Pre-season. When you get to watch all of your team’s starters play for a drive or two, then the no-name 7th-rounders and undrafted free agents play the rest of the game. Most of these guys fighting for a roster spot won’t make it. They’ll simply disappear into football obscurity.
Or will they?
There’s a reason teams play four pre-season games. Players who have the talent and put in the work can take advantage of their time on the field and build a foundation for superstar careers. Sometimes that fourth-string running back from West Boondock State who tears it up during the pre-season will become your team’s next superstar.
Here are five “no-name players” who kick-started their careers by opening eyes during the pre-season.
By the end of the 2005 season, Romo, who was signed by Dallas in 2003 as an UDFA out of Eastern Illinois University, seemed destined for life on the bench. He was nearly cut by the Cowboys in 2004 and had not yet taken a snap in a regular-season game. But in the 2006 pre-season, Romo balled out with the second team, throwing for a league best 208.2 yards per game and compiling a 95.1 QB rating. Wouldn’t you know it? Romo took over the starting job later that season and ended the year with 2,903 passing yards and 19 touchdowns en route to a Pro Bowl appearance. Romo now has nearly 30,000 passing yards and over 200 touchdowns to his credit.
Photo: Facebook, Chris Clemons
Clemons was initially signed by the Redskins as an UDFA in 2003. He spent the next seven seasons bouncing around from team to team, never making more than 20 tackles in a season. Coming into the 2010 pre-season as a member of the Seahawks, he seemed like a decent rotation player and nothing more. But he exploded in the pre-season, making three sacks and forcing a fumble despite limited playing time. His pre-season play proved more than a flash in the pan, and Clemons went on to have his best season as a pro with 49 tackles and 11 sacks. Now established as a premier defensive end, he has 38 sacks and eight forced fumbles over the last four seasons.
Photo: Facebook, Rashad Jennings
One of the last players drafted in 2009, Jennings was selected 250th overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was consistently a strong pre-season performer, but was always stuck behind starting running back Maurice Jones-Drew. In the 2012 pre-season, he rushed for 209 yards, second best in the league. In 2013, he became a Raider and got to show that the skills he flashed in the pre-season would continue when the games mattered. Jennings went on to lead the Raiders with 1,025 all-purpose yards and 6 touchdowns. Now a member of the New York Giants, he went hard in his second pre-season game, racking up 85 yards in five carries.
An undrafted free agent out of UMass, Cruz came into the Giants training camp in 2010 just trying to earn a spot on the roster. The Giants had selected a punter over him in the 7th round, and Cruz was joining a team with a talented receiving corps, including Steve Smith, Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks. But on the strength of his magical pre-season performance, including a 145-yard, three-touchdown game against the Jets, Cruz not only made the roster, but proved he had the potential to be a top receiver in the NFL. Four seasons later, he is a Pro-Bowler with 3,626 career receiving yards.
Photo: Facebook, Marlon Brown
Brown was injury-prone and unspectacular at The University of Georgia, chalking up only 851 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in his career, which was cut short by a torn ACL. The chances of Brown reaching the NFL seemed slim. But the Ravens took a flyer on him as a rookie free agent after the 2013 Draft. Because of his knee, Brown saw limited time last pre-season, but he ended with 10 catches for 169 receiving yards and two touchdowns in only two pre-season games. The rookie went on to lead the Ravens with seven touchdowns and nearly 50 receptions.