20 undrafted NFL players who became stars

20Cliff Harris, safety

Nicknamed “Crash” for his hard-nosed style of play, Harris was a force of physicality in the Dallas Cowboys’ secondary. He appeared in five Super Bowls with the team, and was a member of the Super Bowl VI and XII champions.

Harris had ball skills as well, earning 29 interceptions in 10 seasons. Even more impressive, he was a return man for Dallas as well, and finished his playing days with 2,412 all-purpose yards.

19Priest Holmes, running back

The apex of Holmes’ career was short-lived, not unlike 2017 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Terrell Davis, although Davis won two Super Bowls.

Holmes’ legendary three-year run with the Kansas City Chiefs from 2001 through 2003 featured over 2,100 yards from scrimmage in each season and a total of 61 touchdowns, including 27 in 2003, which was a single-season record at the time.

In 2004, Holmes had a hot start through eight games, averaging 111.5 yards per contest on the ground, but saw that year cut short by injury, and he was ultimately never the same again.

18London Fletcher, linebacker

It’s impossible not to include one of the modern era’s ultimate iron men. In 16 seasons as a pro, Fletcher did not miss a single game. He earned a championship ring with the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV and should be in the Hall of Fame someday.

Fletcher was a model of consistency who had 1,380 tackles (h/t Pro Football Reference), and logged impressive totals of 23 interceptions and 39 sacks despite being an inside linebacker.

After four- and five-year stints in St. Louis and Buffalo respectively, the four-time Pro Bowler spent his final seven seasons as a player with the Washington Redskins.

17Willie Wood, cornerback

One of the most decorated players in football history, Wood helped the Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships and victories in the first two Super Bowls.

Wood’s career spanned from 1960 through 1971, and logged a league-leading nine of his 48 interceptions in the 1962 campaign. He was named to eight Pro Bowls overall while also earning five first-team All-Pro selections.

16Donnie Shell, safety

A key member of the elite defenses that lifted the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl triumphs during their 1970s dynasty, Shell was a remarkable undrafted find for coach Chuck Noll and Co.

Shell played 14 seasons in Pittsburgh and 201 games, which ranks second in franchise history. He recorded 51 interceptions and earned five Pro Bowl bids, along with three first-team All-Pro designations.

15Nate Newton, guard

Undrafted out of Florida A&M in 1983, Newton was cut by Washington and got into a serious car accident the night he was released. After two seasons in the USFL, he emerged with the Dallas Cowboys and started for them for the next 13 years.

Newton was the starting left guard on the championships teams of Super Bowls XXVII, XXVIII and XXX. He helped quarterback Troy Aikman thrive and cleared lanes for Emmett Smith to rush for 289 yards and five touchdowns in those contests.

The quality and consistency of Newton’s play, along with the team success he contributed to, puts him very high in the undrafted free agent hierarchy.

14Cameron Wake, defensive end

Some players start in the Canadian Football League and eventually migrate south to find NFL success. Wake is one of those players, and he moved way south to the Miami Dolphins beginning in 2009.

Wake had a whopping 39 sacks in two seasons with the BC Lions and didn’t waste any time bursting onto the stateside scene. In his first nine NFL seasons, Wake averaged over 10 sacks per year despite missing 12 possible games — three-quarters of a season.

13Jeff Saturday, center

While Newton was a member of one of the greatest offensive lines in history, Saturday was the anchor for an Indianapolis Colts unit that didn’t include any other highly heralded names.

Longtime Colts quarterback Peyton Manning could always rely on Saturday to be on the same page with him as he barked all kinds of audibles at the line of scrimmage. It was up to Saturday to communicate with his mates in the trenches to execute the proper play.

The partnership between Manning and Saturday might be the most notable quarterback-center exchange of all-time. Saturday played for Indianapolis from 1999 through 2011 and went to six Pro Bowls.

12Rod Smith, receiver

For the first four of his 13 seasons with the Denver Broncos, Smith caught passes from John Elway, a former No. 1 overall draft pick who guided the team to two championships.

Smith had a breakout 1997 season in helping Elway to his maiden Super Bowl win, recording 70 catches, 1,180 yards and 12 touchdowns. This came after a developmental phase of multiple years, but the wait was well worth it.

Back-to-back 100-reception seasons in 2000 and 2001 solidified Smith as an elite receiver, for he could still produce even with Elway now retired. He even had 85 catches in his penultimate season and probably should’ve been named to more than three Pro Bowls.

11Joe Jacoby, offensive tackle

Serving as the left tackle for two Super Bowl-winning teams and right tackle for another is no small task or role, and Jacoby did an exemplary job.

Under renowned head coach Joe Gibbs, Jacoby flourished as a cornerstone of the Washington Redskins’ famed “Hogs” offensive line. The unit helped pave the way for great offenses, and Jacoby helped three different signal-callers in Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien stay upright in the championship years.

Jacoby played all 13 of his NFL seasons from 1981 to 1993 for Washington and was named to four consecutive Pro Bowls from 1983 through 1986.

10Brian Waters, guard

Waters overlapped for years with fellow guard Will Shields, who’s now in the Hall of Fame. That guard tandem is among the best in NFL history, so it’s crazy to think Waters went undrafted out of North Texas in 1999.

The aforementioned achievements of Priest Holmes wouldn’t have been possible without brilliant play on the interior from Waters. His impact was so noticed that in 2004, he won AFC Offensive Player of the Week when the Chiefs scored eight rushing touchdowns in one game.

A six-time Pro Bowler who should eventually get a bust in Canton, Ohio, Waters started nine seasons for the Chiefs and played all 16 games in 2011 for New England. His last stint was in Dallas for seven games in 2013 after not playing the prior year.

9Tony Romo, quarterback

A braver soul might place Romo higher, and it wouldn’t be undeserved. Playoff legacy weighs heavily, though, and the Dallas Cowboys’ all-time passing yards leader only recorded two postseason wins, which isn’t entirely his fault, but alas.

Romo’s passer rating of 97.1 is fourth in NFL history, ahead of the likes of Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner and Joe Montana among others. Yes, it’s a different era, yet Romo probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves for how great he is.

If only that fateful fourth-down throw to Dez Bryant were called a catch, perhaps we’d be talking about a different playoff legacy for the Eastern Illinois product as the face of America’s Team.

8James Harrison, linebacker

A long line of Steelers linebackers preceded Harrison, yet he defied all the odds to rank among the best pure players Pittsburgh has ever seen.

Harrison appeared in one game as a 2002 NFL rookie out of Kent State and was released by the Steelers. After a one-year hiatus from the top league, he returned in 2004 and scrapped his way into a full-time starting role by 2007, at the age of 29.

The late bloomer proceeded to start six straight seasons from then on, totaling 60 sacks and proving to be a stout edge-setter versus the run. He was a key member of the Steelers’ Super Bowl XLIII winner, notching a massive, 100-yard pick-six in the grand finale.

7John Randle, defensive tackle

An interior pass-rushing force, Randle had nine double-digit sack seasons with the Minnesota Vikings in an epic career that spanned from 1990 through 2003.

Randle earned seven trips to the Pro Bowl and six first-team All-Pro selections, culminating in a Hall of Fame induction in 2010, his second year of eligibility.

There’s something to be said for Randle’s toughness and durability as well. He never missed a single game in 11 seasons with the Vikings. His 137.5 sacks are tied for ninth all-time.

6Emlen Tunnell, defensive back

The NFL wasn’t home to high-flying passing offenses during Tunnell’s day, yet he made the most of his opportunities whenever teams dared to pass against him, recording 79 interceptions, the second-most all-time.

Hard to understand why Tunnell was challenged as often as he was. He played for the New York Giants from 1948 through 1958 before finishing his career in a three-year stint in Green Bay.

Tunnell was the first African-American to play for the Giants and the first to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, so his legacy went well beyond the box score.

5Wes Welker, receiver

The undersized undrafted free agent out of Texas Tech wound up changing the NFL game as a dynamic slot receiver, seeing immense success as a member of the New England Patriots.

Before Welker joined the Pats, he played one game with the Chargers before toiling away with the Dolphins for most of three seasons, better known as a return specialist.

New England marked a turning point in Welker’s career, as he went on to average 112 catches, 1,243 yards and six touchdowns per season in six years. That’s unbelievable, consistent production for someone so unheralded coming out of college.

4Warren Moon, quarterback

The longtime Houston Oilers star shined in the Canadian Football League in addition to showing he could play at an elite level in the NFL across 23 seasons of professional football.

Despite spending his first years in Canada, where he guided the Edmonton Eskimos to five Grey Cup championships, Moon had 49,325 yards passing in the NFL. He was the first African-American quarterback to get a bust in the Hall of Fame in 2006.

Moon never won a Super Bowl but had back-to-back 4,000-yard passing seasons in 1990 and 1991. Much of his best football was played in Houston, yet he also threw 33 touchdown passes for Minnesota in 1995.

3Antonio Gates, tight end

Along with Tony Gonzalez, Gates revolutionized the tight end position, showing that aptitude on the basketball court translated well to the gridiron.

Unlike Gonzalez, though, Gates didn’t even play college football, hence his going undrafted out of Kent State. However, he’s emerged as one of the most prolific pass-catchers ever, with even more receptions than the top receivers on this list in Smith and Welker.

The eight-time Pro Bowler who dominated for well over a decade for the Chargers is certain to be a Hall of Famer. It’s a question of when, because Gates has erased any doubt it’ll happen.

2Dick “Night Train” Lane, defensive back

As a rookie for the Los Angeles Rams in 1952, Lane recorded 14 interceptions, a single-season record that still stands today. He only played two seasons in L.A. before moving on to the Chicago Cardinals and Detroit Lions respectively for six seasons apiece.

Lane was a seven-time, first-team All-Pro selection and was not only known for an incredible knack to pick off passes. He was also one of the most physical tacklers the game has seen and was the reason why grabbing the facemask became a penalty.

That’s quite a multifaceted impact on the game for one man to make. Lane joined the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974.

1Kurt Warner, quarterback

The best undrafted player ever led two franchises to Super Bowl appearances and won NFL and Super Bowl MVP honors in his first full year as a starter for the St. Louis Rams in 1999. That’s a hard resume to top.

Warner was a product of Northern Iowa and established himself in the Arena Football League. A mid-career lull with the New York Giants saw Warner mentor Eli Manning, an eventual two-time Super Bowl MVP, for only one year as a failed starter.

It was thought Warner would play a similar role for Arizona as the Cardinals tried to bring Matt Leinart along.

However, Leinart was a first-round draft bust, opening the door for Warner to flourish once again and lead the team to Super Bowl XLIII. The Cardinals lost to Pittsburgh 27-23 in one of the best games ever played, despite Warner throwing for 377 yards.