Not every NFL Hall of Famer was a top-10 NFL draft pick, and not every Pro Bowler was selected in the first round. In fact, the talent that comes out of the second half of the NFL draft seems to keep getting better year after year as the draft has evolved into a yearlong competition for teams to outscout one another.
Everyone knows that Tom Brady went a few picks — 198 to be exact — too late back in 2000, but what about the other sleepers from schools across the country? Here are the biggest sleeper prospects — defined as taken in the third round or later — in the history of each team in Mark Schlabach’s Way-Too-Early Top 25.
The Tigers have a strong list of later-round picks who’ve blossomed into excellent pros, from receiver Jimmy Orr, who made two Pro Bowls after being taken in the 25th round in 1957 to tailback Terry Allen (ninth round, 1990) to Grady Jarrett (fifth round, 2015) but there’s one obvious answer here: Dwight Clark. Anyone who’s taken in the 10th round (in 1979), makes two Pro Bowls, leads the league in receptions once, has an 1,100-yard season and finishes his career with 6,800 yards from scrimmage has provided some serious value. But Clark’s impact is far bigger than that. He was on the receiving end of “The Catch” from Joe Montana, one of the most iconic plays in NFL history and a moment that kicked off the 49ers’ dynasty in the 1980s. Not too shabby for a 10th-rounder. — David M. Hale
It’s hard to blame NFL scouts for getting Bart Starr so wrong. His career at Alabama was underwhelming to say the least. A back injury limited him his junior season, and he barely played as a senior. Still, the Green Bay Packers were interested and took a flier on the Montgomery native in the 17th round in 1956. Starr blossomed into a four-time Pro Bowler, an MVP and a multiple Super Bowl winner. — Alex Scarborough
Despite the Sooners’ dominance in college football, OU has just two players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — Lee Roy Selmon and Tommy McDonald. Selmon was drafted No. 1 in 1976, but McDonald wasn’t picked until the third round in 1957. He was a 5-foot-9, 175-pound receiver who went on to become one of the NFL’s best ever at that point, ranking sixth in catches, fourth in receiving yards and second in TD catches for his career when he retired in 1962 after making six Pro Bowls. — Dave Wilson
There are a few options to choose from, whether it’s Fran Tarkenton, Hines Ward or even Herschel Walker. The Cowboys technically used a fifth-round pick to secure Walker’s rights while he played in the USFL. But the choice here is another former Bulldogs running back: Terrell Davis. Maybe it was the threat of injuries and a lackluster senior season, but Davis fell all the way to the 1995 sixth round, where he was selected by the Broncos. He immediately rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a rookie and then made the All-Pro Team each of the next three seasons, winning Super Bowls in the 1997 and 1998 seasons. — Scarborough
There’s one incredibly strong option here that I won’t use, and it’s Cris Carter, who was taken in the fourth round of the supplemental draft back in 1987. Since we’re keeping it to the regular draft, Jim Tyrer is an easy pick for the Buckeyes, who don’t have many players who get slept on in modern times. Tyrer was selected by the Bears in the 14th round (No. 188 overall) of the 1961 draft. He played the majority of his career with Kansas City, where he was All-AFL eight times, a two-time Pro Bowler, two-time All-Pro, three-time AFL champion and Super Bowl IV champion. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Shane Lechler, a fifth-rounder, could be the greatest punter in NFL history, but that’s actually a high pick for a punter, so we’re going to exclude that on a technicality. It’s hard to argue with Lester Hayes, the 6-2, 200-pound safety drafted in the fifth round in 1977. Converted to corner with the Oakland Raiders, he became a true shutdown cover man, went to five Pro Bowls, and was first-team All-Pro and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1980 when he had 13 interceptions and the Raiders won the Super Bowl. He also wore so much Stickum on his person that the NFL banned it the next year, calling it the Lester Hayes Rule. So there’s that. — Wilson
You have to go back a ways to find a real steal from North Carolina, but there’s little doubt that Washington hit a home run when it nabbed linebacker Chris Hanburger in the 18th round at pick No. 245 in 1965. Hanburger spent time in the Army before enrolling at UNC, where he played on both sides of the ball, starring as a center on offense (where he was named All-ACC twice) but developing as a pro prospect at linebacker. Hanburger went on to play 14 seasons in Washington, making nine Pro Bowls. He finished his career with 19 interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries and was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 2011. — Hale
Clyde Shugart was part of Iowa State’s first NFL draft class in 1939, and he turned out to be a steal for Washington. Selected No. 158 overall (17th round), Shugart played six seasons for Washington and never missed a game. He earned back-to-back Pro Bowl selections in 1941 and 1942, participated in three NFL championship games and helped Washington to an NFL title in 1942. Shugart, who blocked for quarterback Sammy Baugh and others, also was a second-team All-Pro in 1943. Inducted into Iowa State’s Hall of Fame in 2004, Shugart helped Iowa State to a 7-1-1 record in 1938. — Adam Rittenberg
After a three-year career at USC in which he played both quarterback and defensive back, Willie Wood went undrafted in 1960 before signing as a free agent with the Green Bay Packers as a defensive back. Over a 12-year NFL career, Wood played in eight Pro Bowls, helped the Packers win the first two Super Bowls and was named to the NFL’s 1960s all-decade team. In 1989, Wood became the fifth USC player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That list has since grown to 13, which is tied for the most among college programs. — Kyle Bonagura
Trent Green is the easy choice for the Hoosiers here. Drafted in the eighth round of the 1993 NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers, he didn’t see much NFL action until the 1998 season for Washington, when he threw for 3,441 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 11 picks. He then infamously suffered a season-ending knee injury in a preseason game with the Rams in 1999, allowing Kurt Warner’s NFL career to bloom. Green would end up having success in Kansas City, where he went to a pair of Pro Bowls in the 2003 and 2005 seasons. — Lyles
Travis Kelce played only three seasons at Cincinnati, but his senior season was one to remember. Kelce had 722 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on 45 receptions. He was a first-team all-conference selection that season and was then taken in the third round, No. 63 overall, by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2013 NFL draft. All he has done since is win a Super Bowl, make the Pro Bowl six times, catch for 1,416 yards in one season, which was the most by a tight end, and make the All-Pro team three times. — Tom VanHaaren
George Kittle is the clear choice here, recency bias be damned. After a mostly quiet Iowa career — 48 receptions, 737 yards, 10 touchdowns — Kittle went to San Francisco in the fifth round (No. 146 overall) of the 2017 draft. He has become one of the league’s most exciting players, earning All-Pro honors in 2019 (first team) and 2018 (second team) before an injury-shortened 2020 season. Kittle has 264 receptions for 3,579 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first four pro seasons, while averaging 13.6 yards per reception. He set an NFL regular-season record for most receiving yards by a tight end in his first three seasons with 2,945. Former Iowa defensive back Merton Hanks also was a fifth-round pick by the 49ers. He went on to reach four Pro Bowls and twice earn first-team All-Pro honors. — Rittenberg
In a three-year record-breaking college career for the Ducks, Dan Fouts established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in college football. However, in the 1973 NFL draft, Fouts lasted until the third round and was the fifth quarterback off the board. In a 15-year career with the Chargers, he threw for 43,040 yards and was named the NFL MVP in 1982. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. — Bonagura
Warren Moon played three years at Washington after transferring from West Los Angeles College and led the Huskies to the Pac-8 title and a win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl in the 1977 season. At the time, Black quarterbacks received few chances to play in the NFL, and Moon was not invited to the NFL combine. He was told he needed to switch positions, but instead he opted to play quarterback in Canada, where an impressive six-year run finally led to a shot in the NFL. A 17-year NFL career followed, which was culminated by Moon’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. — Bonagura
In the 1979 NFL draft, there were 81 players, including three quarterbacks, selected before the San Francisco 49ers picked quarterback Joe Montana out of Notre Dame. He was taken with the last pick in the third round after seeing Jack Thompson from Washington State, Phil Simms from Morehead State and Steve Fuller out of Clemson all go in the first round. Montana, of course, went on to have a Hall of Fame career for the 49ers and eventually played for the Chiefs. He won four Super Bowls, was the Super Bowl MVP three times and made the Pro Bowl eight times, and he threw for 40,551 yards and 273 touchdowns with a career completion percentage of 62.3. — VanHaaren
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