There are few things in the NFL that are more fun than the emergence of an unknown player, an unheralded prospect or an underdog. The NFL has the reputation as the league where a team can win on any given Sunday. It’s a cliche expression, I know. But it’s true. Similarly, a player with any draft status can rise to stardom.
The NFL draft creates a set of expectations — or lack thereof — for players. That means that the later selections can surprise and impress. We’ve compiled a list of players who astounded. These 11 players are the biggest draft surprises and steals in the history of the NFL.
11. Antonio Brown, WR, Central Michigan. (Pittsburgh Steelers. 2010. Sixth round. 195th overall.) — He was well on his way to moving up this list, but allegations of sexual assault and rape derailed his NFL career. Brown has managed 1,000 yards or more in seven of his nine seasons. He also has had 10 or more touchdowns in four seasons.
11. Joe Montana, QB, Notre Dame. (San Francisco 49ers. 1979. Third round. 82nd overall.) — Though a third-round pick isn’t exactly a sleeper, Montana went on to be, arguably, the second best quarterback ever to play the game. His biggest bullet point in his resume? Four Super Bowl appearances. Four Super Bowl wins. Three Super Bowl MVPs.
9. Antonio Gates, TE, Kent State. (San Diego Chargers. 2003. Undrafted.) — The Chargers saw an opportunity to convert Gates, a Kent State forward, into a tight end despite him never playing college football. He has made eight Pro Bowl appearances with 955 receptions for 11,841 yards and 116 touchdowns.
8. Roger Staubach, QB, Navy. (Dallas Cowboys. 1964. 10th round. 129th overall.) — The Hall of Famer finished his career with 22,700 passing yards, 153 touchdowns and 109 interceptions. When he retired from football in March 1980, he had the second-highest-rated passer of all time at 83.4 behind Otto Graham.
7. Willie Davis, DE, Grabling State. Cleveland Browns. 1956. 15th round. 181st overall.) — He started his career with the Browns, but proved to be a game-changing talent for the Green Bay Packers. His career was ridiculously succesful: two Super Bowl wins, five NFL championship wins, five Pro Bowl selections.
6. Bart Starr, QB, Alabama. (Green Bay Packers. 1956. 17th round. 200th overall.) — During his Hall of fame career, he threw for 24,718 passing yards, 152 touchdowns and 138 interceptions. He was a five-time NFL champion. He also won the first two Super Bowls in the history of the NFL, and was the MVP in both.
5. Ken Stabler, S, Prarie View A&M. (Houston Oilers. 1967. Ninth round. 214th overall.) — Houston was a Pro Bowler in 12 of his 14 NFL seasons. He played 196 games, and had 49 interceptions for 12 touchdowns. After six years with the Oilers, he joined the Washington Redskins in a trade. The Redskins sent five veterans to the Oilers in exchange for Houston.
4. Deacon Jones, DE, Mississippi Valley State. Washington Redskins. 1961. 14th round. 186th overall.) — While he started his career in Washington, he became famous with the L.A. Rams. Because he played from the 1960s to the 1970s, his statistics are not well-documented. However, he was an eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
3. Johnny Unitas, QB, Louisville. (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1955. Ninth round. 102nd overall.) — Drafted by the Steelers, the Hall of Famer put together a remarkable career with the Baltimore Colts and had 40,239 passing years, 290 touchdowns and 253 interceptions. He was a Super Bowl champion, a three-time NFL champion, and a 10-time Pro Bowler.
2. Richard Dent, DE, Tennessee State. (Philadelphia Eagles. 1983. Eighth round. 203rd overall.) — He had 137.5 sacks during his career and had back-to-back seasons with 17 or more. While the Eagles drafted him, Dent emerged as a major contributor for the Chicago Bears, where he was a two-time Super Bowl champion and a Super Bowl MVP.
1. Tom Brady, QB, Michigan. (New England Patriots. 2000. Sixth round. 199th overall.) — He’s arguably the greatest player in the history of the game and the Patriots drafted him in the sixth round, with six quarterbacks going before Brady. He has six Super Bowl wins and nine Super Bowl appearances. He has four Super Bowl MVP awards and three NFL MVPs. He also has 14 Pro Bowl nods along with countless NFL passing records.