Updated April 17, 2020 - 10:21 am
One of the most enduring images in Raiders history is of Willie Brown sprinting 75 yards with an interception for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. That play was decisive in the Raiders’ 32-14 victory and became one of the most iconic plays in Brown’s Hall of Fame career.
But that’s not all it is. For the hundreds of players whose phones won’t ring on draft night next week, that play is a poignant reminder that the seven-round draft is just one part of uncovering the next group of NFL players. History has shown there is plenty of talent beyond the reach of the draft.
Brown is proof of that. The former Grambling State standout cornerback never got the call on draft night. In fact he got passed over in the AFL and NFL drafts in 1963.
But today, Brown is one of 17 undrafted players enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton and among the countless others who had successful NFL careers after hooking on as undrafted free agents. Expect the 18th and 19th players to emerge soon as former Chargers tight end Antonio Gates and former Pittsburgh Steelers pass rusher James Harrison seem shoo-ins to eventually knock on the Hall of Fame door.
Both went undrafted. Each is an example of the kind of talent that can be mined in the hours and days after the draft.
“I think a lot of people get fired up and the mock drafts are all about the first round and people scream and yell about who the quarterbacks are, but at the end of the day, to me, the third day is just as important as the first,” Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said. “And so is the acquisition of the college free agents.”
In fact it’s almost a guarantee one or a handful of players who go undrafted next week will have great NFL careers, maybe even make the Hall of Fame.
The most recent undrafted free agent to reach Canton was Kurt Warner, who went undrafted out of Northern Iowa, couldn’t stick with the Green Bay Packers and bounded around the Arena League and NFL Europe before catching on with the St. Louis Rams as the third-string quarterback in 1998. When Trent Green went down with a knee injury in 1999, Warner seized his opportunity, leading the Rams to the only Super Bowl championship in franchise history while earning Super Bowl XXXIV MVP and NFL MVP honors.
Warner would end up playing in three Super Bowls over his 12-year career and throwing for 32,344 yards.
The list of undrafted free agents who ended up in the Hall of Fame includes Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman John Randle; quarterback Warren Moon, who played six years in the Canadian Football League after going undrafted out of Washington before finally getting a shot at the NFL with the Houston Oilers in 1984; Miami Dolphins guard Larry Little; and Green Bay Packers safety Willie Wood.
Going even further back, Dick “Night Train” Lane of the Detroit Lions and Marion Motley and Lou Groza of the Cleveland Browns became Hall of Famers despite not getting drafted.
Not that the Hall of Fame is the only indicator of successfully mining the undrafted free-agent pool.
The Raiders’ recent acquisition of linebacker Cory Littleton is proof that not all great players get the life-changing call on draft night. Littleton was not drafted out of Washington in 2016 and had to earn his way onto the Los Angeles Rams’ roster by excelling on special teams.
Two years later, Littleton earned a starting linebacker role in Los Angeles and eventually made the Pro Bowl. The Raiders signed him to a three-year, $36-million contract, and he is expected to be a defensive anchor in Las Vegas.
Wes Welker is a multiple Super Bowl participant but went undrafted out of Texas Tech in 2004. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo never got the call in 2003 out of Eastern Illinois.
Neither did former Kansas City Chiefs running back Priest Holmes, former Eagles offensive tackle Jason Peters nor longtime Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday.
Joe Jacoby,considered by many the greatest player in Washington history not to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, was a three-time offensive line All-Pro selection, a three-time Super Bowl champion and a member of the 1980’s NFL All-Decade team. He went undrafted out of Louisville in 1981.
Currently, Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen, Chargers cornerback Chris Harris and Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay are among the top NFL players who didn’t get phone calls on draft night.
All showed it isn’t always about the draft. They are proof there is NFL-caliber talent beyond the seven rounds we watch on television.