April 21, 2023 12:00pm

The NFL and Undrafted Players

The draft has always provided the surest path to an NFL roster spot. From 2000-2020, the NFL kept 77 percent of all its draft picks. If teams liked a player well enough in April to draft him, they liked him well enough in September to keep him on the roster.

Photo of Rick Gosselin
NFL Correspondent
 

The draft has always provided the surest path to an NFL roster spot. From 2000-2020, the NFL kept 77 percent of all its draft picks. If teams liked a player well enough in April to draft him, they liked him well enough in September to keep him on the roster.

But that’s not to say interlopers aren’t welcome. There have been 17 players who went undrafted by the NFL that now have busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

With the 2023 draft on tap for next week in Kansas City, we thought it would be a good time to explore that talented pool of undrafteds in this week’s NFL Power Poll.

In our first question, we asked our panel of former players, coaches, officials, talent evaluators, writers and broadcasters to identify the greatest free agent ever and offered up seven options – six Hall of Famers and another player not yet eligible for Canton.

The Hall of Famers were tackle/kicker Lou “The Toe” Groza, cornerback Dick “Night Train” Lane, quarterbacks Warren Moon and Kurt Warner, defensive tackle John Randle and safety Emlen Tunnell with tight end Antonio Gates the potential Hall of Famer in waiting.

Tunnell is one of four safeties enshrined in Canton. So in our second question, we asked our panel to eliminate Tunnell from consideration and pick the next best undrafted safety in the Hall of Fame – Cliff Harris, Donnie Shell or Willie Wood.

All seven candidates received votes in the first question with Warner at the front of the pack, receiving 59 of the 188 votes cast. The Night Train was next with 38, followed by Moon with 31, Randle with 22, Tunnell with 21, Gates with 12 and Groza with five.

“This was made simpler for me by eliminating Em and all the other older-era guys from the discussion,” said Bud Geracie, the sports editor of the Bay Area News Group. “Scouting then isn’t nearly what is is now. With the forest cleared, the biggest tree standing is the two-time league MVP and Super Bowl champion who was stocking shelves at the HyVee grocery store in Cedar Falls after going undrafted – Kurt Warner.”

Tunnell ranks second on the all-time interception list with 79 and Lane holds the record for the most interception by a pure cornerback with 68. Randle sacked 137 ½ quarterbacks, second most by a defensive tackle in NFL history, and Moon passed for 49,235 career yards – and that doesn’t include the 21,288 passing yards and five championships from his CFL days. Gates caught 116 career touchdown passes, seventh best in NFL history. Groza hasn’t played since 1967 but still ranks among the NFL’s Top 25 scorers with 1,608 points.

“Choosing between Groza and Lane was extremely difficult,” said Barry Wilner, a Hall of Fame voter and long-time Associated Press NFL writer. “Both were very versatile, especially for their era, who had significant impacts for their teams and their league. I went with Groza because of the leadership and kicking element he added as well as being a standout offensive tackle. Observing how specialists have become such a big part of the sport through the years, what Groza achieved was very special.”

Lane intercepted 14 passes as a rookie with the Los Angeles Rams in 1952 – a single-season record that still stands today 70 years later.

“Night Train has a compelling case to make as the best cornerback in NFL history,” said Ira Kaufman, another Hall of Fame voter and staff writer for JoeBucsFan.com.

Gates holds the NFL record for touchdown catches by a tight end with 116 – five more than Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez.

“I covered an Antonio Gates’ game in college,” said Chris Tomasson, an NFL writer for the Denver Gazette. “But, no, it wasn’t a football game. It was an NCAA basketball tournament game. To go from just playing college basketball to being most likely a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a truly great story.”

In the second question, Shell received 76 votes as the second-best undrafted safety in the Hall of Fame. Wood was next with 64 votes, followed by Harris with 48.

Shell was a five-time Pro Bowler and a four-time Super Bowl champion. Wood was an eight-time Pro Bowler, a five-time NFL champion and a member of the 1960s NFL all-decade team. Harris was a six-time Pro Bowler, a two-time NFL champion and a member of the 1970s all-decade team.

“Willie Wood was as good as any player on the ‘60s Packers, which says a lot about his talent and his play,” said Pete Dougherty, who covers the Packers for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of significant key players in American sports today. It's member list draws on people from media, team management, and league management. It is not a scientific survey, but the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those who know most about the sport.

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