Posted by Chase Stuart on March 8, 2010
Yesterday, I looked at half of the 36 best undrafted players since the first NFL draft in 1936. Today, listed alphabetically, the second half:
Warren Moon - players like Night Train Lane and Larry Little were prevented from player major college football due to the color of their skin, but Moon had to deal with double discrimination -- he wasn't just black, he was a black quarterback. Some major colleges wanted Moon, but none of them wanted him as a quarterback. He instead went to West Los Angeles College, where he starred for the Hustling Oilers at quarterback. After two years at the junior college, he was able to convince the University of Washington to let him play the position he loved. The Huskies' faith in Moon paid off when in his senior season he was named MVP of the Rose Bowl, as UW upset Michigan, 27-20. Despite the success, Moon went undrafted in 1978 when he refused to switch positions to play in the NFL. He went north where he found a team willing to make him their leader, and he starred for six seasons in Canada. After winning five Grey Cups and having one of the most remarkable careers in CFL history, Moon was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2001. In 1984, after tearing apart Canadian defenses for years, Moon was welcomed into the NFL. He would again become the QB of a team called the Oilers, this time in Houston. Moon didn't enter the NFL until age 28, and when he did, he joined a miserable Houston team that was just 2-14 the season before. Despite all that, Moon made an incredible 9 Pro Bowls in his career. Moon and Jerry Rice are the only non-linemen to make nine Pro Bowls after turning 28 years old.
Marion Motley - Fullback, linebacker and all-around bulldozer, Motley was one of the greatest athletes in Cleveland history. With the help of Sean Lahman, I briefly highlighted Motley's terrific career last year. In the four AAFC championship games, Motley rushed 48 times for 415 yards (8.6 YPC) and five touchdowns. When the AAFC collapsed/merged with the NFL, Motley was the all-time leader in rushing yards thanks to an incredible 6.2 YPC average. The NY Daily News named him first-team All-AAFC all four seasons and then All-NFL in 1950. Because of five years of service in the Navy during WWII, Motley was 30 years old by the time he entered the NFL. With his incredible power and acceleration, Motley would have had a chance to set several NFL records if he had entered the league at an early age. Instead, due to his Naval commitment and his time in the AAFC, he's mostly remembered for (along with teammate Bill Willis and Kenny Washington and Woody Strode in the NFL) reintegrating pro football. But relative to his era, he's probably the most athletic player to ever go undrafted.
Nate Newton - like Mills, Newton spent time in the USFL before playing in the NFL. But no one ever accused Newton of not being big enough to play in the NFL; in fact, he was considered too big, or more precisely, too fat. Newton never seemed to be bothered by his weight -- he turned down an offer to play at Arizona State because coach Frank Kush made his players run up and down a mountain; instead, Newton stayed in-state and attended FAMU. There are no mountains near Florida A&M's campus. He wasn't selected in the 1983 NFL draft but signed on with the Washington Redskins. Unfortunately, he was cut before ever appearing in a game, and then signed on to play in the USFL. Newton quickly became a fan favorite playing for the Tampa Bay Bandits and finally signed with the Cowboys in 1986. When he came to Dallas, he was even bigger than William Perry, so some started calling him "the Kitchen". At first, Newton was something of a joke or an experiment, and while Newton struggled with weight his whole career, he helped usher in the modern era where being a fat lineman is a good thing. In 1995, he made his fourth straight Pro Bowl, won his third Super Bowl, and was a first-team AP All-Pro for the second straight season. He helped Emmitt Smith break dozens of records, and Newton quickly went from the Kitchen to the prototype, with every NFL team searching for a Newton. Nate's post-playing life was tarnished due to consecutive drug busts; in two months, he was arrested twice for possession of 388 pounds of marijuana, or what some called, a Newton-sized amount of pot.
Jim Otto - How could Otto go undrafted? Why was a player whom some feel is the greatest center of all-time, one who starred at center and linebacker for the University of Miami, ignored by the pros? Like many on this list, the familiar answer was measurables: at 6-2, 205 pounds, even in 1960, Otto was deemed too small to play center in the NFL. Not only was he undrafted, but he was unsigned, and thus went to the AFL to play for the Raiders in 1960. As a rookie, he was named the AFL's first-team All-Pro center. He was named a first-team All-Pro by the AP in nine of the ten seasons in which the AFL played, losing out only to Boston's Jon Morris in 1966. Seven different sources gave out first-team All-AFL honors at the end of the season a total of 46 different times; 43 times, the name they chose was Otto's. Few men, if any, can ever match the total dominance at a position in a league that Otto achieved in the AFL. Lest you think he was a product of an inferior league, in 1970, Otto was the first center to be named first-team All-Pro in the newly merged AFL-NFL. Otto made 12 Pro Bowls in his stellar career with the Raiders, and remains one of the greatest players in the history of pro football.
Drew Pearson - coming from run-oriented Tulsa, Drew Pearson didn't attract many NFL scouts during his collegiate career. He was given a tryout with the Cowboys after going undrafted in 1973, but the odds seemed long that Pearson would become a star receiver. As it turned out, beating long odds were Pearson's thing. While Pearson had a decorated career with the Cowboys -- he was a three-time first-team AP All-Pro, Super Bowl Champion and a 10-year starter in Dallas -- Pearson is mostly remembered for his three miracle performances. On Thanksgiving Day, 1974, Pearson caught a 50-yard bomb from backup QB Clint Longley in the final minute against the hated Redskins; that touchdown gave Dallas an improbabl come from behind victory, 24-23. But that wasn't even the most famous 50-yard bomb in the final minute of Pearson's career. His Hail Mary catch the next season, in the NFC playoffs against the Vikings, would ultimately define his career. The 50-yard touchdown pass from Roger Staubach gave the Cowboys a miracle victory over the Vikings, 17-14, and it remains one of the most famous (and controversial) plays in league history. Lastly, in the 1980 playoffs against the Falcons, Pearson caught two touchdowns from Danny White in the final four minutes to give Dallas a 30-27 win in Atlanta.
Joe Perry - Perry went to Compton Community College where he scored 22 touchdowns in a single season, putting the school on the map (Hugh McElhenny, who would later team with Perry, enrolled at Compton soon thereafter). Before finishing his education, Perry was called into naval service. Not surprisingly, he played football at the Alameda, California Naval Training Station and was spotted by a player from the 49ers. Discharged from service in '48, Perry was quickly signed by the 49ers. Perry had obvious talents -- despite being technically a fullback, Perry was nicknamed "the Jet" because of his blazing speed -- but his situation (never played college football, signed by the local team who saw him during his military service) prevented him from being on any team's draft radar. Perry dominated the AAFC right from the start, leading the league in touchdowns while averaging an insane 7.3 YPC as a rookie, and then leading the league in its final year in rushing yards, yards per carry and touchdowns. When the 49ers were merged into the NFL, all of Perry's statistics were discredited, so his official NFL numbers ignores those two seasons. That didn't stop Perry, in the second week of the 1958 season, from breaking Steve Van Buren's career rushing record. He remained the all-time leader in rushing yards until Jim Brown surpassed him five years later. He was also the career record holder in rushing touchdowns, until he was again eclipsed by Brown. He remains the all-time 49ers rush leader, although Frank Gore may one day steal that honor. A six-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro, Perry's numbers look unimpressive in part because of his teammates. Perry was part of the Million Dollar Backfield with the 49ers, a quartet of future HOFers from '54 to '56 made up of Perry, QB Y.A. Tittle, RB John Henry Johnson and McElhenny. Still, in '53 and '54, Perry became the first player to ever rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
John Randle - Randle's a member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2010, and I profiled him extensively here. His career didn't always look so bright, though. Randle was raised by a single mother in an impoverished part of Texas; in Randle's words, he "grew up in a no-stoplight town called Mumford, Texas, population 150." His family had almost no money and he did poorly on his SATs; he ran track and played football in high school, though, and went to Trinity Valley Community College. After spending two years there, Randle went to Texas A & M-Kingsville (former Texas A & I), which is where Darrell Green and Gene Upshaw earned their degrees. Randle dominated the level of competition, recording 36 sacks in two seasons and twice earning first team All-America and Lone Star Conference "Lineman of the Year" honors. In 1989, 75% of NFL teams ran a 3-4 defense, so come the 1990 draft, Randle's name wasn't announced. The Vikings were the only team running a defense that emphasized the three-technique tackle in a cover-2 defense, and it was very successful. The position that Randle would soon fill was being manned by Keith Millard, who just won NFL DPOY honors after an 18-sack season in '89. A serious knee injury early in '90 ended Millard's career with the Vikings, and a couple of years later, Randle was starting. And 20 years after no NFL team selected him in the draft, over 80% of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selected him for their team.
Jeff Saturday - unlike most of the players on this list, Saturday played major college football. He went to North Carolina, where he was named All-ACC his junior and senior seasons. He started the last 37 games of his collegiate career and was also named academic All-ACC. His senior season, in 1997, the Tar Heels averaged 29 points per game en route to an 11-1 season, crushing Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl. He blocked for Jonathan Linton, who led the team with 1000 rushing yards. From '97 to '99, 18 Tar Heels were drafted into the NFL, but Saturday was not one of them. The man Saturday would spike the ball to for a decade was also All-conference as a senior in '97, but Peyton Manning became the #1 pick in the 1998 draft. After the draft, the Ravens signed Saturday, but cut him a couple of months later; he sat out the entire 1998 season, and signed with the Colts in 1999. He became a full-time starter for the Colts in 2000, and Saturday and Manning started 154 games together in the '00s. He's a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time AP first-team All-Pro; last season, he was the leader of a line that allowed only 10 sacks on Manning. Saturday helped the Colts win the Super Bowl in '06 and win the conference championship in 2009. His block on Vince Wilfork in the AFCCG not only helped scored the winning touchdown, but it vaulted him over the top to win TMQ's non-QB, non-RB 2006 NFL MVP award.
Donnie Shell - Shell was born in Whitmire, South Carolina. Instead of heading to Columbia, he went to South Carolina State, an HBCU that played (and still plays) in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Shell starred at both linebacker and defensive back for the Division II school, and as a senior he was named to the AP All-America team and received All-MEAC honors. At 5'11, 190, Shell was considered too small to be an NFL strong safety; when the 1974 draft came around, Pittsburgh took Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster, but not Shell. No one drafted Shell, of course, but Pittsburgh did bring him in for a tryout and Shell made the team. He was a reserve on the championship teams of '74 and '75, and then started at strong safety for the next eleven years. He won two more Super Bowls, was named to five Pro Bowls, was a three time first-team AP All-Pro, and was the first strong safety to intercept 50 passes in his career. During his eleven years as a starter, he was perhaps the best safety in the league, and he overcame any notion that he was too small to play safety in the NFL. Perhaps his defining moment came in 1978, when he knocked Earl Campbell so hard that the running back broke a rib and had to leave the game. Shell was a finalist for the HOF in 2002.
Rod Smith - Smith was born in Arkansas, and was All-State in football there as a high school senior... at quarterback. Predictably, none of the major schools wanted Smith as their QB, but that's the position he wanted to play. He decided to go to Missouri Southern, where the coach told him he could play quarterback. Not soon after, there was a coaching change, and Smith plummeted to third on the depth chart. The new staff convinced Smith to try out at WR, where he became a star for the Division II school. Missouri Southern had had only one football player get drafted at the time, and still has never had any alumni selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. But Smith was changing all of that with a marvelous junior season; that is, until everything changed in an instant:
It wasn't until 1992 that the football team had its own orthopedic surgeon. As things turned out, the timing of Dr. Brad Reeves' hiring couldn't have been better. Three games into that 1992 season, Smith was in desperate need of his services. That's when his NFL career could have ended before it started.
They still talk about the play at Southern. It was that ugly, that horrific, that sickening. "No doubt about it, we thought he was done playing football," former Missouri Southern athletic director Jim Frazier said. "The scouts were starting to come around, but they disappeared after that. It was a very tragic moment in Rod's life. It all could have ended right there."
Missouri Southern was playing Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Mo. Smith was getting some run as a Harlon Hill candidate, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. So when Smith dropped back to catch a punt early in the game, Wesley Maurice Drummond was going to hit him, lay him out, send him a message.
He hit him, all right. With the ball still 10 feet in the air. A split second later, penalty flags started flying and Smith started screaming. His left knee was gone. The ACL, the MCL, the cartilage . . . you name it and Smith tore it.
"I was madder than heck," Frazier said. "This kid came down and never hesitated, just wiped out his knee. We thought for a while he was going to lose his leg."
"It was a vicious hit and an intentional hit," Reeves said. "The kid had nothing in his sight but Rod's knee. I still have the video, it was that bad."
We would tell you Drummond's side of the story, but we can't. He was killed soon thereafter in a St. Louis gang shooting.
Smith? He was sentenced to several months of intense rehab. Forget the chronic hip problems that ended his career all those years later. The turning point in Smith's football career came when he got back on the field after blowing out his knee.
"I think that's probably where Rod learned his work ethic," Reeves said. "Prior to that, he was head and shoulders above people as far as God-given talent. When he blew his knee out, he was back to zero with everybody else. That just set him on fire. That's when he took the attitude, 'I will not be defeated.' "
But he wasn't going to be drafted, either. The Chiefs had a scout in the press box that day in Warrensburg, but he left at halftime. So did all the others, with one exception.
"That guy from Denver came around now and then, but that was it," Frazier said.
That would be Broncos regional scout Charlie Lee, who recommended Smith as a possible late-rounder after an NCAA medical exemption bought Smith another year of college eligibility. The 1994 draft would come and go, though, without Smith's name being called.
A strong desire to play QB and a gruesome knee injury prevented an All-State player with obvious NFL talent from ever playing major college football or from being drafted. Smith stayed on the Denver practice squad for the entire 1994 season, first seeing NFL action in 1995. When Smith retired, in addition to two Super Bowl rings, he had more catches than all but ten men in NFL history. He was a complete wide receiver; Smith was an excellent blocker, one of the hidden keys to Denver's dominance on the ground under Mike Shanahan. Smith had good speed and was able to stretch the field; in 2000, he gained 1600 receiving yards, one of just ten men to ever hit that mark. He was also a great possession receiver when he needed to be, like in 2001, when Ed McCaffrey was injured for the season in week one. Smith wound up leading the league with 113 receptions in 15 games that season. Smith is the all-time Broncos leader in all three major receiving categories and is the Broncos single-season leader in receptions and receiving yards.
Jan Stenerud - the only pure placekicker in the HOF, Stenerud also came out on top on my all-time kicker ratings. Stenerud was arguably the hero of Super Bowl IV and had an incredibly powerful and accurate leg for his time. Born in Norway, he was recruited to the United States in 1962 by Montana State University's ski coach. He was an All-American in skiing as a sophomore in 1964. New to America, he was intrigued by the sport of football, and (as an ex-soccer player) wanted to give kicking a shot. On his tryout with MSU, he kicked three of his first five kick-offs through the uprights; that was enough to earn a spot on the roster. As it turned out, MSU's coach had some interesting plans for Stenerud:
In two seasons, Stenerud was successful on just 55% of his field goals (18 of 33). One reason for this was that MSU lacked an effective punter and Sweeney often asked Stenerud to placekick in otherwise obvious punting situations. In those days, a missed field goal that did not reach the end zone would be placed at the spot where it came to rest (assuming it was not returned by the opposing team). The result was that Stenerud often "attempted" field goals from well within his own end of the field, with hopes of giving his team better field position.
One extreme example of this took place on a windy day, when the Bobcat punter was having some problems. With the ball spotted on their own five yard-line, Sweeney sent Stenerud in to attempt a field goal - from 112 yards! Jan remembers kicking the ball "somewhere around midfield," which was a better result than the punt team was getting. Stenerud's field goal percentage suffered, but he was setting records anyway. On November 6, 1965, Jan set the record for all football (professional or college) when he kicked a 59-yarder against MSU's archrival, the University of Montana.
[Note: I can't seem to confirm or deny this story. I'm leaving it in because it's fascinating, and the site appears reputable. Please let me know if you have any knowledge of this potentially obscure college football rule.]
Stenerud had shown so much ability in just one season of football that the Chiefs selected him in the AFL Redshirt Draft in 1965. He violates the spirit, if not the rule, of being an "undrafted" player. As Sean Lahman explained to me over e-mail,:
The redshirt draft was a gimmick the AFL tried to help them get the jump on college prospects. The NFL had done a similar thing with "futures" drafts as afr back as the 40s. So by drafting him in 1966, the Chiefs were actually getting the right to sign him the next year. So yes, it would be wrong to say he went undrafted. He was just drafted early. In November of 1966, as part of the merger agreement, there was a special draft where NFL teams could select the rights to players from the AFL redshirt drafts, and AFL teams could draft NFL draft picks who hadn't signed. This would give those players a chance to negotiate with two different teams, and was something that grew out of congressional anti-trust concerns. The Atlanta Falcons used the first pick in this special draft to select Stenerud, but he signed with the
Chiefs in January.
Stenerud was the only notable player whose name was called in that draft, and there weren't many other notable names in the redshirt drafts. Glancing at the list, I see only two semi-memorable names -- receivers George Sauer of the Jets and Gary Garrison of the Chargers.
So we can label Stenerud one of the best early draft picks of all time. Regardless, coach Hank Stram, a former collegiate kicker himself, took an immediate liking to the Norwegian. Stram knew that a kicker of Stenerud's caliber could change a team's entire philosophy, and he took little time to use him. From 1960 to 1966, only three successful field goals had been kicked from 54 yards or more; George Blanda connected from 55 yards out in 1961 and from 54 yards in '62, and the Raiders' George Fleming hit a 54-yarder in '61 as well. In Stenerud's first professional game, Stram sent him out for a 54-yarder, which he connected on. For the most part, whenever the Chiefs called on Stenerud, he would continue to deliver.
Emmitt Thomas - Thomas was born and raised in Arlington, Texas, but he only played one year of high school football at Marshall High School. As a result, Thomas wasn't heavily recruited, and went to nearby Bishop College in South Dallas, where he walked on to the football team. He played both QB and receiver at Bishop, before moving to defensive back. It's neither surprising that he went undrafted in '66 nor that he went to the Chiefs: the great Kansas City team that won Super Bowl IV was built on the back of players from HBCUs. Four of the five Pro Bowlers on that defense went to historically black colleges and universities; Buck Buchanan (1st pick, 1963 draft, Grambling State), Willie Lanier (2nd round, 1967 draft, Morgan State) and Jim Marsalis (1st round, 1969 draft, Tennessee State) were high picks. Buchanan, Lanier and Thomas are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lamar Hunt and Hank Stram's heavy recruiting at the HBCUs was one of the main reasons for Kansas City's success in the late '60s. In addition to the defensive stars, FB Robert Holmes and WR Frank Pitts (Southern) and Otis Taylor (Prairie View A&M University) were key offensive stars from HBCUs. Thomas was a five-time Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro AP selection in '74, when he led the league in interceptions (12), interception return yards and interception return touchdowns. The year Kansas City won the Super Bowl, Thomas' 9 interceptions led the AFL, and he picked off four more passes in the team's three playoff games. Thomas later won two Super Bowls with the Redskins as a position coach.
Mick Tingelhoff - Tingelhoff is perhaps the most decorated player not in the Hall of Fame. He's tied with Chuck Howley and Jimmy Patton for the most NFL first-team AP All-Pro nominations by an eligible non-HOFer with five, but he made more Pro Bowls than both of them. He played for 17 seasons, started 240 games, and made four Super Bowls. Amazingly, Tingelhoff started his first game as an UDFA, and then never missed a singe game. Before that, Tingelhoff had a predictable career path. He grew up in Lexington, Nebraska and ended up playing football at the University of Nebraska. He didn't start until his senior season, but in 1961 he was co-captain of the Cornhuskers. His career was relatively undistinguished -- Nebraska wasn't very good and Tingelhoff did not win All-American or All-Conference honors. Unlike most on the list, Tingelhoff got to play major college football, but did not convince any NFL teams to draft him. Minnesota was a team in desperate need of a center, so Tingelhoff was a good fit. The Vikings entered the NFL in 1961, with newly retired QB Norm Van Brocklin as head coach; Van Brocklin brought over his backup center from Philadelphia, Bill Lapham, to start for the expansion Vikings. The Vikings didn't bring in any new centers in '62 until Tingelhoff. Tingelhoff took over as starting center in Minnesota's second pre-season game, and didn't relinquish that spot until he retired.
Emlen Tunnell - Tunnell made history by becoming the first black player to play for the New York Giants and later for being the first black star in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was also the first pure defensive player (as opposed to the two-way players) to be inducted into the HOF. Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Tunnell was a terrific athlete from the beginning. In high school, Tunnell was a star athlete in football, baseball and basketball, and despite his color, earned a full scholarship to play football at Toledo. As a freshman, he suffered a gruesome injury, breaking his neck. The injury was so bad that during World War II, both the Army and Navy rejected him; undeterred, Tunnell ended up in the Coast Guard. After the war, Tunnell played both offense and defense at Iowa in '46 and '47; he caught three touchdown passes in one game with the Hawkeyes. He was expected to return in '48, and no team drafted him that year, but he showed up at the Giants' doorstep with the hopes of landing a job. It worked; Tunnell signed with New York, intercepted four passes in one game as a rookie and would become a fixture in the Giants secondary for more than a decade. He was a fantastic returner in addition to being a brilliant defense; he made a total of 9 Pro Bowls and earned four first-team All-Pro from the Associated Press. He set the NFL record for career interceptions with 79, and only Paul Krause has since passed him. He won a championship with the Giants in 1956 when he teamed with Jimmy Patton, making them perhaps the greatest set of safety teammates in league history. In 1969, Tunnell was selected as the lone safety for the 50th Anniversary NFL team.
Kurt Warner - the ultimate modern rags to riches story, Kurt Warner has had one of the most up and down careers in professional sports history. Warner was born and raised in Iowa and attended Northern Iowa for college. He was a reserve until his final season at UNI, when he won the Gateway Conference OPOY award and led his team to the conference title. The Panthers went 8-4 (5-1 in conference) in 1993, with Warner throwing for 2,747 yards and 17 touchdowns on 296 attempts. But the 1994 draft came and went without Warner's name being called. The Green Bay Packers brought in Warner for a tryout, and while he was impressive, he failed to make the stacked roster (Brett Favre, Mark Brunell and Heisman Trophy winner/West Coast Offense aficionado Ty Detmer were entrenched on the QB depth chart). So Warner returned home and began stocking shelves at a Hy-Vee store in Cedar Falls, Iowa. In 1995, he tried out for the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League, and made the team. From '95 to '97, he passed for 10,164 yards and 183 touchdowns in three seasons (1995-97). Warner's success was at least making big news locally, where the Bears invited him in for a tryout in '97. Unfortunately, Warner had just been on his honeymoon and suffered a serious spiderbite that left him unable to throw. But Warner's old coach at UNI had connections with the St. Louis Rams, and he was able to get Warner a tryout there once he was again ready to throw. Warner impressed the team, and the Rams signed him. In '98 they sent him to play in NFL Europe for the Amsterdam Admirals, where he threw for 2,101 yards and 15 touchdowns on 326 attempts in 10 games.
Warner finally worked his way up to #2 on the Rams depth chart entering the 1999 season. One Rodney Harrison hit to Trent Green's knee was all it took for Warner to become a superstar. In '99, Warner became just the second quarterback to throw 40 touchdowns in a season. Leading the Greatest Show on Turf, Warner won MVP and then Super Bowl MVP honors, the last player to do so in the same season. Warner led the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt, net yards per attempt and adjusted net yards per attempt in '99, '00 and '01. He took the Rams to another Super Bowl in 2001, but that game marked another turning point in Warner's career. Warner had previously compiled a stellar 40-9 record as a starter with the Rams, but he would lose his next nine games as a starter. Injuries to his throwing hand and the emergence of Marc Bulger ended Warner's tenure in St. Louis, and he went to the Giants in 2004. Warner's time in New York was rocky -- he had six touchdowns against four interceptions and 12 fumbles in nine starts, although the Giants went 5-4 -- ahd he was pushed aside to make room for Eli Manning. Warner went west again, and landed in Arizona, where he resurrected his career. In '08, Warner had a brilliant season, throwing for 4500 yards and leading the Cardinals to the Super Bowl. Warner retired following the 2009 season, having made four Pro Bowls, appeared in three Super Bowls, and won two AP MVP trophies.
Wes Welker: Like Cribbs and Harrison, Welker broke out in 2007. Despite only starting for three seasons, Welker has had a large impact on both the Patriots and the NFL. But before all that, Welker was too small to play football. Born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Welker was an elite high school football player. As a junior, he helped his team win the 2A State Football Championship, thanks to three touchdowns, 200 all-purpose yards, a 47-yard field goal and an interception. In 1999, Welker was named the Oklahoma Player of the Year by both the USA Today and the Daily Oklahoman. He played RB (scoring 80 touchdowns), defensive back (190 tackles, 22 INTs, 3 INT-TDs, 9 FR), punt returner (7 PR TDs) and kicker (35 field goals, 165 XP, long of 57 yards) in high school, making him a true jack of all trades. But Bob Stoops and Oklahoma didn't come calling for him, and neither did Doug's Oklahoma State Cowboys. In fact, signing day came and went without anyone coming for him. Welker was too small to play major colege football, despite being big enough to be the best player in the state of Oklahoma. After a last minute recruit backed out of his commitment at Texas Tech, Welker found a perfect fit with Mike Leach and his Air Raid offense. With the Red Raiders, Welker caught 259 passes for 3,019 yards and 21 scores; he also ran for 456 yards and two TDs and scored eight touchdowns via punt return. In 2003 he won the Mosi Tatupu award, given to the best special teams player in the country. And after all of that, Welker was not invited to the combine, after he measured in at 5'8 3/4, 195 pounds with a 4.65 40-yard dash.
After some nondescript seasons, Welker was traded to the Patriots in 2007. That year he was part of perhaps the greatest offense in the history of the NFL and led the league with 112 receptions. So when the 2008 draft came around, who were teams looking for? The next Wes Welker, of course. If not for Welker, would Jordy Nelson have been a high 2nd round pick? Almost every fan, scout and expert made the comparison at some point during before that draft. In '08, Welker made his first Pro Bowl. He outgained Randy Moss to lead the Patriots in both yards and receptions, and helped turn inexperienced Matt Cassel into a viable, starting NFL QB. Come spring 2009, teams again sought out the next Welker. This time it was Austin Collie's turn; for what it's worht, Collie even watches Wes Welker tape for fun. Also in that off-season, when Josh McDaniels went to Denver, fantasy football players around the country got excited as Eddie Royal was supposed to fill the Wes Welker role in McDaniels' offense. In 2009, Welker caught 123 passes, second most in NFL history, despite missing two games. This year? Jordan Shipley is the guy who is the "next" Wes Welker. When Welker was injured last year, Julian Edelman (another Kent State guy) was suppose to fill the Wes Welker role in the Pats' offense. Out of nowhere, the "Wes Welker role" has become one of the hottest positions on every offense. But no one has been able to play it like Welker.
Bill Willis - the last of the great undrafted stars for the original Browns. Willis played middle guard for Cleveland, the middle lineman in the Browns 5-3 defense. Willis, along with Motley, was one of the first men to re-integrate professional football in 1946. The NFL had an unofficial ban on black players from 1934 to 1945, but Paul Brown and the AAFC harbored no such thoughts. Brown had coached Willis at Ohio State and saw firsthand how good Willis could be. Undersized even for his era, Willis was lightning quick and able to beat opposing lineman off the snap. After being named first-team All-Pro three times in his four seasons in the AAFC, Willis was a first-team All-Pro every year during his NFL career.
Willie Wood - the last of the 36 best undrafted players since '36, Wood was a five-time champion with the Green Bay Packers. Wood wasn't like most on this list -- he was an obvious talent from the start, getting a scholarship to play at the University of Southern California. But at USC, Wood was a quarterback, which explains why he wasn't drafted. Wood was the first black QB in the history of the Pac 10, and was primarily used as a running QB. At 5'10 and weighing only 160 pounds, Wood didn't have much future on the offensive side of the ball, and went undrafted in 1960. He sent letters to several teams asking for a tryout, and only the Packers responded. He made the team and saw time as a punt returner as a rookie. In '61, he beat out a 36-year-old Emlen Tunnel for the starting safety spot across from Hank Gremminger. Still playing punt returner, Wood led the league in punt return average and punt return scores, while he played in every game on defense and had five interceptions. He broke out the next season, leading the league in interceptions and making the Pro Bowl for one of the greatest defenses and teams in NFL history. Wood retired as an 8-time Pro Bowler and 5-time first-team AP All-Pro, and from '62 to '71, at least one major source named him a first-team All-conference or first-team All-Pro player. Wood made the turning point in the very first Super Bowl: on third and 5, with the Chiefs down 14-10, Wood broke Jason's heart when he intercepted a Dawson pass and returned it 50 yards to the Chiefs five-yard line.