Kurt Warner, Warren Moon among the best undrafted free agents in NFL history

Let’s say you’re a rookie like former Nevada quarterback Carson Strong and you went unselected in the 2022 NFL Draft. You’re feeling pretty insecure about your NFL future after landing on a team as an undrafted rookie, and with good reason.

Well, let me provide a pep talk to all of those players not hearing their name called before former Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy became “Mr. Irrelevant ”on Saturday afternoon: You not only have a chance to land on an NFL roster, but there’s a long list of undrafted players who have succeeded in the NFL, enough of them that, historically, the collective group of undrafted free agents has brought more “value” to teams than even players taken in Rounds 4 through 7.

I used Pro Football Reference’s “Approximate Value” metric to break down the values ​​of draft picks in Rounds 4 to 7 and the collectively much larger group of undrafted free agents. Sure, the drafted players have brought a higher return per player than the undrafted free agents. After all, some of the UDFAs don’t make it past a few practices and many don’t even make it to a practice squad. But it’s also where teams have gleaned the most value since really nothing is expected of these guys. They didn’t cost a draft pick, there’s no guaranteed money and making the roster is a long shot at best.

Yet many (from the group of hundreds of players) do make the roster, and some of them have gone on to reach the Pro Bowls or even have the Hall of Fame careers. There are enough of these success stories that, over time, more value has come from undrafted free agents.

Let’s take a closer look. Since 1960, the year in which the Pro Football Reference began backtracking Approximate Value, here are how many players in Rounds 4 through 7 and the undrafted players have posted a career AV of 1 or higher:

  • Round 4: 1,517 players
  • Round 5: 1,322
  • Round 6: 1,178
  • Round 7: 1,076
  • Undrafted: 4,483

And that’s just 1 AV. Of those 4,483 undrafted players who earned that number, 1,634 went on to have a career AV of 8 or higher. That’s substantial.

Below is a chart tabulating values ​​through NFL history (since 1960) on players drafted in Rounds 4 through 7 and the undrafted pool. I calculated the total value from each round and the UDFAs that finished in the top 400, 200, 30 and 10 in AV in their draft class.

Round 400 AV 200 AV 30 AV 10 AV

Undrafted

23,572 th most common

15,199 th most common

3,769 th most common

1,466 th most common

Round 4

21,523 th most common

14,483 th most common

3,524 th most common

1,388 th most common

Round 5

17,317 th most common

11,948 th most common

3,047 th most common

1,241 th most common

Round 7

14,487 th most common

10,924 th most common

3,016 th most common

1,175 th most common

Round 6

14,464 th most common

10,567 th most common

2,862 th most common

1,271 th most common

Again, this study isn’t saying that teams can find better players in the undrafted realm than on Day 3. There’s no doubt the pool of undrafted players will forever exceed Day 3 picks given how many UDFAs land on 90-man rosters after the draft .

Still, it’s fascinating to see how many undrafted players make or have made a significant impact for their teams around the league. So keep working, you UDFAs. Keep dreaming ‘. There’s a long list of success stories who once felt just like you feel now.

With that, here’s a glimpse at the undrafted players to land in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (limited to those who played their entire careers during the period when the Pro Football Reference has produced AVs for players, 1960 to present):

Disclaimer: There are several other undrafted players who started their careers before 1960 to reach the Hall of Fame. I kept it within the parameters of the AV metric.

QB Warren Moon, 163 AV

Moon started his pro career in the Canadian Football League, where he helped the Edmonton Eskimos win five Gray Gup titles. Moon landed with the Oilers in 1984, making nine Pro Bowls in 17 seasons for the Oilers, Vikings and Seahawks. He also won the league’s Offensive Player of the Year Award in 1990.

OL Jim Otto, 163 AV

If you’re looking for the king position for undrafted success, it sure seems like the center would wear the crown. And this former Raiders lineman was the highest of royalty during his 15 seasons (1960-1974). Otto was honored as a first-team All-Pro 10 times, was invited to the 12 Pro Bowls and earned a roster spot on the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.

OL Mick Tingelhoff, 152 AV

The former Vikings center never missed a game, starting 240 consecutive games spanning from 1962 to 1978, an NFL record for most consecutive starts for an offensive lineman. Tingelhoff earned five first-team All-Pros, two second-team All-Pros and six Pro Bowl trips.

DB Willie Brown, 147 AV

You know Brown from the iconic video of him running seemingly into the camera on a pick-six off Fran Tarkenton in Super Bowl XI. Brown helped the Raiders to three Super Bowl crowns after spending his first four seasons with the Broncos. Brown picked up five first-team All-Pro accolades and nine Pro Bowl invitations. The cornerback joined Otto on the league’s 100th Anniversary Team.

DL John Randle, 139 AV

Randle was one of the most dominant defensive tackles in league history. He landed six consecutive first-team All-Pro nods and Pro Bowls with the Vikings. He added a seventh Pro Bowl trip later in his 14-year career in Seattle. He tallied 137.5 sacks during his career, leading to a slot on the all-1990s team.

OL Larry Little, 133 AV

The Chargers probably still regret trading Little to the Dolphins on July 2, 1969, after only two seasons. Little immediately earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and earned four more Pro Bowl appearances and five first-team All-Pro nods during his 14-year career.

LB Sam Mills, 127 AV

“The Field Mouse” will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer in its final year of eligibility. The linebacker entered the NFL after three seasons in the USFL and helped create the famed “Dome Patrol” defense with the Saints in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He also found success with the Panthers from 1995 to 1997. Mills had five Pro Bowl trips, one first-team All-Pro and two second-team All-Pros.

DB Willie Wood, 122 AV

The safety smashed in about as much success in an 11-year career with the Packers as possible. Wood picked off 48 passes in a career that included eight Pro Bowls and four first-team All-Pro honors. Oh, and the Packers won five NFL titles and two Super Bowls during Wood’s time in Green Bay.

DB Donnie Shell, 118 AV

Shell started only three games in his first three seasons (1974 to ’76) with the Steelers, then the safety exploded once he received the starting job in Year 4 in Pittsburgh. He made it to the Pro Bowl five consecutive seasons starting in 1978 and picked up three first-team All-Pro nods in the span. Shell picked off 51 passes in his 14-year career.

QB Kurt Warner, 113 AV

Subjectively, you might place Warner at the top of this list given his accomplishments. He won two NFL MVPs with the Rams and the Super Bowl XXXIV MVP. Warner also played in two more Super Bowls, one with the Rams and the other with the Cardinals. He had quite the journey, bouncing around from the Iowa Barnstormers and Amsterdam Admirals to becoming a Hall of Famer.

OL Jim Langer, 107 AV

Langer, a center, became a starter with the Dolphins in his third season in 1972. Patience paid off, as the next season began a span of six consecutive Pro Bowl trips, with three first-team All-Pro honors mixed in.

DB Emmitt Thomas, 100 AV

Similar refrain as Langer. Thomas became a starter in Year 3 in 1968, then took off. He earned five Pro Bowl spots and one first-team All Pro during his 13 seasons with Kansas City. He twice led the NFL in interceptions (nine in 1969, 12 in 1974).

WR Drew Pearson, 98 AV

The former Cowboys wideout broke loose in Year 2 in 1974 with his first of three Pro Bowl trips and three first-team All-Pros. He led the NFL in receiving yards in 1977 and twice eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark during his 11-year career. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2021.

DB Cliff Harris, 97 AV

Harris jumped into the starting lineup at safety for the Cowboys in his second season in 1971. But Harris’ best seasons began midway through his 10-year career and spanned until the end. He earned trips to the Pro Bowl in his last six seasons, with three first-team All-Pros in Years 7 through 9.

To Jan Stenerud, 78 AV

The Montana State product quickly became the league’s best kicker in his second season in 1968. He gained four of his five Pro Bowl nods in Years 2 through 5, with a first-team All-Pro selection in 1970. Stenerud is tied for fifth in career AV among kickers with Adam Vinatieri.


Now here’s a look at the AV top 20 undrafted players not in the Hall of Fame, although there’s one tight end on this list who’ll probably end up in Canton.

Player career av

OL Jeff Saturday

156

LB London Fletcher

138

QB Dave Krieg

138

OL Jason Peters

137

QB Jim Hart

131

WR Rod Smith

129

TE Antonio Gates

127

DB Cornell Green

127

DB Eugene Robinson

126

QB Tony Romo

115

OLB James Harrison

110

OL Kent Hull

109

OL Nate Newton

109

WR Wes Welker

109

OL Joe Jacoby

106

DB Dave Grayson

105

OL Brian Waters

105

QB Jeff Garcia

104

OL Jay Hilgenberg

104

OL Bart Oates

104

DB Everson Walls

104

(Photo of Kurt Warner: Steve Schaefer / AFP via Getty Images)

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