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Top 15 Undrafted Players in NFL History

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Top 15 Undrafted Players in NFL History

Top 15 Undrafted Players in NFL History
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

When compiling any NFL "Best of All Time" lists, it's always a challenge to balance short bursts of greatness against longevity, and the current evolved game against the past. This becomes even more difficult when evaluating a player like Miami Dolphins edge rusher Cameron Wake, who extrapolates as a potential Hall of Famer but only has three seasons of full work under his belt.

The 31-year-old got a late start after going undrafted out of college to the Canadian Football League. Wake has made up for lost time the past three years by ranking first at his position in Pro Football Focus grading over the last two seasons, and was third in 2010. He also graded out as PFF's best pure pass rusher in 2012.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have veteran Brian Waters, who was cut this week by the New England Patriots after he and the team failed to compromise over a murky range of issues last offseason, resulting in him missing the 2012 campaign. Whether his career ends on this sour note remains to be seen, but you could make the Hall of Fame argument for him regardless. The offensive lineman has spread so many good seasons across a long career for both the Kansas City Chiefs and Patriots, even playing at a high level when we last saw him in 2011.

But for the purposes of this list, losing out on a potential seventh Pro Bowl season might be the razor-thin margin that leaves Waters out of my Top 15 undrafted free agents in NFL history, for now at least. On the bright side for Chiefs fans, this means the man he blocked for finds a spot on the end of this list. Click through to see who made the cut.

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15) Priest Holmes (Texas, 1997)

15 Priest Holmes
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

I like to highly value a player's ceiling of greatness, and Holmes' run between 2001 and 2003 holds up with some of the best in league history. He topped 2,100 yards from scrimmage in each of those seasons and scored at least 24 touchdowns twice.

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14) Arian Foster (2009, Tennessee)

Arian Foster
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Foster's three-year run as his team's double-threat tailback is quite Holmes-esque even if he falls a tad short. But with ample of prime years left, Foster gets the edge.

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13) Adam Vinatieri (South Dakota State, 1996)

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

So here's the obligatory kicker. Vinatieri knocked out all competitors not with an all-time great conversion percentage, but with the ice-cold blood that helped him kick two Super Bowl game-winners and numerous other clutch field goals.

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12) Sam Mills (Montclair State, 1986)

Sam Mills
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Mills is a little more well known on a national level for inspiring the Carolina Panthers as a coach while he battled cancer. New Orleans Saints fans — and fans of great defensive football in general — will also remember him leading the "Dome Patrol" at linebacker from the late 1980s into early 1990s.

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11) Rod Smith (Missouri Southern State, 1994)

Rod Smith
Rob Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

You can have a pretty rousing debate about with Denver Broncos fans about the Hall of Fame merits of Smith. Well, he's a Hall of Famer in my book — my Undrafted Hall of Fame, if that is any solace — owning a wide arrange of receiving records among the undrafted.

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10) Antonio Gates (Kent State, 2003)

Antonio Gates
Kelley L. Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It's hard to argue with being the only undrafted non-fullback or special-teamer to make the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, and who changed the tight end landscape along with Tony Gonzalez.

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9) Wes Welker (Texas Tech, 2004)

Wes Welker
Rob Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Brady's favorite target doesn't get downgraded for being low-balled into leaving the Patriots. A five-year run as the league's premier slot receiver gets him in the Top 10.

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8) London Fletcher (John Carroll, 1998)

London Fletcher
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The model of consistency for most of his career, the reliability and leadership Fletcher brings makes any defense better around him.

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7) Cameron Wake (Penn State, 2005)

Cameron Wake
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

So this is where I get to extrapolating. Wake probably has another six good years left in him in which I imagine he'll get 15 sacks or more per season. Now that the Fins are fashioning themselves into a more pass-rush savvy team, it should only help turn Wake's incredible pressure numbers into higher sack totals.

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6) Larry Little (Bethune-Cookman, 1967)

Larry Little
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Making five-consecutive All-Pro teams as a right guard for one of the most punishing run offenses in NFL history puts Little on this list. Being able to stand to the right for the undefeated 1972 Dolphins' photo ops is just a bonus.

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5) John Randle (Texas A&M-Kingsville, 1990)

John Randle
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The 2010 Hall of Fame inductee is a six-time All-Pro and one of the greatest pass-rushing interior lineman, doing it before the much more well-known prototype of Warren Sapp.

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4) James Harrison (Kent State, 2002)

James Harrison
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Harrison finally got his chance at outside backer when Joey Porter left. Between 2007 and 2011, he strung together one of the greatest five-year stretches ever by a linebacker. He nearly followed his AP Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008 with a Super Bowl MVP thanks to his pick-six off of Kurt Warner. By the way, he's on this list.

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3) Dick "Night Train" Lane (Scottsbluff Junior College, Joined Army)

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After a four-year stint in the military, he took the league by storm. Lane's single-season interception record of 14 still stands today, and he did it in 12 games. Lane's work from 1952 to 1965 earned him a spot on the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.

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2) Warren Moon (Washington, 1978)

Warren Moon
Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

After starting off in the CFL, Moon amassed a career that saw him retire as the holder of TD and completion records that Brett Favre would eventually eclipse. Silver lining: First-ballot Hall of Famer.

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1) Kurt Warner (Northern Iowa, 1994)

Kurt Warner
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Moon has the longevity edge over Warner, but the latter sparked The Greatest Show on Turf and proved the only elixir for the Arizona Cardinals' woes. If wasn't for a crazy Santonio Holmes catch, Warner would have a second Super Bowl MVP along with his two league MVPs which, by the way, would match Tom Brady on both counts.