These College Unknowns Thrived In The NFL And Nobody Saw It Coming

No matter what sport it is, there’s always one top prospect who stands out the most. Of course, there are also the athletes who barely got scouted, but they surprisingly exceeded expectations.

These players came out of nowhere and thrived under the bright lights in the NFL. However, there are certain players who shined in college football, but never replicated that success at the professional level.

Before we get to the big name players who were college unknowns, let’s look at the ones who fell from grace.

Trent Richardson

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The hype train for this running back didn’t go far at all. Richardson was considered to be the game’s best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. His lower body strength, explosiveness, and field vision allowed him to whiz by the vast majority of defenders.

His career fell off after the Cleveland Browns shipped him to the Indianapolis Colts. He spent the 2017 season playing for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL.

Matt Jones

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Jones was more of a hyper-athletic quarterback in college. However, the Jaguars went ahead and drafted him to not be their quarterback. Instead, Jacksonville drafted him to become the team’s wide receiver.

His size at six-foot-six and being over 200 pounds really made him stand out from the pack at that position. Unfortunately, Jones was hit with a drug charge in 2008 and violated his plea agreement the following year, and was quickly released.

Matt Leinart

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The USC prodigy was supposed to be a top pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. But, it was Leinart’s decision to go back for another year that really plummeted his draft stock. It’s hard to tell what could have been if he didn’t defer for another year of college football.

But, what we do know is that his short stint in Arizona didn’t last, and neither did his stops in Houston or Buffalo.

JaMarcus Russell

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This quarterback was the perfect example of a “can’t miss prospect.” After being drafted by the Oakland Raiders with the first overall pick, Russell didn’t meet any expectations. His short-lived career in the NFL can best be described as a dumpster fire.

Russell completed 52.1% of his attempts and was released after the 2009 season. Despite making multiple attempts at a comeback, he was never signed by another team, thus ending his career.

Jason Smith

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Smith’s smaller frame and inexperience with an NFL-style offense threw question marks in the air. But, the Rams needed a franchise left tackle to anchor their rebuilding defense. However, the jump from college ball to the NFL came at him too early.

St. Louis wasn’t that pleased by his slow transition to the professional level. With a growing history of injuries, Jones found himself on the New York Jets, and never started another game.

Now that some of the busts are out of the way, let’s dive in and see who shined in the NFL. First up, Eli Manning’s go-to receiver.

Victor Cruz

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For a small size, Cruz was as big as a New York Giant. The Giants signed the 6-foot, 205-pound Cruz out of UMass as an undrafted free agent on April 25, 2010. The receiver quickly developed a chemistry with quarterback Eli Manning.

He would help the team defeat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. In 2018, Cruz announced his retirement and is now a football analyst on ESPN.

Coming up, one of the players from the opposing team of Super Bowl XLVI.

Arian Foster

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The Texans went ahead and signed the 6-foot-2 undrafted running back. Despite struggling to secure playing time, the Tennessee alumni emerged as the team’s starter in 2010. From then on, he proceeded to outrun the surrounding competition, eventually leading the league in rushing yards.

By 2015, his career was coming to an end due to a ruptured Achilles tendon. After playing in Miami in 2016, he ultimately retired on October 24.

Andre Waters

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Waters brutalized opponents for ten seasons in the City of Brotherly Love. Philly obtained him out of the Cheyney University of Pennsylvania as an undrafted safety. Eventually, he earned the nickname “Dirty Waters” as an intimidating hitter who made the Eagles’ 75th Anniversary Team. A

fter retiring as a player, Waters worked as a college football coach. In 2000, Waters left South Florida to join the St. Louis Rams as a coaching intern.

Malcolm Butler

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Butler is considered to be the best cornerback of the New England Patriots since Ty Law. The Patriots signed the undrafted free agent out of West Alabama. Despite everything he’s done, including finding a new home with the Tennessee Titans, one moment stands out the most.

In the critical moments of the game, he made the game-winning interception against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. However, he was benched during Super Bowl LII.

Although his #80 has not been formally retired, the Jets have not reissued this next player’s number.

Dave Krieg

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Krieg flew as a Seahawk during his time in Seattle. “Mudbone” went undrafted, but when he was signed he exceeded expectations. He became the team’s starting quarterback after Warren Moon declined to sign the team’s offer. Consequently, inconsistency again plagued Krieg.

His play ranged from awful to mediocre to good. Surprisingly enough, he completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 38,147 yards while throwing 261 touchdowns. In 2004, he made the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor.

James Harrison

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The frightening individual signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002. While employed in the Steel City, Harrison instantly shined by becoming a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time First Team All-Pro. But, he didn’t end his career in Pittsburgh.

Instead, he thought it was a great idea to nap during team meetings and other issues arose. The Steelers released Harrison, so he went and signed with the rival Patriots. He retired for good in 2018.

Wayne Chrebet

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Chrebet soared on Long Island as a Hofstra Flying Dutchman. In 1995, the New York Jets took a chance on him as an undrafted free agent. As a Jet, he proceeded to record 580 catches for 7,365 yards and 41 scores over 11 seasons.

Although his #80 has not been formally retired, the Jets have not reissued it since he retired, so it’s safe to assume that no Jet will wear that number again in the foreseeable future.

One of Chrebet’s teammates from Long Island is up next.

Julian Edelman

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Edelman is a legitimate threat on the gridiron. The Patriots would draft the wide receiver out of Kent State with the 232nd pick in 2009. Since then, the California-native has won two Super Bowls. But, it was his difficult catch in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI that made him a New England legend.

In 2018, Edelman was suspended in 2018 for four games due to violating the policy against using performance-enhancing drugs.

Tony Romo

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The undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois University left quite a mark on the league. With three seasons being a benchwarmer, Romo supplanted Drew Bledsoe under center in October 2006. The quarterback held the league’s top passer rating in 2014, and he even remained with the club until he broke his collarbone.

Romo was a statistical machine who should get respect for his prowess. These days, fans can hear Romo calling games with Jim Nantz on CBS.

Marques Colston

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Like Wayne Chrebet nearly a decade before him, Colston soared from Long Island from the same school. With the 252nd selection in 2006, the New Orleans Saints drafted the wide receiver. Colston impressively matched with Saints signal-caller Drew Brees and procured a place on the 2006 All-Rookie Team.

He is the Saints’ all-time franchise leader in many categories, including receiving yards, yards from scrimmage, receiving touchdowns, total touchdowns, and total receptions.

Up next, a wide receiver who made stops in Miami, but had more success in New England.

Priest Holmes

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This Priest was an electric force on the field for the Kansas City Chiefs. But, it was the Baltimore Ravens who first took a chance on the running back. Once Jamal Lewis came into town, Holmes inked a free agent deal with the Chiefs.

Holmes proved himself in the Show-Me State and became an elite back. Unfortunately, he retired in 2007 due to neck injuries, but he did win Super Bowl XXXV with Baltimore.

Joe Jacoby

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Jacoby was a beautiful mauler for the Washington Redskins. Jacoby was the lead blocker on John Riggins’ famous touchdown run which ensured the Redskins’ Super Bowl XVII win over the Dolphins. In that game, the Redskins set a Super Bowl record for most rushing yards with 276.

Nevertheless, plenty of Redskins’ fans and analysts believe Jacoby is the greatest Redskins player not currently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Wes Welker

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Welker is frequently hailed as the preeminent slot receiver in the annals of football. The San Diego Chargers offered him a contract as an undrafted free agent in 2004. Welker gained employment as a Miami Dolphin, becoming a five-time Pro Bowler in the process.

Welker would be traded to the Patriots where he would achieve success with Tom Brady. Afterward, he made stops in Denver and St. Louis before retiring.

One of the best receivers in the game today is still on the way.

Greg Lloyd

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The linebacker was a menacing presence both on and off the field. The Steelers picked him the 150th choice in 1987. After an uninspiring rookie season, Lloyd worked to become a five-time Pro Bowler.

After the retirement of David Little, he became the emotional and fiery leader of the Steelers defense. Lloyd remained the starter through the 1997 season, and in 2007 he was voted to the Steelers’ All-Time Squad.

Cliff Harris

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The safety shined in the Lone Star State as a Cowboy throughout the 1970s. The Cowboys picked up the 6-foot-1, 188-pound Harris out of Ouachita Baptist as an undrafted free agent in 1970.

In 2014, OBU honored Harris by naming its new football stadium “Cliff Harris Stadium.” Furthermore, The Cliff Harris Award is presented to the top defensive player in the country representing Division II, III, and NAIA colleges and universities.

Antonio Brown

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Antonio Brown came out of Central Michigan with the 195th choice in 2010. The six-time Pro Bowler has flourished in the Steel City and matured into Ben Roethlisberger’s primary target. He finished his rookie season with 16 receptions for 167 yards in ten games.

During his second season, Brown became the first player in NFL history to have more than 1,000 yards receiving and returning in the same year.

Up next, the 5-foot-11 running back who sent shockwaves through the league with the Denver Broncos.

John Randle

 John Randle
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Being an undersized defensive tackle didn’t seem to bother Randle. It would be the Minnesota Vikings who took a chance on him after coming out of Texas A&M-Kingsville as a free agent. Before signing, he tried out for his brother’s team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He would play in his first Pro Bowl in 1993 after recording 11.5 sacks. The Texas-native would quickly become one of the most dominant defensive tackles of his era.

Kevin Greene

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The linebacker was an intense monster on the field. Greene was badly undervalued coming out of Auburn. The Los Angeles Rams drafted him with the 113th selection in 1985.

The 1996 Defensive Player of the Year proved naysayers wrong and was a force for all four organizations that employed him. Over the course of his career, he notched 773 tackles and 160.0 sacks and was named to the league’s 1990s All-Decade squad.

Terrell Davis

 Terrell Davis
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The 5-foot-11 running back benefited by running behind a dominant offensive line. Davis, a member of the 1990s NFL All-Decade Team, averaged 4.6 yards per carry for 7,607 yards and 60 scores.

But, the most significant moment of his career was taking home Super Bowl MVP. He was a central force that helped the Denver Broncos win back-to-back Lombardi trophies in 1998 and 1999. Not bad for a sixth-round draft pick.

Just ahead, this player has the most touchdown receptions among tight ends in NFL history.

Donnie Shell

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You can’t talk about the Steel Curtain without mentioning Donnie Shell. The undrafted free agent out of South Carolina State was a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time First Team All-Pro. The tenacious South Carolinian also shined on four of the Steelers’ Super Bowl-winning squads in the 1970s.

When he retired in 1987, he compiled 51 interceptions in 201 games. Shell currently serves as Director of Spiritual Life at Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina.

Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane

Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane
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The intimidating tackler was a fearsome enforcer in the secondary. Luckily enough, the Los Angeles Rams signed him to a free agent deal in 1952. “Night Train” made an immediate impact when he had 14 interceptions in his rookie season, which is a mark that remains an NFL record more than 60 years later.

After hanging up the cleats for good, the Hall of Famer worked for the Detroit Lions in various administrative positions.

Antonio Gates

Antonio Gates
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The Chargers tight end was originally a basketball player. In 2003, the team acquired their future tight end star out of Kent State University as an undrafted free agent. When he came into the league, he and Drew Brees formed an incredible tandem in San Diego.

In 2015, the Detroit native became the second tight end to record 100 career touchdown receptions. He has the most touchdown receptions among tight ends in NFL history.

From grocery clerk to MVP, the next player ahead found himself in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017.

Willie Wood

 Willie Wood
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The standout safety played a vital role in the Green Bay Packers dynasty of the sixties. Before that, the undrafted free agent out of USC wrote a letter to Vince Lombardi to request a tryout. The Packers would sign him as a free agent in 1960.

Wood would notch 48 interceptions over 166 games and would be named a member of the Packers’ Hall of Fame and the league’s 1960s All-Decade squad.

Warren Moon

Warren Moon in college
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The 6-foot-3 California native went undrafted in 1978. The Washington-alumni took his talents north of the border and instantly became a CFL legend. Six seasons was enough for the quarterback to win five Grey Cups with the Edmonton Eskimos.

In 1984, Moon would make the transition into the NFL, joining the Houston Oilers. From there, he became a nine-time Pro Bowler who’s a member of both the Pro Football and Canadian Hall of Fame.

Kurt Warner

Kurt Warner
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The Pro Football Hall of Famer didn’t become a starter until he was 28 years old. Warner went undrafted in 1994 coming out of the University of Northern Iowa. While there was no quarterback job available, he began stocking shelves at a grocery store in Cedar Falls.

Warner finally got his chance in 1999 with the St. Louis Rams and eventually, the quarterback won Super Bowl XXXIV, and became a Hall of Famer in 2017.

David Carr

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David Carr was doomed to have great expectations since he entered the NFL. Carr was the Houston Texans first ever draft pick in the franchises history. After having a great career for the Fresno State Bulldogs, the Texans had to select him.

Sadly, the offensively line they paired him with never provided enough help. As a result, he got sacked 249 times over five seasons for the Texans. After too much wear and tear, he couldn’t even perform.

Tyreek Hill

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Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs is a walking highlight reel. They didn’t draft him until the 5th round in 2016, but we know they’re glad they did. We also know that all the teams that missed on him are kicking themselves.

Hill made the Pro Bowl in each of his first two NFL seasons. How is it that he went undrafted and fell to the 5th round? Well, an arrest in college made him transfer to West Alabama and it hurt his stock.

Danny Woodhead

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Out of Chadron State College, Danny Woodhead went undrafted. Yes, he had a great collegiate career, but it’s hard to gain people’s attention when you play for a NCAA Division II school. Did we forget to mention that he’s only 5’8″?

The height mixed with the level he was coming from didn’t bode too well for Woodhead. Once he finally made it to the NFL, he bounced around a few teams before landing with the Chargers. He played his best ball yet with the bolts.

Adam Thielen

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Adam Thielen declared for the 2013 draft, but teams didn’t want him. The kid from Minnesota State was highly productive. He was a 1,000-yard receiver during his final year and even caught 198 passes over his whole time in college.

After spending the first two years as a backup, Thielen finally found his gear and erupted with the Minnesota Vikings. If teams would have shown patience or gave him a chance, they would have a top five ranking receiver.

Chris Harris

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Over the years, one thing seems to remain the same about the Denver Broncos while everything else revolves. The Broncos always tend to have a stellar defense. Whether its one player that helps uplift the whole unit or the collective doing work, they get it done on defense.

Chris Harris is one of those people they can thank for that. He may have gone undrafted in 2011 out of Kansas, but he became a staple. After parlaying a training camp invite by the Broncos in 2011, he became very successful.

Brady Quinn

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Brady Quinn had a spectacular college career over at Notre Dame. The Cleveland Browns hoped to have drafted a great quarterback to help turn things around. Someone that would provide consistent good play for their franchise.

After he played in only one game in 2007, he ended the year and the next on on IR (injured reserve). Concussions also helped bring an end to his career. Quinn is now nothing more than an analyst.

Rex Grossman

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Rex Grossman won plenty of bowl games in college. He had his fair share of Player of the Year honors. One would imagine that all of that talent would translate over to the professional level. One would be wrong.

After the Florida Gators, nothing was the same. Thanks to lingering injuries, the first couple of seasons for him were gruesome. He struggled to stay consistent. The highlight of his career is going to the Super Bowl as a backup and losing.

Matt Barkley

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Matt Barkley was a stud at USC. He was a four-year starter with some broken records on his resume. His draft stock didn’t even fall after he passed up declaring to play for one more year in college.

He had a subpar senior year which resulted in him falling to the fourth round. The Eagles selected him and he barely saw any minutes. He went to the Bears and started six games for them. He went 1-5.

Johnny Manziel

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Johnny Manziel played impeccable college ball. They even nicknamed him “Johnny Football.” You have to be amazing to get named after the sport. He was the first freshman ever to win the Heisman award as well.

The Cleveland Browns thought they chose someone else that would turn them around. Sadly, they were wrong again. Manziel not only didn’t perform well on the field, but he got into a ton of trouble off the gridiron. He now plays for the CFL.

Tim Tebow

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Tim Tebow took college football by storm playing for Boise State. He earned a Heisman Trophy and two National Championships, but that wasn’t enough to bring him glory in the NFL. He entered as a polarizing figure, and scouts weren’t crazy about him.

The biggest accomplishment for him in the pros was when he defeated the Steelers in overtime with an extremely long pass. After that, the Broncos lost in the next round and Tebow would bounce around teams until leaving for good.