Shakur Brown intercepted a Big Ten-runnerup five passes on his way to first-team all-conference honors last fall. He opted to skip his senior season at Michigan State to turn pro, entering his name in the 2021 NFL draft.
But Brown was not one of the 38 cornerbacks drafted by NFL teams last month. Six Big Ten cornerbacks were selected but no Brown. Dinged by NFL talent evaluators because of his 4.6 speed, Brown signed after the draft as a college free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Signing as an undrafted college free agent certainly isn’t the preferred path to NFL success for a cornerback. But it’s not a dead-end path.
Everson Walls was a college cornerback with 4.7 speed. He intercepted 11 passes as a senior at Grambling in 1980 and was named a Division II All-America. There were 39 defensive backs selected in the 1981 NFL draft and Walls was not one of them.
So Walls signed as a college free agent with his hometown Dallas Cowboys and intercepted a league-leading 11 passes as a rookie. He went on to intercept 57 career passes and become the only cornerback in history to lead the NFL in interceptions three times.
Brown and Walls are not alone.
Dick “Night Train” Lane was not drafted. Neither were Willie Brown. Emmitt Thomas and Jack Butler. All now have busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lane set NFL records for interceptions in a single season (14 in 1951) and career interceptions by a cornerback (68). Lane and Brown were both named to the NFL’s 100th anniversary team and Butler was a 1950s NFL all-decade choice. All four intercepted at least 50 career passes.
Chris Harris and Malcolm Butler also arrived in the NFL as undrafted college free-agent cornerbacks who went on to have Pro Bowl careers. Which is a subtle reminder that it’s not how you start a career – it’s how you finish it.
And it’s not just the cornerback position. The Talk of Fame Network has compiled the NFL’s all-time undrafted college free-agent team. There are 27 spots – 11 on offense, 11 on defense and five on special teams. All 27 of the players went to Pro Bowls, 16 were all-decade selections and 13 became Hall of Famers. The list includes single-season passing, rushing, receiving, tackle, sack, interception and scoring leaders, an NFL MVP and eight players whose careers spanned more than 200 games.
So here's the all-time undrafted college free agent team:
QB Kurt Warner, 1994 (12 years, 124 games) Hall of Fame, 4 Pro Bowls, 2-time NFL MVP, 2000 Super Bowl MVP, 2008 NFL Man of the Year, 2-time NFL passing champion
RB Marion Motley, 1946 (9, 105) Hall of Fame, NFL’s 100th anniversary team, 1940s NFL all-decade, Pro Bowl, 1950 NFL rushing champion
RB Joe Perry, 1948 (16, 183) Hall of Fame, 1950s NFL all-decade, 3 Pro Bowls, 2-time NFL rushing champion
WR Drew Pearson, 1973 (11, 156) Hall of Fame, 1970s NFL all-decade, 3 Pro Bowls, Led the NFL in receptions in 1976 and receiving yards in 1977
WR Wes Welker, 2004 (12, 175) 5 Pro Bowls, 3-time NFL receiving champion, 5 100-catch seasons
TE Antonio Gates, 2003 (16, 236) 2000s NFL all-decade, 8 Pro Bowls, NFL tight-end record 116 career TD receptions
OT Lou “The Toe” Groza, 1946 (21, 268) Hall of Fame, 1950s NFL all-decade, 9 Pro Bowls, 1,608 career points, 21st all-time
OT Joe Jacoby, 1981 (13, 170) 1980s NFL all-decade, 4 Pro Bowls, 3-time Super Bowl champion in offenses blocking for three different quarterbacks
G Larry Little, 1967 (14, 183) Hall of Fame, 1970s NFL all-decade, 5 Pro Bowls, In blocking front of NFL’s only perfect team (1972 Dolphins, 14-0) that set the league record (since broken) for rushing yards in a season
G Nate Newton, 1983 (14, 198) 6 Pro Bowls, Blocked for all 4 of Emmitt Smith’s NFL rushing titles
C Jim Langer, 1970 (12, 151) Hall of Fame, 1970s NFL all-decade, 6 Pro Bowls, In blocking front of NFL’s only perfect team (1972 Dolphins, 14-0) that set the league record (since broken) for rushing yards in a season
DE Coy Bacon, 1967 (14 seasons, 180 games) 3 Pro Bowls, 130 ½ career sacks
DE Michael Bennett, 2009 (11, 156) 3 Pro Bowls, 69 ½ career sacks
DT John Randle, 1990 (14, 219) Hall of Fame, NFL’s 100th anniversary team, 1990s NFL all-decade, 7 Pro Bowls, 137 ½ career sacks, 1997 NFL sack champion
DT Bill Willis, 1946 (8, 99) Hall of Fame, 1940s NFL all-decade, 3 Pro Bowls,
OLB James Harrison, 2002 (15, 193) 5 Pro Bowls, 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Scored the longest touchdown in Super Bowl history in 2009 on a 100-yard interception of a Kurt Warner pass.
MLB London Fletcher, 1998 (16, 256) 4 Pro Bowls, 2,039 career tackles, 2nd all-time
OLB Bart Scott, 2002 (11, 172) Pro Bowl, 25 career sacks, 7 forced fumbles, 4 interceptions
CB Dick “Night Train” Lane, 1952 (14, 157) Hall of Fame, NFL’s 100th anniversary team, 1950s NFL all-decade, 7 Pro Bowls, NFL record 68 INTs by a CB; also an NFL record 14 INTs in a single season in 1952, 2-time interception champion.
CB Willie Brown, 1963 (16, 204) Hall of Fame, NFL’s 100th anniversary team, 1970s NFL all-decade, 4 Pro Bowls, 54 career interceptions
S Emlen Tunnell, 1948 (14, 167) Hall of Fame, 1950s NFL’s 100th anniversary team, NFL all-decade, 9 Pro Bowls, 79 career INTs, 2nd all-time
S Cliff Harris, 1970 (10, 141) Hall of Fame, 1970s NFL all-decade, 6 Pro Bowls, Played in five Super Bowls. “Captain Crash”
K Adam Vinatieri, 1996 (24 seasons, 365 games) 2000s NFL all-decade, 3 Pro Bowls, NFL’s all-time leading scorer (2,673 points)
P Jeff Feagles, 1988 (22, 352) 2 Pro Bowls, NFL-record 1,713 career punts, also played an NFL record 352 consecutive games
KR Josh Cribbs, 2005 (10, 136) 2000s NFL all-decade, 3 Pro Bowls, NFL record 8 career touchdowns on kickoffs
LS Don Muhlbach, 2004 (17, 260) Pro Bowl, 260 career games, 37th all-time
ST Bill Bates, 1983 (15, 217) Pro Bowl, NFL created Pro Bowl special-teams slot for Bates