This will start a short series I’m making leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft in Philadelphia. Every day leading up to the draft I’ll take a look at the ten best players from each round, in no particular order, starting today with my top undrafted players, and finishing with the best 1st round picks from 1966-present on the day of the draft.
These are all my opinion, though I believe every player listed is either Hall of Fame caliber, or “Hall of Very Good” caliber. Enjoy!
London Fletcher – #59 Inside Linebacker – St. Louis Rams, Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins
I can already feel the quizzical looks. London who? Listen, Fletcher may not be a highly decorated player, but you can blame spending a decade on some plain terrible Bills and Redskins teams for that. London attended John Carroll University, a Division III school in Ohio, so it’s no shock that the guy went undrafted in 1998. In his senior season, Fletcher recorded 202 tackles, that’s pretty impressive.
Fletcher never missed a game, playing in 256 consecutive games between 1998 and 2013, and started 215 straight, an NFL record for linebackers. In 1999, his 2nd season, Fletcher won the Super Bowl with the Rams, he would go back in 2001,
where St. Louis ultimately fell to the Patriots. In his 16 year career, Fletcher recorded 1,380 solo tackles, good for 6th all-time on the officially unofficial tackle leader board. Including his 651 assists, he averaged just shy of 127 combined tackles per season. Fletcher also racked up 23 interceptions, 12 fumble recoveries, and 39 sacks in his career.
Perhaps the most impressive stat for the first player on our list, is he didn’t get recognized for his play until he was voted to his first pro bowl in 2009 (He was named a Pro Bowl alternate 11 times before finally getting to play), at the age of 34. Fletcher went on to go to four consecutive pro bowls between 2009 and 2012, and was named a Second-team All-Pro in 2011 and 2012.
Fletcher announced his retirement at the end of the 2013 season. Always a beloved leader on and off the field, London was named one of the 80 Greatest Redskins, a well-deserved accolade.
Antonio Gates – #85 Tight End – San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers
This one should come as no surprise. Gates is one of the best, if not the single greatest tight ends to ever play in the NFL. Antonio was an excellent college basketball player at Kent State, but was told he was unlikely to be drafted into the NBA. So, naturally, he worked out for NFL scouts, despite having not played football since high school. Gates chose to work out for San Diego, and the Chargers immediately signed him as an UDFA.
Gates worked his way up the depth chart in 2003, before having a breakout 2004 campaign, recording 81 catches for 964 yards and 13 touchdowns. 2004 would be the first of Gate’s 8 consecutive pro bowl seasons through 2011.
He isn’t quite done yet, but as his career winds down, Gates is tied with fellow tight end Tony Gonzalez for the 6th most reception touchdowns of all-time, with 111. Gates is currently 3rd all-time for receptions and receiving yards by a tight end with 897 receptions for 11,192 yards, only behind Gonzalez and Jason Witten.
Gates was named a First-Team All-Pro in 2004, 2005, and 2006, and was named Second-Team All-Pro in 2009 and 2010. He was also named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, and the
San Diego Los Angeles Chargers 50th Anniversary Team. Within the next decade, we’ll likely see him in a gold jacket, and eerily similar bust in Canton, Ohio.
James Harrison – #92 Outside Linebacker – Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals
James Harrison might not finish his career with the stats of other Hall of Fame pass rushers. You can place the blame on the Steelers (and Ravens) for not realizing what a freak this guy was until he was 29. However, once James finally got his chance, he launched into stardom almost instantly.
Harrison is the 2nd player on my list to go to Kent State. He had a decorated collegiate career, but went undrafted because he was “too short” to play linebacker, and “too light” to play defensive line. He bounced on and off practice squads for his first five seasons, before finally getting a fresh start when new head coach Mike Tomlin made him starter after cutting an aging Joey Porter. Harrison made the first of five straight Pro Bowls that year, and never looked back.
Undoubtedly Harrison’s most memorable play is his pick six of Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XLIII at the end of the first half. Harrison intercepted the ball at the goal line and rumbled 100 yards for the score, turning a 10-7 game with the Cardinals threatening, into a 17-7 halftime lead.
His career was later marred by penalties and fines, and many have said Harrison was made a martyr by Satan himself, Roger Goodell. Still, Harrison has had a phenomenal career, currently sitting at 567 tackles, 81.5 sacks, 8 interceptions, and 33 forced fumbles.
At 38, Harrison’s days are dwindling, yet he’s still a great spot player in obvious passing situations for Pittsburgh. Harrison’s best season came in 2008, when he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year after racking up career highs in sacks (16) and tackles (101). Over his 14 year career, he’s been a pro bowler 5 times from 2007-2011, named a First-Team All-Pro in 2008 and 2010, and a Second-Team All-Pro in 2007 and 2009.
Larry Little – #73, #66 Offensive Guard – San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins
You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t write much on Mr. Little. He was way before my time, and they didn’t (still don’t) keep many stats for offensive linemen.
After attending Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college in Daytona, Florida, Little went undrafted in the 1967 NFL draft. He was later signed by the Chargers, and played there for 2 seasons, before being traded to the Dolphins in 1969.
Little was a force on the offensive interior for Miami, helping pave the way for the Dolphins’ rushing attack which featured Larry Csonka and Mercury Moris in the 1970s. In 1972, Little was a major part of the historic undefeated 1972 Dolphins team who defeated the Redskins in Super Bowl VII, and in 1973 he would help the team win back to back titles against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl VIII.
Little was a 5-time Pro Bowler for the Dolphins in 1969, and then from 1971 to 1974. He was also named a First-Team All-Pro for five consecutive seasons from 1971 to 1975. In 1993, Little was selected to the NFL Hall of Fame. Later, he was named to the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team and to the Miami Dolphins Honor Roll.
Warren Moon – #1 Quarterback – Houston Oilers, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks
Warren Moon was not only the first undrafted quarterback to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006, he was also the first black quarterback to join the ranks in Canton.
Moon played collegiate ball at Washington, but despite his success in a major program, he went undrafted. Moon turned to Canada to play pro ball, and joined the CFL’s Edmenton Eskimos from 1978 through 1983. In six seasons, Moon won 5 consecutive Grey Cups from 1978 to 1982, and was named the CFL Most Outstanding Player in 1983. He joined the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
Moon decided to leave the CFL for the NFL prior to the 1984 season, and a bidding war ensued, ultimately won by the Houston Oilers. Warren struggled to get acclimated to the higher level of NFL play at first, but by 1987 he had led Houston to their first playoff appearance since 1980, and by 1988 he was a Pro Bowler.
Moon went on to have an incredible career, though sadly never making to a Super Bowl. He was a 9-time Pro Bowler, including eight straight from 1988-1995. In 1990, Moon was named NFL MVP, NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and was a First-Team All-Pro after throwing for 4,690 yards, 33 touchdowns, and a 96.8 rating, numbers unheard of in that day.
Moon retired after 17 seasons in the NFL at the age of 44. At the time of his retirement, he was the all-time leader in passing yards with a combined total of 70,553 yards between the CFL and NFL. He also retired the all-time leader in touchdown s with 435.
John Randle – #93 Defensive Tackle – Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks
Truly one of my favorite players to grace the game of football. Randle was a terror on the field, and he knew it. His iconic face paint, and fierce trash-talk made him a terrifying opponent.
Randle played college ball at Texas A&M-Kingsville, a Division II school in, you guessed it, Kingsville, Texas. He went undrafted and unsigned due to his small size for an interior defensive lineman, but was signed by the Vikings before the 1990 season.
From 1992 to 1999, Randle recorded double digit sacks, and led the league in 1997 with 15.5. He was selected to six straight Pro-Bowls and All-Pro teams between 1993 and 1998. His numbers decreased slightly in 2000, and he was sent to Seattle, where he regained his magic for one more season in 2001, recording 11 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and being selected to his seventh Pro Bowl.
Randle retired in 2004, ending his career with 408 combined tackles, 137.5 sacks, and 26 forced fumbles. He became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2009, and was selected in 2010 as one of the greatest pass rushers of all-time.
Tony Romo – #9 Quarterback – Dallas Cowboys
Oh boy. Brace yourselves, Romo deniers, this is gonna be a bumpy ride.
The recently retired Romo will go down along with Danny White is a great Cowboy quarterback, who wasn’t able to get the job done in the postseason. That said, Romo may well be the best passer to ever don the silver and blue.
Tony went to Eastern Illinois, a Division I-AA school, where he was a 3-time conference player of the year from 2000-2002. Despite this success, teams passed Romo up for QUALITY quarterbacks such as Kyle Boller, Chris Simms, and Drew Henson.
Romo sat on the bench behind veterans Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe for his first three seasons, before replacing a struggling Bledsoe in October, 2006. Over the next 9 years, Romo was one of few constants on a Cowboys team that could never quite put a complete team together.
Romo was selected to Pro Bowls in 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2014, and was a Second-team All-Pro in 2014, when he led the NFL in passer rating. He led Dallas to the postseason in 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2014, winning postseason games in ’09 and ’14.
In an era dominated by future Hall of Fame passers like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees, Romo always kept pace. His 97.1 passer rating is ranked fourth all-time, and his TD:INT ratio of 2.12 is good for eighth all-time. Romo finished his career as the Cowboys’ leader (not including Dak, he’s only played one season, come on) in completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, yards per game, and passer rating.
Romo’s career was heavily hampered by injuries, especially in recent years, but the numbers still speak volumes. He’s faced a lot of crap, for no good reason, but hopefully now that he’s retired, Romo will be seen in a better light.
Emmitt Thomas – #18 Cornerback – Kansas City Chiefs
Mr. Thomas is another player who played well-before my time, and in a time where pass deflections, tackles, and catches allowed were yet to become stats for defensive players.
He went undrafted in the 1966 NFL Draft after attending the now defunct Bishop College in Dallas, Texas. Thomas was signed by the Chiefs as an UDFA and was a kick return specialist as a rookie before being moved to corner in 1967.
Thomas was a terror, and one of the first ball hawking defensive backs of the Super Bowl era. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 1968. In 1969, he was named Second-team All-NFL, and won his only Super Bowl as a player as the Chiefs defeated the Vikings in Super Bowl IV. In 1974, Emmitt had one of the all-time seasons for any defensive back, recording 12 interceptions in 14 games en route to his fourth Pro Bowl and first First-team All-Pro appearance.
Thomas ended his career after 13 seasons in 1979, having compiled 58 interceptions, currently 12th on the all-time list, and still the Kansas City franchise record holder. He went to five Pro Bowls, was named First-team All-NFL twice, and Second-team All-NFL twice.
Thomas was snubbed from the Hall of Fame for 30 years, before being inducted as a senior member in 2008. A very long time coming if you ask me.
Adam Vinatieri – #4 Kicker – New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts
A KICKER?! Why would I put a kicker before a position that matters?!
This is not just an ordinary kicker. This is THE kicker. Adam Vinatieri went undrafted out of South Dakota State in 1996. He spent one season with the Amsterdam Admirals of the World League of American Football, before the Patriots came calling.
In 2001, Vinatieri kicked a 45 yard field goal in a snowstorm to send the Patriots OT against the Raiders, he would kick the game winning field goal in overtime, sending the Patriots to the AFC Championship game where they beat the Steelers to go to Super Bowl XXXVI. With no time left on the clock, he kicked the game winning field goal, effectively kicking off the Patriots dynasty.
In Super Bowl XXXVIII, Vinatieri hit another game winning field goal, a 41 yarder against the Panthers. The next year, in Super Bowl XXXIX, the Patriots defeated the Eagles 24-21, a Vinatieri field goal being the difference in the win. In ten years with the Patriots, Adam kicked 18 game winning field goals with under a minute remaining in the game.
In 2006, Vinatieri left the Patriots for rival Indianapolis, and went to his fifth career Super Bowl, winning his fourth as the Colts defeated the Bears 29-17. In 2009, he was hurt and did not get to play in Super Bowl XLIV against the Saints.
In 2014, Vinatieri became the first kicker to convert 50 career postseason field goals, and in 2015, he became the first player to ever score 1,000 points with two different teams. In 2016, he kicked a record 44 consecutive field goals, breaking the record previously set by the man he replaced in Indianapolis, Mike Vanderjagt.
Vinatieri has been selected to three Pro Bowls, and has been named First-team All-Pro three times. He is on the New England Patriots 50th Anniversary Team, and the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team.
Still playing at 44 years old, he currently holds the NFL record for most seasons with 100+ points, 19, and will undoubtedly go down as the most clutch kicker of all-time, if not the greatest kicker of all-time.
Kurt Warner – #13 Quarterback – St. Louis Rams, New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals
Kurt Warner may have the most unique story of any undrafted player. Kurt played college ball at Northern Iowa and went undrafted in the 1994 draft. He was brought in to try out for the Green Bay Packers, but didn’t make the team. He then started stocking shelves at a supermarket before joining the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League in 1995. Warner was named AFL First-Team All-Arena in 1996 and 1997, leading the Barnstormers to appearances in the Arena Bowl both years.
In 1998, Warner was signed by the St. Louis Rams, and spent the spring in Europe playing for the Amsterdam Admirals where he led the NFL Europe in touchdowns and yards. Kurt spent 1998 backing up Tony Banks and Steve Bono.
In 1999, the Rams brought in Trent Green to be the starter over Warner. However, Green tore his ACL in the preseason, giving Warner the starting job. Enter The Greatest Show on Turf.
The Rams, led by Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Ricky Proehl tore through the NFL. Warner threw for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns on the season. He was named NVL MVP, was named First-team All-Pro, and was selected to the Pro Bowl. Warner and the Rams made the playoffs for the first time since 1989, and St. Louis would go on to defeat the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV, 23-16, in what may well be the closest ending to a game I have ever seen.
The Greatest Show on Turf ran over teams for two more years, scoring 500 points for three consecutive seasons, an NFL record. Despite this, Warner took a step back in 2000 and turnovers held the team back in the end. Warner rebounded in 2001, winning his 2nd MVP in three years, and leading the Rams to another Super Bowl appearance, this time losing to the New England Patriots.
Warner drastically regressed from 2002 through 2004, losing his job to Marc Bulger in St. Louis, and to rookie Eli Manning in after being traded to the Giants. In 2005, Warner signed with the Arizona Cardinals, and continued to struggle until the 2008 season when he had a sudden resurgence.
After a six year absence, Warner returned to the Pro Bowl in 2008, and led the Cardinals to their first ever Super Bowl appearance against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Warner played his heart out, but at the end Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to the win.
Warner retired after the 2009 season, a Super Bowl champion, two-time MVP, two-time First-team All-Pro, and having been selected to 4 Pro Bowls. Warner threw for 32,344 yards over 10 starting seasons, totalling 208 touchdowns, and a 93.7 passer rating.