Commentary

Starr, Bo, Berry among draft bonanzas

Rounds 7-30, and free agency, have produced plenty of diamonds in the rough

Originally Published: April 12, 2010
By Sheldon Spencer | ESPN.com

Bart Starr, John Randle, Donnie ShellUS PresswireBart Starr (1956, 17th round, Packers), John Randle (1990, free agent, Vikings) and Donnie Shell (1974, free agent, Steelers) are among the great players uncovered on the NFL draft's fringes.
Here's a glimpse at how difficult assembling ESPN.com's round-by-round NFL draft all-stars is.

We decided to mirror the NFL draft's current length -- seven rounds -- with a slight twist. Within the seventh-round team, we're also including players selected in later rounds -- the NFL draft sometimes went 30-rounds deep -- and including the best undrafted free agents in that grouping.

We discovered there's plenty of star power in the draft's lower rungs and free-agency's fringes, too. The result: several agonizing choices (see charts below).

In keeping with our general guidelines, we're giving Hall of Famers priority in most cases. Still, we wrestled with selecting our starting safeties, for example.

Nearly 50 years after his retirement, Hall of Famer Emlen Tunnell (free agent, 1948, New York Giants) still ranks second on the NFL career interceptions list (79, trailing only the Minnesota Vikings' Paul Krause's 81 picks). Former Pittsburgh Steelers star Donnie Shell (free agent, 1974) won four Super Bowls in his first six seasons with the team -- and gave the Steelers eight more years of solid service. Unlike Tunnell, Shell is still on Canton's waiting list.

Choosing this tandem means relegating two Hall Of Famers -- Larry Wilson (seventh round, 1960, Cardinals) and Ken Houston (ninth round, 1967, Oilers) -- to the also-considered list. Why?

Tunnell (1956, Giants) and Shell were part of championship winners, Wilson and Houston were not.

As you'll discover, logic is only part of this recipe -- and sometimes it's left in the pantry, lost somewhere behind the Carnation Instant Milk and that box of Wheaties with Joe Kapp's picture on it. Sometimes, we'll grant wild-card exceptions that are purely subjective and clearly defy logic.

An originally proposed all-Canton backfield of Leroy Kelly (eighth round, Cleveland, 1964) and Bobby Mitchell (seventh round, Cleveland, 1958) was shelved when some ESPN.com staffers pushed for Auburn's Bo Jackson (seventh round, Los Angeles Raiders, 1987, after Tampa Bay's 1986 draft rights expired). Bo's shelf life was limited by his dueling MLB career and the hip injury that ended his NFL jaunts in January 1991.

His career numbers (2,782 rushing yards and 16 rushing TDs) don't hold a candle to either Kelly's or Mitchell's. But what the Raiders risked -- a seventh-round draft pick -- paid tremendous dividends on and off the field for a franchise that was trying to establish a foothold in Los Angeles. After his rookie year, Jackson's play in a job-sharing role with Hall Of Famer Marcus Allen helped improve the Raiders' fortunes the next three seasons. The Raiders got great value out of a part-time, one-of-a-kind player, let alone a seventh-round draft pick.

Yes, Jackson never will be enshrined in Canton. Still …

No offense, Bobby Mitchell, but Bo leapfrogged you into our starting lineup. Hey, this is very subjective.

Likewise, it was tough to limit the best diamonds-in-the-rough wide receiver contingent to two.

It's hard to displace a pair of HOFers in Florida A&M's Bob Hayes, an Olympic track star but seventh-round reach for the Dallas Cowboys in 1964, and SMU's Raymond Berry, a 20th-round selection of the Baltimore Colts in 1954.

[+] EnlargeRod Smith
AP Photo/Ed AndrieskiFormer Broncos' star Rod Smith might have been the greatest free-agent receiving signing ever.

Still, Denver's Rod Smith makes a strong argument. He emerged from NCAA Division II Missouri Southern in 1994 to become the dream free agent. In 12 full seasons, Smith caught more passes (849) for more yards (11,389) and more touchdowns (68) than any undrafted player in NFL history. He also snared two Super Bowl rings.

Hmmm … Berry celebrated two titles with the Colts, Hayes one with the Cowboys. Factor in length of service, too, and Smith edges the "world's fastest human" Hayes for a spot on our team by a nose.

Now where's Berry's teammate, Johnny Unitas? The Baltimore Colts legend started his NFL career as a 1955 ninth-round draft pick of the Steelers, who cut him. He didn't excel with the first NFL team to sign him, so Johnny U.'s not part of our squad.

Some of the other quarterbacks considered for the starter's role on our seventh-round and beyond all-stars included Hall of Famers Roger Staubach (1964, 10th round, Cowboys) and Warren Moon (1984, CFL free agent, Oilers).

But Bart Starr's résumé trumps them all. The former Alabama quarterback was a 17th-round selection of the Green Bay Packers in 1956, and all he did was lead them to five titles in 16 seasons. He won two Super Bowl MVPs on his way to Canton.

Suffice it to say there were plenty of debates at every juncture. Even given the infinite options of the Internet, we're not going to publish every name considered at every position. This is a highly subjective process -- and we were bound to have overlooked someone, some way, somehow.

See the charts below for some of the best lower-rung prospects the NFL has ever signed. Click here to read about Round 6.

Sheldon Spencer is an NFL editor at ESPN.com. Thanks to ESPN's Stats & Information crew for their researching efforts, as well as Pro-Football-Reference.com and the Pro Football Hall Of Fame's Web site.