List of afterthoughts who made it big in the NFL is as long as it is distinguished
Free agent signees from BYU and Utah who carved out solid careers in the NFL should be encouraging to this year’s crop of undrafted free agents
Kurt Warner, Priest Holmes, Tony Romo and Taysom Hill probably don’t have much in common, but there is this: they were all undrafted free agents. They’re poster boys for players who weren’t considered good enough to be taken in the NFL draft and came into the league the hard way.
Predicting success in the NFL is a tricky business, as evidenced by the busts — Ryan Leaf, Vince Young, etc. — the undervalued — Tom Brady — and the afterthoughts — Warner, Holmes and Romo.
Some 262 college players were taken in the recent NFL draft; another 300 or so players were signed as free agents. Almost two dozen of them are from Utah schools, including some well-known players who had outstanding college careers — Britain Covey, the wide receiver/kick returner from Utah, Utah State’s Deven Thompkins, a third-team All-America wide receiver who produced 1,704 yards and 10 touchdowns for Utah State last season and was the MVP of the LA Bowl, and BYU’s Samson Nacua, a wide receiver. Covey and Thompkins were considered too small to be drafted and Nacua didn’t have great production.
The odds that one of them will make an NFL roster next season are probably not as slight as you might think. Of the 1,696 players who make an active roster next season, about 30% of them will be undrafted free agents. The NFL draft once consisted of as many as 30 rounds (Bart Starr, the great Packers quarterback, was drafted in the 17th round), but the modern draft consists of seven rounds. The scramble for free agents has replaced the later rounds of the draft.
There are 17 undrafted free agents in the NFL Hall of Fame and many other UDFAs have made their mark in the league. Warner was a two-time league MVP and Super Bowl champion quarterback. Holmes was the league’s offensive MVP and rushing champion. Romo was a four-time Pro Bowl selection at quarterback.
Malcolm Butler won a Super Bowl with a game-saving interception for the Patriots. Wes Welker caught 903 passes. Antonio Gates, a college basketball player at Kent State, became the most prolific tight end in league history.
Utah State’s Cornell Green and Utah’s Manny Hendrix took the same route to the league. Both played college basketball and wound up starting in the secondary for the Dallas Cowboys. Green is in the NFL Hall of Fame. So is quarterback Warren Moon. Other UDFAs who made it big: linebackers James Harrison and London Fletcher, wide receivers Rod Smith and Drew Person and running back Marion Motley.
For whatever reason, BYU seems to have produced more than its share of free agents who made it big in the NFL.
Dan Sorensen — does anybody remember him as a BYU player? — has played eight seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs and played in two Super Bowls (winning one). He has started 39 games and made 314 solo tackles and four defensive touchdowns. He recently signed a free-agent deal with the New Orleans Saints.
Chad Lewis walked on at BYU and then essentially walked on in the NFL, as well. He caught 111 passes at BYU as a tight end, but was passed up in the draft. He was signed by the Eagles as a free agent and then released and signed by the Rams, who cut him just a few weeks before the team won the Super Bowl.
The Eagles re-signed Lewis, and he went on to become a Pro Bowl player. He caught a touchdown pass in the NFC championship game to send the team to the Super Bowl. He also injured his foot on that play and missed another Super Bowl. He had a nice nine-year run in the NFL in which he caught 229 passes and scored 23 touchdowns.
Hill was cut by the Packers and then signed by the Saints. Since then he has become a phenomenon in the league, the so-called Swiss Army knife who plays running back, quarterback, tight end and special teams. In five seasons he has run for 16 touchdowns, passed for eight touchdowns and caught seven touchdown passes.
Bart Oates, a center, is one of the better UDFA stories. He didn’t start his professional career until he was 26. He wound up winning two championships in the USFL and then three Super Bowls in the NFL with the Giants and 49ers. He was voted to the Pro Bowl five times. He started 165 games.
John Denney, a defensive lineman and long snapper, played 14 years in the NFL. Chris Hoke played eight years on the defensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers and won two Super Bowl rings. Aaron Francisco played six seasons in the secondary and played in the Super Bowl. Running back Bill Ring, considered too slow and small for the NFL, played six years for the 49ers and won two rings.
Utah has its own collection of UDFAs who found great success in the NFL.
Manny Fernandez played eight years in the NFL and was somehow overlooked as the MVP of Super Bowl VII after making 17 tackles. Teammate Nick Buoniconti called it, “… the most dominant game by a defensive player in the history of the game.”
Tyler Huntley was cut and re-signed to the practice squad by the Ravens and later called into emergency duty at quarterback in 2020. He has played in nine games and thrown for 1,096 yards. He looks like a future star in the league.
Fred Gehrke, a running back, played six seasons in the NFL despite missing four seasons while serving in World War II. He rushed for 1,664 yards and 14 touchdowns and caught 56 passes for 529 yards. He is considered the inventor of the first full face mask, which he created after breaking his nose three times during the 1946 season. He abandoned it after one season because the vision in one eye was blocked by the mask.
Tim Patrick has started 37 games for the Broncos since his rookie year in 2018 and has collected 143 catches and 12 touchdowns. Matt Asiata played five years at running back for the Vikings and started 16 games. Carl Monroe was ignored in the draft despite rushing for 1,507 yards as a senior. He played five seasons for the 49ers. In 1985 he caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from Joe Montana in Super Bowl 19, a 38-16 win.
Utah State has had several successful UDFAs, most notably Green, defensive lineman Greg Kragen (eight years in the NFL) and offensive lineman Donald Penn (13 years).
Covey and Thompkins hope to add their names to the list of former Utah collegians who made it as UDFAs.