When we think about prospects making the jump from college to the NFL, the first images that jump into our heads are those of players making the stroll from the green room to the podium on the first night of the NFL Draft. However, the fact is that the vast majority of players don't experience their dream playing out so publicly.
Hundreds of players sit at home waiting for a phone call to be drafted in the middle and late rounds, and for several hundred more players, a phone call during the draft never comes. Instead, they're forced to wait, hope a team is still interested, and sign for peanuts as undrafted free agents. While it's not the ideal route to the league, it's not impossible to make it in the NFL going the undrafted route, and on occasion, the lotto ticket hits and an undrafted player becomes an all-time great.
Texans fans know all about this, having watched Arian Foster — undrafted in 2009 — rack up more than 6,000 yards rushing in seven seasons. On Wednesday, Foster's career with the Texans ended with his release, but that does not diminish his greatness. Where does Foster stack up in the list of recent undrafted free agents? Let's take a look!
Without further ado, here are the ten best undrafted free agents in the past 25 years:
10. JEFF SATURDAY, C, North Carolina (1998, Baltimore Ravens)
Best known for being Peyton Manning's caddy on the Indianapolis Colts' offensive line for the better part of a decade, Saturday first broke into the league in 1998 as a Baltimore Raven. He was cut before the 1998 season started, signed with the Colts before the 1999 season, and made the team as a left guard before his move to center in 2000. He wound up his career with 202 starts, six Pro Bowl berths and a Super Bowl ring. Now 50 pounds lighter, he's part of ESPN's NFL studio coverage.
9. PRIEST HOLMES, RB, Texas (1997, Baltimore Ravens)
Undrafted out of Texas in 1997, Holmes signed with the Baltimore Ravens, and few remember that he actually rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 1998. However, the Ravens chose to build their running game around rookie Jamal Lewis the following season, and eventually rode Lewis to a Super Bowl win in 2000. Holmes left in free agency and signed with Kansas City, where all he did was average 1,500 yards rushing over a three-year period, and led the league twice in total yards from scrimmage and in touchdowns. His 27 touchdowns in 2003 set a record at that time. A spinal injury in 2005 ended Holmes's career prematurely.
8. WES WELKER, WR, Texas Tech (2004, San Diego Chargers)
Welker was let go after the first game of the 2004 season by the Chargers, then latched on with the Dolphins for three seasons in which he was primarily a kick return specialist. His 67 catches in 2006, though, was enough of a tease for the New England Patriots to trade for him, and it was there that he would cement his spot on this list, catching 112 passes in 2007 and putting together a six-year run in which he would catch at least 100 passes five times. Welker was a five-time Pro Bowler and a two-time All Pro, but unfortunately may be most remembered in New England for a crucial drop late in the 2012 Super Bowl that helped the Giants to a victory.
7. ARIAN FOSTER, RB, Tennessee (2009, Houston Texans)
Foster was a workhorse in his four years at Tennessee, but an oft-injured workhorse, and as a result, he fell out of the 2009 draft altogether. He signed on with the Texans, made the practice squad and was the starting running back by the end of his rookie season. In 2010, he exploded onto the scene for good, opening the year with a 231-yard effort against the Colts, and finishing the season with a league-leading 1,616 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. Foster finishes his Texans career with 6,472 yards rushing and 54 rushing touchdowns, third best since 2010.
6. ROD SMITH, WR, Missouri Southern (1994, New England Patriots)
After making a cameo in Patriots camp in 1994, Smith signed on with the Denver Broncos, where he would go from unknown small school guy to Broncos Ring of Honor over the next decade and change. Smith, along with Eddie McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe, made up John Elway's receiving corps in the two Super Bowl wins that punctuated the Hall of Famer's career. Specifically, Smith would average 1,200 yards over those two seasons and go on to 11,839 career receiving yards, all with the Broncos.
5. TONY ROMO, QB, Eastern Illinois (2003, Dallas Cowboys)
Tony Romo has the privilege of being the answer to a trivia question — who is the OTHER quarterback who replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe only to keep the starting job for the rest of his career? Yes, Tony Romo is a card-carrying member of the Tom Brady Club, having replaced an injured Bledsoe in 2006 and never looked back. Now, ten years into his run as the Cowboys' starter, Romo has passed for more than 34,000 and made four Pro Bowls, not to mention dated Jessica Simpson!
4. JAMES HARRISON, OLB, Kent State (2002, Pittsburgh Steelers)
If you're asking what Harrison is doing so high on this list, frankly, I'm frightened to put him any lower, out of fear that he will find me and jettison himself head-first into my cranium and leave me a drooling carcass. In all seriousness, it took Harrison a few years to work his way from the practice squad into the regular lineup, but once he did, he became one of the most fearsome pass rushers in the game, piling up 76.5 sacks and winning the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year award. He also scored a 100-yard touchdown return on an interception in the Super Bowl that season on the last play of the first half, one of the all-time gambling moments in Super Bowl history!
3. LONDON FLETCHER, ILB, John Carroll University (1998, St. Louis Rams)
Fletcher's career arc is one of the more interesting ones on this list, in that he was the leader of a top defense in St. Louis from practically the time he set foot in the league, signed on with Buffalo as a free agent in 2002 and then finally began receiving Pro Bowl recognition for the first time in his career at the age of 34 with the Redskins, making four straight Pro Bowls from age 34 to 37 at inside linebacker.
2. ANTONIO GATES, TE, Kent State (2003, San Diego Chargers)
After a stellar basketball career at Kent State, Gates chose to try his lot in professional football, signing with the Chargers in 2003. He chose wisely. Beginning in 2004, Gates would make eight straight Pro Bowls, and in 13 seasons, he has piled up nearly 11,000 yards receiving and more than 100 touchdowns. He is still playing at a relatively high level at age 35, having racked up 630 yards in 11 games last season.
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1. KURT WARNER, QB, Northern Iowa (1994, Green Bay Packers)
The gold standard for the "road less traveled," from undrafted in 1994 to the Arena League to bagging groceries, then back to the NFL with the Rams in 1998. In 1999, he was slated to back up high-dollar free agent Trent Green, but when Green tore his knee before the season, Warner took over and the rest was history. As the triggerman of "The Greatest Show on Turf," Warner won the Super Bowl that season and two MVP awards. After falling off the face of the earth as a New York Giant for a few years, Warner pulled a late career comeback, leading the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2008.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.