Undrafted NFL players who made the Hall of Fame
Undrafted NFL players who made the Hall of Fame
About 3,000 college players enter the NFL Draft every year. Thousands of college seniors hope to hear their name called during the three-day event (which took place April 28-30 this year). Elite underclassmen, at least three years removed from high school graduation, can declare for the annual NFL Draft, too.
Each NFL Draft includes at least 32 picks in each of seven rounds. Teams that lost free agents the year before receive additional compensatory draft selections. These picks are also given to teams that promote minority coaching or personnel candidates. The 2022 NFL Draft included 262 total NFL draft picks. Still, fewer than one in 10 eligible prospects gets drafted from the Division I and II ranks each year.
Nonetheless, undrafted prospects can still reach the NFL’s elite ranks. Stacker compiled a list of NFL Hall of Famers who went undrafted using Stathead and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Players who entered the NFL prior to the first draft in 1936 were excluded. We additionally excluded players who were not drafted in the NFL but were drafted in a different league. Players are sorted by the year they entered the NFL.
Altogether, 7.9% of the 278 Hall of Famers who entered the NFL after the inaugural 1936 draft were undrafted. This includes eight defensive backs in the Hall of Fame who went undrafted, which is more than any other position.
The number of undrafted Hall of Famers continues to grow. Eight of the 22 players on this list joined the Hall of Fame in the past decade. Over the past three years, the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted four. Sam Mills is the most recent new member, part of the upcoming 2022 class. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is also going to increase the maximum number of players it inducts as senior finalists (finalists who retired more than 25 years ago).
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- Years active: 1944-1955
- Team: Chicago Bears
- Year inducted: 2020
Ed Sprinkle (#7, shown here chasing down Cleveland quarterback Otto Graham) played 12 seasons with the Chicago Bears after going undrafted in 1944. Sprinkle played defensive end and contributed on offense. He made 32 catches for 451 yards and scored seven touchdowns over his career.
Sprinkle earned many honors including First-Team All-Pro in 1949, First-Team All-NFL in 1950 and four Pro Bowls berths (1951-53, 1955). He was also named to the NFL’s 1940s All-Decade Team. His Bears beat the Giants in the 1946 Championship. He finally made it into the Hall of Fame as a senior finalist, a special nomination for players 25 years removed from playing.
- Years active: 1946-1953
- Team: Cleveland Browns
- Year inducted: 1977
Bill Willis helped break the color barrier with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent. He joined the NFL a full year in advance of Jackie Robinson breaking the all-white barrier in professional baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Willis had played under Browns’ head coach Paul Brown when the two were at Ohio State before the Second World War. He impressed coaches with his quickness at the collegiate level.
Willis was effective playing offensive guard and on the defensive front line despite only being 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. He was a first-team All-League selection seven times and a three-time Pro Bowler. He blocked and tackled in 99 career games.
- Years active: 1946-1955
- Teams: Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Year inducted: 1968
Marion Motley also helped break the color barrier alongside his teammate Bill Willis. Motley signed as a 26-year-old rookie. He had played with the Browns’ head coach Paul Brown at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station during World War II.
Motley finished his war-shortened career with 4,270 yards and 31 touchdowns on 828 carries. The fullback was a threat in the run game as well as a linebacker at 6-foot-1 and 232 pounds. He earned All-Pro honors in 1948 and 1950, and was the second Black player inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. The Browns offer an annual scholarship in his honor.
- Years active: 1946-1967
- Team: Cleveland Browns
- Year inducted: 1974
Lou Groza played 21 seasons as a left tackle and placekicker for the Cleveland Browns after going undrafted. When he retired, he was the last remaining member of the Browns’ 1946 championship squad. He finished his career with nine Pro Bowl berths, six when he was starting at tackle.
Groza only kicked during his last seven seasons, taking it up following a missed 1960 season due to a back injury. The Ohio State alumnus scored 1,608 points in 254 NFL games. His most celebrated kick was a 15-yard game winner in the 1950 National Football League Championship (predecessor of the Super Bowl) versus the Rams. The annual award for the top placekicker in college football was named after Groza.
- Years active: 1946-1957
- Teams: Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions
- Year inducted: 1985
Frank Gatski played three years at Marshall College before joining the U.S. Infantry in World War II. He tried out for the Cleveland Browns and made the team as a free agent. Gatski served two years on the bench before taking over the starting center job in 1948. He never missed a game or practice dating back to high school.
Gatski earned All-NFL honors four times from 1951 to 1955. His lone Pro Bowl berth came in 1956. His teams won eight championships in 11 title games over Gatski's 12 seasons. His career ended in Detroit when the Lions beat his old team. It was the last of Gatski's 144 games and 124 starts.
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- Years active: 1948-1961
- Teams: New York Giants, Green Bay Packers
- Year inducted: 1967
Emlen Tunnell was the first Black player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tunnell joined the Giants as a free agent after playing at Toledo and Iowa, as well as serving in the Coast Guard during World War II. He broke his neck during his college career at Toledo, which made it hard for him to serve. He returned to Iowa after serving but went undrafted by the league.
Tunnell intercepted 79 passes and recovered 16 fumbles across his 14 seasons as a safety and defensive back. He received Pro Bowl honors from 1950 to 1957 with the Giants and once more in 1959 with the Packers.
- Years active: 1948-1963
- Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Colts
- Year inducted: 1969
Joe Perry signed with the 49ers upon his discharge from the military in 1948. He played football for the Alameda (California) Naval Training Station team when the 49ers discovered him. Perry became the first player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons (1953-54). He had shown early promise by scoring 22 touchdowns for Compton College.
Perry ended up playing 13 seasons with the 49ers before they sent him to the Colts. His career concluded with one more season in San Francisco. Perry ended his career with 9,723 rushing yards, 250 receptions, and 513 points in 183 career games.
- Years active: 1951-1959
- Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
- Year inducted: 2012
Jack Butler went undrafted from St. Bonaventure. But he racked up 52 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries over 104 games with the Steelers. The safety and defensive back earned five Pro Bowl spots (1955-59).
Butler had the second-most career interceptions all-time when he retired, making him a shoo-in for the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1950s. A severe knee injury suffered in a game against the Eagles forced him into early retirement.
Dick “Night Train” Lane
- Years active: 1952-1965
- Teams: Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Cardinals, Detroit Lions
- Year inducted: 1974
Dick “Night Train” Lane played corner and defensive back for 13 years after completing military service in 1952. Lane’s press clips from high school and junior college impressed the Rams enough to give him a tryout. He moved to defense as the defending champion Rams didn’t need another receiver. He tallied a record 14 interceptions in his first season, despite going undrafted.
The Rams traded Lane to the Cardinals in 1954, where he would earn three consecutive Pro Bowl spots. “Night Train” was traded again in 1960. With the Lions, he made three more Pro Bowl teams and earned two of his three career All-Pro teams with Detroit. He finished his career with 68 interceptions in 157 career games. He also returned 187 punts for 1,391 yards and two touchdowns over his career.
- Years active: 1960-1971
- Team: Green Bay Packers
- Year inducted: 1989
Willie Wood went undrafted as a running quarterback out of USC. He ended up earning the Green Bay Packers’ starting safety spot, however, which he held onto for a decade.
Wood earned All-Pro honors from 1964-70 and amassed nine Pro Bowl berths from 1962 to 1970. He wrapped up his career with 48 interceptions in 166 games. His Packers won five NFL Championships in six appearances. And he was on the winning side of the first two Super Bowls for Green Bay, which were also the first two Super Bowls ever held.
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- Years active: 1962-1978
- Team: Minnesota Vikings
- Year inducted: 2015
Mick Tingelhoff signed as a free agent out of Nebraska. He seized the starting center job as a rookie and held onto it for his entire 17-year career. He played 240 games at center despite being listed at only 247 pounds.
Tingelhoff’s Vikings won 10 divisional titles from 1968 to 1978. He helped them win four NFC titles and reach four Super Bowls (IV, VIII, IX and XI). Tingelhoff blocked for Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton when he threw for more than 3,000 yards in his final season in the NFL. And he paved the way for Chuck Foreman’s three 1,000-rushing-yards seasons. The first of seven consecutive seasons in which he was named first-team All-NFL came in 1964. Tingelhoff never missed a game.
- Years active: 1963-1978
- Teams: Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders
- Year inducted: 1984
Willie Brown started midway through his first NFL season out of Grambling. Denver had signed him after the Houston Oilers cut him from training camp. Brown soon became an All-Pro, registering nine interceptions in his second season with the Broncos.
Brown was traded to the Oakland Raiders in 1967, where he would play Super Bowls II and XI. He helped Oakland seal the Super Bowl XI win with a 75-yard touchdown return. He did not miss a Pro Bowl in his first seven years for the Raiders (1967-73).
Brown retired at age 38 with 54 interceptions in 204 career games. The five-time All-Pro and nine-time Pro Bowler also made the All-1970s team. In his second season, Brown earned the most outstanding defensive player award at the AFL’s first All-Star game.
- Years active: 1966-1978
- Team: Kansas City Chiefs
- Year inducted: 2008
Emmitt Thomas signed with the Kansas City Chiefs out of Bishop College (Dallas). Thomas’s 58 career interceptions set a franchise record and ranked him fifth on the all-time list by the time he retired. The five-time Pro Bowler still ranks fourth in most career interceptions among true cornerbacks. He led the league in interceptions twice, with nine in 1969 and 12 in 1974.
Thomas was a key to winning the national title for the Chiefs in 1966 and 1969, including one interception in their Super Bowl IV upset win over the Minnesota Vikings. His first All-Pro season came in 1974. Thomas was an assistant coach for NFL teams for more than 25 seasons after he retired from his 181-game career as a player in 1978.
- Years active: 1967-1980
- Teams: San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins
- Year inducted: 1993
Larry Little started his career with the San Diego Chargers. Little went undrafted after being a two-way player, team captain, and All-Conference player for Bethune-Cookman College (Florida). He joined the Miami Dolphins after a couple of years with the Chargers.
The 6-foot-1 right guard was a dominant part of a famed rushing attack that included Jim Kiik and Larry Csonka. Little got selected to five Pro Bowls (1970, 1973, 1974, and 1975). He earned All-NFL first-team honors from 1970 to 1975.
Little dealt with several lower-body injuries but only missed four games in his first 11 seasons with the Dolphins. The guard earned Super Bowl rings with the Dolphins in 1972 and 1973. He was also a member of the 1971 Super Bowl team that lost to the Cowboys. He retired after 155 starts in 183 games over 14 seasons.
- Years active: 1970-1981
- Teams: Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings
- Year inducted: 1987
Jim Langer latched onto the Miami Dolphins a few years after the Cleveland Browns cut the undrafted free agent in training camp. Langer played middle linebacker at South Dakota State before he was converted to playing on the offensive line in the NFL. He saw limited playing time before making the switch to center in 1972.
Langer started every game in the Dolphins’ perfect season and started beside Larry Little in back-to-back Super Bowls. He played in 141 consecutive games until a knee injury ended his 1979 season with the Dolphins. Langer started in three AFC championship games and Super Bowls VI, VII, and VIII. He made six straight Pro Bowls and the All-Pro team four times during his 10 years with the Dolphins. After Miami traded him to the Vikings, he finished his career as a reserve.
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- Years active: 1970-1979
- Team: Dallas Cowboys
- Year inducted: 2020
Cliff Harris went undrafted out of Ouachita Baptist College (Arkansas). His rookie year was halted by obligatory military service for the National Guard. However, he earned his starting spot back en route to two Super Bowl wins with the Dallas Cowboys. The six-time Pro Bowler (1974-79) and three-time All-Pro (1976-78) also made the All-1970s team.
Harris helped Dallas reach the Super Bowl five times in the 1970s and win the Lombard Trophy in 1971 and 1977. Harris only missed the playoffs once during his time with the Cowboys. The free safety retired with 29 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries in his 141 appearances in 10 seasons with the Cowboys.
- Years active: 1973-1983
- Team: Dallas Cowboys
- Year inducted: 2021
Drew Pearson is another undrafted free agent recently inducted into the Hall of Fame as a senior finalist. Pearson went undrafted out of Tulsa but got his break on special teams. He only stepped into the lineup his rookie year due to another player’s injury. By the time he retired, he was the Cowboys’ all-time leader for yardage and receptions.
Pearson led the league in receiving yards in 1977 with 870 yards. He appeared in three Super Bowls, including the Super Bowl XII win, and had 68 receptions for 1,131 yards in 22 postseason games. NFL Films put Pearson on four of its “Top 75 Plays in NFL History” list. He finished his career with the Cowboys in 1983 after 156 games, 7,822 receiving yards, and 48 touchdowns. He was also a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1970s.
- Years active: 1974-1987
- Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
- Year inducted: 2020
Donnie Shell joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent. He had earned two team MVP awards and made the All-Mid-Eastern Conference team while at South Carolina State. For the Steelers, he became the first strong safety to cross the 50-interception mark.
Shell finished his career with 51 interceptions, ranking him third in Steelers’ history. And he tied for the second-most seasons played for Pittsburgh, making five-straight Pro Bowl teams from 1978 to 1982. He was also a three-time All-Pro player. Shell played in 201 career games, with 19 fumble recoveries in 162 starts. He helped the Steelers win back-to-back Super Bowls twice (1974-75 and 1978-79).
- Years active: 1984-2000
- Teams: Houston Oilers, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs
- Year inducted: 2006
Warren Moon spent his first six professional seasons in the Canadian Football League. Scouts at the time thought he should switch positions. Some believed he benefited from the University of Washington’s nontraditional college offense. Moon won five consecutive Grey Cup victories with the Edmonton Eskimos before signing with the Houston Oilers in 1984. He threw for more than 4,600 passing yards in 1990 and 1991, more than any other quarterback both years.
Moon passed for more than 3,000 yards in five of his first eight seasons with the Oilers before they traded him to Minnesota in 1995. He then threw for more than 4,000 yards in his first two seasons as a Viking. Moon signed with Seattle in 1997 and made his last of nine Pro Bowl teams at age 41. He ended his 17-year-career in the NFL as a backup with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2000. Moon retired with 19,325 passing yards, 291 passing touchdowns and 203 career starts.
- Years active: 1986-1997
- Teams: New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers
- Year inducted: 2022
Sam Mills is the latest addition to this list as he will be inducted with the 2022 Pro Football Hall of Fame class. Mills went undrafted despite earning Division II All-American honors at Montclair State (NJ). He still holds the team’s record for career tackles.
Mills was cut from the Cleveland Browns and the Canadian Football League’s Toronto team before landing in the USFL. His Philadelphia Stars won back-to-back championships in the league’s first three seasons. Mills registered 592 tackles before that league folded. Stars head coach Jim Mora made the jump to the New Orleans Saints when that happened, and Mills signed with the Saints, too.
The 5-foot-9 linebacker earned five Pro Bowl berths and one All-Pro team selection with the Saints before the Carolina Panthers selected him in the expansion draft. He then earned another All-Pro berth and helped Carolina get to the NFC Championship game in their second season. He became an assistant coach after retiring from a career featuring 181 appearances and 173 starts.
Mills died in April 2005 at age 45. He had lived longer than doctors predicted when he was diagnosed with cancer in his fifth season as an assistant. The Panthers bang a huge “Keep Pounding” drum as a tradition to honor him. Mills registered 1,265 total tackles, 20.5 sacks, 22 forced fumbles, 23 fumble recoveries, and 11 interceptions.
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- Years active: 1990-2003
- Teams: Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks
- Year inducted: 2010
John Randle signed with the Minnesota Vikings from Texas A&I. He played in all 16 games as a rookie before earning the starting defensive tackle position his second year. Randle went on to start in 133 straight games, and put together an eight-season run (1992-99) with more than 10 sacks per season. He was also a First-Team All-Pro for six of those years (1993-98).
Randle sacked the quarterback 137.5 times, forced 29 fumbles, and made 40 tackles for a loss in his 219 career games. His Vikings made the playoffs 10 times. And Randle made the playoffs once more with the Seahawks in 2003.
- Years active: 1998-2009
- Teams: St. Louis Rams, New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals
- Year inducted: 2017
Kurt Warner famously joined the Rams after several seasons in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe. Warner won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award after passing for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns en route to a Super Bowl win in 2000. The Northern Iowa alum won another MVP and got back to the Super Bowl with the Rams a few years later. That time, however, the Rams lost to the Patriots in Tom Brady’s first season.
Warner again came up short in the Super Bowl with his third team, the Cardinals, in 2008. He did, however, set franchise records, throwing for 4,538 yards that season, leading the Cards to their first Super Bowl appearance. Warner finished his career as a two-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler. He retired with 32,344 career yards, 208 career touchdowns, and 128 career interceptions, while managing to complete 65% of his passes.
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