to pro football was slow moving. He began playing in college after another recruit backed out of his scholarship. It might have been the best thing to happen to the receiver, but it’s also a situation I believe irked him greatly. I think Welker wanted to earn that spot, rather than have a coach give it to him, and since then, he has always tried to prove he belonged on that field. At Heritage Hall High School, Welker was prolific in all phases of the game. He scored 90 total offensive touchdowns, including seven on punt returns. On defense he totaled 22 interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns, and recovered nine fumbles.
His gaudy statistics should have impressed NFL scouts, but few turned their heads. The San Diego Chargers signed Welker as an undrafted free agent in 2004 and released him after the first game of the regular season. In 2010 Chargers’ former head coach, Marty Schottenheimer, caught up to Welker and told him, “Of all the players I’ve been involved in releasing, the decision to release you was the biggest mistake ever made that at least involved myself.”
After his release, Welker hooked on with the Dolphins and began to make a name for himself. The Patriots noticed Welker’s ability and traded for him in 2007. With Tom Brady, he set the all-time Patriots’ franchise record in receptions with 672.
3. Arian Foster, RB, Signed in 2009 by the Houston Texans
Since Arian Foster signed with the Texans as an undrafted free agent, he has been arguably the best running back in football. Yet, his remarkable journey has been anything but easy. He spent time on the Texans’ practice squad before the team cut him and then he resigned with Houston a few months later.
Foster went undrafted even though analysts predicted teams would select him around the sixth round. A year later, he led the league in rushing with 1,616 yards and complemented this dominance with 604 receiving yards. In doing so, he broke Priest Holmes’ record for most yards from scrimmage by an undrafted player.
Already, it’s easy to see why Foster is on this list. Even NFL Media Senior Analyst, Gil Brandt, selected Foster as the 29th greatest undrafted free agent of all time out of 100 players. The running back was awarded an ESPY for “NFL Strongest Performance” for his 231 yard, three touchdown effort in the 2010 regular season opener against the Colts.
For a player the Texans signed originally to a three year, $1.925 million deal in 2009, Foster has come a long way. In March 2012, Houston inked the 27-year old to a five year deal worth $43.5 million. He has been a center piece of the Texans’ offense and will continue to be an important piece of the unit now run by head coach Bill O’Brien.
2. Antonio Gates, TE, Signed in 2003 by the San Diego Chargers
The future Hall-of-Fame tight end took an unusual path to the NFL. After Antonio Gates’ college coach Nick Saban rejected his request to play both basketball and football, Gates decided to focus solely on basketball. After brief stops in Eastern Michigan, the College of the Sequoias, and a junior college in Detroit, Gates landed at Kent State. While there, he led the Kent State Golden Flashes to back-to-back Mid-American Conference Championships and the Elite Eight of the 2002 NCAA Tournament.
After receiving little interest from the NBA due to his underwhelming size, a few NFL teams tried him out. In the spring of 2003, the Chargers signed the tight end to a two year, undrafted free agent deal worth $573,000. In only his second year with the Chargers, Gates became quarterback Drew Brees’ favorite target and caught 81 passes for 964 yards and 13 touchdowns. In August 2005, the Chargers signed their new star to a six year, $24 million contract. In July 2010, they awarded Gates a five year extension worth $36.175 million. At the time, he was the highest paid tight end in the league.
In 2012, Gates became the Chargers’ all-time leader in career touchdown catches and in 2013, the NFL ranked him as the 73rd best player in the league out of 100 players. That’s not too bad for an undersized, former basketball player.
1. Tony Romo, QB, Signed in 2004 by the Dallas Cowboys
While Tony Romo has had his share of hiccups on the field and his odd relationship with Jessica Simpson turned heads, he’s been everything the Cowboys could hope for in an undrafted player. While analysts have criticized Romo’s performances and questioned his future with Dallas, owner Jerry Jones recently put to rest any doubt about the quarterback’s stature with the club. In March 2013, Dallas signed Romo to a six year, $108 million extension.
We can all agree that some of Romo’s on-the-field spoofs have been legendary. In the 2007 NFC wild-card game, he was on the opposite side of a muffed 19-yard field goal with 1:14 remaining in the contest. The field goal would have given Dallas the lead over the Seahawks, but they lost 21-20. The 33-year old also holds an unforgiving 1-3 playoff record.
The above stats don’t help his image, but we must consider other important statistics before we dismiss his career. For example, Romo has thrown 208 career touchdowns. Compare that with Cowboys’ legends like Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, who respectively racked up only 165 and 153, and you can see why Romo’s career has been pretty impressive. Further, the quarterback owns a career passer rating of 95.8, which ranks fifth all time and higher than current quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
Even though teams showed interest in Romo during the 2003 draft, including the Cowboys, no team selected him. Instead, Dallas signed him to a three year, $920,000 deal as an undrafted free agent. Romo fought his way through a surplus of other Dallas quarterbacks like Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson and later Drew Henson and Vinny Testaverde.
It’s tough to be a quarterback, but it’s even tougher to be an undrafted free agent quarterback and make an NFL roster. Romo’s ability to fight through adversity is a major reason he ranks number one on this Top 10 List of Undrafted Free Agents Since 2000.