Take a look at the roster of your favorite NFL team. First, you will notice high draft picks, guys who starred at places like Alabama or Florida and who waltzed into their first training camp almost guaranteed a spot on the opening-day roster. But when you scroll down a little, you’ll also find players who weren’t expected to be on the field as much as they currently are—guys from colleges like the University of Wyoming or community college transfers who were never drafted in the first place. For them, a starting position in the NFL was always miles away, until their abilities caught the attention of their coaches.
Here are five guys who weren’t supposed to start in the NFL, but made sure they did.
Russell Wilson started, and won, the Super Bowl last year. If Wilson had not beaten out Matt Flynn in training camp as a rookie in 2012, the previous sentence would have never been written.
The Seattle Seahawks took a flyer on Wilson, an undersized quarterback who excelled in college at both North Carolina State and Wisconsin, and who led the Badgers to both the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl victory. The Seahawks drafted him in the third round after signing Flynn, the former Green Bay backup, to a three-year, $19.5-million contract. The plan seemed simple enough: start Flynn while Wilson sat, watched and learned how to transition his game to the NFL. Yet head coach Pete Carroll went into training camp in 2012 determined to have an open quarterback competition. Wilson was solid through two pre-season games, but many observers still thought it was Flynn’s job to lose, and that Wilson would begin the season on the bench.
After Wilson completed 67 percent of his passes for 464 yards and three touchdowns in three pre-season games, Carroll shocked the NFL community by naming him the Seahawks’ starting quarterback.
“Russell has taken full advantage of his opportunities and has done everything that we have asked for on the field, and more than what you guys could know off the field in meeting rooms and with our players and how he’s represented. He’s earned this job,” Carroll told USA Today.
Two years later, Wilson is rocking a shiny new Super Bowl ring.
Before he became known for salsa dancing in the end zone after catching long touchdown passes, Victor Cruz watched the 2010 NFL Draft without hearing his name called.
The University of Massachusetts product signed with the New York Giants and immediately made a lot of scouts look ridiculous. He was in the process of making a name for himself in training camp when the first pre-season game rolled around. Checking in during the third quarter, Cruz burned every cornerback who dared to try and cover him. In less than a half, he hauled in three touchdown passes, including a ridiculous one-handed grab down the left sideline that left ESPN’s Monday Night Football announcing crew gushing. That year, he made the squad but didn’t see the field due to a nagging hamstring injury that put him on injured reserve.
When receiver Steve Smith left the Giants for the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2011 off-season, Cruz was the next man up. In his first full NFL season, he caught 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns, proving that his training camp and pre-season performance in 2010 were no flukes. Cruz became Eli Manning’s security blanket on third down, catching 27 balls for 698 yards and five touchdowns. The Giants won the Super Bowl.
Originally an unheard of, undrafted player from an unknown school in a little-talked-about state, Tashaun Gipson led the AFC last season with five interceptions, and he is slotted to be the Cleveland Browns’ starting safety alongside Donte Whitner for the 2014 season.
He stood out to then-Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron in training camp in 2012 (“You just wonder why he wasn’t a draft pick,” Jauron told the Plain Dealer at the time); and after starting just six snaps during the Browns’ opening game that year, he worked his way up to playing every single down by the end of the season. The following year, his first as a starter, Gipson morphed into a ball hawk, taking those aforementioned five interceptions and racking up 143 return yards, including one to the house.
Gipson is no longer under the radar, and he’s expected to be a major part of the Browns revamped defense that features Pro Bowlers Whitner and Joe Haden, along with first round draft pick Justin Gilbert.
The artist formerly known as the “Honey Badger” had an illustrious college career going as an LSU Tiger. The cornerback was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2011, after a magnificent season in which he had 77 tackles, five forced fumbles and two interceptions. Short and quick, he also took two punts to the house as a returner. But before the start of the 2012 season, Mathieu was dismissed from the team by head coach Les Miles for repeated drug use. It was a long fall for Mathieu, but after sitting out a year and lacking other options, he entered the 2013 NFL Draft.
With his stock plummeting, Mathieu was unlikely to get drafted. His tumultuous break-up with LSU had NFL GMs and scouts wary, and he was justifiably branded as a “risk.” But his former teammate and current Arizona Cardinal Patrick Peterson vouched for him, and the Cardinals decided to take a huge leap of faith, selecting Mathieu in the third round and 69th overall.
The team’s faith was vindicated when Mathieu performed well in training camp. In the second pre-season game, he started at safety. He immediately made an impact during the regular season, helping the Cardinals to a 10-6 record by recording 68 tackles and nabbing two interceptions. He played in 13 games before submitting to surgery last December to repair a torn ACL.
Kenbrell Thompkins played one year at the University of Cincinnati after transferring from a community college. He didn’t hear his name called in the 2013 NFL Draft, but he was signed by the New England Patriots a few weeks later. He showed off his glue-like hands in training camp, impressing members of the NFL Network who stopped by to check out how the Patriots were operating. Thompkins ran with the first-team offense during its first pre-season game. He continued to work his way up the depth chart, and in an offense where quarterback Tom Brady spread the ball every which way, Thompkins still managed to catch 32 passes for 466 yards and four touchdowns. He started eight of the 12 games in which he appeared and became a major piece of what the Patriots were trying to do on offense. He may have even cracked your fantasy football roster.