NFL stars that signed as undrafted free agents

Claire Gentry
Tanner Mangum drops back as all eyes were on him during the passing session of Pro Day. Mangum will participate in NFL minicamps with the Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions. (Claire Gentry)

BYU football’s Corbin Kaufusi was signed as an undrafted free agent after being passed on in the draft, and Tanner Mangum received a mini-camp invitation from the Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions. This raises the question, “how far can these players really go if no one wanted them in the draft?”

Many athletes have had successful NFL careers after going undrafted. There are several active players currently finding themselves in major roles in the NFL though they never received a call on draft night.

Adam Vinatieri (Indianapolis Colts) Vinatieri is a self-taught kicker with the most prolific kicking career in NFL history. The former South Dakota State University Jackrabbit was once benched midway through his junior season in college for being inconsistent before graduating in 1995.

Fast forward to 2019, Vinatieri still finds himself on an NFL roster. The 46-year-old kicker has played 23 seasons in the NFL between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, winning four Super Bowls and playing in three Pro Bowls. The native of Yankton, South Dakota, has the most points of any player in NFL history with 2,600, while the only other active player on this list, Stephen Gostkowski, has 1,743.

Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen stretches before practice at the Twin Cities Orthopedic Center in Eagan, Minnesota, Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP)

Adam Thielen (Minnesota Vikings) Thielen is a bit of a Cinderella story. The Minnesota native played Division II football for Minnesota State University, Mankato, on a $500 scholarship. After college, his plan was to sell dental equipment, a job he interviewed for via referral from a friend. He ultimately decided to pursue his NFL dream and paid his way to a regional combine in Chicago.

Just two years later, he found himself on an NFL roster. After being on the Vikings active roster since 2014, Thielen is now a superstar wide receiver that turned his $500 Division II scholarship into a four-year NFL contract worth $64 million dollars. The wide receiver finished ninth in NFL receiving yards in 2018, tallying 1,373 yards through the air on 113 caches. The undrafted free agent has also been named to the Pro-Bowl roster in back-to-back seasons.

Chris Harris Jr. (Denver Broncos) Harris only received one scholarship offer after graduating high school. The former Kansas Jayhawk switched positions from cornerback to safety during his senior season because there was a lack of skill at the safety position on his Jayhawk team. He was not invited to the scouting combine because of this as scouts told him a 5-foot-ten football player was too short to be playing safety. Harris would eventually sign with the Broncos as a cornerback after beating out two other potential signees.

Harris was a longshot in his first training camp with the Broncos but did things to make himself known. He would routinely volunteer to cover star wide receivers such as Brandon Lloyd and Demaryius Thomas, according to Bleacher Report, and he would perform well against them. Since breaking into the league in 2011, the native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has been named to four Pro Bowl teams, was named a first-team All-Pro in 2016, and has a Super Bowl ring. He is currently coming off a 5-year, $42.5 million contract.

Michael Bennett (New England Patriots) During his first training camp with the Seattle Seahawks in 2009, Bennett had to take shuttles from the hotel to the training camp facilities because he didn’t have a car. Seen as ‘undersized‘ for a defensive end, though weighing 274 pounds and standing 6-foot-4, Bennett wasn’t at the top of any depth charts.

The native of Independence, Louisiana, has now been in the NFL since he signed with the Buccaneers in 2009. He would eventually return to the Seahawks in 2013 and has also played with both the Philadelphia Eagles and his current team, the New England Patriots. Bennett has been named to three Pro Bowl teams and has one Super Bowl ring.

Phillip Lindsay (Denver Broncos) Lindsay’s path to the NFL was made even less likely when he tore his ACL during his senior year of high school. Lindsay would end up getting an offer from Colorado University where he had 5,926 all-purpose yards in four seasons. Like many others, Lindsay did not receive an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine. His talent was on full display, however, during Colorado University’s Pro Day. Ultimately, he was not drafted in the 2018 draft.

Lindsay signed a professional contract as an undrafted free agent with the Broncos, and his 2018 rookie season did not go unnoticed. The native of Denver, Colorado, was just the third NFL undrafted running back to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. The 24-year old still enjoys living at home with his parents, which has become much more luxurious since signing his rookie contract. Lindsay had over 1,400 all-purpose yards during his rookie campaign with 10 touchdowns while also seeing his name on the Pro Bowl roster.

Jason Peters (Philadelphia Eagles) Peters road to the NFL was a little more unconventional than most because his exceptional skills paired with his large frame perplexed many scouts. He was a 6-foot-four, 305-pound athlete that was recruited as a defensive lineman but played tight end during his final season as a Razorback at Arkansas. At 305 pounds, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.93 seconds at the scouting combine.

Peters wasn’t selected in the 2004 draft, but once the draft had concluded, around 20 teams gave him a call. Ultimately choosing to play for the Buffalo Bills to start his career, Peters had to transition from tight end to tackle to secure more playing time. The Queen City, Texas, native has started every game that he’s played in over the last 12 seasons and finds himself making $15.5 million in guaranteed money until the 2020 season. Peters won a Super Bowl with the Eagles in 2018.

Doug Baldwin (Seattle Seahawks) Playing at Stanford, Baldwin’s sophomore stats indicated a potential breakout season as a junior. He tallied 23 receptions for 332 yards on a Cardinal team that posted a less-than-impressive 5-7 record under Jim Harbaugh. His junior season, however, was riddled with injury. He would go on to catch only four passes while playing in just seven games because of his injuries.

Baldwin’s senior season proved to be the season he needed to get his name on scouts’ radar. He would finish his senior year with 58 receptions and 857 yards through the air, leading the Stanford Cardinals in both receptions and touchdowns with nine. His 5-foot-10 height repelled teams as he was considered small as a wide receiver, and though he had a career season as a senior at Stanford, he would not hear his name called on draft night. Baldwin would end up signing as an undrafted free agent with the Seattle Seahawks.

The native of Gulf Breeze, Florida, had a strong rookie season after going undrafted. He caught 51 passes for 788 yards and four touchdowns during his rookie year. Since then, Baldwin has appeared in two Pro Bowls and has one Super Bowl ring. He currently finds himself on a four-year, $46 million contract.

Antonio Gates is another undrafted free agent who has found success in the league, however, he currently finds himself as an NFL free agent.

Joining these active players are many football greats that also didn’t hear their names on draft night. Tony Romo, James Harrison, Rod Smith, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Wes Welker, and many others, went undrafted through all seven rounds. In addition to these players are a handful of Hall of Famers that entered the NFL as free agents during the draft era: Larry Little, Jim Langer, Warren Moon, John Randle and Kurt Warner.

No athlete wants to go through the three-day draft without hearing their name called by an NFL team, but even if such is the case, it does not mark the end of their journey.

Corbin Kaufusi approaches Kalani Sitake as he takes the field one final time against New Mexico State at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Nov. 17. Kaufusi recently signed a professional contract as an undrafted free agent with the New Orleans Saints. (Claire Gentry)
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