Top Earning Undrafted NFL Free Agents

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December 16th, 2013 by Michael Ginnitti

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With much attention being given to NFL players who were drafted in late rounds and have manufactured long and productive careers, we thought we’d take things one step further. The following is a list of the top paid-players (according to retrievable data) who were “undrafted” out of college, yet put together great careers. Many of these players are still active in the league today.

Quarterbacks

Tony Romo
11 Years, $84,242,332Undrafted out of Eastern Illinois the Cowboys picked up Romo in 2003, and in similar fashion to Tom Brady, was inserted into the lineup to replace an injured Drew Bledsoe. He did enough to win the job and hasn’t looked back since. He’ll reach the $100M mark in career earnings if he’s on the Cowboys roster next March.

Kurt Warner
12 years, $71,773,001Originally signed with Green Bay in 1994, Warner was released in camp and spent 4 years in the Arena League before returning to the NFL for his historic run. He had earned just $755,000 in the NFL before the Rams gave Warner a  7 year $47 million contract. He’s revered by many as the greatest undrafted NFL player of all-time.

Running Backs

Priest Holmes
13 years, $26,752,140The first of many Texas running backs to succeed in the NFL was an undrafted signing to the Ravens in 1997. By 1998 he held the starting role,  but was forced to split carries with Jamal Lewis come 2000. He signed with the Chiefs in 2001 and led the league in rushing. A spinal injury in 2005 cut his 7 year $40.25 million contract short – and forced an early retirement in 2007.

Arian Foster
5 years, $25,099,000Picked up by the Texans after a career at Tennessee, Foster saw action in 6 games in 2009 alongside Steve Slaton. A $75,000 signing bonus on his UDFA contract, considerably larger than most, proves the Texans had big aspirations for Foster going forward. He quickly became the featured back in 2010 and led the NFL in all major rushing categories. He’ll easily surpass Holmes’ earnings in 2014 as the highest earning undrafted rusher in NFL history.

Wide Receivers

Rod Smith
15 years, $40,341,100Originally signed by the Patriots, Smith was quickly released and picked up by the Broncos. He spent time on and off the 1994 roster, but found a spot in 1995 – and never looked back. His contracts of $2.35M, $18.2M, $41.5M, and $13M perfectly illustrate a long and productive career with one team.

Wes Welker
10 years, $33,825,000The Chargers originally signed Welker in 2004, but cut him prior to Week 2. Claimed off waivers by the Dolphins , he immediately became a multi-faceted weapon – becoming the leader in kick and punt returns in franchise history. The Patriots stole Welker in free agency following the 2006 season, paying him $27.6M over 6 seasons. His $6M in 2014 cash will draw him even with Rod Smith for all-time UDFA WR earnings.

Tight Ends

Antonio Gates
11 Years, $46,752,000The Chargers are sure glad Antonio Gates chose football over basketball out of Kent State/Michigan State. The 8-time Pro Bowler has helped to define and grow the tight end position in today’s game. Should he stay healthy for 2014-15, he’ll up his earnings to an estimated $57.7 million, 2nd only to Tony Gonzalez among ALL tight ends.

Offensive Line

Jason Peters (T)
9 years, $58,580,000Peters’ career has been riddled with both injury and questionable effort, but he continually posts top ratings at the tackle position. The Bills’ signed the former Arkansas lineman to a base contract in 2004, followed by a fairly modest 5 year $16.5 million contract in 2006. He was then traded to the Eagles, where a $60M contract was constructed. He’ll be close to $70 million in career earnings once his current deal expires in 2015.

Brian Waters (G)
13 years, $38,460,375The North Texas descendant was signed by the Cowboys in 1999, but failed to make any squad. The Chiefs gave him a base 2 year contract in 2000 and the guard did not disappoint, spending 11 seasons and earning $31.9M in Kansas City. The Patriots attempted to bring Waters on in the twilight of his career – but he refused to report following the 2011 season in New England. At 36 years old he’s been reborn in his hometown this year, earning  $1.5 million with the Cowboys.

Jeff Saturday (C)
14 years, $41,389,646Peyton Manning’s long-time center was signed out of college by the Baltimore Ravens in 1998, but failed to make the squad. The Colts brought him aboard in 1999, where he would remain for 13 seasons (earning $36.5M). He was signed away from the Colts by the Packers in 2012, where he would spend 1 year before retiring.

Defensive Line

Pat Williams (DT)
14 years, $56,381,834Signed by the Buffalo Bills in 1997, Williams didn’t really see steady time until the 2001 season. He spent 8 years in Buffalo, earning $13.1M. The second half of his career in Minnesota saw much more attention and many more dollars for Williams, who signed contracts of $13M and $22M through 2010.

Adewale Ogunleye (DE)
11 years, $35,990,305Ogunleye’s career nearly ended before it started. The Indiana U product was signed by the Dolphins in 2000, but shattered his knee and hit the IR immediately. But by 2003 (the last year of his contract), the defensive end was in the pro bowl. The result was a $33.4 million contract with the Bears.

Linebackers

London Fletcher (LB)
16 years, $53,611,000Fletcher may have had the greatest rookie season for an undrafted free agent in NFL history – playing in all 16 games for the Rams and being named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1998. The voters weren’t wrong, as 16 seasons later the John Carroll graduate remains in the league. After earning just $1.93M in 4 seasons in St. Louis, Fletcher ascertained contracts of $15M in Buffalo, and $35.75M in Washington.

Bart Scott (LB)
11 years, $41,511,500After a base contract with the Ravens in 2002, the ferocious linebacker to more than $15 million over 7 season in Baltimore. He followed longtime coordinator Rex Ryan to the Jets with an overvalued 6 year $48 million deal in 2009. He would stay only 4 years in New York.

James Harrison (LB)
11 years, $36,269,000Hard to imagine Harrison not being the center of a defense, but from 2002-2006 he found himself on and off the active roster, with just four professional starts. He got his chance in 2007 and never looked back. The hard work paid off in 2009 when the Steelers awarded Harrison a 6 year $52 million contract. He’d play just four more years in Pittsburgh though before his release sent him to Cincinnati – where the 35 year old currently plays.

Secondary

Tramon Williams (CB)
7 years, $22,183,000At age 30, Tramon is the youngest player to make this list – a testament to how underpaid defensive backs have been in comparison to other defensive positions. He failed to make the Texans roster in 2006, but was signed by the Packers a few months later. He quickly found the starting lineup due to injuries and was rewarded with a $38 million contract in 2010. He’ll enter a contract year in 2014.

Sammy Knight (DB)
12 years, $16,501,500Knight played 12 NFL seasons with 5 teams, none longer than the New Orleans Saints, who gave him his initial shot. He was a Pro Bowler, an All-Pro, and was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in 2011.

Special Teams

Adam Vinatieri (K)
18 years, $33,141,998The statistical numbers both in regular season and in the postseason speak for themselves. No kicker in the history of the game is more deserving of $33 million. His highest salary, $2.5 million, came in 2005 (franchise tag). 7 active kickers have a $2.5+ salary in 2014.

Brian Moorman (P)
13 years, $18,979,000He originally signed with the Seahawks in 1999, but failed to make a roster and wound up in NFL Europe for a year. The Bills signed Moorman in 2001, where he spent 11 1/2 seasons ($17.5M). Buffalo released the veteran in 2012, and Moorman finished the year with the Dallas Cowboys. But inconsistent play from young punters in Buffalo brought Moorman back to his roots for the 2013 season.

Josh Cribbs (KR)
9 years, $17,490,500He was signed out of Kent State by the local Browns where he stayed for 8 productive seasons. But when the league changed the rules in the return game, Cribbs’ lack of effectiveness in the passing game rendered him unwanted to active rosters.

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