Some of the most productive players in Buccaneer history have come to the team via the ranks of the undrafted. Check out photos of the top 10 free agent finds in Bucs history.
In May of 1990, the Minnesota Vikings took a chance on John Randle, an undersized defensive tackle out of Texas A&M-Kingsville whose older brother, Ervin, was a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Unlike Ervin, John had gone undrafted after his college career and was just looking for a way to get his foot in the door.
Twenty years and three months later, John Randle was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, largely on the strength of 11 seasons in Minnesota during which he racked up 114 sacks. Obviously, that makes his signing by the Vikings one of the most astute post-draft roster moves of all time.
Finding a player after the draft who will have an impact as large as Randle's is extremely difficult, of course. There are 295 people in the Hall of Fame and only 15 of those are players who entered the NFL as undrafted free agents. Only three of those began their careers after the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. On the other hand, it is not at all uncommon to uncover an undrafted player who can help your team; for the Buccaneers, the latest example is defensive end Jacquies Smith, who came out of nowhere to record 6.5 sacks last season.
The Buccaneers have no undrafted-finds-turned-Hall-of-Famers in their history (yet). All three of their enshrinees so far have been former first-round picks (Lee Roy Selmon, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks). Nevertheless, the team has a rich history of uncovering valuable contributors in the hours, weeks or months after the last draft pick is called.
Below is one man's opinion of the top 10 Undrafted Free Agent Finds in Buccaneer History. To qualify for this list, a player has to enter the league as an undrafted free agent (obviously) and has to have seen his first regular-season NFL action as a Buccaneer. This allows us to broaden the scope a little bit to include a couple players who originally signed with another team but really caught their first breaks in Tampa.
10. RB/KR Clifton SmithNFL Origins: Signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of Fresno State in 2008
I could be starting the list with a somewhat controversial pick, as Clifton Smith played only two seasons and 20 games as a Buccaneer. Those totals are far lower most of the other players on this list, as well as such honorable mentions (full list below) as Ryan Nece and George Yarno.
The culprit, of course, was injuries. If not for some unfortunate and repeated luck in that category, Smith probably would have enjoyed a lengthy stay as the Buccaneers' kick return specialist. Because, though he only got to play 24 games in his NFL career (he had brief stays in Miami and Cleveland in 2010), he was absolutely dynamic when he was on the field. Before his injuries, Smith looked like he might be able to carve out a career similar to that of the Kansas City Chiefs' Dante Hall.
Smith and Hall were of similar build, both about 5-8 but solid. Smith's size kept him from being drafted, and in fact he didn't immediately sign with any NFL team in the days after the '08 draft. He eventually accepted an invitation to the Bucs' rookie camp on a tryout contract, and that led to a shot in training camp. When other options – most notably failed second-round pick Dexter Jackson – failed to pan out for the Bucs in the return game, they called up Smith and watched him take the league by storm.
Smith averaged 27.6 yards per kickoff return and 14.1 yards per punt return as a rookie and became the first Buccaneer to score on both types of runbacks in the same season. His kick return average jumped to 29.1 yards per attempt in his second season, but he was limited to 11 games. After his rookie campaign, he became the first Buccaneer return man to make the Pro Bowl, and just the third undrafted rookie to earn that honor in league annals.
9. RB LeGarrette BlountNFL Origins: Signed with the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent out of Oregon in 2010; waived by Tennessee on September 5, 2010 and claimed by the Buccaneers
Like Smith, Blount made a very fast and very impressive bid for this list upon arriving in Tampa, but only comes in near the bottom because his tenure with the team was relatively short.
The Bucs still had Cadillac Williams, who had enjoyed a mild renaissance in 2009, heading into the 2010 season, as well as Earnest Graham. It would be the running back picked up just days before the opener, however, who would prove to be the primary ballcarrier.
It didn't look like it would turn out that way at first. Blount played in only one September game and had only 10 carries to his name through five weeks. But he got a shot against St. Louis in Week Six and helped the Bucs eke out a one-point win with 72 yards on just 11 carries. The following week, he took over in the backfield and broke out with a 120-yard, two-touchdown performance that included the first of his signature hurdle-a-defender-in-mid-stride gallops. The Bucs won in a shootout, 38-35.
The job was Blount's from there on out, and he used a very strong December (three 100-yard games) to cross 1,000 yards, an incredible milestone for an undrafted rookie and a September waiver claim. He had somewhat diminishing returns in his second season in Tampa, with 781 yards and five scores, then was essentially shelved in 2012 for the next rookie phenom, Doug Martin. The Bucs released him after that season.
8. DE Michael BennettNFL Origins: Signed with Seattle as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M in 2009; made the Seahawks' roster but did not appear in any games before being waived on October 10 and claimed by the Buccaneers.
Bennett first hit the NFL in Seattle in '09 and won a Super Bowl ring with the Seahawks after the 2013 season, but it was in Tampa that he actually secured his NFL footing. After being picked up by the Bucs midway through his rookie season, Bennett appeared in 20 games over the next season-and-a-half but did not make an enormous impact.
In 2011, however, he began his breakout, moving into the starting lineup for much of the season and picking up four sacks while also proving very good against the run. He was an unquestioned started heading into 2012 and that allowed him to turn in what remains his best sack season as a pro, with nine QB takedowns.
Perhaps concerned by a couple injuries in his past, the Buccaneers did not re-sign Bennett when he became an unrestricted free agent in 2013 and he ended up back with the Seahawks. Though it's obviously not to the Bucs' benefit any longer, Bennett has put up two fine seasons in the Northwest, showing why Tampa Bay thought he had untapped potential when he hit the waiver wire in 2009.
7. T Demar DotsonNFL Origins: Signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi in 2009.
Demar Dotson's football career has been on a slow and steady upward trajectory ever since he first decided to branch out from the hardwood near the end of his time at Southern Miss.
After two seasons as a light-footed big man for the Golden Eagles' basketball team, Dotson was finally talked into tackling football during his final year at the school, in 2009. Southern Miss tried him on the defensive line and he got just a brief bit of action, appearing in six games with one start. Still, it was enough to pique the Bucs' interest, who still saw that big man with good feet and thought he could thrive on the other side of the line.
Dotson cleared the first hurdle, making the active roster out of the preseason. Given that he was essentially starting from scratch, it was no surprise that he saw infrequent action, appearing in nine games and being named inactive for the other seven. He then spent the 2010 season on injured reserve, but that would prove to be his last career plateau. Dotson came back strong in 2011 and became an oft-used reserve, then ascended to the starting lineup very early in 2012, replacing incumbent right tackle Jeremy Trueblood.
In 2013, Dotson quietly ranked as one of the league's best right tackles, starting every game. Last year, he made what could be the beginning of another career ascension, moving over to left tackle for the last three games of the season. Dotson has 70 games played and 49 starts for the Buccaneers and is still going strong; that is a very good find on the undrafted market.
6. K Michael HustedNFL Origins: Signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of Virginia in 1993.
Lots and lots of successful NFL kickers and punters – probably the majority of them – begin their careers as undrafted players. Still, among the most accomplished kickers in Buccaneer annals, Husted almost stands alone in that category.
Martin Gramatica, the team's all-time leading scorer, was a third-round pick in 1999. Donald Igwebuike, fifth on that scoring chart, was a 10th-round pick. Matt Bryant and Connor Barth – fourth and sixth, respectively – both kicked for other NFL teams before landing in Tampa. Steve Christie signed with the Buccaneers straight out of college and was very good for two seasons, but then left for Buffalo via Plan B free agency and is only 13th on the team's scoring chart.
Husted was the Bucs' all-time leading scorer before Gramatica's arrival, and he remains second on the list, as those are the only two in the team's record books with more than 500 points. He arrived with little fanfare, as do most rookie kickers, but came to Tampa at a particularly good time. After unexpectedly losing Christie before the '92 season, the Bucs tried to replace him with young kicker Ken Willis but eventually called in ageless veteran Eddie Murray to take over.
Murray came back to camp the following summer, and the Bucs also drafted kicker/punter hybrid Daron Alcorn and brought in another young kicker named Tracy Bennett. Husted out-kicked them all and went straight from undrafted rookie to kicking in the NFL.
He would hold onto the job for an impressive six seasons before the Bucs drafted Gramatica, then see a little time afterward in Kansas City, Oakland and Washington. As a Buccaneer, he converted on 71.0% of his field goal tries and scored 502 points. He also hit a 57-yard field goal against Oakland late in his rookie career that set a team record and remained the club's longest until Matt Bryant's memorable 62-yarder in 2006.
5. DE Ray SealsNFL Origins: Signed by the Buccaneers as a free agent after spending several years playing semi-pro football in Syracuse; did not attend college.
Actually, Ray Seals is in the Hall of Fame…the American Football Association's Semi Pro Football Hall of Fame, that is. That's a nod to his unusual path to the NFL, as he's one of a very small handful of men to make the league without attending college. The Bucs have just three such players in their four-decade past, and the other two are kicker/punters.
Seals first got a call from the Buccaneers in November of 1987 but it took him quite a while to really establish an NFL foothold. He spent the 1988 season on injured reserve and then wasn't protected by the Bucs in Plan B free agency. Though he did get a tryout in Washington after that, Seals didn't sign anywhere else and eventually returned to the Bucs in September of '89. He played 10 games over the next two seasons for the Bucs and even spent some time in Detroit and Indy, but was back for the Bucs in 1991 for his breakout season.
Over the next three years, Seals would start 28 games and rack up 14.5 sacks, topped by a team-high 8.5 in 1993. Seals was then signed by Pittsburgh, where he started for two seasons and played in Super Bowl XXX, putting up 15.5 more sacks for the Steelers. He finished in 1997 with one year in Carolina, starting seven games. Seals might have been higher on this list if those last three years were in Tampa, but considering where the Bucs found him this was one of the most impressive signings in team history.
4. WR/KR Karl Williams
Buccaneer trivia pop quiz: Name all the wide receivers in team history who played in more games than Karl "The Truth" Williams.
Trick question; there are none. An undrafted free agent out of little Texas A&M-Kingsville in 1996, Williams came to Tampa the same year as new Head Coach Tony Dungy. He wasn't the biggest or fastest receiver in camp, but he quickly impressed with his sharp route-running and veteran-like approach to the game.
It was Williams' work on kick returns that got him his first significant playing time, and also the main thing that kept him around long enough to win a Super Bowl ring. Like Smith, Williams would first inherit the return job late in his rookie season and make an instant impact. He averaged 21.1 yards on 13 punts and 27.4 yards on 14 kickoffs, while also becoming just the second player in team history to score on any kind of kick return. In the process, he earned two NFC Special Teams Player of the Week awards and one NFC Special Teams Rookie of the Month honor.
Williams found the end zone on punt returns once in five of his first seven seasons; he accounts for nearly half of the 11 punt return scores in franchise annals. He is also the Bucs' all-time leader in punt return yards, with 2,279.
In his second season, Williams put up the biggest receiving numbers of his career, with 33 catches for 486 yards and four touchdowns, including a memorable fourth-down catch-and-run for a touchdown against Arizona that preserved the team's five-game season-opening winning streak. In his eight years in Tampa, he contributed 155 catches for 1,897 yards and seven TDs.
3. RB Earnest GrahamNFL Origins: Signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of Florida in 2003.
Earnest Graham arrived in Tampa in '03 but got hurt in camp and was waived with an injury settlement. Once the proscribed amount of time had passed by league rules and Graham was healthy again, the Bucs brought him back to the practice squad in November, and that's where he started out in 2004 as well. He finally got promoted to the active roster in October of that year, beginning an eight-year run that would make him one of the most popular players among Buccaneer fans.
Thanks to a string of strong preseason performances, Graham was dubbed "Mr. August" by Head Coach Jon Gruden, who meant it as a compliment. For the first three seasons of his career, however, Graham would toil almost exclusively as a special teamer, getting a total of 52 carries from 2004-06.
In 2007, injuries to Michael Pittman and Cadillac Williams opened the door for Graham to final get a chance to show he could excel in non-summer months. He made the most of it; in 15 games and only 10 starts, Graham racked up 898 yards and 10 touchdowns, while also catching 49 passes. He ran for another 563 yards and four scores in 2008.
With Williams returning to health and the Bucs' favoring a rotation of backs, Graham's role evolved into that of a fullback for portions of the next three years, and he handled that job well and without complaint. His unbreakable team-first attitude and willingness to take on – and excel in – any job presented to him extended his career and eventually earned him a better nickname: Earnest "Insurance" Graham.
2. T Donald PennNFL Origins: Signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent out of Utah State in 2006; signed off the Vikings' practice squad in October of '06 by the Buccaneers.
The league as a whole clearly whiffed on Donald Penn in 2006, because it's difficult to find quality left tackles after the first few rounds of the draft, let alone among those left undrafted. Penn has played much of his NFL career with a chip on his shoulder, presumably due to being passed over as a rookie, and it has served him well.
The Vikings saw enough in Penn to keep him around after the 2006 preseason, but by putting him on the practice squad they exposed him to any other team coming along to sign him to its active roster. That's exactly what Tampa Bay did to add depth after starting right tackle Kenyatta Walker went down in Week Three with a season-ending injury.
Penn was inactive for the last 13 games of his rookie season, but it was another injury almost exactly a year after his arrival that gave him a chance to start. And when he seized that chance, he decided not to let go for the next eight years.
Penn stepped in at left tackle in Game Four of the 2007 season after a season-ending knee injury suffered by free agent acquisition Luke Petitgout in Carolina. Penn made his first start the following Sunday in Indianapolis, and that began a streak of 108 consecutive starts at that critical spot for the Buccaneers. The streak was only broken when Penn was released following the 2013 season, after which he signed with Oakland and kept his personal run of starts going for another 16 last fall.
Penn was a standout performer for a good portion of those eight years, as well, particularly when he made the Pro Bowl after the 2010 season. Tampa Bay missed the playoffs that year despite winning games, but the offense was strong, with Josh Freeman throwing 25 touchdowns against six interceptions and LeGarrette Blount cracking 1,000 yards. Penn anchored a front line that made that output possible.
1. LB Shelton QuarlesNFL Origins: Signed with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt in 1994; subsequently played two seasons for the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League before signing with the Buccaneers in March of 1997.
Pro Football Reference employs a catch-all rating tool called Approximate Value (AV), which like WAR in baseball can describe the worth of any player's particular season but also accumulates during his career. Derrick Brooks is the Bucs' all-time leader in AV with a mark of 190.
Shelton Quarles ranks 11th on that list, with an AV of 66. Of the 10 players above him, six came into the league as first-round picks, and the rest of the list is one each from the second, third, fourth and fifth rounds. Quarles, of course, was undrafted, yet he managed to put his name among the franchise's all-time greats.
Quarles admits that he didn't take the right attitude into his first NFL shot in Miami, that he took the opportunity for granted. After two (very good) years in the CFL and even some time working in a printing press back in Tennessee, he finally caught the eye of another NFL team and this time he didn't let the opportunity pass.
The Bucs knew they had something in Quarles as soon as they got him into training camp. In his very first season in Tampa he emerged as the team's best player on special teams, leading the team with 16 kick-coverage stops. He was the team leader in that category the next two years, as well, peaking with a team-record 31 tackles in 1999.
It was in '99 that Quarles also moved into the starting lineup, taking over at strongside linebacker and becoming part of one of the best defenses in franchise history. He would hold onto that job – which was a revolving door before and after he filled it – until 2002. It was then that the Buccaneers, having moved on from Hardy Nickerson and then Jamie Duncan, got the idea to put Quarles in the middle. All he did in his new starting spot was earn his first Pro Bowl berth and help the Buccaneers roll all the way to the Super Bowl championship.
Quarles would play all 10 of his NFL seasons for the Buccaneers, appearing in 148 games with 113 starts. He is the fourth-leading tackler in franchise history, with 985 stops, and simply the best example of how the Bucs have been able to find strong contributors among the always-promising ranks of undrafted players.