Best NFL careers by undrafted SEC prospects since 2000
Draft day marks a dream come true for many college student-athletes. It’s the day a lifetime of work comes to fruition; it’s the day the game they’ve played since kindergarten becomes a full-time job; it’s the day they elevate themselves from hometown heroes and campus legends to household names coast to coast.
But not every NFL player follows that path to the game’s highest level. Some must endure and overcome an empty feeling on draft day, the result of being overlooked by the entire league over the course of seven rounds. For some, this marks the end of their football careers. For others it inspires a furious rally that leads to a training camp invite, then a roster spot, then a starting job.
This is a path much less traveled, but a path that results in as much, if not more, glory than hearing your named called on draft day. The NFL’s undrafted stars are a testament to resiliency and self-confidence, and you know if a player was snubbed from the draft yet made an NFL roster they’ll not only bring talent but a character-driven intangible that cannot be taught.
With all this in mind, and my apologies if things just got a bit too sappy up there, here are eight former SEC stars who followed the path less traveled to produce some lengthy, successful NFL careers:
8. Randall Gay, CB, LSU (2004): Despite going undrafted only months after serving as the nickel cornerback on LSU’s 2003 BCS championship team, Gay managed to put together an eight-year NFL career that included two Super Bowl championships and three Super Bowl appearances with the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints. He logged six career interceptions and was a regular contributor in the secondary on a string of wildly successful teams during the mid-to-late 2000s.
7. Jabari Greer, CB, Tennessee (2004): Greer was projected as a mid-round pick before going undrafted altogether in 2004, but that never got him down. He caught on as a free agent and lasted in the NFL for 10 years as a member of the Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints for five years apiece. He started for the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl championship team, and for his career recorded 13 interceptions, more than 400 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles.
6. Tommy Kelly, DT, Mississippi State (2004): It’s tough to determine what’s more impressive: Kelly lasting in the league for 11 years (this fall it’ll be 12) as an undrafted defensive tackle, or Kelly lasting the first nine years of his career in Oakland, where successful careers go to die in the NFL. Jokes aside, Kelly is a testament to how focusing on filling your role on a defense can turn an average player into a productive one in the NFL. He’s recorded 37.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles in 11 NFL seasons, and was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2010 when he recorded 60 tackles and 7.0 sacks. Kelly remains active in the league with the Arizona Cardinals.
THE TOP 5
5. Chris Clemons, DE, Georgia (2003): Clemons has played in the NFL for 12 (going on 13) years, and he’s been a ferocious pass-rushing threat for most of that time. Despite splitting his 12 seasons into seven stops with six different teams, his production has never waned. He was part of the Seahawks’ most recent Super Bowl title run in 2013, and he was twice named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Week, once in 2008 and again in 2012. For his career he’s logged 66 sacks and 17 forced fumbles, and it’s tough to imagine he’s well-liked by any NFL quarterbacks but the ones on his own team.
4. Ryan Clark, S, LSU (2002): Ryan Clark just closed the book on a 13-year NFL career that included stints with the New York Giants, Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was part of the 2008 Super Bowl championship team. Clark is an intelligent player on the field and an intelligent man off it, and his role as a leader in the locker room and in the community made him a national fan favorite. His ferocious hits and dazzling interceptions for some historically good Pittsburgh defenses helped too. He played in the 2011 Pro Bowl and won the 2008 Ed Block Courage Award, given for his sportsmanship and courage on the field.
3. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, Ole Miss (2008): Better known as “the Law Firm” for his lengthy name (which sounds like a list of partners at a firm), Green-Ellis burst on the scene as an undrafted gem of the New England Patriots. It should come as no shock that Bill Belichick found a star no one else could find, but let’s not overlook the work Green-Ellis had to put in to reach the NFL from Ole Miss (and during the Ed Orgeron days at Ole Miss, no less). He earned a reputation as a tough, physical runner who never fumbled and never went down on first contact. His streak of 589 carries without a fumble remains an NFL record, and in six NFL seasons he ran for 1,000 yards twice and scored 42 career touchdowns.
2. Arian Foster, RB, Tennessee (2009): We’ve already advanced through this list from the undrafted starters to the undrafted Pro Bowlers from the SEC. Now it’s time we talk about the undrafted superstars of the league, courtesy of SEC programs. Foster, a star at Tennessee whose last season coincided with Fulmer’s last season in Knoxville, had to scratch and claw his way up the Houston Texans’ depth chart as a rookie before finally earning the starting job in his second year in 2010. In the five seasons since, he’s rushed for at least 1,200 yards four times (injuries cut his 2013 season short), and he’s scored 53 career rushing touchdowns. He’s a two-time All-Pro, a two-time NFL touchdown king and the league’s rushing champion in 2010, his first year as a starter. Needless to say, all Foster ever needed was an opportunity.
1. Jason Peters, OT, Arkansas (2004): Peters may not play a sexy position as a left tackle often overlooked along the offensive line, but for more than a decade now he’s been one of the NFL’s top 5 talents at the position. He’s a seven-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro in 11 NFL seasons, and he was ranked No. 67 on last year’s list of the 100 best NFL players, as voted on by the players themselves. So not only is he one of the best at his position in terms of accolades, but he’s earned that reputation from those he competes with and against, cementing his designation as the SEC’s best undrafted NFL star since the turn of the century.