A History of Undrafted NFL Quarterbacks
by Scott Kacsmar
Where will Tony Romo play in the 2017 NFL season? That remains one of the most intriguing questions between now and April's draft. The fact that Romo is still a story at all 14 years after he went undrafted out of Eastern Illinois is an incredible fact in itself. Whether or not Romo returns for a 15th season, he is already one of the greatest undrafted quarterbacks in NFL history.
Earlier this week, we looked at all drafted quarterbacks since 1994. We found that you can count on one hand the total number of successful starters from Rounds 5, 6, and 7. In the same time frame, is one hand sufficient to count the undrafted quarterback successes as well?
The 1994 undrafted class was a stellar one led by Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and four-time Pro Bowler Jeff Garcia, two quarterbacks who began to make their mark in the NFL's 1999 season. Including Romo, that gives us three bona fide franchise players. Otherwise, we are left with Jake Delhomme's unexpected run in Carolina, Jay Fielder's Miami mediocrity, and the hollow volume of Jon Kitna's career. Even if we lower our standards, that is still just six names from the last 23 years.
Six players out of how many who tried to do this job? We cannot answer that definitively, but we can ballpark it after looking into a recent season's quarterback market. However, we are first going to take a historical look at the most notable and prolific undrafted quarterbacks in NFL history. Some changes in professional football in recent decades may help to explain why a quarterback like Romo is such a rare case, and why the NFL has not come close to finding another gem like him.
Diamonds in the Rough: The NFL's Best Undrafted Quarterbacks
Opportunities are scarce for undrafted quarterbacks to play in the NFL. When those players do get into a regular-season game, that opportunity is often short lived. For one, their performance is usually not up to par. Furthermore, there is often no obligation from the team to keep playing that player. There was no draft pick used to acquire him, and he is likely earning a minimum salary. There are always other options with experience to target at quarterback.
Sure, fans may recall some of the bad undrafted quarterbacks who played briefly. For example, some fans may debate whether Caleb Hanie (Bears) or Tyler Palko (Chiefs) was worse in the 2011 season. (Our numbers say Hanie.) However, leaving a positive mark as an undrafted quarterback is one of the hardest things to do in the NFL.
For the few that have, many of their stories are no different from other notable players, or even from those of people in regular jobs who had to catch a break to get ahead in their careers. Sometimes it comes down to who you know, or being in the right place at the right time. Instead of Kurt Warner, would Trent Green be a two-time MVP and going into the Hall of Fame this summer if his knee had not been ruined in the 1999 preseason? We champion Tom Brady and Tony Romo as this era's greatest finds, but would either have ever started a game if Drew Bledsoe just avoided injury in 2001 with New England and played at a competent level in 2006 with Dallas?
While high draft picks will often get pushed onto the field, something unusual typically needs to happen for undrafted players to get their shot. They rose to fame only after an injury to another player. They had a previous connection with a coach who wanted to give them an opportunity. One minority player had to leave this country to excel in another league before he was able to embark on a Hall of Fame career in the NFL. These stories are all worth reviewing to see how players fell through the draft process, and why that may have never happened in today's league.
The NFL has existed since 1920, but only 36 quarterbacks have thrown at least 500 passes after not being drafted. Why use 500 as the cutoff? Aside from being a nice, round number, today's offenses tend to throw the ball at least 500 times in a season. In fact, over 75 percent of all NFL teams have attempted 500-plus passes since 1994, and that percentage is only rising. In 2016, all but four teams hit 500 attempts, and every team would ideally like to accomplish that feat with one reliable quarterback.
The following table shows all 36 of those quarterbacks, sorted by descending attempts, and including the year they went undrafted, as well as any information about other professional leagues they may have been associated with.
|NFL's Undrafted Quarterbacks with 500+ Pass Attempts|
|Warren Moon||1978||208||203||3,988||6,823||58.5||49,325||7.23||291||233||80.9||CFL (1978-1983)|
|Jon Kitna||1996||141||124||2,677||4,442||60.3||29,745||6.70||169||165||77.4||NFLE (1997)|
|Kurt Warner||1994||124||116||2,666||4,070||65.5||32,344||7.95||208||128||93.7||AFL (1995-97), NFLE (1998)|
|Jeff Garcia||1994||125||116||2,264||3,676||61.6||25,537||6.95||161||83||87.5||CFL (1994-98)|
|Bobby Hebert||1983||118||100||1,839||3,121||58.9||21,683||6.95||135||124||78.0||USFL (1983-85)|
|Jake Delhomme||1997||103||96||1,741||2,932||59.4||20,975||7.15||126||101||81.3||NFLE (1998-99)|
|Erik Kramer||1987||83||67||1,317||2,299||57.3||15,337||6.67||92||79||76.6||CFL (1988-1990)|
|Gary Danielson||1973||101||60||1,105||1,932||57.2||13,764||7.12||81||78||76.6||WFL (1974-75)|
|Jay Fiedler||1994||76||60||1,008||1,717||58.7||11,844||6.90||69||66||77.1||NFLE (1997)|
|Tom Flores||1958||106||68||838||1,715||48.9||11,959||6.97||93||92||67.6||CFL (1958)|
|Shaun Hill||2002||49||35||757||1,225||61.8||8,295||6.77||49||30||84.9||NFLE (2003)|
|Damon Huard||1996||64||27||574||946||60.7||6,303||6.66||33||26||80.6||NFLE (1998)|
|Joe Pisarcik||1974||61||30||425||898||47.3||5,552||6.18||24||48||53.9||CFL (1974-76)|
|Kelly Holcomb||1995||37||24||565||893||63.3||5,916||6.62||39||38||79.2||NFLE (1996)|
|Sean Salisbury||1986||40||12||318||577||55.1||3,824||6.63||19||19||72.9||CFL (1988-1989)|
|Jamie Martin||1993||53||8||355||541||65.6||3,814||7.05||20||21||82.3||NFLE (1995)|
|Doug Pederson||1991||100||17||286||522||54.8||2,762||5.29||12||19||62.3||WLAF (1992)|
1920-1959: The Old Days
The beginning of professional football can be characterized by a lack of passing, and for that matter, a lack of statistics of any kind. It was not until the 1932 season that stats were kept for things like pass attempts, so naturally Arnie Herber (1930) and Ed Danowski (1934) are the only players listed who played prior to World War II. Calling them undrafted is a bit inaccurate given that no player was drafted in this time. The first NFL draft was not until 1936.
The only other player from this golden era to crack 500 attempts was Tommy Thompson. If you have ever studied old quarterbacks, then you will know that Thompson had some prolific numbers on Philadelphia teams that played in the NFL Championship Game three years in a row from 1947 to 1949, winning twice. It's a good thing for Eagles fans that the Steelers ditched Thompson after his rookie year in 1940.
Eventually, Johnny Unitas came along and changed the way the quarterback position was viewed in the NFL, but almost every prolific quarterback from the league's first four decades was drafted.
1960-1970: The Common Draft and the Merger
By 1960, the AFL was underway with eight new teams, meaning more job opportunities for players who may not have cut it in the NFL. One of those players was Tom Flores. While he may be best known for coaching the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins in the 1980s, Flores was one of the best early passers in the AFL. He first spent some time in the Canadian Football League (CFL) in 1958 before getting a camp tryout with the Redskins in 1959. But it was with the Raiders where he became pro football's first Hispanic starting quarterback.
Flores took advantage of the AFL's need for players in its inaugural season of 1960. The first AFL draft took place in 1961, so with both leagues having drafts, it was again very difficult for an undrafted player to break into pro football. There were 520 total selections made in the 1961 drafts for the NFL and AFL. While some players were drafted in both leagues, that was still an excessive amount of rookies to fill 22 total pro football rosters. Imagine being deemed not good enough to be among those 520 choices. John McCormick was the only other real NFL-AFL transplant on our list, and he was originally a punter with the Vikings in 1962 before starting at quarterback with the Broncos. Kent Nix never got past Green Bay's "taxi squad" in his first NFL attempt, but eventually started some games for the Steelers.
Gary Cuozzo will always live on in Colts lore for what he did in his first NFL start, subbing for Johnny Unitas. Cuozzo threw five touchdown passes against the Vikings in 1965.
The 36 quarterbacks studied averaged 62 starts in their career, with potentially more to come from the active players. Only a couple of those quarterbacks played more than Jim Hart, who started 180 games and threw 5,069 passes for the St. Louis Cardinals. None of it may have happened had Don Shroyer not invited Hart to a tryout with the team. Shroyer was Hart's coach at Southern Illinois, and had taken a job as an assistant with the Cardinals in 1966. Hart made the team and ended up taking over as the starter in 1967 after Charley Johnson had to fulfill an ROTC commitment. Hart was closer to a Drew Bledsoe or Kerry Collins in his era than a star, but he did make the Pro Bowl four years in a row from 1974 to 77. This makes him one of the top undrafted quarterbacks to ever play the game.
In 1967, the NFL and AFL agreed to a common draft that took place in each of the next three years. There were still 17 rounds and in excess of 440 players drafted each year, but the leagues were no longer fighting over the rights of the same players. In 1970, the NFL and AFL merged together, creating a league close to what we know today.
1971-1982: Would You Prefer Canada or Seattle?
Some businessmen saw football's rising popularity as an opportunity to challenge the NFL with their own league. The World Football League started in 1974 before folding during its 1975 season. Gary Danielson was a member of that league before he turned in a decent career with the Detroit Lions. Joe Pisarcik took his talent to Canada for a few years before winding up with the Giants, where he infamously botched a sure win with the Miracle at the Meadowlands play in 1978.
By the middle of the decade, the NFL continued to expand with the addition of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks in 1976. Seattle put itself on the map early by finding the quarterback-receiver duo of Jim Zorn and Steve Largent. Zorn went undrafted in 1975, failing to make the final roster cut with the Dallas Cowboys. The Seahawks picked him up and he led the league in pass attempts in 1976, starting all 14 games. The Seahawks found even better success when they added the undrafted Dave Krieg to be the third-string quarterback in 1980. Krieg eventually took over for Zorn and enhanced the passing success with Largent while the team began to make the playoffs.
Warren Moon and Jeff Kemp also eventually played for Seattle in their careers, but their origin stories are much different. Kemp was the son of Jack Kemp, a successful AFL quarterback and politician. He was an Ivy League kid from Dartmouth who found a spot on the taxi spot of his hometown Los Angeles Rams in 1981. (Although his dad represented upstate New York in congress, Kemp grew up in Orange County.) He worked his way up to third on the depth chart in 1982, then second in 1983, and first when Vince Ferragamo was hurt three games into the 1984 season.
Moon was MVP of the 1978 Rose Bowl for Washington, but was unable to break the racial barrier and stigma against black quarterbacks at the time. Undrafted, Moon went to the CFL, where he led Edmonton to five Grey Cups in five seasons. Only then did the NFL come calling, and the Houston Oilers, coached by Moon's CFL coach Hugh Campbell, won the bidding war for his services. The rest is history and Moon has a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, throwing for 70,553 combined yards in the CFL and NFL.
Moon went undrafted in 1978 even though Doug Williams actually was drafted in the first round that year, 17th overall by Tampa Bay. He eventually became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, but was never the type of consistent passer that Moon was. Since then, black quarterbacks have often been selected in the first round, including four times as the No. 1 overall pick (Michael Vick, JaMarcus Russell, Cam Newton, and Jameis Winston). A prospect like Moon in today's NFL likely would have been drafted without hesitation, but there was a different climate in 1978.
1983-2002: There Are Other Options
Just prior to Moon's NFL arrival, there was a much more glamorous attempt at a rival league known as the USFL. They were able to bring in some big-name passers such as Jim Kelly and Steve Young, but Bobby Hebert is actually the USFL's all-time passing yardage leader. He led the Michigan Panthers to the championship in 1983, and almost pulled off another title in 1985. Hebert went to the downtrodden Saints in the fall of 1985, and by 1987 he was the starting quarterback for the team's first ever winning season and playoff berth. The rival Falcons tried the undrafted starting quarterback approach as well with David Archer in 1985 and 1986, but that was unsuccessful. Archer lacked the previous pedigree Hebert had shown in the USFL where the level of competition was significant.
Going to a quarterback-needy team is always a wise move for an undrafted quarterback. Mike Tomczak was basically a game manager at Ohio State when he went undrafted in 1985, but he won a Super Bowl ring with the legendary 1985 Bears. Jim McMahon was often injured as Chicago's main quarterback, and in 1986, Tomczak actually led the team in quarterback starts with seven. He was one of four quarterbacks to start for that Chicago team, which still went 14-2 before falling short in the playoffs with Doug Flutie (who would go on to become another CFL success) under center. Tomczak fell out of favor in Chicago and later tried to revive his game manager role with Bill Cowher's Steelers in 1996, a playoff season that also ended in disappointment.
We recently covered the 1987 season in DVOA on this site. The three weeks of replacement games with "scab" players arguably led to two more careers of significance from undrafted quarterbacks. Sean Salisbury went undrafted in 1986, but Seattle (yes, again) gave him a shot. He signed with the Colts during the strike in 1987 and stuck around through the playoffs where he even got to throw six passes, completing one to his team and one to the opponent. Salisbury went to the CFL for some more seasoning in 1988 and 1989, but returned to the NFL with the Vikings in 1990. He even started a playoff game for the 1992 Vikings, but again played terribly. In fact, in four playoff games, Salisbury completed 14-of-44 passes for 234 yards and three interceptions. He would rank high on the list of most improbable quarterbacks to start a playoff game.
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Erik Kramer had a much better career than Salisbury, but he too caught a break with the 1987 strike when he joined the Falcons. He started two of those replacement games, and in his final appearance, he threw for 335 yards and three touchdowns, leading a 13-point comeback in the fourth quarter. Kramer spent three years in the CFL before returning to the NFL to replace an injured Rodney Peete for the 1991 Lions. He started Detroit's 38-6 playoff win over Dallas, throwing for 341 yards and three scores in what is still the most recent Detroit playoff win. Kramer eventually wound up in Chicago -- I even own that jersey for reasons that cannot be explained -- where he had a stellar 1995 season, leading all quarterbacks in DYAR. The Bears were also grooming Shane Matthews, who eventually helped lead two highly improbable comebacks in back-to-back weeks in the 2001 season.
Doug Pederson is known mostly for being Brett Favre's backup in Green Bay and the current head coach of the Eagles, but mentor Andy Reid liked him enough to give him nine starts in 1999 after the team drafted Donovan McNabb No. 2 overall. Pederson also got eight starts in Cleveland in 2000, and the Browns had drafted Tim Couch first overall in 1999. So if Couch and McNabb had been Week 1 rookie starters, as is now so often the case for top picks, Pederson likely never would have cracked 500 attempts. Pederson first got a tryout with Don Shula's Dolphins back in 1991, but also spent time in 1992 in something called the World League of American Football.
Does that even ring a bell? The World League of American Football eventually rebranded itself as NFL Europe, a developmental league that helped engineer some of the league's best rags-to-riches stories in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Jamie Martin, Kurt Warner, Jay Fiedler, Kelly Holcomb, Jon Kitna, Jake Delhomme and Damon Huard all spent time in NFL Europe, earning some extra seasoning before getting a real shot at NFL action. Most of those players even found themselves in postseason action, or in Huard's case, owner of the lowest single-season interception rate ever for the 2006 Chiefs.
Between Salisbury in 1986 and Huard in 1997, 11 of the 12 undrafted quarterbacks to get 500 career attempts first gained experience in an alternative league. This is undeniably a huge part of the success for these players, who often excelled in those other leagues against lesser competition.
No one had more success than Warner, a 1994 camp arm with the Packers. He went on to be a very prolific Arena Football League quarterback from 1995 to 97. At about the same time, Jeff Garcia was very productive in the CFL from 1994 to 1998, leading a game-winning drive in the 1998 Grey Cup before finally getting a shot with the 49ers at age 29. A career-ending injury to Hall of Famer Steve Young paved the way for Garcia to take over for the next five seasons in San Francisco. Delhomme was actually Warner's backup in Europe, and he went back for another stint with the Frankfurt Galaxy, helping lead that team to a title. He almost pulled off a Super Bowl upset of the Patriots with Carolina in 2003. Kitna led the Barcelona Dragons to a championship win in 1997, earning game MVP honors. Two years later he was in the playoffs with Seattle against Dan Marino and the Dolphins.
This was a great time for unheralded quarterbacks to show their worth in other ways before NFL teams were comfortable enough to put them on the field. Add in some high-profile injuries and a lot of turnover with so many Hall of Fame quarterbacks retiring, and that is how that late '90s and early '00s period featured quarterbacks from grocery stores and the Amsterdam Admirals. Even Tommy Maddox, a former first-round bust, came back to the spotlight with Pittsburgh in 2002 after shining in Vince McMahon's ill-fated XFL venture.
A few more undrafted quarterbacks did catch on after Warner's stunning success for the 1999 Rams. Billy Volek went undrafted in 2000, but who can forget his success with the Titans in 2004 when a Jeff Fisher-coached team decided to throw the ball all over the field? Volek also came off the bench to help the Chargers to a playoff win over the Colts in the 2007 divisional round.
Shaun Hill led NFL Europe in passing yards in 2003, and at times had superior passing stats in the NFL to No. 1 picks Alex Smith and Sam Bradford, two of his teammates along his various stops in the league. I resigned as president of the Shaun Hill Fan Club last season, but still believe he is one of the best backup quarterbacks, undrafted or otherwise, of his era. Is it any surprise that he was able to stand out in NFL Europe? He really is the last notable NFL player to do so at quarterback.
2003-2006: Dallas Strikes It Big
NFL Europe, later changed to NFL Europa, actually continued to exist through the 2007 season. However, the success stories dried up once teams returned to conventional methods to find starting quarterbacks. In the 1999 draft, five quarterbacks were selected in the first 12 picks, still a record to this day. The 2004 draft was also a pivotal one, bringing Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and even Matt Schaub into the league. In that same year, one in which illegal contact was famously reinforced, Carson Palmer rose from the bench in Cincinnati after a redshirt rookie season, and Drew Brees finally broke out in San Diego. The NFL was moving towards a pass-happy game controlled by highly skilled franchise quarterbacks.
Teams also eventually wised up on how many quarterbacks an active roster should carry, which limited the number of jobs available to undrafted quarterbacks. For instance, the Steelers kept Anthony Wright as their fourth-string quarterback in 1999, a move very unlikely to happen in today's NFL. The Jets kept four quarterbacks last season, but that was the result of paying Ryan Fitzpatrick and carrying three recent high draft picks. For the second time this week, we are left wondering why the Jets drafted Christian Hackenberg in the second round.
Sometimes, it pays to keep a quarterback around if your team believes in him. The Cowboys had their faith in Tony Romo pay huge dividends. Bill Parcells was the coach at the time, but assistant head coach Sean Payton is credited for the main support in Romo, a talented quarterback out of Eastern Illinois who did attend the combine.
Romo was a third-string quarterback in 2003, and might have lost his spot a year later had it not been for Quincy Carter's release following a substance abuse allegation. Romo was the holder in 2004 and 2005, making 22 game appearances that way, but never threw a pass until 2006, when Parcells had seen enough of Drew Bledsoe's sloppy play. While coach of the New York Giants, Parcells once kept Jeff Hostetler around for five years before he even threw his first regular-season pass. Hostetler's frustration had him contemplating retirement, but he eventually had his moment of glory in 1990 when Phil Simms was injured and Hostetler helped the Giants to a Super Bowl win. Romo's story never hit that point in Dallas, but he helped keep the team competitive and relevant again for a decade before his own injury paved the way for Dak Prescott, the fourth-round stud in the first part of this week's study.
Romo never had any seasoning in another league, but he always had that unique talent of improvising plays when things broke down. He took advantage of Dallas' patience with him, which is something few high draft picks are afforded in today's NFL. Romo shined in preseasons, which are really the best shot for these quarterbacks to put something on tape, and he continued to elevate himself in the organization the right way.
Had Romo played for another team besides the overexposed Dallas Cowboys, his reputation would likely be a lot different today. He would be lauded more as the successful rags-to-riches story he is instead of being continuously criticized for the shortcomings of his team. The exposure that comes with playing for Dallas can be problematic in this regard. For as quick as Romo was built up to legend status -- let's say by Thanksgiving 2006 -- he was even more quickly branded a choker -- obviously after one fateful botched hold in a playoff game in Seattle.
While Romo lacks Moon's volume and Warner's playoff success, he is a similar caliber of player. The fact that he happened to break through at a time in the NFL when teams turned so strongly to the top of the draft to find a franchise quarterback is all the more remarkable. Instead of pointing out the things that Romo did not do in Dallas, we should be asking why teams can't find another Romo. Has the draft process really gotten that good?
2007-2016: The Drought
One thing is for sure: the NFL has had almost no challengers since the XFL disaster. The United Football League (UFL) ran from 2009 through 2012, but really attracted more NFL has-beens than it created polished starters. With teams looking to the draft for starters and veterans, and many teams only carrying two quarterbacks on the active roster, the jobs for undrafted quarterbacks are increasingly sparse. This is why we only have three players listed from the post-Romo decade, and they may be more likely to elicit groans from fans than adulation.
After the success of Romo, Dallas almost immediately landed another undrafted standout to back him up in 2007. The Cowboys had Matt Moore in the preseason, but he did not survive the final roster cuts. The Panthers were interested, and Moore lucked out when Jake Delhomme was injured early in the season and the team went through David Carr and a 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde before Moore started three games. Moore took over for a broken Delhomme in 2009, but ended up in Miami in 2011 where he got a shot after Chad Henne was injured. Moore was team MVP that year, but the Dolphins still drafted Ryan Tannehill in 2012 in the first round. We had barely seen Moore play in that time, but an injury to Tannehill last December led to another starting opportunity for Moore, including the team's wild-card playoff loss in Pittsburgh. He remains one of the few competent backups in the league.
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Then we have the interesting case of Brian Hoyer, who turned in a poor senior season at Michigan State before going undrafted in 2009. The Patriots, fresh from trading Matt Cassel to Kansas City, added Hoyer and made him Tom Brady's sole backup that season, a risky move considering Brady's return from a torn ACL. Hoyer sparingly played in New England, but showed enough in his opportunities to hang around the league. He also made a good contact in offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who would later add him to his Houston quarterback carousel in 2015, even starting a playoff game that went horribly wrong against the Chiefs. Hoyer and his agent have been brilliant at landing him jobs on quarterback-needy teams, such as the pre-Bruce Arians Cardinals, the Browns, Texans, Bears, and now the 49ers. Hoyer's connection with Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland surely helped bring him to San Francisco, where he could be the Week 1 starter. He's a bridge quarterback at best, but teams can do worse than Hoyer.
Finally, there is Case Keenum. If you followed his college career, which felt like it lasted an eternity, then you know he was another insanely productive system quarterback for the University of Houston's run-and-shoot offense. The NFL has all but blackballed these quarterbacks after the draft busts of Andre Ware and David Klingler many years ago. Keenum had three seasons in college where he threw for at least 5,000 yards and 44 touchdown passes. He didn't even get drafted like similar Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan (sixth round, 2008) did, but Keenum always felt like he had a better chance at success than a lot of the system quarterbacks. You can say that he's proven that too. In 24 NFL starts, he has rarely been good, but he has usually kept some bad teams competitive at least.
Keenum is also fortunate that Matt Schaub's career completely imploded in 2013 for the Texans, and that only the Rams would trade a fortune to draft Jared Goff No. 1 and keep him on the bench. Keenum did outplay Goff last year, but that wasn't very hard to do given Goff's performance when he did take over in Week 11. Keenum is now a backup again, but at least big-time college football's all-time leader in passing yards (19,217) can say he has had a relevant NFL career.
No one is waiting with bated breath to see if Austin Davis, Kellen Moore, or Scott Tolzien can cross the 500-attempt barrier as undrafted quarterbacks, but those are some of the better options in the last few years. Moore had a prolific college career too at Boise State, and threw for 435 yards in his second NFL start with Dallas in 2015. Arm strength was always the concern with Moore, just as there is often a significant physical deficiency that causes a quarterback to go undrafted.
Drafted late or not drafted at all, just getting an opportunity to play is very difficult for an unheralded quarterback. While most positions can contribute in non-starting roles, the quarterback is a singular leader each week. When teams want to put their very best at the most important position, it is too difficult to sell that a guy who was deemed not good enough to go in the 250-plus picks in his draft is now good enough to lead one of the 32 teams.
The few capable of pulling that job off are truly among the rarest gems to ever play this game.
A Typical Year of Undrafted Quarterbacks
Since 1994, 11.8 quarterbacks have been drafted each year on average in a seven-round draft. There are 32 teams in the league now, and we can count on the number of undrafted quarterbacks to be greater than that each year. Teams need third-string quarterbacks, preseason prospects, or even just camp arms. A lot of these players get signed right after the draft ends, but very few every go on to make final rosters.
When we say that Tony Romo has been the singular smashing success in nearly 20 years, what does the denominator look like in that success rate? Is it out of 300 or 400? We can't answer that with great accuracy, but we wanted to take a look at a typical year for the plight of the undrafted quarterback in today's NFL.
We chose the 2013 season in particular to study. Why 2013? It is recent, and there is plenty of information available about it online. Also, it was one pretty bad quarterback draft. We touched on this in the round-by-round study earlier this week, as quarterbacks once expected to go really high ended up falling to the fourth round. EJ Manuel was the first quarterback off the board to Buffalo, and he only went 16th. When a draft doesn't have a quarterback go in the top 10, that usually means trouble for that quarterback and that class of quarterbacks.
Our attempt at getting a rough estimate of how many undrafted quarterbacks were vying for success in 2013 included several sources. For one, there are the player rankings provided by NFLDraftScout.com to CBS Sports. The 2013 page had 111 quarterbacks listed, 81 ranked, and 10 ultimately drafted into the NFL (11 including B.J. Daniels, who was later converted to wide receiver). Obviously the remaining 100 players did not all venture into NFL locker rooms at any point, but some did.
We made use of Spotrac's transactions search to find every quarterback who was involved in a transaction for the 2013 season. Out of 106 unique names, 43 were undrafted players, including 21 undrafted rookies for 2013. This is why I suggested up to 400 for the Romo success denominator -- if there are usually 20 new undrafted quarterbacks each year, then 19 drafts since 1998 would represent about 380 players.
Nonetheless, some of these players stick around for several years, even if they're not making much of a mark. In 2013, Graham Harrell and John Parker Wilson were still trying to hang on to NFL jobs in the preseason. Both had gone undrafted in 2009, having made a name for themselves in college in very different fashions. Parker Wilson was a "bus driver" type of quarterback for a loaded Alabama team, while Harrell was constantly throwing the ball in Texas Tech's Air Raid offense with Michael Crabtree. Harrell ended up throwing four passes in the regular season while Wilson never made a regular-season appearance. Yet in their fifth seasons since going undrafted, both were still hanging on to hope somewhere in August.
This does help to show that the rookie season is not the end for these players, but success is still so rare even after a handful of attempts. I also looked at all quarterback passing stats for the 2013 preseason from NFL.com, which included 101 players. Only 23 of those players who accumulated statistics were undrafted quarterbacks, including a few of our notable players such as Romo, Hoyer, Moore, Keenum, and Hill.
Pulling our sources together, I created a table of 47 undrafted quarterbacks who tried to hold employment in the NFL during the 2013 season. Players who actually appeared in a meaningful game are highlighted in color below. The players are listed under their undrafted year.
|2013 NFL Season: Undrafted Quarterback Market|
|Alex Carder||Aaron Corp||Adam Weber||Jon Kitna (1996)|
|Caleb TerBush||Alex Tanney||Jerrod Johnson||Shaun Hill (2002)|
|Clay Belton||Austin Davis||Josh Portis||Tony Romo (2003)|
|Colby Cameron||Case Keenum||McLeod Bethel-Thompson||Matt Moore (2007)|
|Collin Klein||Dominique Davis||Pat Devlin||Caleb Hanie (2008)|
|Dalton Williams||G.J. Kinne||Scott Tolzien||Brian Hoyer (2009)|
|Dayne Crist||Kellen Moore||Chase Daniel (2009)|
|James Vandenberg||Matt Blanchard||Graham Harrell (2009)|
|Jeff Tuel||Matt Simms||John Parker Wilson (2009)|
|Jordan Rogers||Nick Stephens||Thad Lewis (2010)|
|Players highlighted in color played in a game in the 2013 regular season or postseason.|
Only Matt McGloin (Raiders) and Jeff Tuel (Bills) were able to break through as rookies. None of the other 2013 rookies have amounted to anything in the NFL heading into the 2017 season. Only McGloin, Tyler Bray, and Ryan Griffin are still in the league. The arrival of Manuel in Oakland makes McGloin the fourth-stringer, so that won't last long. Bray and Griffin have always been third-stringers but are now second on the depth chart in Kansas City and Tampa Bay, respectively, because of the departure of Nick Foles and Mike Glennon.
Only 12 of the players, or just over a quarter of the table, appeared in a game in 2013. Half of those are the veterans you would expect to be active. Kitna did not play that season, but he actually came out of retirement to join the Cowboys in Week 17 after a Romo injury prompted Kyle Orton to start the season finale against the Eagles. Dallas lost and missed the playoffs that night. On a similar note, Scott Tolzien likely would not have seen any action in Green Bay in 2013 had Aaron Rodgers not broken his collarbone in the middle of the season.
Some of these quarterbacks will continue to be recycled in preseason rosters for years to come. Jerrod Johnson, who had a standout season at Texas A&M in 2009, went undrafted in 2011, and he was still on the Cowboys roster for a couple of days this past September. Clearly, he's no Romo or Prescott, but NFL talent evaluators have continued to see something to keep giving Johnson opportunities, even if the data says he has really no shot of ever putting it together for a successful career.