• Tony Romo is the highest-graded UDFA quarterback: Kurt Warner may have topped the list had his career begun in the PFF era.
• Antonio Gates crushes the pack at tight end: His 87.9 career grade is more than 10 points better than the No. 2 undrafted tight end.
• Chris Harris Jr. is the most prolific slot cornerback in the PFF era: Harris remains a free agent entering the 2023 season but has strung together years of elite play.
Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes
NFL preseason football is here. It's a time for lesser-known players and rookies to win a roster spot, potentially kickstarting a lengthy career. Undrafted players face even more of an uphill battle, but it's not an insurmountable one.
Plenty of undrafted rookies have overcome the initial hurdle of making a 53-man roster and gone on to establish themselves among the NFL's best. Here, we take a look at the highest-graded undrafted players since PFF's inception in 2006.
Quarterback: Tony Romo (86.8)
Honorable Mention: Kurt Warner (77.5)
Thirteen undrafted quarterbacks have attempted 500 or more passes in the PFF era, and Romo leads the pack — including Hall of Famer Kurt Warner — in overall grade.
Romo didn't earn a season grade below 65.0 from 2006 to 2014, and he recorded 152 more big-time throws than the next-highest-ranked undrafted quarterback, Case Keenum.
Running Back: Pierre Thomas (92.1)
Honorable Mention: Austin Ekeler (91.8)
A member of the New Orleans Saints for nearly his entire NFL career, Thomas never topped 1,000 rushing yards in a season but presented a consistent threat out of the backfield, both as a rusher and a pass catcher.
Thomas' 88.5 rushing grade from 2007 to 2013 was the sixth-best mark among all running backs over that span, and his 93.5 receiving grade led the position. He was one of only two rushers in that seven-year stretch to see 300-plus targets and average 9.0-plus yards after the catch.
Wide Receiver: Doug Baldwin (91.6)
Honorable Mention: Wes Welker (90.8)
Thanks to a formerly elite connection with quarterback Russell Wilson, Baldwin leads all undrafted wideouts in the PFF era in passer rating when targeted (115.0).
Baldwin spent all eight of his NFL seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, and his 91.3 career receiving grade is a top-25 mark overall in the PFF era.
Tight End: Antonio Gates (87.9)
Honorable Mention: Jack Doyle (77.6)
Gates is one of three tight ends to play 5,500 or more receiving snaps in the PFF era — Jason Witten and Greg Olsen being the others. He also ranks third in receiving yards after contact (1,945).
Looking only at undrafted tight ends in the PFF era says a lot about Gates' dominance and unprecedented career as an overlooked Kent State product. His 1,148 targets, 804 receptions and 9,813 receiving yards are all more than double that of the second-place undrafted tight end. And for good measure, his 90.1 receiving grade makes him the lone undrafted tight end with a 75.0-plus mark in the PFF era.
LT: Jason Peters (92.5)
Honorable Mention: Donald Penn (88.6)
The ageless Jason Peters is finally teamless at 41 years old ahead of the 2023 campaign, with a career of Hall-of-Fame play under his belt. Between a long stint with the Eagles and a year each in Chicago and Dallas, Peters earned a 90.3 pass-blocking grade. That makes him one of seven offensive tackles in the PFF era to play at least 1,000 pass-blocking snaps and surpass a 90.0 career grade.
He was similarly elite as a run blocker, ranking sixth among all offensive tackles in the PFF era in run-blocking grade (92.0) across the third-most run-blocking snaps at the position (4,978).
Left Guard: Rich Seubert (90.7)
Honorable Mention: Brian Waters (87.1)
Seubert, although he played five seasons before the PFF era, let up just five sacks from 2006 through 2010 before retiring. That helped him post an 80.0-plus grade in each of those five campaigns on record.
Undrafted out of Western Illinois, Seubert spent his entire career with the Giants and was one of eight guards to earn a 90.0-plus overall grade from 2006 to 2010.
Center: Jeff Saturday (91.8)
Honorable Mention: Jamaal Jackson (86.4)
Saturday reentered the limelight with a short, shaky stint as the Colts' interim head coach in 2022, but it was his play at center that will be remembered for the long haul.
No center in the PFF era, drafted or undrafted, has been able to beat out Saturday's career 93.9 pass-blocking grade.
Right Guard: Stephen Neal (91.0)
Honorable Mention: Brandon Moore (85.3)
Neal joins Rich Seubert as one of the best guards in the early part of the PFF era despite going undrafted in 2001. But he lays claim to the odd distinction of both going undrafted and having never played college football. The Patriots took a chance on him, and the rest is history.
The three-time Super Bowl winner Neal was the NFL's fourth-highest-graded offensive lineman in 2009 — the best season of his career. He surrendered only three quarterback knockdowns (sacks plus hits) on 537 pass-blocking snaps that year.
Right Tackle: Tyson Clabo (85.3)
Honorable Mention: Ryan Schraeder (79.6)
Run blocking was Clabo's calling card after he went undrafted out of Wake Forest in 2004. He bounced around a few practice squads before latching on with the Falcons, and he went on to garner a negative grade on only 7.5% of his career run snaps — a top-15 mark among all tackles in the PFF era.
Clabo's 88.5 career run-blocking grade ranks second among undrafted tackles since 2006, behind Jason Peters.
Interior Defender: Damon Harrison Sr. (92.4)
Honorable Mention: Michael Pierce (90.3)
Damon “Snacks” Harrison was once the NFL's flagship run-stuffing interior defender, frequently setting the standard in run-defense grade. He led the league in that facet in each season from 2015 to 2018 — a four-year stretch of 90.0-plus grades that may never be matched again.
Harrison goes down as the highest-graded undrafted interior defender in the PFF era and the king of run defense (95.2) — even ahead of Aaron Donald.
Edge Defender: Cameron Wake (92.4)
Honorable Mention: James Harrison (91.5)
Wake's 634 quarterback pressures in the PFF era is a top-10 mark among all edge defenders. Rate metrics tell the same story of pass-rush prowess, with Wake recording the third-best win rate (16.8%) at the position across 3,784 pass-rush snaps.
Linebacker: Jerrell Freeman (87.1)
Honorable Mention: T.J. Edwards (83.4)
Perhaps a surprise inclusion on this list to some, Freeman played only six seasons in the NFL but put together a couple of excellent years at a notoriously difficult position.
Only 18 linebackers in the PFF era boast an 85.0-plus career grade on 1,000 or more snaps, and Freeman is one of them. That list shrinks to one when looking at undrafted linebackers. Other notable undrafted players who graded out well include London Fletcher (83.1), Bart Scott (80.4), Vontaze Burfict (78.3) and Wesley Woodyard (72.6).
Cornerback: Brent Grimes (91.0)
Honorable Mention: Jabari Greer (90.5)
Grimes is among the most accomplished and longest-tenured undrafted cornerbacks in the PFF era. Only Chris Harris Jr. and Tramon Williams played more snaps than Grimes, and both also sport 90.0-plus career grades.
While Grimes allowed his fair share of yards and touchdowns, as every cornerback does, he recorded four seasons of allowing a sub-70.0 passer rating into his coverage. Only four cornerbacks in the NFL managed to top his interception rate from 2013 to 2017 (4.6%), including Richard Sherman and Marcus Peters.
Slot Cornerback: Chris Harris Jr. (93.6)
Honorable Mention: K'Waun Williams (84.7)
The slot was — and maybe still is — Harris' domain. He thrived from the inside, particularly while with the Broncos from 2011 to 2019. No slot cornerback earned a higher grade than Harris in that span (94.6), and only one outside cornerback — Richard Sherman — did so.
Harris, who enters the 2023 season as a free agent after joining the Saints in 2022, has never shied away from run defense or tackling, either. Since 2011, Harris leads the NFL in stops (221).
Safety: Quintin Mikell (91.1)
Honorable Mention: Anthony Harris (89.1)
Mikell, who spent the majority of his career with the Eagles, is the lone qualifying undrafted safety in the PFF era with 90.0-plus grades as a run defender and a pass rusher as well as a 75.0-plus coverage grade. Overall, he is the 10th-highest-graded safety since 2006.
Mikell's career run-defense (94.3) and pass-rush grades (93.2) are both top-five marks at the position.