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For most NFL players, the path to the pros goes directly through the draft where every offseason all 32 football franchises select from the best college players and pay them big money to join their teams.
Then there are the undrafted players.
Undrafted free agents are players who were eligible for the NFL Draft but were not selected, and these men can negotiate and sign with any team that will have them.
Many undrafted players don’t make it at the professional level, but now and again there are the sweet exceptions who make a name for themselves in the league that initially rejected them.
Each most likely carries a chip on their shoulders as big as the hurt they got handed when all 32 teams first passed them by.
Here are (arguably) the top five undrafted players in the league right now – pro football studs forced to take the road to the NFL less traveled.
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Buffalo Bills slot receiver Cole Beasley is 32-years old now, and at 5’ 8” and 174 pounds, he went unselected in the 2012 NFL Draft due to his less-than-NFL size, but then he was signed by his hometown Dallas Cowboys.
Since then, this 10-year NFL Second-team All-Pro veteran has caught almost 500 balls (491) for over 5,200 yards (5,210) and 33 touchdowns, production that makes him a valuable member of the Buffalo Bills in 2021 and puts him in the top five of this list.
Beasley is already having a productive 2021 (23 catches, 194 yards) but his best NFL season was two years ago in 2019 when he caught a career-high 82 passes and almost cracked 1,000 receiving yards (967) with four touchdowns in fifteen games.
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The entire NFL passed on running back Austin Ekeler during the 2017 draft, but afterward, the 5’ 10” 200 pound Western Colorado alum was given a three-year, $1.66 million contract to play for the Los Angeles Chargers, a deal that included a $5,000 signing bonus.
Ekeler has become a key playmaker for QB Justin Herbert’s offense, the back now with 436 total carries for over 2,000 yards (2,067) and ten touchdowns averaging 4.7 yards per carry, typically good for 500+ yards on the season.
Now that Ekeler has signed a four-year, $24.5 million contract extension, he’s stepping into a bigger backfield role and with the solid front line he runs behind (including All-Pro center Corey Linsley, guard Matt Feiler and star rookie tackle Rashawn Slater), this 2021 season could be undrafted Ekeler’s breakout year.
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Talk about snubbed – wide receiver Adam Thielen was not even invited to the 2013 NFL combine, but his impressive marks at the lesser-known Super Regional Combine in Dallas (40-yard dash: 4.45 secs, 3-cone drill: 6.77 secs) garnered him some attention from the league.
After going undrafted in 2013, the Minnesota Vikings signed Thielen to a three-year, $1.48 million contract but he was waived and then signed to the practice squad and didn’t make the actual 53-man roster until the following season in 2014.
From then on, Thielen has caught almost 70 percent of the passes thrown his way, 418 of them for 5,421 yards and 43 touchdowns, numbers that have earned him two Pro Bowl appearances and a Second-team All-Pro nod in 2017.
Few kickers are actually drafted by the NFL, and Justin Tucker was no exception, the University of Texas music major going undrafted in 2012 and then signed by the Baltimore Ravens who named him the starter after an impressive camp.
What a ride it has been ever since for Tucker, now a Super Bowl Champion (XLVII) and a 4x First-team All-Pro who is the most accurate kicker in NFL history having converted 90.6 percent of the field goals he’s attempted, now with 1,251 points scored.
In Week 3 of the 2021 season, Tucker broke the NFL record for the longest field goal kick with a 66-yard beauty that took a crossbar doink to help it go through, a boot that also broke the records for the longest game-winning field goal in NFL history and the longest kick in a domed stadium.
The top undrafted player in the league right now is no doubt Tampa Bay Bucs linebacker Shaquil Barret, the 6’ 2” 250 pound 2x Super Bowl Champ (50 & LV) who no pro team selected in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Now Barrett is considered one of the best linebackers in the league, with 277 career tackles and 42.5 total sacks and 15 forced fumbles along with two interceptions, the 28-year old Colorado State alum still posting big numbers for his Bucs.
In March 2021, Barrett signed a four-year contract extension worth $72 million (with $36 million guaranteed), and this season in three games he has already posted a sack, 3 quarterback hits, a pass defended, and 11 total tackles with two of those for a loss.
Over the years since the first NFL draft in 1936, the league has seen its fair share of undrafted talent, the list far too long to include here.
Below are (arguably) the top-5 undrafted NFL players of all time, these men were selected for their high levels of skill and how important they became to the teams for which they played.
The list, however, goes on and on…
|5) James Harrison||Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, NE Patriots||OLB||2002|
|4) Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane||L.A. Rams, Chicago Cardinals, Detroit Lions||CB / DE||1952|
|3) Antonio Gates||San Diego / L.A. Chargers||TE||2003|
|2) Warren Moon||Houston Oilers, MN Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, KC Chiefs||QB||1984|
|1) Kurt Warner||St. Louis Rams, NY Giants, AZ Cardinals||QB||1998|
Mike Lukas is a retired standup comedian turned freelance writer now living in Dallas, Texas, originally from Cleveland, Ohio. His love for the game of football and all things Cleveland Browns turned Mike into a pro blogger years ago. Now Mike enjoys writing about all thirty-two NFL teams, hoping to help football gamblers gain a slight edge in their pursuit of the perfect wager. Email: [email protected]More info on Mike Lukas
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