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Ranking the greatest undrafted players in NFL history

The first NFL Draft occurred in 1936. Ever since, we’ve seen the annual player selection process turn into a full TV drama, complete with months of hype to build up prospects, team draft scenarios, and other player-related storylines.

Most of this attention focuses on the potential No. 1 picks in the NFL Draft, but a good football player can be found in all seven rounds. Teams can even find some hidden gems through undrafted free agency. Some last for a season, while others go on to help form the greatest undrafted players in NFL history.

Considering the 2023 NFL Draft has 259 players selected, it’s incredible that an undrafted player can develop into Pro Bowl or better talent. But it’s happened. Over and over again in football history.

While uncovering an All-Pro as an undrafted free agent has become rare, with more draft picks in the modern era than ever due to a total of 32 teams, plus the introduction of the compensatory pick formula, talented players still slip through the cracks.

There will always be undrafted players who were overlooked throughout the player selection process. Here we look at the greatest undrafted players in NFL history, a list that will feature plenty of updates over time.

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10. James Harrison

Despite having the NFL body of a player well past his time, at 6-foot, 240 pounds, James Harrison was what we call a tweener coming out of Kent State. Teams weren’t sure where to play him. Possibly too short to play linebacker yet not heavy enough to hold down a position on the defensive line, Harrison bucked the trend by becoming a ferocious pass-rusher. He’d rack up 84.5 sacks, winning Defensive Player of the Year, while helping the Pittsburgh Steelers win two Super Bowls. Not bad for a player who was doubted by everyone coming out of college.

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9. Adam Vinatieri

Justin Tucker may make this list at some point in the future, but for now, Adam Vinatieri has to be considered among the greatest undrafted players in NFL history. He’s responsible for what may be the best kick of all time, helping the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl victories while being named to three All-Pro teams. Yeah, it’s hard not to say Vinatieri deserves a place among the greatest undrafted players in NFL history.

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8. Willie Wood

A 12-year NFL pro, Hall of Fame safety Willie Wood is a five-time NFL champion who was an eight-time Pro Bowler named to four All-Pro teams. Yet, he was overlooked coming out of USC, where he played as a quarterback before injuring his shoulder. Despite being just 5-foot-10, Wood developed into a playmaking free safety who had a nose for the football. He’s earned his place in history among the best undrafted NFL players of all time.

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7. Jason Peters

While we know Jason Peters today for being the nine-time All-Pro offensive tackle who helped the Philadelphia Eagles win their first Super Bowl in team history, he began his career as a tight end. Despite being overlooked in the draft process, Peters wasn’t afraid to adapt at the next level and now has earned a place among the best undrafted NFL players of all time.

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6. Antonio Gates

After over 11,000 career receiving yards and three first-team All-Pro selections, it’s hard to imagine that Antonio Gates was undrafted coming out of college. But Gates actually played three seasons of college basketball, even helping Kent State reach the Elite Eight. But at 6-foot-4, 240+ pounds, Gates didn’t really have a position on the hardwood. Instead, Gates’s ability to box out his defenders translated perfectly to the NFL, where he became one of the best tight ends of his era.

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5. John Randle

Sometimes a player goes undrafted due to a lack of size as well as a lack of exposure. That was the case for the 6-foot-1, 290-pound defensive tackle out of Texas A&M-Kingsville. We’re talking about John Randle, who may have been diminutive in size, but you wouldn’t know it between the lines, where he was always the loudest smack talker on the gridiron. Randle still ranks second among all NFL defensive tackles with 137.5 career sacks, was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, and is a member of the Hall of Fame. Randle is absolutely one of the greatest undrafted NFL players of all time.

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4. Emlen Tunnell

It’s fair to say Emlen Tunnell was before our time. But “The Gremlin” was dominant for the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers from 1948-1961, where he became a two-time champion, earning nine Pro Bowl nods. A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tunnell finished with 79 career interceptions and should be recognized as one of the top undrafted players in NFL history.

3. Dick “Night Train” Lane

Night Train was dominant from the very beginning, leading the NFL with 14 interceptions as a rookie, and later led the league again two years later. He’d be named to three All-Pro teams while becoming a seven-time Pro Bowler. Lane capped off his 14-year playing career with a well-deserved Hall of Fame nod in 1974 and is certainly among the best undrafted players in NFL history.

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2. Warren Moon

USA TODAY Sports
RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Finding a starting quarterback is tough enough through the draft. But identifying a star that no one else wanted? It’s practically impossible. Warren Moon wasn’t just a legend in the NFL. He also dominated in the Canadian Football League, winning five championships. Then Moon became a nine-time Pro Bowl QB on his way to a Hall of Fame career. There’s no debate. Moon is among the top undrafted NFL players of all time.

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1. Kurt Warner tops list of greatest undrafted players in NFL history

kurt warner
ROBERT DEUTSCH/USA TODAY. / USA TODAY NETWORK

Finding an undrafted player who can crack a 53-man roster is tough enough, let alone a starter. But imagine finding a two-time All-Pro QB who would win not only two NFL MVPs but also a Super Bowl in his Hall of Fame career? Kurt Warner has to be the best undrafted player in NFL history.

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