<
>

Best long-shot recruit on all 32 NFL teams

Getty Images

With national signing day approaching on Wednesday, Feb. 1 -- check out coverage all day across several ESPN networks -- we decided to take a look at under-the-radar recruits who are now thriving in the NFL.

NFL Nation reporters each picked from the team they cover a player who was under-recruited coming out of high school.

NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West
AFC East | AFC North| AFC South | AFC West

NFC EAST

Dallas Cowboys

Quarterback Tony Romo

Romo is still on the Cowboys' roster and still one of the NFL's most amazing stories ever. Coming out of Burlington, Wisconsin, he did not have any major colleges looking at him. If not for Eastern Illinois, he could have gone to Wisconsin-Whitewater or Minnesota State, or he could have played Division I college basketball. Romo made his way from undrafted free agent to the Cowboys' all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown passes. If any recruit feels slighted, he can look at Romo for inspiration. -- Todd Archer

New York Giants

Wide receiver Victor Cruz

It's hard to match the story of Cruz, an unknown with poor academics who was sent home from UMass for a semester before going undrafted. All he has done since then is make the Giants, make the Pro Bowl, win a Super Bowl and come back from one of the worst injuries (torn patellar tendon) in his knee. Cruz might not be the Pro Bowl receiver he once was, but he's still a contributor at the age of 30. He has 303 catches, 4,549 yards and 25 career touchdowns, which is far more than most expected for him coming out of Paterson, New Jersey. -- Jordan Raanan

Philadelphia Eagles

Quarterback Carson Wentz

A late growth spurt -- he says he grew 9 inches in high school -- and an injury to his throwing hand his junior year kept Wentz under the radar. Central Michigan is said to be the only FBS school that came close to offering Wentz a scholarship. Ultimately, he chose to play ball for his home state and helped lead North Dakota State to consecutive FCS national championships before being drafted No. 2 overall by the Eagles in 2016. -- Tim McManus

Washington Redskins

Quarterback Kirk Cousins

After his last game as a high school senior, Cousins had zero FBS scholarship offers. Although he was being recruited by Western Michigan and Toledo, it wasn't until Mark Dantonio was hired at Michigan State that Cousins' fortunes turned. Even then, the deal was that the Spartans would offer him a scholarship if they were turned down by higher-rated quarterbacks. Cousins will get paid handsomely this offseason, whether by the Redskins or another team, after he threw 54 touchdowns and 24 interceptions the past two years. -- John Keim

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears

Safety Harold Jones-Quartey

After earning three varsity letters at Horizon Science Academy in Columbus, Ohio, Jones-Quartey enrolled at The University of Findlay, a Division II school in Ohio. Jones-Quartey played in 43 games at Findlay (where the enrollment is around 3,700 students) and signed with the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent in May 2015. Since joining the Bears, Jones-Quartey has started 15 games and intercepted two passes. -- Jeff Dickerson

Detroit Lions

Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah

To recruiting rankings, Ansah did not exist in 2008. Coming over from Ghana, Ansah had never played football and went through stints in basketball and track at BYU before finding football. Now a Pro Bowler and one of the best defensive ends in the NFL, he might have come out of nowhere more than anyone else in the league. For more traditional purposes, safety Glover Quin is also a good pick here, as he was not rated coming out of Southwest Mississippi Community College going to New Mexico. Like Ansah, he became a Pro Bowl player. -- Michael Rothstein

Green Bay Packers

Outside linebacker Clay Matthews

Even Pete Carroll didn't know what he had in Matthews at USC -- other than that he came from a long line of Matthews football players. The current Seahawks coach was Matthews' college coach, but he didn't play the former walk-on much, other than on special teams, until his last year. During the week leading up to the 2014 NFC Championship Game, Carroll told reporters, "one of the greatest mistakes that I missed in my coaching at SC was how good a player he was." Matthews didn't become a starter until his final season was already underway. "I should have figured that out a lot sooner than I did," Carroll said. "He made the rest of it history and [has] been an extraordinary player ever since." -- Rob Demovsky

Minnesota Vikings

Wide receiver Adam Thielen

Thielen didn't register on any national recruiting services when he came out of tiny Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, and he got a rookie camp tryout from the Vikings only after an impressive career at Division II Minnesota State. But after a year on the practice squad and two as a special-teams player, Thielen led the Vikings with 967 receiving yards in 2016 and finished second on the team with five receiving touchdowns. He'll be a restricted free agent this spring and could be headed toward a significant raise. -- Ben Goessling

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons

Quarterback Matt Ryan

Ryan was a three-star recruit and the No. 34-ranked pro-style quarterback coming out of William Penn Charter High School in Philadelphia, according to 247Sports. It's safe to say Ryan did pretty well as the likely MVP this year and possibly a Super Bowl champion. "I was 170 pounds and running the triple option in high school," Ryan said. -- Vaughn McClure

Carolina Panthers

Fullback Mike Tolbert

The 5-foot-9, 247-pound back who has been nicknamed "bowling ball,'' among other things, by quarterback Cam Newton went to tiny Coastal Carolina out of high school and entered the NFL with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2008. He followed coach Ron Rivera to Carolina in 2011 and has become a three-time Pro Bowl selection (2013, '15 and '16). Although he didn't have a particularly good season, his versatility as a fullback, running back and even tight end has made him a valuable part of the offense. -- David Newton

New Orleans Saints

Quarterback Drew Brees

Brees rivals J.J. Watt for the biggest whiff on this list. Stunningly, only Purdue and Kentucky offered Brees a scholarship, even though he led Austin Westlake High School to a 16-0 record and a state title in 1996, right in the University of Texas' backyard. The two things going against Brees were his height (6-foot) and the torn ACL he suffered as a junior. But things worked out OK at Purdue, where he became the Big Ten's all-time leading passer and led the Boilermakers to the Rose Bowl. -- Mike Triplett

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Cornerback Brent Grimes

Grimes was the ultimate underdog -- unrated out of high school in Philadelphia, going to DII Shippensburg, becoming an undrafted free agent in 2006 and playing for the Hamburg Sea Devils in NFL Europe, before things clicked with the Falcons. In his 10 years in the NFL, he has been named to four Pro Bowls and led the NFL with a career-high 24 pass breakups this season, making plays on the ball against receivers towering over his 5-foot-10 frame. His 30 career interceptions are seventh among active NFL players. -- Jenna Laine

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals

Running back Chris Johnson

It's safe to say Florida State's Bobby Bowden, Miami's Larry Coker and Florida's Ron Zook all dropped the ball on this one. Johnson, an Orlando native, was a two-star recruit who did not receive a scholarship offer from any Florida school in the class of 2004. The only schools to offer Johnson were East Carolina, Connecticut and Eastern Kentucky. He went to ECU and left as one of the fastest players in NFL combine history. In his second NFL season, Johnson rushed for 2,006 yards, joining an elite group of seven running backs to pass the 2,000-yard mark. -- Josh Weinfuss

Los Angeles Rams

Defensive end William Hayes

Hayes played Division II college football at Winston-Salem State University and wasn't drafted until the fourth round. But he later blossomed into a solid defensive end and is heading into his 10th NFL season. Hayes compiled 26.5 sacks the past five years and graded out as the NFL's 17th-best edge defender in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus. -- Alden Gonzalez

San Francisco 49ers

Offensive tackle Joe Staley

Long before J.J. Watt became the best lightly recruited player to go to Central Michigan and wind up starring in the NFL, there was Staley. A two-star recruit out of Rockford (Michigan) High, Staley was as well-known for his track exploits as a sprinter (seriously, he set school records in the 200-meter dash); he was also a tight end on the football team. After arriving at Central Michigan, Staley moved to the offensive line as a sophomore and put on about 75 pounds on his way to becoming the first Chippewa taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Staley has gone on to five Pro Bowl appearances in 10 seasons with the 49ers. -- Nick Wagoner

Seattle Seahawks

Linebacker Bobby Wagner

Wagner's only scholarship offer coming out of high school was from Utah State, and he made the most of his opportunity. After a standout college career, he turned heads at the combine, and the Seahawks selected Wagner in the second round in 2012. He has made the Pro Bowl three seasons in a row and is a two-time first-team All-Pro. Wagner led the NFL and set a new franchise record with 167 tackles in 2016. -- Sheil Kapadia

AFC EAST

Buffalo Bills

Defensive end Jerry Hughes

The Bills have stocked their roster with heavily recruited prospects from major programs, but Hughes is an exception. Playing at Austin High School in Sugar Land, Texas, Hughes was not rated in 2006 by ESPN and received only two stars from Rivals.com. He chose then-Mountain West power TCU over offers from Iowa State and North Texas. In 2009, the Colts made Hughes a first-round pick, and he posted back-to-back 10-sack seasons for the Bills from 2013-14. -- Mike Rodak

Miami Dolphins

Safety Isa Abdul-Quddus

Abdul-Quddus was an undersized, under-recruited linebacker out of Union High School in New Jersey. He received walk-on invites from bigger schools but accepted a scholarship to tiny Fordham University in New York City. He moved to safety his sophomore season, and that set his path to the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2011. -- James Walker

New England Patriots

Tight end Matt Lengel

Signed off the Bengals' practice squad in early November, Lengel had just one scholarship offer -- from Northeastern University -- coming out of Cumberland Valley High School in Pennsylvania. The only options he had were from schools offering a financial-aid package, such as Lafayette. When Lengel got to Northeastern and redshirted as a freshman, Northeastern announced it was disbanding its program, so he ended up at Eastern Kentucky. -- Mike Reiss

New York Jets

Cornerback Buster Skrine

Skrine was a no-star recruit coming out of Woodstock, Georgia, in 2007, according to Rivals.com. He was listed at 5-foot-8, 148 pounds and didn't attract much major college attention. He signed with Tennessee-Chattanooga, where he excelled in man-to-man coverage and put on some weight. He became a fifth-round pick of the Browns in 2011 and later signed a five-year, $31 million contract with the Jets. -- Rich Cimini

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk

The NFL's best fullback wasn't rated coming out of high school. Juszczyk received scholarship offers from only Ivy League schools and Miami (Ohio). After playing H-back and tight end at Harvard, he was drafted in the fourth round by the Ravens as a fullback. Juszczyk was named to his first Pro Bowl after leading the position with 37 catches for 266 yards. -- Jamison Hensley

Cincinnati Bengals

Safety George Iloka

Iloka was a two-star recruit coming out of high school, where he played receiver, and he quickly committed to Boise State, the first and only team to offer him a scholarship before his senior year (he later got other offers but turned them down). Iloka said he actually had no stars prior to committing to a school. He was taken in the fifth round by the Bengals, and now he's an every-down starter for Cincinnati. -- Katherine Terrell

Cleveland Browns

Defensive back Tramon Williams

Williams did not play a sport his freshman year at Louisiana Tech; he had merely enrolled as a plain, old student. He tried out for football his second year on campus, and by the time he was a senior, he led the nation with 19 passes defensed. Williams has put together a 10-year career with Green Bay and the Browns, which includes 30 interceptions and a Pro Bowl appearance in 2010. -- Pat McManamon

Pittsburgh Steelers

Wide receiver Antonio Brown

Brown is one of the NFL's greatest success stories. Coming out of Miami Norland High, he was so lightly recruited that Rivals.com didn't rank him. Brown had no known scholarship offers as part of the 2006 high school class. Central Michigan eventually offered him after he played a year of football at a North Carolina prep school. A decade later, the 5-foot-10 Brown has earned all five of his stars. -- Jeremy Fowler

AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans

Defensive end J.J. Watt

The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was a two-star recruit who went to Central Michigan and played tight end for a season. He then decided to give up his scholarship and walk on at Wisconsin, where he worked his way to become a first-round pick while playing defense. Now he's the face of the Texans franchise and one of the league's elite defensive players. -- Sarah Barshop

Indianapolis Colts

Safety Mike Adams

Schools such as Oklahoma and Pittsburgh showed a tiny bit of interest in the undersized safety out of Passaic Tech (New Jersey) High School. Adams ended up at Delaware and signed with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent. He spent part of his rookie season on the 49ers' practice squad before being elevated to the active roster. The 35-year-old Adams has played 13 seasons, appeared in a Super Bowl with Denver and made back-to-back Pro Bowls with the Colts. -- Mike Wells

Jacksonville Jaguars

Tight end Julius Thomas

Thomas wasn't recruited as a football player out of high school; instead, he attended Portland State to play basketball. He walked on to the football team as a senior and caught 29 passes for 453 yards and two TDs. Despite that lack of experience, Denver banked on his potential and drafted him in the fourth round. After he caught just one pass in his first two seasons, he caught 108 for 1,277 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2013-14 and was rewarded in free agency with a big contract (five years, $46 million, $24 million guaranteed) from the Jaguars. He has 76 catches for 736 yards and nine TDs in two seasons with Jacksonville but has missed 11 games because of injuries. -- Mike DiRocco

Tennessee Titans

Offensive tackle Jack Conklin

Conklin earned a spot on the All-Pro team after an excellent rookie season, which becomes even more amazing when you consider that he was not offered a single scholarship to play football coming out of Plainwell (Michigan) High School. He didn't put on weight or move to offensive line from fullback and tight end until later in high school, and he was ready to go to Fork Union (Virginia) Military Academy to buy another year to get recruited. But Michigan State struck a deal with him. He walked on, and after a good first year, the Spartans delivered the promised scholarship. -- Paul Kuharsky

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos

Cornerback Chris Harris Jr.

Harris, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, likes to joke he "had one offer to play in college and one offer to come to the NFL." Coming out of high school in Bixby, Oklahoma, Harris said he received only one offer -- from Kansas. When it came time to move to the NFL, Harris went undrafted in 2011, largely because he had voluntarily moved to safety to help a struggling defense. He was the last undrafted rookie the Broncos signed that year, and he got the bonus money the Broncos had left at that moment. The rest is history for one of the team's core players and one of the most gifted, prepared and skilled players at his position in the league. -- Jeff Legwold

Kansas City Chiefs

Offensive tackle Eric Fisher

Fisher's best scholarship offer in the class of 2009 was from Central Michigan, not far from his home in the Detroit area. In his time with the Chippewas, Fisher developed into one of the best in the country at his position. He was drafted No. 1 overall by the Chiefs in 2013 and has been a starter at left tackle for the past three years. -- Adam Teicher

Los Angeles Chargers

Wide receiver Tyrell Williams

The speedy receiver played at Division II Western Oregon because no Division I school offered him a scholarship out of Cascade High in Salem, Oregon. The same thing happened for Williams in his entry to the NFL. Even though he ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds at his pro day, Williams was not drafted, and he signed with the Chargers as an undrafted rookie in 2015. Fast-forward to the 2016 season, and Williams proved doubters wrong by leading the Chargers in receptions (69) and receiving yards (1,059) and recording seven receiving TDs. -- Eric D. Williams

Oakland Raiders

Offensive tackle Donald Penn

Undrafted out of Utah State, quarterback Derek Carr's blindside protector was named to his second Pro Bowl this season. Penn gave up only one sack all season, but it was a big one -- the one in which Carr suffered a broken right leg. One game later, Penn suffered a knee injury and missed the Raiders' playoff game at Houston, which was the first game Penn missed in his career. But enough glass-half-empty nuggets. Penn caught the fourth touchdown pass of his career this season at the home of his former team, the Buccaneers. -- Paul Gutierrez