Wide receiver and return specialist Deonte Harris had a great career at NCAA Division II's Assumption College, but was not picked in the 2019 NFL Draft. He signed with the New Orleans Saints as a free agent and led the league in return yards, making the Pro Bowl. While we focus so much on the draft, Harris is just the latest example that good players can be found after those seven rounds.
Players go undrafted for a variety of reasons, be it size or other circumstances. Most try out with teams and are quickly cut, but a few have gone on to have Hall of Fame careers. Here are the 25 best undrafted free agents (UDFAs) in NFL history.
25. Rod Smith, WR, Missouri Southern State (1994) — Denver Broncos
Smith was signed by the Broncos and went on to be a starting receiver on back-to-back Super Bowl championship teams. Along the way, he caught 849 passes and scored 68 touchdowns.
24. Priest Holmes, RB, Texas (1997) — Baltimore Ravens
Holmes spent much of his career at Texas in the shadow of Ricky Williams and was signed by the Ravens after the draft. He rushed for 1,000 yards in 1998 but was replaced as the starter by Jamal Lewis in 2000. Holmes then signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2001 and over the next three seasons, ran for 4,590 and 56 touchdowns. Sadly, injuries cut short a remarkable career.
23. Tony Romo, QB, Eastern Illinois (2003) — Dallas Cowboys
A three-time All-American, Romo was only invited to the NFL Scouting Combine to throw to other prospects but caught the attention of Cowboys quarterback coach Sean Payton. The Cowboys signed him and he got the starting spot in 2006. From there, he made four Pro Bowls and was a virtual human highlight reel.
22. Wes Welker, WR, Texas Tech (2004) — San Diego Chargers
After being named All-Big 12 twice at Texas Tech, Welker was undrafted because of his size. He signed with the San Diego Chargers, but was cut by head coach Marty Schottenheimer, who called the move the "biggest mistake [he] ever made." He then signed with the Miami Dolphins and had two solid seasons before being traded to the New England Patriots, where his career flourished. In five of his six seasons there, Welker caught more than 110 passes, an NFL record.
21. Antonio Gates, TE, Kent State (2003) — San Diego Chargers
Despite being a star tight end in high school, Gates ultimately opted to play power forward at Kent State. When told he was not a good fit size-wise at guard or forward in the NBA, He accepted a tryout with the Chargers and was quickly signed. Gates went on to snag 955 receptions over the next 16 seasons.
20. Brian Waters, TE, North Texas (1999) — Dallas Cowboys
Waters signed with the nearby Cowboys with the plan of playing at tight end and fullback, but he was cut during training camp. The next season, the Kansas City Chiefs picked him up and converted him to guard. He went on to make the Pro Bowl six times with the Chiefs and New England Patriots.
19. Frank Gatski, C, Auburn (1946) — Cleveland Browns
Gatski started his college career at Marshall, served in World War II, and then finished his studies at Auburn. He signed with the Browns and went on to have a Hall of Fame career with a team that won eight championships. In addition, Gatski never missed a game during his 12 seasons.
18. Emmitt Thomas, DB, Bishop College (1966) — Kansas City Chiefs
Thomas signed with the Chiefs coming out of the now-defunct Bishop College in Dallas. He went on to have a Hall of Fame career and is Kansas City’s all-time leader in interceptions.
17. London Fletcher, LB, John Carroll (1998) — St. Louis Rams
After signing with Rams in 1998, Fletcher was named the team’s Rookie of the Year and then led the team in tackles during its 1999 Super Bowl season. He went on to play 16 seasons, start 215 consecutive games, and accumulate more than 2,000 tackles.
16. Jeff Saturday, C, North Carolina (1998) — Baltimore Ravens
Considered too small for the NFL, Saturday signed with Baltimore but was cut before the 1998 season. After spending 1998 working as a manager at an electrical supply store, he signed with the Indianapolis Colts in 1999. Saturday became the starting center in 2000 and was the linchpin of an offensive line that protected Peyton Manning during the Colts’ run in the 2000s.
15. James Harrison, LB, Kent State (2002) — Pittsburgh Steelers
Ironically, Harrison was a walk-on at Kent State as well. After brief stints with the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, he rejoined Pittsburgh in 2004 and found his groove. He went on to be a two-time, first-team All-Pro and made one of the of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history when he intercepted Kurt Warner’s pass in the end zone and returned it 100 yards for a score in Super Bowl XLIII.
14. Larry Little, G, Bethune-Cookman (1967) — San Diego Chargers
Little signed with the Chargers and was traded to the Miami Dolphins in 1969. There, he was a cornerstone for a Dolphins rushing attack that helped record the only perfect season in NFL history. He retired in 1980 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in '93.
13. Adam Vinatieri, K, South Dakota State (1996) — New England Patriots
Vinatieri signed with the Patriots in 1996 two years after he graduated from South Dakota State. There, he earned the nickname “Mr. Clutch” and booted the winning field goal in two of three Super Bowls won with New England. In 2006, he signed with the Indianapolis Colts and won another ring. His 21 seasons with more than 100 points are an NFL record.
12. Bill Willis, DT, Ohio State (1946) — Cleveland Browns
After serving in World War II, Willis followed his Ohio State coach, Paul Brown, to the newly formed Browns franchise. In Cleveland, he helped break the color barrier and became one of the best nose tackles of his era, earning All-Pro honors every year of his career. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
11. Lou Groza, K/T, Ohio State (1946) — Cleveland Browns
Like Willis, Groza also followed Brown to Cleveland, where he played both kicker and tackle. However, it was his kicking that immortalized him. Nicknamed "The Toe," Groza showed the importance of the kicking game to a team's success, often nailing more than 65 percent of his attempts in a time when most teams made less than half of them. He was so influential that the award to the nation’s best college kicker is named in his honor.
10. Willie Wood, QB, USC (1960) — Green Bay Packers
After not being drafted, Wood wrote a letter to Packers head coach Vince Lombardi requesting a tryout. Once he got to Green Bay, he assessed the situation and asked to be switched to defensive back. The request proved fortuitous as Wood made eight Pro Bowls and won five titles during his Hall of Fame career.
9. John Randle, DT, Texas A&M-Kingsville (1990) — Minnesota Vikings
Randle signed with the Vikings and went on to become one of the best defensive tackles of the 1990s and definitely the mouthiest. He recorded 137.5 sacks over his 14-year career and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
8. Jim Langer, G, South Dakota State (1970) — Cleveland Browns
The Browns signed Langer but cut him during training camp. He was then signed by the Miami Dolphins, who moved him to center. Langer got the starting spot in 1972 and went on to win two Super Bowls and make six straight Pro Bowls. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1987.
7. Willie Brown, CB, Grambling State (1963) — Houston Oilers
Brown signed with the Oilers but was cut during training camp. He then signed with Denver Broncos and made the AFL All-Star team twice before being traded to the Oakland Raiders in 1967. There, he was the leader of the defense and his interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XI is immortalized thanks to NFL Films. Brown was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1984.
6. Dick Lane, CB, Scottsbluff Junior College (1952) — Los Angeles Rams
Lane played one year of junior college before serving four years in the military. Once he got out, he asked the Rams for a tryout and was signed. Nicknamed “Night Train” because of his love for the Jimmy Forrest song, the moniker seemed to fit his ferocious style of play. During his 14 seasons with the Rams, Chicago Cardinals, and Detroit Lions, Lane was one of the best defensive backs in the game. His 14 interceptions in 1952 is a record that still stands today.
5. Joe Perry, FB, Compton Junior College (1948) — San Francisco 49ers
Perry only played one year because he served in World War II. As a 49er, he was one of the best running backs of his era, becoming the first player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. In 1958, he became the NFL’s all-time rushing leader and held that distinction until Jim Brown surpassed him in '63.
4. Kurt Warner, QB, Northern Iowa (1994) — Green Bay Packers
Warner went undrafted and tried out for the Packers, but was cut before the regular season. He then stocked shelves before signing with Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers in 1995, where he had three great seasons before signing with the St. Louis Rams in 1998. What followed was one of the greatest stories in NFL history.
3. Emlen Tunnell, DB/PR, Iowa (1948) — New York Giants
Needing money and told he had to go to summer school to play his senior year at Iowa, Tunnell instead hitchhiked to New York and tried out for the Giants. The decision proved fruitful as he went on to become the best defensive back and punt returner during much of his 14-year career. He retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in interceptions and punt return yardage.
2. Marion Motley, FB/LB, Nevada (1946) — Cleveland Browns
Joe Perry called Motley the "the greatest all-around football player there ever was.” After signing with the Browns after World War II, Motley had one of the most dominating five years of any running back, averaging 8.2 yards a carry in 1946 and 5.8 yards in '50. During that time, Cleveland won five straight championships. Motley’s body started to break down during the 1951 season, but those five years earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His career average of 5.7 yards a carry is still a record amongst running backs.
1. Warren Moon, QB, Edmonton Eskimos (1978) — Houston Oilers
A standout quarterback at the University of Washington, Moon certainly would have been drafted had he not been a victim of the era in which he played. Instead, he opted to play for the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos. Five Grey Cups later, NFL teams were lining up to bid for his services in 1984. He chose the Oilers and went on to play for 17 more seasons and have a Hall of Fame career.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo by Michael C. Hebert/New Orleans Saints, courtesy of neworleanssaints.com)