Last week was August 30th, aka the day after the final preseason games have been played and the darkest day of the NFL season. On that day, around 1,200 players were released from their NFL team. Some will find a new home on a different team, some will end up on practice squads, but for many, that day marks the end of their NFL dreams.
But through every tragedy, there is a silver lining. Because while most players in the NFL were drafted, there are a few that slipped through the cracks and will find themselves on the active 53-man roster for week one. Here are the best undrafted players (according to statistics) at every position in NFL history.
The Best Undrafted Player (Statistically) at Every Position
Quarterback: Warren Moon
This is an easy one. I know some people would argue for Kurt Warner, but I think Warren Moon could’ve been one of the very best ever if only he’d been able to play in the NFL right off the bat. Warner had these stretches where he didn’t look very good and lost his job on multiple occasions. Moon was pretty reliable from 1984 to 1995 for the Houston Oilers and Minnesota Vikings, throwing for an average of 3,500 yards and 21 touchdowns in an era where teams weren’t throwing as much as they do today.
Best Season: 4,689 yards, 33 touchdowns, 13 interceptions (1990).
Career Stats: 49,325 yards, 291 touchdowns, 233 interceptions (made his NFL debut at age 28).
Running Back: Joe Perry
We have to jump in the time machine for this one, but Joe Perry led the NFL in rushing touchdowns and yards on three occasions, and not the same three years either. A two-time All-Pro and a three-time Pro Bowler, Perry was one of the better backs of the 1950’s, despite not being drafted.
Best Season: 1,018 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns (in 12 games) (1953).
Career Stats: 11,744 all-purpose yards, 83 total touchdowns.
Wide Receiver: Rod Smith
Rod Smith’s legend is one that doesn’t get visited enough. Far too many uninformed people harp about how John Elway never had any weapons. Ignoring legends like Shannon Sharpe and Terrell Davis for a second, the second half of Elway’s career, Smith averaged 90 catches, over 1,200 yards, and eight touchdowns a year. Not bad for someone that didn’t even get drafted.
Best Season: 113 catches for 1,343 yards, 11 touchdowns (2001).
Career Stats: 849 catches for 11,389 yards, 68 touchdowns.
Tight End: Antonio Gates
The all-time leader in touchdowns for a tight end went undrafted because he didn’t play college football at all, and that’s still a “hollywood throws this script away” story to me. Being arguably the best tight end in the history of a franchise that includes Kellen Winslow is kind of a big deal.
Best Season: 89 catches for 1,101 yards, 10 touchdowns (2005).
Career Stats: 955 catches for 11,841 yards, 116 touchdowns.
Offensive Tackle: Jason Peters
It’s crazy that 15 year pro Jason Peters wasn’t drafted. He showed out in Buffalo and has been a crucial part of Philadelphia’s offensive line. An All-Pro and several Pro Bowl appearances after all 32 teams decided he wasn’t worth a draft pick, it could be argued that there’s a place in Canton for Peters.
Offensive Guard: Nate Newton
Imagine being undrafted and going on to be a big part of the best offensive line in NFL history? The Great Wall of Dallas paved the way for Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman as the squad dominated the early 90’s. A six-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team all-pro, Newton went undrafted in 1986 but was starting in Dallas a year later.
Center: Jeff Saturday
You can’t think of the great Colts teams of the 00’s without mentioning Jeff Saturday. He was considered too small to play in the NFL, but that didn’t stop him from snapping balls to Peyton Manning for 11 straight years, only missing six games over that span.
Defensive End: Cameron Wake
Just like Warren Moon, Cameron Wake didn’t make it to the NFL until his late 20’s, but that didn’t stop him from making a big impact. In his 10 years with the NFL, he’s been a devastating rusher for the Miami Dolphins. He averages 10 sacks and 21 quarterback hits a season.
Best Season: 15 sacks, 53 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles (2012)
Career Stats: 213 quarterback hits, 98 sacks, 22 forced fumbles, 358 tackles.
Defensive Tackle: John Randle
When John Randle played, 6’1, 290 pounds was way, way too small for a defensive lineman. Everyone else was a gargantuan monster and someone Randle’s size wouldn’t have dreampt of being drafted. But not only did he make the Vikings roster, but he started and had double digit in nine of the next ten seasons. Without John Randle, there would be no Aaron Donald.
Best Season: 15.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, 58 tackles (1997).
Career Stats: 137.5 sacks, 29 forced fumbles, 555 tackles.
Outside Linebacker: James Harrison
The irony of James Harrison originally being cut by the Baltimore Ravens, only to become a dominant force for the Pittsburgh Steelers should be lost on nobody. Just think about how devastating those Ravens teams could’ve been if they had Suggs on one side and Harrison on the other with players like Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, and Ed Reed taking care of the rest. Viewed as too small and too slow, Harrison’s pure brute strength carved out a very productive career, highlighted by a legendary interception in the Super Bowl.
Best Season: 16 sacks, 101 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, one interception, seven forced fumbles (2008).
Career Stats: 84.5 sacks, 795 tackles, 128 tackles for a loss, eight interceptions, 34 forced fumbles.
Inside Linebacker: London Fletcher
It’s baffling that some of the all-time greats went undrafted, but it’s easy to see why teams passed up on London Fletcher. Despite being a great athlete, he was only 5’10, and viewed by many as “too small” to play the position. It’s silly, considering he has a similar built to Ray Lewis, who was a first round pick for the Baltimore Ravens, but oh well. For being “too small” to play the position, Fletcher played it, he played it well, and he played it for a really long time.
Between 1998 and 2013, Fletcher never missed a game. He was a multi-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro, won a Super Bowl with the Rams and became one of the best players in Redskins history, even earning a place in their Ring of Fame.
Best Season: 166 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, eight deflections, five tackles for a loss (2011).
Career Stats: 2,031 tackles, 23 interceptions, 19 forced fumbles, 96 pass deflections, 109 tackles for a loss, 39 sacks, and two safeties.
Cornerback: Dick “Night Train” Lane
The most remarkable thing about Dick “Night Train” Lane is that he set a record for interceptions nearly 50 years ago that still stands. In 12 games, in an era where they don’t pass anywhere near as much as they do today, he had 14 picks. In the 16 game era when people are throwing 30 times a game, nobody’s come closer than Lester Hayes and his stickum’s 13 in 1980. That’s insane.
Best Season: 14 interceptions, 298 return yards, two touchdowns (1952).
Career Stats: 68 interceptions, 1,207 return yards, five touchdowns.
Safety: Emlen Tunnell
Emlen Tunnell was a six-time First-Team All-Pro, a nine-time Pro Bowler, a two-time NFL Champion, and the very first African American player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tunnell retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in interceptions, interception yardage, punt return yardage, and consecutive games played. One of the best defensive backs of all time, it’s unreal that he went undrafted.
Best Season: Nine interceptions, 790 return yards, four total touchdowns (1951).
Career Stats: 79 interceptions, 1,282 interception return yards, four pick sixes, 2,209 punt return yards, five punt return touchdowns, 1,215 kickoff return touchdowns, one kick return touchdown.
Kicker: Adam Vinatieri
This is a gimme, right? The best kicker in NFL history went undrafted. You want points? More than anyone. Big kicks? Got too many of them. Super Bowls? He won 4. It’s not even worth discussing further.
Best Season: 30/31 and 3/3 from 50+, including a 53 yarder, 50/50 on EXPs (2014).
Career Stats: 582/690, 852/870 on extra points, career long of 55 yards.
Punter: Johnny Hekker
Johnny Hekker has been the best punter in the NFL for quite some time now, and I was tempted to bring up the fact that he doubles as a passer. He’s a four-time first-team All-Pro at punter, but… let’s be honest, nobody should be drafting punters and kickers.
Best Season: 96 punts for an average of 47.9 yards, with a long of 68 yards. (2015).
Career Stats: 542 punts for an average of 47 yards, with a career long of 78 yards.