Whilst the NFL draft offers an opportunity for some of college football’s best players to get a shot at a career in the league, there are plenty who do not get their name called on draft weekend.
As Drake so famously put it ‘started from the bottom, now we’re here’. For a lot of NFL players, the bottom is exactly where they have to start their careers.
But that doesn’t mean that their career in the NFL is over before it begins, indeed there are a number of players who still managed to make a name for themselves as undrafted free agents after the draft process is finished.
Here at GiveMeSport we look at ten such players who missed out early, but have certainly been able to make up for lost time later on in their careers.
10. Arian Foster
Undrafted in 2009
Someone who had a brief career in the NFL, but it was certainly a productive one from the former Tennesse Volunteer.
Having been signed, released, then signed again by the Texans, it wasn’t until the 2010 season that he really burst onto the scene, and he did so in explosive style, scoring three touchdowns and rushing for 231 yards in only his second game for the team.
From there he remained their prime running back, leading the league in rushing in 2010 and having four 1,000-yard seasons between 2010 and 2014.
Injuries sadly forced his career to dwindle away, but there is no doubt that when he was available, he was one of the top players at his position in the league.
9. Chris Harris Jr
Undrafted in 2011
Harris’ career in the NFL is still ongoing, but there is no arguing his impact in the league since he first arrived in 2011.
Having to work his way up through the ranks at the Denver Broncos, he eventually established himself as one of the best players in the secondary, earning All-Rookie honours and being picked to four Pro Bowls so far.
His best years though came as part of the ‘No-Fly Zone’ defence that helped the Broncos claim victory in Super Bowl 50, a year he was named 2nd-team All-Pro. He has since moved on to the Los Angeles Chargers where he’ll surely be hoping to recreate some of that magic and guide the Bolts to a deep run in the playoffs.
Broncos CB Chris Harris Jr. is the best slot corner in the league.— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) May 29, 2019
Rank in snaps per reception allowed in slot coverage by year (PFF):
2012: 5th pic.twitter.com/C8tJnH5wFe
8 – Adam Thielen
Undrafted in 2013
Another player who took a few years before he could flourish in the league, the Minnesota State wide receiver had to wait the best part of three years before he could crack a starring role in the league, but when he did it was more than worth the wait.
Thielen put up back to back 1000+ yard seasons in 2017 and 2018, his partnership with fellow receiver Stefon Diggs helped turn the Vikings into one of the most dangerous offences in the entire league.
Recent injuries have hurt his production levels in recent seasons, but there is no doubt that when fit and healthy, he can cause plenty of trouble to opposing defences, and at just 31, there’s still some potential for him to do the same moving forward for some time.
ADAM THIELEN IS RIDICULOUS— PFF (@PFF) November 22, 2020
7. Shaquil Barrett
Undrafted in 2013
The outside linebacker’s career couldn’t have got off to a better start. Whilst not the prime member of the dominant 2015 Broncos defence that led the team to victory in Super Bowl 50, he did manage to put in a sizeable contribution with 5.5 sacks in his debut season.
Having put up some reasonable numbers with Denver, it wasn’t until he reached Tampa Bay under the wings of Todd Bowles that he really exploded onto the scene, leading the league in sacks in his first season and continuing to wreak havoc into this past season where he reached double digits in sacks once again.
At the age of 29, there’s still plenty more left in the tank and who knows what further damage he can do moving forward.
6. Wes Welker
Undrafted in 2004
Out of Texas Tech, Welker was a pretty run of the mill player during the early days of his career with both the San Diego Chargers and the Miami Dolphins. It wasn’t until he was brought into the fold by the New England Patriots that we saw his career take off completely.
Whilst he missed the Super Bowl sides of the early 2000s, he remained an integral part in making sure that they would always remain competitive. During his time in New England, he led the league in receptions three times, becoming a reliable target for Tom Brady, racking up 1,000 yards seasons in five of his six seasons at Gillette.
He continued his production in Denver with the great 2013 Broncos offence in the latter stages of his career before winding up with the St Louis Rams to round off his impressive career.
9 years ago today, Tom Brady threw for 517 yards including this 99-yard touchdown to Wes Welker.— Guy Boston Sports (@GuyBostonSports) September 12, 2020
It’s a Monday Night Football record, a Patriots team record and the 8th most passing yards in a single game in NFL history.pic.twitter.com/Ztc6EAr1cO
5. Antonio Gates
Undrafted in 2003
Now here’s a guy that took a rather unique way to get to the NFL. Gates didn’t even play football until getting to the professional level, instead playing basketball at Kent State. A tryout with the San Diego Chargers gave him the chance to transition and he took it with both hands.
Having started as a third-string, he eventually became one of the best tight ends in NFL history. His partnership with Phillip Rivers made sure that the Chargers were always contenders in the league.
He racked up a total of 118 touchdowns and over 12,000 yards in both the regular and postseason, holding the record for most touchdowns by a tight end whilst ranking 3rd for receiving yards in a career that could see him on his way to the Hall of Fame in the future.
Here it is: Antonio Gates passes Tony Gonzalez for most TDs by a tight end in NFL history with his 112th career TD. pic.twitter.com/31ueP4qiQ4— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) September 17, 2017
4. Tony Romo
Undrafted in 2003
The Eastern Illinois graduate had to wait a few years before getting his chance to shine in the NFL, starting way down the pecking order in Dallas as a backup to the likes of Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe, his most infamous moment came as a holder as he fumbled the snap on Martin Gramatica’s game-winning attempt to win the 2006 Wild Card game.
Tony Romo botching the hold against Seattle in 06 pic.twitter.com/Ew67IvOnin— Dewey Finn (@chasecar7) July 23, 2018
After serving more time as a backup, he eventually became the starter and went on to have a very impressive career in Big D where, although he didn’t win any Super Bowls, he did become the Cowboys’ all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, whilst also ranking 9th all-time when it comes to career passer rating.
Not bad for someone who had to work his way all the way up from where he started.
3. Adam Vinatieri
Undrafted in 1996
Whilst kickers might not necessarily be the most famous or glamorous position on the team, there is no doubting that when it comes to Vinatieri’s influence on the game of football, there are very few who have the C.V that he does.
Having started off in NFL Europe with the Amsterdam Admirals, he was picked up by the New England Patriots, and was forced into an immediate battle with veteran Matt Bahr for the spot, he emerged victorious and went on to play a crucial role in the Patriots dynasty of the 2000s.
Clutch kicks during the infamous ‘Tuck Rule Game’ in the snow, then winning Super Bowl 36 and Super Bowl 38 whilst also on the team when they won Super Bowl 39 the following year.
38. KICK-STARTING DYNASTY— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) July 29, 2019
Jan. 19, 2002
In driving snowstorm, Adam Vinatieri sends "Tuck Rule" game into OT with 45-yard FG. His 23-yarder in OT beats Oakland in 2001 AFC divisional playoffs.
Factoid: Patriots went on to win XXXVI, a start of 6 Super Bowl wins in 17 years. pic.twitter.com/vi54KyeLo5
He moved on to the Colts in 2006 and claimed a 4th Super Bowl and to this day stands as the NFL’s all-time leading points scorer.
2. James Harrison
Undrafted in 2002
A player once branded as the scariest player in NFL history, the intimidating outside linebacker had a well-earned reputation as a result of his incredibly physical play, play that cost him a lot of money over the course of his career.
Out of Kent State, he bounced around a few practice squads before joining the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe. He returned to America and found his home with the Pittsburgh Steelers, racking up over 90 sacks in the black and gold, winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, a year he capped off with his famous interception during Super Bowl 43.
1. Kurt Warner
Undrafted in 1994
A player so famous that they made a film out of his, rather incredible journey to the NFL. Having been forced to make his name in Arena Football’s Iowa Barnstormers and NFL Europe’s Amsterdam Admirals.
He was then signed by the St Louis Rams and helped orchestrate the now famous ‘Greatest Show On Turf’ that lit up the league between 1999-2001, winning league MVP in two of those three years, and claiming the franchise’s first Super Bowl against the Tennessee Titans.
10. Kurt Warner, 1999→respondió a la portada de Sports Illustrated "Who Is This Guy?" Dirigió magistralmente el Greatest Show on Turf👇 y pinceló la jugada decisiva de la SB XXXIV (MVP) contra los #TitanUp #NFL pic.twitter.com/0KvR8YWwIe— Victor Hasbani (@VictorHasbani84) February 10, 2021
After his days in St Louis, he also had an impressive career with the Arizona Cardinals, including their 2008 season that took them all the way to the Super Bowl before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
All this and more meant that a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame was a certainty after a stellar career that started from the very bottom.