The NFL Draft is just a day away, and a total of 253 players will be selected by Saturday night. Another few hundred will be signed as undrafted free agents, giving them an opportunity to make the team in OTAs and training camp.
While it’s obviously a disadvantage to go unselected in the draft, it doesn’t signal the end of a player’s career. These 25 players didn’t get drafted, but they went on to have very successful careers in the NFL – some playing as long as 19 years.
Here are the 25 best undrafted players since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
Chris Harris Jr., CB, Broncos (2011-present)
Harris’ story is still being written, but his career projection is sky high. He’s already made three Pro Bowls, has a Super Bowl ring and is considered to be one of the best cornerbacks in the game today. Although he’s a bit undersized, the Kansas product has far outperformed his undrafted status. The Broncos found a good one in 2011 when they signed him as a free agent.
Adam Vinatieri, K, Patriots/Colts (1996-present)
Vinatieri is truly one of the great clutch kickers in NFL history, winning four Super Bowls and being named a first-team All-Pro three times. He’s led the NFL in field goal percentage three times, making a total of 530 in his 21 years in the league. He’s showed no signs of slowing down at age 44.
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Dave Krieg, QB, Seahawks/5 other teams (1980-98)
Krieg didn’t become the starter until 1983 after going undrafted in 1980, but he held the starting job for nearly a decade after that. He led the league in completion percentage in 1991, while also making three Pro Bowls in his career. He played a remarkable 19 NFL seasons.
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London Fletcher, LB, Bills/Redskins (1998-2013)
Fletcher played every game in his 16-year career, never missing a single one. He won the starting job with the Rams in Year 2 before joining the Bills in 2002. His best seasons came with the Redskins, where he made four straight Pro Bowls from 2009-12.
Getty ImagesPatrick McDermott
Arian Foster, RB, Texans/Dolphins (2009-16)
Foster officially retired this past season, bringing an end to one of the best careers by an undrafted running back. He led the league in rushing in his second season and ended up topping the NFL in carries once and touchdowns twice. Injuries ultimately cut his career short as he was limited to just 29 games in his final four seasons.
Getty ImagesBob Levey
Joe Jacoby, OT, Redskins (1981-93)
Jacoby was a big part of the Redskins’ three Super Bowl wins, making four consecutive Pro Bowls as a left tackle. He was an immediate starter in Washington after going undrafted in 1981, starting 13 games in his first season.
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Rod Smith, WR, Broncos (1995-2006)
Smith was a model of consistency for the Broncos in the ‘90s and 2000s, recording at least 1,000 yards eight times in 12 seasons. He only missed three games from 1997-2006, making three Pro Bowls and winning one Super Bowl.
Getty ImagesAl Bello
Cameron Wake, DE, Dolphins (2009-present)
Wake went undrafted in 2005 but was signed by the Giants. He was released before the season began, taking the next two years off from football. He played two seasons in the CFL for the BC Lions, leading the league in sacks both years. The Dolphins gave him a workout following the 2008 season, eventually signing him to a four-year contract. In his second season, he racked up 14 sacks and has had double-digit totals in alternating years since then. His path to success in the NFL is remarkable.
Wes Welker, WR, Patriots/4 other teams (2004-15)
Bill Belichick essentially revived Welker’s career when he landed him in 2007, proving to be a wise move from the get-go. Welker caught a league-high 112 passes in his first season with the Patriots, catching at least 100 passes in five of his first six years in New England. Although he reached three Super Bowls with the Patriots and Broncos, he never came away with a victory.
Newton played a remarkable 13 seasons with the Cowboys after going undrafted in 1986, taking the starting job in his second season. Primarily a left guard in Dallas, he helped win three Super Bowls while making six Pro Bowls. He finished his career in 1999 with the Panthers, though he never started a game in Carolina.
Getty ImagesStephen Dunn
Cliff Harris, S, Cowboys (1970-79)
Nicknamed “Captain Crash,” Harris was a force in Dallas’ secondary for 10 years. An immediate contributor at free safety in 1970, Harris had at least two interceptions in each season, making six Pro Bowls and being named first-team All-Pro three times. He also has two Super Bowl rings.
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Jay Hilgenberg, C, Bears/Browns/Saints (1981-93)
An undrafted free agent in 1981, Hilgenberg didn’t start a single game until his third season. In 1984, he became the full-time starter at center, and the following season he made his first of seven straight Pro Bowls. He won one Super Bowl in Chicago and was a two-time All-Pro.
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James Harrison, OLB, Steelers/Bengals (2002-present)
Harrison is the ageless one, still racking up sacks at 38. He’s made five Pro Bowls and has had at least five sacks every year with the Steelers since 2007. Adding a Defensive Player of the Year to his resume in 2008 and helping the Steelers win two Super Bowls help bolster his resume as he’ll be a candidate for the Hall of Fame when it’s all said and done. He did spend one lackluster year with the Bengals in 2013 before returning to form when he made it back to Pittsburgh the next season.
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Donnie Shell, S, Steelers (1974-87)
Shell spent his entire career with the Steelers after they signed him as a free agent in 1974. It took him four years before he landed the starting job, but he never looked back after earning it. He was a Pro Bowl selection in five straight years from 1978 to 1982, helping the Steelers win four Super Bowls.
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Drew Pearson, WR, Cowboys (1973-83)
Pearson made his way onto the Cowboys’ roster in 1973 thanks to his special teams play, but Dallas quickly learned he was a valuable receiver. He was a first-team All-Pro in his second season in the NFL, making it twice more in 1976 and 1977.
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Brian Waters, G, Chiefs/Patriots/Cowboys (2000-13)
Waters will get strong consideration for the Hall of Fame as one of the best guards during his hayday with the Chiefs. A six-time Pro Bowler, he was an anchor on the left side of the line, playing at least 14 games in 11 straight seasons. He went undrafted in 2000 out of North Texas.
Jason Peters, LT, Bills/Eagles (2004-16)
Peters has been one of the most consistent and reliable left tackles in the league for the Eagles, making the Pro Bowl every year he’s been healthy since 2007. He didn’t get a chance to start in his first season with the Bills in 2004, but the following year, he spent most of the year at right tackle. He peaked when he joined the Eagles in 2009, putting together a Hall of Fame resume.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsMark J. Rebilas
Priest Holmes, RB, Ravens/Chiefs (1997-2007)
Holmes was signed by the Ravens in 1997 after going undrafted, and in just his second season, he was a 1,000-yard rusher. He hit his prime with the Chiefs, rushing for a league-high 1,555 yards in 2001 – his first of three straight All-Pro seasons. He led the league in touchdowns twice, proving to be one of the game’s best running backs in a span of three years.
Getty ImagesJamie Squire
Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys (2004-16)
Romo owes a big thanks to Bill Parcells, who helped shape the quarterback’s career. He took a chance on him, not only signing Romo as an undrafted free agent but inserting him into the starting lineup in 2006. Romo did the rest, leading the Cowboys to four playoff appearances with four Pro Bowl selections of his own. Although he never made it to an NFC Championship game, he was a big reason for Dallas’ success throughout the years. And who knows, maybe he’s not done playing just yet …
Jim Langer, C, Dolphins/Vikings (1970-81)
Langer was one of the best centers in the game during the Dolphins' reign in the ‘70s, making six consecutive Pro Bowls and four first-team All-Pro teams. The Hall of Famer won two Super Bowls in Miami after he went undrafted in 1970 – the first year of the AFL-NFL merger.
Jeff Saturday, C, Colts/Packers (1999-2012)
Saturday was a staple of the Colts’ offensive line for 13 years after going undrafted in 1999, blocking for Peyton Manning throughout his career. He made six Pro Bowls and was a two-time first-team All-Pro, winning a Super Bowl with the Colts in 2007. He finished his career with the Packers in 2012 – making the Pro Bowl in his final season – before retiring and moving into broadcasting.
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Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers (2003-present)
Gates is a near-lock for the Hall of Fame, having made eight Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro squads. His path is even more remarkable considering he was a huge basketball prospect who had a good chance of making it to the NBA. The Chargers gave him a workout, though, and the rest is history. He uses his big frame to post up defenders, dominating the middle of the field for the Chargers. With 897 receptions and 11,192 yards in his career, a gold jacket is certainly in his future.
Getty ImagesRob Carr
John Randle, DT, Vikings/Seahawks (1991-2003)
Randle, a Hall of Famer, went undrafted in 1990, but his impact was quickly felt for the Vikings. In just his second season, he had 58 tackles, and by Year 4, he was an All-Pro. From 1993 to 1998, he was a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowler each year, a remarkable streak for a defensive tackle. He also led the league in sacks in 1997 with 15.5.
Getty ImagesBrian Bahr
Kurt Warner, QB, Rams/Giants/Cardinals (1998-2009)
Warner was elected to the Hall of Fame this year, cementing his place in history as not only one of the best undrafted players in league history but one of the best quarterbacks to play the game. His path to the NFL was a bizarre one, from being released by the Packers to playing in the Arena League and NFL Europe. Eventually, he had success with the Rams, leading them to a Super Bowl win.
Warren Moon, QB, Oilers/3 other teams (1984-2000)
Moon was a terrific college quarterback at Washington, leading the Huskies to a Rose Bowl win in his final season. However, when he went undrafted, he decided to try his hand at the Canadian Football League, where he played for six years. Moon threw his name into the NFL ring in 1984, and the Oilers won with the highest bid. He went on to play 17 years with Houston, the Vikings, the Chiefs and the Seahawks, putting together a Hall of Fame resume with nine Pro Bowl appearances and 291 career touchdown passes.