Needles in a haystack. Diamonds in the rough. Untapped sources of potential.
Whatever you prefer to call them, undrafted free agents are some of the best stories in the NFL. They can also contribute greatly to teams wise enough to scout thoroughly.
In celebration of the rapid rise of undrafted Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, Page 2 examines some of the NFL's pleasant surprises that slipped through the cracks of the draft process in recent years.
Despite throwing for more than 9,000 yards as a four-year starter at Louisiana-Lafayette, Delhomme wasn't picked in the 1997 draft. The Saints signed him before training camp that season but never gave him much of an opportunity, choosing instead to go with Heath Shuler, Billy Joe Tolliver, Jeff Blake and Aaron Brooks under center. Delhomme would serve in NFL Europe as a backup to another player on this list, Kurt Warner, and ultimately led the Panthers to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII in his first season with the team.
Guess who holds the 49ers' record for passing yards in a season. Joe Montana? Steve Young? It's actually Garcia, who threw for 4,278 yards during the first of three Pro Bowl seasons in 2000. The former San Jose State quarterback didn't generate much commotion coming out of college, though, and had to cut his teeth in the CFL, where he led the Calgary Stampeders to a Grey Cup championship in 1998. The Niners cut him in a 2004 salary-cap move, and he has since bounced through Cleveland and Detroit to Philadelphia.
The subject of one of the greatest undrafted free-agent stories ever, Gates originally enrolled at Michigan State with the intention of playing both football and basketball. Nick Saban, then coach of the Spartans, wanted Gates to focus on football. Gates disagreed, and he wound up playing only basketball at Kent State, helping the Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight in 2002. Many NFL teams showed interest in Gates out of college -- although he hadn't played in an organized football game since high school -- but none took a flier on him in the draft. After signing with the Chargers, he rewarded the team with 13 touchdown catches in 2004, an NFL record for a tight end. He had 170 total receptions during the 2004 and '05 seasons and earned All-Pro recognition both years.
Despite showing tremendous potential as a collegian at Texas, Holmes suffered a knee injury before his junior season that allowed freshman Ricky Williams to emerge in Austin. Although Holmes saw his playing time decrease after returning to health, he capped his college career with a three-touchdown performance in a memorable Big 12 championship game victory over Nebraska in 1996. But there were no takers for his services in the draft. He signed with the Ravens and topped 1,000 yards rushing in his second pro season, but later was again supplanted by a budding star, Jamal Lewis. On to the Chiefs: Holmes rushed for amazing totals of 5,482 yards and 70 touchdowns in a mere 3½ seasons before falling victim to injuries.
Twelve undrafted players have gone on to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
Willie Brown, cornerback (Broncos, Raiders 1963-78)
A four-year starter at defensive end for Indiana, Ogunleye suffered a devastating knee injury as a senior and was passed over in the 2000 draft. He spent his first pro year on injured reserve with the Dolphins but emerged with 24½ sacks in his last two seasons in Miami. After a contract squabble with the Dolphins, Ogunleye was traded to the Bears, where he has become a solid component of the mighty Chicago defense despite not equaling his statistical production in Miami.
Parker is the subject of an unlikely success story after losing the starting tailback job at North Carolina his senior season. He landed with the Steelers after going undrafted in 2004 and had a quiet rookie season. Thanks to his speed, however, Parker emerged from a cluttered Pittsburgh backfield as the starter prior to the 2005 season. He rushed for 1,202 yards in helping to lead the Steelers to Super Bowl XL, where he scored a 75-yard touchdown en route to victory.
Thirty linebackers were drafted in 2001. But Pierce, who played his college ball at Arizona, wasn't one of them. After four years with the Redskins, Pierce signed a six-year contract with the Giants in 2005 that could be worth up to $26 million. This season, he's on pace to establish a new career high in tackles.
Despite winning the Walter Payton Award as the top player in NCAA Division I-AA by passing for 2,950 yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior at Eastern Illinois in 2002, Romo wasn't one of the 13 quarterbacks selected in the subsequent draft. Three of those -- Dave Ragone, Drew Henson and Kliff Kingsbury -- are no longer in the NFL. Romo, meanwhile, has emerged as a potential savior for the Cowboys' playoff hopes, throwing for 1,656 yards and 13 touchdowns with a 69.4 percent completion rate since taking over for Drew Bledsoe.
Playing collegiately at Division II Missouri Southern, Smith flew under the radar of many scouts. He signed with the Broncos in 1994 and spent a season on the practice squad. Then the wideout began building an impressive resume, ultimately recording two 1,000-yard seasons, 67 career touchdown catches and an active streak of 119 consecutive games with a reception. Smith is the first undrafted player to top 10,000 receiving yards and is the Broncos' career leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches.
It's hardly unusual for kickers to go undrafted. Most do. But for one as talented as Vinatieri to slip through the cracks and establish himself as the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history is nearly inconceivable. After becoming the all-time leading scorer at South Dakota State, Vinatieri caught on with the Patriots and put together quite a list of memorable kicks en route to becoming New England's all-time leading scorer. He will be forever linked to his tying and winning field goals in a blizzard to beat the Raiders in a playoff game after the 2001 season and his two long winning kicks as time expired in Super Bowl XXXVI and Super Bowl XXXVIII.
The star of a grocery stocker-to-Super Bowl quarterback fairy tale, Warner is still the most accurate passer in NFL history at 65.5 percent despite battling injuries since 2002. It's not surprising that he went undrafted, as he started only his senior season at Northern Iowa. A well-chronicled journey through supermarket aisles, the Arena League and NFL Europe followed. Warner caught on as the Rams' third-string quarterback in 1998. The following year, he got the chance to start when Trent Green suffered a season-ending knee injury in an exhibition game. Warner capitalized on the opportunity, throwing for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns as the Rams introduced their "Greatest Show on Turf" offense en route to winning Super Bowl XXXIV.
Thomas Neumann is an editor for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.