ESPN.com released a list of the best undrafted players in each NFL club's history on Tuesday, nominated by each team's respective ESPN beat writer. Tampa Bay's Jenna Laine chose former Buccaneers' linebacker and current Director of Football Operations Shelton Quarles as the Buccaneers' pick.
As is the case with many undrafted free agents coming out of college, Quarles' path to his successful 10-year playing career and title of Super Bowl Champion was in no way a straight line. This is the story of how a kid from Vanderbilt went from undrafted rookie to one of the most notable linebackers in Buccaneers' history.
Quarles first entered the league with the Miami Dolphins after going undrafted in the 1994 NFL Draft. He was cut from the team before the season after he let some media hype get the best of him, as he puts it.
"I started reading my press clippings and started to believe in myself a little bit too much," Quarles said. "Now, athletically I was fine on the field, but it was the off the field stuff that I had issues with. I was burning the candle at both ends."
That experience would lead Quarles to a stint in the Canadian Football League before getting his chance in the NFL yet again with another Florida team.
"When I had the opportunity to come [to the Bucs] after being in the CFL, it was welcomed," Quarles said. "I can remember coming in for the workout and there were about four linebackers that day and three of the guys had prior relationships with our linebacker coach at the time, Lovie Smith. I was the only one who didn't, so I felt like they had a leg up on me from that.
"I thought, 'this isn't going to work out but I'm going to go out there and give it my all.'"
Lovie Smith ended up being instrumental in Quarles' transition and success with the Bucs, taking an interest in the young linebacker from the start.
"They all had flights out before my flight departed so I was still at the facility," Quarles said of the other three linebackers in that initial workout at One Buc. "[Lovie Smith] brought me into the locker room – he said let's leave my office, these walls have ears, let's go into the locker room where I know that nobody can hear what we're talking about. He's like, 'I love what you did on the field, I think you have an opportunity to play for us, when could you be back if we were to sign you?'
"I said, 'Coach, I don't have to leave.'"
Quarles would return shortly after for the Bucs' offseason program and ended up leading the team that year in offseason workouts.
"From that point on, I never left the facility," Quarles said. "I was the first one in, last one out, I did extra on the field every day. I just knew I wanted to put myself in the best possible situation."
He continued with the team through Training Camp, and fought through the brutal Florida heat, sometimes needing 3-4 bags of IV fluids after practices. His work ethic didn't go unnoticed.
"I was worried about getting that phone call on that last day of cut downs but I never received it."
It was Smith again that would call Quarles over following the end of camp, telling Quarles what he saw in workouts was what he needed to see and asked if he would like to be a member of the team.
It would take a couple years before Quarles would start. In 1999, after two linebackers went down on the strong side right before the last preseason game, Smith told Quarles that he was needed as a strong-side linebacker - a position he had only cross-trained in the offseason at. He willingly stepped in, though, and ended up impressing Smith yet again.
"After that game, he came to me and said are you ready to be a starter for us?" Quarles said.
Quarles would set the team record of 31 special teams tackles that year in addition to starting every game. His Buccaneers' career would end up spanning 10 seasons where he racked up 682 combined tackles, 13.0 sacks and four interceptions.
"It was just a constant progression of me believing in myself and putting myself in the best possible position and just knowing that as long as I did my best, they would see it," Quarles said. "And the rest is history."
"Shelton Quarles didn't just go from an undrafted free agent to a starter for the Bucs -- he became a pillar for one of the top defenses in NFL history," ESPN's Jenna Laine said of why she ultimately settled on Quarles for her pick. "People will point to Hall of Famers Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp, Ronde Barber, John Lynch and Simeon Rice as the key cogs on that Super Bowl-winning team, but Quarles' combination of intelligence and athleticism at the middle linebacker spot made him an essential piece of that defense."
Quarles now serves as the Buccaneers' Director of Football Operations, a position he's held since 2013.