The hidden side of politics

The best undrafted players in every NFL team’s history

Reported by ESPN:

Kurt Warner went from stocking grocery-store shelves to playing arena football to eventually starting his Hall of Fame career in the NFL.

He’s the poster boy for undrafted free agents. Below are the rest of the best unselected players in league history, as identified by NFL Nation reporters.

AFC East | AFC North| AFC South | AFC West
NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West

AFC East

C Kent Hull

Hull’s three Pro Bowls with the Bills are tied for second among undrafted players to have played for Buffalo, and his longevity with the team makes him the choice over other candidates such as Fred Jackson, Tony Greene and Booker Edgerson. After beginning his career in the United States Football League, Hull spent 11 seasons snapping to Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly from 1986 through 1996. Hull, who died in 2011, is a member of the Bills’ wall of fame and 50th anniversary team. — Mike Rodak

DT Manny Fernandez

Coming out of Utah in 1968, few would have predicted that Fernandez would go on to have an eight-year career in Miami, totaling 35 career sacks and playing an instrumental role in two Super Bowl victories. Teammates even made the case that Fernandez could have been the MVP of Super Bowl VII, and, of course, Fernandez did play a big part in the Dolphins’ undefeated season in 1972. His place in Dolphins history is secure as he was voted to the franchise’s all-time team in 2007. — Mike Reiss

CB Malcolm Butler

Save a Super Bowl with an unforgettable interception at the goal line and it vaults you to the top spot. Butler’s heroics in Super Bowl XLIX mean he will forever have a special place in Patriots history, even if his tenure ended with him being benched by coach Bill Belichick in a Super Bowl LII loss. Butler joined the Patriots in 2014 at a time when the roster was full at 90 players, but the club brought in a few players for early-May tryouts to see how they stacked up against the lower-level players already on the team. Butler flashed, the team created a roster spot for him and the rest is history. — Mike Reiss

WR Wayne Chrebet

The Jets discovered Chrebet in 1995 in their own backyard — literally. They trained at Hofstra University on Long Island, where Chrebet played his college ball. He was so unremarkable in appearance that a Jets security guard mistakenly thought Chrebet was a gate-crashing fan and wouldn’t let him into the facility on the first day. He was the 10th receiver on a 10-man depth chart, but he worked his way into a starting role as a rookie. One of the most popular players in team history, Chrebet currently ranks second in receptions (580) and third in receiving yards (7,365) on the Jets’ all-time list. — Rich Cimini

AFC North

K Justin Tucker

The Ravens have had great success with undrafted players — including running back Priest Holmes, linebackers Bart Scott and Jameel McClain, safety Will Demps and center Mike Flynn — but the nod goes to the most accurate kicker in NFL history. Tucker, who has made 202 of 224 field goals (90.2 percent) in his career, has reached two Pro Bowls and is a two-time first-team All-Pro. He also became the fastest pure kicker in league history to reach 800 career points, doing so in his 95th regular-season game. This is an incredible amount of success for someone who wasn’t one of the four kickers drafted in 2012 and didn’t receive a signing bonus as a rookie because he was initially a tryout player. –Jamison Hensley

DE Coy Bacon

Although Vontaze Burfict could have an argument for this nod one day, it’s hard to argue against Bacon, who played in 14 NFL seasons and made three Pro Bowls. Bacon started his career in the Continental Football League before signing with the Cowboys as a practice-squad player. He eventually made it to Cincinnati, where he made a big impact in just two brief seasons with the Bengals. Although the NFL didn’t recognize sacks as an official stat in 1976, the Bengals maintain that Bacon had 22 in one season, which is still a franchise record. (Bacon maintained that he actually had 26 that year.) He made the Pro Bowl in both years as a Bengal before he was traded to the Redskins. — Katherine Terrell

G Robert Jackson

Jackson was the ultimate team guy, and a key member of the offensive line in the Kardiac Kids days. Jackson made the team out of Duke, then started 10 years in a row (1975-85) on the line. He was hard-nosed, hard-working and team-oriented. His annual “Jackson Open” golf tournament for players and staff was always anticipated. Josh Cribbs also did great things with the Browns, but Jackson edges out Cribbs for his tenure and unnoticed contributions. — Pat McManamon

OLB James Harrison

Cornerback Jack Butler, who had 52 interceptions in the 1950s, made this a difficult call. But not many players define the modern Steelers era more than the newly retired Harrison does after going undrafted in 2002 out of Kent State and playing a season of World League of American Football before becoming the franchise’s all-time sack leader (84.5). Harrison’s 16-sack performance that earned him NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 will forever live in black-and-gold lore. He was a key factor in two Super Bowl wins, recording a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown to help seal Super Bowl XLIII. — Jeremy Fowler

AFC South

RB Arian Foster

The Texans have had success with undrafted players in their short history, but their biggest hit so far has been Foster, who signed with Houston in 2009 and went on to become the Texans’ all-time leader in rushing yards (6,472) and rushing touchdowns (54). Foster was initially cut by the Texans, then signed to the practice squad in September 2009 before being added to the active roster just two months later. Foster played all but one of his eight NFL seasons with Houston, making four Pro Bowls over that time. He was named first-team All-Pro in 2010 after leading the NFL in rushing yards (1,616) and rushing touchdowns (16). — Sarah Barshop

C Jeff Saturday

Saturday originally signed with Baltimore as an undrafted rookie out of North Carolina in 1998. The Ravens cut him two months later and Saturday moved back to North Carolina, where he spent the next year working in a supply store before the Colts signed him in 1999. Saturday went on to form one of the best center-quarterback tandems with Peyton Manning. He once started 85 straight games at center and was named to the Pro Bowl five times. — Mike Wells

WR Allen Hurns

Hurns signed with Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent out of Miami, the same year the Jaguars drafted Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee in the second round. Hurns finished with more catches than Robinson or Lee as a rookie, and was just two short of Cecil Shorts’ team lead of 53. Hurns then caught 64 passes for 1,031 yards in his second season, making him one of only four players in franchise history to surpass 1,000 yards receiving. He ranks sixth in franchise history with 2,631 yards receiving after just four seasons. Hurns was cut in March and later signed by the Cowboys. — Mike DiRocco

QB Warren Moon

This honor has go to Moon, the best quarterback in Oilers/Titans history and the first — and only — African-American QB inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame to this point. Moon went unselected in a 12-round 1978 NFL draft and began his pro career in the Canadian Football League, where he won five straight Grey Cups. The Oilers made one of the best moves of the century signing Moon after his fifth season in the CFL. He became a nine-time Pro Bowler and the all-time leading passer (touchdowns and yards) in franchise history. He led the league in passing in 1990 and 1991, and ranks in the top 13 all time in passing yards (49,325) and passing touchdowns (291). — Cameron Wolfe

AFC West

WR Rod Smith

Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. has been selected to three Pro Bowls and is among the best in the league since he arrived as an undrafted rookie in 2011. Then there’s Ring of Famer Karl Mecklenburg, who was a 12th-round pick in the 1983 draft, which would be an undrafted player these days in a seven-round draft. But Smith is the pick here. He played 183 regular-season games for the Broncos (1995-2007), and was a part of two Super Bowl wins. He had nine straight seasons with at least 70 receptions and finished his career with 11,389 yards receiving and 68 touchdowns while being an unquestioned leader in the locker room and an unfailing mentor to younger players. — Jeff Legwold

CB Emmitt Thomas

Thomas joined the Chiefs from the now-defunct Bishop College in Texas in 1966. He wound up playing for 13 seasons and was a member of both of Kansas City’s Super Bowl teams. He remains the franchise’s all-time leader with 58 interceptions and was inducted into the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame in 1986, then the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008. — Adam Teicher

TE Antonio Gates

A power forward in college who led Kent State to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, the athletic Gates changed the tight end position in the NFL. Signed as an undrafted rookie by the Chargers in 2003, he’s the NFL leader in receiving touchdowns by a tight end with 114. An eight-time Pro Bowler, he’s the team’s franchise leader in receptions (927), receiving yards (11,508) and touchdowns (114). Quarterback Philip Rivers and Gates have connected for 87 touchdowns, which are the most in league history for a tight end-quarterback tandem. — Eric D. Williams

FB Marcel Reece

A college receiver at Washington, Reece signed with the Raiders after participating in a rookie camp as a tryout player. He made the transition to fullback and spent the 2008 season on Oakland’s practice squad. By 2012, he was a “matchup nightmare” with his speed out of the backfield and ability to make plays in space and was selected to four straight Pro Bowls between 2012 and 2015. Reece was second-team All-Pro in 2013, when he carried the ball 46 times for 218 yards and two touchdowns and caught 32 passes for 331 yards and two touchdowns. Honorable mentions include wide receiver James Jett, who is still sixth on the Raiders’ all-time receiving yardage list (4,417), and defensive lineman Otis Sistrunk, who was a second-team All-Pro and Pro Bowler in 1974 as a key cog on the Raiders’ Super Bowl XI title team. — Paul Gutierrez

NFC East

QB Tony Romo

There are quite a few to choose from, including Ring of Honor members Cliff Harris and Drew Pearson, but the undrafted quarterback out of Eastern Illinois gets the selection here as the franchise leader in passing yards (34,183) and touchdowns (248). Romo won only two playoff games, which leaves him behind Hall of Fame quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman in team lore, but was the face of the franchise for a decade. He was named to four Pro Bowls and helped the Cowboys to four playoff appearances. — Todd Archer

WR Victor Cruz

It took a legendary preseason performance against the Jets to secure Cruz’s spot on the roster. He topped 1,500 yards in 2011 en route to making the Pro Bowl in his second professional season. He helped the Giants win Super Bowl XLVI while becoming one of the most popular figures in franchise history. — Jordan Raanan

S Andre Waters

The ferocious hitter joined the Eagles in 1984 out of Cheyney University of Pennsylvania and became a key part of one of the era’s most dominant defenses. Waters topped 100 tackles in six straight seasons and finished his 12-year career with 15 interceptions and over 900 takedowns. — Tim McManus

OT Joe Jacoby

Jacoby joined the Redskins in the summer of 1981 in part because they had room for an extra lineman with rookie Mark May unsigned. Coach Joe Gibbs initially thought Jacoby was a defensive lineman but soon saw his value on offense. Jacoby started 13 games his rookie season, including eight at left tackle. That became his permanent home as he was the only starter among the Hogs for all four of their Super Bowl appearances from 1981 to 1991. He was a Hall of Fame finalist three times and earned first-team All-Pro honors twice as well as four Pro Bowl nominations. — John Keim

NFC North

K Robbie Gould

The former Penn State kicker was working a construction job when the Bears called him in for a tryout during the 2005 season. Gould not only won the starting job, but became a Bears staple for the next 10 seasons. Gould left Chicago prior to the 2016 season — a decision the Bears later regretted — as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer (1,207 points). Gould is also the most accurate kicker in Bears history (85.4 percent) and holds the franchise record for most career field goals made (276). — Jeff Dickerson

CB Richard “Night Train” Lane

Lane was already a Pro Bowler by the time he was traded from the then-Chicago Cardinals to Detroit in 1960 for Jerry Perry. Then, over the last six seasons of his career, Lane established himself as one of the best undrafted players ever. Following a stint in the Army, Lane tried out for the Rams, was signed and intercepted 14 passes as a rookie, which is still an NFL record. He earned Pro Bowl honors seven times and was a three-time first-team All-Pro, and his 68 career interceptions still rank fourth all time. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1974. — Michael Rothstein

S Willie Wood

A run-first quarterback at USC, Wood had to write letters to NFL teams just to get a tryout — and the Packers were the only team to make him an offer in 1960. He became a starter in his second season, picked off nine passes in his third season, earned first-team All-Pro honors five times and was a key member of Vince Lombardi’s championship teams. He played all 12 of his NFL seasons for the Packers and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989. — Rob Demovsky

DT John Randle

NFL teams thought Randle was too small at 6-foot-1 and 241 pounds. He went undrafted, then failed a tryout with Tampa Bay before signing with Minnesota in 1990, where he became one of the most storied defensive linemen in NFL history. In his second season, Randle had 58 tackles and 9.5 sacks. Four years in, he began a streak of six straight Pro Bowls (1993-98) before earning honors again in 2001 with Seattle. He finished his career with 137.5 sacks, tied for ninth all time, and earned his gold jacket after enshrinement in the Hall of Fame in 2010. — Courtney Cronin

NFC South

LB Jessie Tuggle

The Georgia native and Valdosta State product is a member of the franchise’s Ring of Honor for his accomplishments over his 14 seasons with the team. He is the Falcons’ all-time leading tackler with 2,065 stops and had 12 straight seasons with 100-plus tackles. Tuggle, who once had 24 tackles in a game, was named to five Pro Bowls. He’s the father of current Falcons standout nose tackle Grady Jarrett. — Vaughn McClure

QB Jake Delhomme

This could easily be linebacker Sam Mills, who is the only player with his statue in front of Bank of America Stadium. But Delhomme, who began his career as an undrafted free agent with the Saints, led the Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII in his first season in Carolina (2003) and was the team’s career leader in most passing categories until Cam Newton came along. Delhomme made his first Pro Bowl in 2005 and was the Panthers’ starter from 2003 to 2009. — David Newton

LB Sam Mills

The USFL flamed out, but it was one of the best things to ever happen to the Saints, giving them coach Jim Mora and players such as Mills, Vaughan Johnson, Bobby Hebert and Mel Gray. Mills, an undersized 5-foot-9 inside linebacker who had been undrafted out of Montclair State in 1981, was cut by both the Browns and Toronto Argonauts before starring in the USFL and becoming the heart and soul of New Orleans’ famed Dome Patrol defense. He later became such an important part of the fledgling Panthers franchise that they erected a statue of him outside their stadium. Mills went to five Pro Bowls in his 12-year NFL career, including four with the Saints. — Mike Triplett

LB Shelton Quarles

After a brief stint in Miami in 1994, where he was cut in training camp, Quarles spent two years in the CFL before signing with the Bucs in 1997. He emerged as the team’s best special-teams player before becoming the starting strongside linebacker in 1999 and later the starting middle linebacker in 2002, when the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII. His 74 tackles and two interceptions that season were second only to Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks. He wound up playing 10 seasons, appearing in 148 games with 113 starts, the ninth most in team history. His 985 tackles currently rank fourth in franchise history. He joined the Bucs’ front office in 2007 and now serves as the director of football operations. — Jenna Laine

NFC West

QB Kurt Warner

Warner did what many thought was impossible for the Cardinals franchise: He led them to them a Super Bowl in 2008. It was their first — and they haven’t been back since. His name is all over the franchise record book, and he’s in the team’s Ring of Honor. Plus, his role in leading Arizona to its lone Super Bowl berth helped him become a Hall of Famer. — Josh Weinfuss

QB Kurt Warner

Warner might be the poster child for undrafted NFL players. He went unselected in 1994, tried out for the Packers but was cut before the season began. So he stocked shelves at a grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa, then spent three years playing indoor football and another season playing quarterback in Europe. Warner was the Rams’ third-string quarterback in 1998 and finally got his chance after Trent Green tore his ACL in a preseason game prior to the 1999 season. He never looked back. Warner went to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons as a starter for the then-St. Louis Rams, passing for 12,612 yards and 98 touchdowns. He went to two Super Bowls from 1999 to 2001, winning one of them. Now he is in the Hall of Fame. — Alden Gonzalez

RB Joe “The Jet” Perry

Undrafted out of Compton Community College in 1948, the Niners took a chance on Perry in large part because of the blazing speed that, at the time, put him in the same company with some of the world’s best sprinters. Perry went on to land three first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods, was the UPI NFL Player of the Year in 1954 and earned a spot on the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1950s. All of that was enough for Perry to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1969, his first year of eligibility. — Nick Wagoner

QB Dave Krieg

Krieg gets the nod here. Undrafted out of the now-defunct Milton College in 1980, the man nicknamed Mudbone owns the franchise record for wins (70) and touchdown passes (195). Among Seahawks QBs with at least 15 starts, his 82.3 career rating for Seattle edges out Matt Hasselbeck for the second best behind Russell Wilson. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin gets honorable mention here after leading the Seahawks in receiving in five of his first seven seasons. — Brady Henderson