Some teams find Undrafted Rook Free Agents (URFA) and other teams don’t. Fans need to know what to look for in URFAs and how you can tell if your team is a Pittsburgh Steeler type scouting team or that of the Cleveland Browns.
The thing that makes a URFA become a contributor is one great quality. After the 2nd round, every player has holes in his game or danger signals from his past. From the 65th pick on, the secret to success is finding players that have at least one outstanding quality.
Exhibit 1—Fast Willie Parker RB URFA Pittsburgh
Parker came out of North Carolina with an insignificant college career (84 att 355 yrd). He was not used more by Coach Bunting because he thought the back needed to “bulk up.” But the Steelers saw one outstanding ability—speed. They signed him but he did not start his first year. All he has done since is rush for nearly 5,000 yards in 4 years as a starter. He holds the longest run in Super Bowl history and has helped the Steelers win 2 championships in his time as a starter.
Exhibit 2—James Harrison LB URFA Pittsburgh
Harrison didn’t light things up as quickly as Parker. He was a pass rusher at Kent State. When he was signed by the Steelers in 02, he was very green and had a great deal of trouble converting from DE to OLB. He struggled in pass coverage and was cut. He played in Europe in 03 and began to round out his game. He was resigned by the Steelers in 04 due to an injury to a key LB. When LB Joey Porter got involved in a pre-game altercation with Cleveland’s William Green, Harrison got his first start. From that time until 2007 he was a regular part of the rotation and became a star on special teams.
New head coach Mike Tomlin cut Porter and made Harrison the starter in 07. After the 2008 season, Harrison was voted the Defensive Player of the Year and an interception returned for a touchdown that was the key play in the Super Bowl. Not bad for a URFA.
Exhibit 3—Kurt Warner QB St. Louis (now Arizona)
The quality that brought Warner to the attention of the Rams staff was accuracy and quick release. He was a backup at Northern Iowa until his senior year. he won the Gateway Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year as a starter but did not get drafted. It was his performance in Arena football and in NFL Europe that earned him a spot on the Rams roster. In 1998 he lead NFLE in passing yardage and touchdowns. In a 1999 preseason game starting QB Trent Green was injured and put on IR. Warner started for a seriously flawed team and led them to a win in the Super Bowl. He had one of the greatest seasons in NFL history that included 4,353 passing yards, 41 touchdown passes and a completion rate of 65.1%. He has the top 3 passing games in Super Bowl history.
Exhibit 4—Donnie Shell S Pittsburgh 1974-1987
Pittsburgh saw Shell at South Carolina State while scouting team mate LB prospect Harry Carson. Shell had one outstanding quality—he was always around the football. He was too small, not particularly fast, but had outstanding football instincts. Even though the draft was 17 rounds back then, he went undrafted. He started for the Steelers for 14 seasons and got 51 interceptions and was a 5 time all pro selection. He was part of the Steel Curtain defense that helped the team win 4 Super Bowls during his career.
So watch the players that your favorite teams sign as URFAs. Maybe one of them can make my list the next time I discuss great players that were never drafted.
That’s what I think. Tell me what you think.
Bill Smith is a former coach of several semi-pro teams, has officiated both football and basketball, done color on radio for college football and basketball and has scouted talent. He is a senior writer for and edits https://fryingpansports.com. He has also published several novels on and edits .