Great Starts: Four CFL graduates high on list of best undrafted rookie debut seasons
By Doug Farrar
We all know about the great stories of undrafted NFL players who go on to Hall of Fame careers — from Kurt Warner to John Randle and on and on, there are more than enough guys who evaded the draft to let know that the player selection process is, at its heart, a bit of a crapshoot. However, the most obvious players aren’t always the ones who came in and impressed right away. Here, per Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric (explained here), are the 10 players who managed to get things going right away despite their undrafted status. Yes, four of these players had headstarts in the Canadian Football League, but we’re counting them anyway. They still had steep learning curves to master once they hit the NFL.
1. Dominic Rhodes, RB, Indianapolis Colts (2001) – It’s a credit to Bill Polian’s once-great personnel acumen that there are two players he picked up a street free agents on this list; we won’t mention his last five drafts in total. In any case, Rhodes was a short (5-foot-9) afterthought guy out of Midwestern State until he hit the field as a starter following Edgerrin James’ knee injury. He gained 1,104 yards on just 233 carries, and scored nine rushing touchdowns, for a 6-10 Colts team that was still finding its feet. Rhodes went back to afterthought status in the seasons after, though he did gain 113 yards on the ground in the most important game of the Peyton Manning era — the Colts’ Super Bowl XLII victory over the Chicago Bears.
2. Derrick Deese, OG/OT, San Francisco 49ers (1995) – The 49ers had an unparalleled record of player analysis and development through the Bill Walsh era, but Deese was a nice surprise in the 49ers’ last Super Bowl year — its first without Walsh’s heavy influence. Deese came in undrafted out of USC and started 15 games at right guard in a line that broke things open for one of the most productive offenses in NFL history. It was 1998 before he started an entire season, but he went on to be San Francisco’s primary left tackle through the last five seasons of his career, form 2000 through 2004.
3. Warren Moon, QB, Houston Oilers (1984) — Moon is a bit of an oddity, of course, He ripped it up at Washington, and would have been selected within the first few picks a generation later, when the NFL wasn’t quite so stupid about black quarterbacks. Moon had to blow up the CFL for a few years before the Oilers brought him on in 1984. He went on to a Hall of Fame career and a well-deserved reputation as an important part of NFL history. After his early success, anyone who claimed that quarterbacks of his “type” couldn’t succeed would look as dumb as they actually were.
4. Everson Walls, CB, Dallas Cowboys (1981) — Undoubtedly, there were some people in NFL front offices who had some explaining to do after Walls picked off 11 (yes, 11!) passes in his rookie season after the Cowboys took a flier on the man from Grambling. Walls was no fluke, either — he led the NFL in interceptions in three different seasons (including his first and second) and finished his career with 57, which ranks 11th all-time.
5. Herm Edwards, CB, Philadelphia Eagles (1977) – Yes, the famed coach and analyst should be known for more than his funny quips and the Miracle at the Meadowlands. The undrafted San Diego State star picked off six passes in his rookie campaign, and forced two fumbles for good measure.
6. Brandon Browner, CB, Seattle Seahawks (2011) – Last time anybody in the NFL saw Browner before 2011, he was a Denver Broncos undrafted guy in 2005. Before he could even get started, a fractured forearm cost Browner the 2005 season and a 2006 roster spot. He spent five years in the CFL before Pete Carroll and John Schneider took a shot on him. Browner rewarded the Seahawks with an impressive and altogether unlikely season. Of the ten players on our list, only Browner and Warren Moon started all 16 games in their first seasons. Browner picked off six passes, returned two interceptions for touchdowns, and helped his first official NFL team establish the man coverage concepts it didn’t have the personnel to do before he arrived.
7. Dieter Brock, QB, Los Angeles Rams (1985) – Brock has the weirdest career arc of any player on our list. He spent 11 years in the CFL before playing just one season in the NFL, with the Rams in 1985. In that one season, he helped lead his team to an NFC Championship appearance against the eventual Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears, who kicked the hell out of them as they did nearly everybody else. Still, Brock’s one-and-done season is worth mentioning — he set Rams rookie records for passing yards (2,658) and touchdown passes (16) that stood until Sam Bradford came into the league. Brock’s passer rating of 81.8 still stands as the franchise’s rookie mark.
8. Otis Sistrunk, DL, Oakland Raiders (1972) – Alex Karras once famously said that Sistrunk looked like he attended the “University of Mars,” but the big, bald man actually did not attend a facility of higher learning, catching on with the Raiders after a stint in the Marines and two years of semi-pro ball. He started every game in each of his first four seasons for one of the dominant teams of the 1970s, made the Pro Bowl in 1974, and was a key cog in the Raiders’ first Super Bowl-winning team in 1976.
9. Terrence Wilkins, WR, Indianapolis Colts (1999) – The second of Bill Polian’s undrafted gems for the Colts, Wilkins caught 42 passes for565 yards and four touchdowns from some second-year quarterback named Peyton Manning. But it was as a return man that Wilkins made the most waves in his rookie year — he returned 41 punts for 388 yards and a touchdown, and 51 kicks for 1,134 yards and another score. Of course, he also fumbled three times, which didn’t help his long-term prospects. Wilkins didn’t hit it any bigger after his rookie year, but like Dominic Rhodes, he was on the Super Bowl XLII team.
10. Jeff Garcia, QB, San Francisco 49ers (1999) – Garcia was one of Bill Walsh’s gifts to the 49ers when he returned to the team as a personnel man in the Steve Mariucci era. When Steve Young went down with a serious concussion early in the 1999 season, Garcia (who played five seasons with the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders form 1994 through 1998) was thrown into the fire. After some early rough patches, he finished strong, completing 136 of 215 passes for 1,569 yards, eight touchdowns, and five picks in his last seven games. Garcia went on to enjoy a pretty impressive NFL career, with four Pro Bowl appearances over 11 seasons.