In the glamorous world of the National Football League, the path to stardom is often paved with challenges. For most players, draft night is a dream come true, but for some, the journey to greatness begins as an undrafted free agent.
These unsung heroes, dismissed by scouts, and overlooked by all 32 teams on draft night, have defied the odds and left an undeniable mark on the league. In this article, we delve into NFL history to highlight the five greatest undrafted free agents, who not only proved they belonged in the league but became legendary figures of it.
From Overlooked to Legendary: The Five Greatest Undrafted Free Agents in NFL History
1. Kurt Warner – QB – Northern Iowa
When it comes to the ultimate rags-to-riches story, none can rival that of Kurt Warner. After going undrafted in 1994, Warner’s NFL aspirations appeared to be dashed. He found work as a clerk in a grocery store, stocking shelves while playing in the Arena Football League (AFL), and later in the NFL Europe League.
However, in 1998, Warner would be signed by the St. Louis Rams where he would be the third-string QB for the entire season. In 1999, fate intervened when injuries sidelined Ram’s starting quarterback, Trent Green, with a season-ending injury in the preseason. Warner stepped up to the plate and seized this opportunity, leading the Rams to an improbable Super Bowl victory, earning Super Bowl MVP honors in the process.
He would continue to achieve unparalleled success as a UDFA, earning two more MVPs and another Super Bowl appearance. The high-flying offense of the St. Louis Rams during this time was even dubbed, “The Greatest Show on Turf.” By the time he retired, Warner had accounted for 32,344 passing yards and 208 passing touchdowns, in just 11 seasons.
Kurt’s three-year stretch from 1999-2001 is one of the greatest in NFL history. Over those three years in 43 games, he amassed an absurd 12,612 passing yards, 67.2 completion percentage, and 98 touchdowns, winning two MVPs, and one Super Bowl, while also making another one. His legacy extends far beyond the gridiron, inspiring countless aspiring football players to pursue their dreams against all odds.
2. Warren Moon – QB – Washington
Before breaking barriers as an African-American starting quarterback in the NFL, Warren Moon faced another obstacle. Going undrafted in the 1978 NFL Draft, despite a remarkable career at the University of Washington. Undeterred, Moon would sign with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League (CFL).
In the CFL, Moon found his groove to the tune of a record five consecutive Grey Cup victories from 1978-1982. In his final CFL season in 1983, Moon threw for a league-record 5,648 yards and 31 touchdowns, taking home the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Award.
After that 1983 season, Moon decided to enter the NFL, which sparked a bidding war for his services that was eventually won by the Houston Oilers. Moons’ NFL career started slowly, but by year five in 1988 he made his first Pro Bowl at the age of 32. He would then go on to make eight straight Pro Bowls, and nine total throughout his career. He also led the league in passing yards twice in 1990 and 1991 where he threw for 4689 yards and 4690 yards respectively.
By the time he retired in 2000, Moon was a surefire Hall of Famer, amassing over 49,000 passing yards and 291 touchdowns. Warren Moon’s journey from undrafted to NFL stardom symbolizes resilience and the power of perseverance in the face of adversity.
3. John Randle – DT – Texas A&M-Kingsville
John Randle’s rise to greatness began as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&I University (now Texas A&M-Kingsville). Despite an impressive college career, scouts questioned his size (6,1″ 244) and doubted his ability to succeed at the highest level. This snub only fueled Randle’s determination and helped him become one of the most dominant forces in the league.
Known for his tenacity, quickness, and relentless motor, Randle terrorized opposing offensive lines for 14 seasons in the NFL. The Texas native accumulated an astonishing 137.5 sacks throughout his career, the most by any interior lineman in NFL history.
Randle would finish his career as a seven-time Pro-Bowler, six-time All-Pro, and member of the NFL Hall-Of-Fame 1990s All-Decade team. Randle’s story is not just about his on-field prowess but also about his undying spirit and unwavering work ethic, which is what turned an overlooked college player into a Hall of Fame inductee.
4. Antonio Gates – TE – Kent State
Antonio Gates is a prime example of how talent can be found In unexpected places. After only playing basketball at Kent State University, Gates transitioned to football after he graduated and declared for the 2003 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, because of his lack of experience in the sport, Gates would go undrafted that year.
However, his raw athleticism and basketball background caught the attention of the San Diego Chargers, who signed him as an undrafted free agent. It did not take long for Gates to prove his worth on the gridiron. He quickly became one of the most dominant tight ends in the NFL, amassing over 11,800 receiving yards and 116 touchdowns during his illustrious career.
Gates revolutionized the tight end position, blending his basketball skills with football acumen to create matchup nightmares for defenders. His 8 Pro Bowls, 3 All-Pros, and selection to the NFL Hall-Of-Fame 2000s All-Decade team are a testament to his impact on the game. The former Golden Flash is a prime example of the untapped potential that lies within undrafted free agents, and how they can become superstars with the right opportunity and dedication.
5. Tony Romo – QB – Eastern Illinois
Tony Romo’s journey from an undrafted free agent to a household name in the NFL, is a story of resilience, passion, and adaptability. Following an outstanding career at Eastern Illinois University, Romo surprisingly went undrafted in the 2003 NFL draft. Nevertheless, the Dallas Cowboys recognized his potential and signed him as a UDFA.
Despite this, Romo’s path to becoming the starting quarterback for America’s Team was anything but smooth. He spent several years as a backup before finally earning the starting nod at age 26 in his third NFL season. Once in the limelight, Romo displayed his remarkable football IQ and uncanny ability to read defenses, leading the Cowboys to multiple playoff appearances.
Although Romo has faced criticism for never securing a Super Bowl title, his individual accomplishments were undeniable. He became the Cowboy’s all-time leader in passing yards (34,183), and touchdown passes (248) while earning four Pro Bowl selections. After retiring from the NFL, Romo transitioned seamlessly to a career in broadcasting, where he is beloved by many.