Would it stun anyone if Raheem Mostert was a key player in Super Bowl LIV? After all, Mostert was the unlikely hero of the San Francisco 49ers’ NFC championship game win over the Green Bay Packers with 220 yards rushing and four TDs.
Super Bowls historically have provided massive stages for unexpected heroes. That’s why suggesting that the 49ers or Kansas City Chiefs could receive surprisingly big contributions from players such as Mostert, Damien Williams, Emmanuel Moseley, Daniel Sorensen, K’Waun Williams or Charvarius Ward isn’t that big a stretch.
God forbid if something happened to either star quarterback in this game, the teams do have pretty reliable backup QBs just in case.
Nick Mullens wasn’t called on this season but was a more-than-capable eight-game starter a year ago after Garoppolo suffered a torn ACL. When Mahomes missed two games with a knee injury, 35-year-old Matt Moore stepped in quite capably. Either backup in theory could become the most unexpected Super Bowl hero imaginable.
So what do all these unsung players all have in common? None of them were drafted into the NFL.
Yes, many of the star players who will take the field were draft picks once upon a time. Patrick Mahomes and Jimmy Garoppolo were first- and second-round picks, respectively. All six of the Chiefs’ Pro Bowlers, plus their five alternates, were drafted. The 49ers’ four Pro Bowlers, plus seven of their eight later alternates (including the kicker and punter), were drafted.
But this is a league made up of a huge chunk of undrafted players, which is why the post-draft mad scramble to sign those players to contracts is considered such an important phase of the roster-building process in NFL scouting departments.
At the start of the 2019 season, nearly 31 percent of all players on Opening Day 53-man rosters were undrafted — a higher percentage than the number of first- and second-round picks combined.
2019 NFL Rosters by Original Draft Slot— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) September 3, 2019
Rd 1- 14.3%
Rd 2- 11.0%
Rd 3- 11.1%
Rd 4- 9.9%
Rd 5- 8.6%
Rd 6- 8.4%
Rd 7- 5.7%
A look back at just the past 10 Super Bowls shows that it’s more likely than not that one of these teams’ undrafted contributors will end up having a huge say on Sunday’s outcome. Here are some of the more notable undrafted heroes from recent Super Bowl history.
Super Bowl LIII: New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Rams
Patriots punter Ryan Allen
For years now, the Patriots have been among the biggest proponents of undrafted free agents. Bill Belichick has opted to keep at least one undrafted rookie on every opening 53-man roster since 2004, with a total of 34 making the team out of preseason in that span. (Here’s the list through the 2018 season.)
The Patriots’ most recent Super Bowl-winning team featured three former undrafted players in the secondary (Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson and Brandon King), starting center David Andrews, starters at fullback (James Develin) and wide receiver (Chris Hogan) and a key contributor on the defensive line (Adam Butler).
But that list also included the Patriots’ former punter, Ryan Allen, who might have turned in the game of his life in the defensive struggle known as LIII.
Allen landed three of his five punts inside the Los Angeles 10-yard line, forcing the Rams to begin those drives at their own 6-, 7- and 2-yard lines. He also smashed 53- and 42-yard punts that flipped field position and allowed the Patriots’ defense to take over the game. There was even talk late into the game that Allen — and not Tom Brady or Julian Edelman — was just as warranted as the game’s MVP.
So how did the Patriots reward Allen’s quietly huge performance? By trading up to draft his eventual replacement, Jake Bailey, a few months later. Go figure.
Super Bowl LII: Philadelphia Eagles vs. Patriots
Eagles RBs LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement
Nick Foles was the big story on this night, destroying the Patriots’ defense in the 41-33 victory, and he had a hand from undrafted Trey Burton, who threw Foles the “Philly Special” pass that set the football world on fire. But two other undrafted offensive contributors also torched the Pats in different but important ways.
Blount got payback against his former team (the one that benched him in the Super Bowl the year before after he fumbled) by rushing 14 times for 90 yards, including a 36-yarder that set up a score and his own TD in the second quarter that gave the Eagles a 15-3 lead.
Clement, however, was the bigger shock. The 220-pound rookie was used mostly as a changeup runner that season but was unleashed as a major receiving weapon in the Super Bowl. Although he only rushed three times for 8 yards that night, Clement stunned by hauling in four passes for 100 yards. His 22-yard TD grab put the Eagles back up by 10 points and remains one of the better catches you’ll see by a back that size.
The Eagles likely don’t win this game without them doing as much damage as they did on the ground.
Super Bowl LI: Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons
Patriots WR Danny Amendola
The Patriots arrived with their usual cadre of former undrafted players, and it included Amendola, who wasn’t a huge contributor that season, especially after he suffered a high-ankle sprain late in the regular season. That caused him to miss the final four games of the regular season, returning in the playoffs in what was expected to be a limited role.
But plans changed when the Patriots fell behind — first 21-0 in the first half and then 28-3 midway through the third quarter.
Amendola caught only one first-half pass but became a key figure in the Patriots’ historic comeback victory. After not catching more than four passes nor gaining more than 50 yards in a game all season, Amendola finished with eight grabs for 78 yards, a fourth-quarter touchdown and the game-tying two-point conversion with 57 seconds left to force overtime.
The highlight: Amendola’s fingertips grab for 20 yards on that game-tying TD, a play on which he might have been Tom Brady’s third option. Amendola also had a big 14-yard grab on a speed out from the slot — maybe Brady’s finest throw of the night — on the game-winning drive in OT.
It wasn’t stunning to see Amendola play a key role in a Super Bowl. After all, he’s seventh all time in Super Bowl catches and receiving yards. But in a season in which he was targeted only 29 times in 12 regular-season games, it was shocking how much he meant to that particular game.
Super Bowl 50: Denver Broncos vs. Carolina Panthers
Broncos RB C.J. Anderson
Just days before his 25th birthday, Anderson was one of the few big standouts on offense in the Broncos’ Super Bowl victory, rushing 23 times for 90 yards and scoring the touchdown that put the game out of reach with 3:08 remaining.
The 23 rush attempts were a season-high, and Anderson also caught all four of the passes thrown his way. It was also a homecoming for Anderson, who went to high school about an hour away from Levi’s Stadium and went to college at Cal.
Fun fact: Eighteen of the Broncos’ 24 points were scored by undrafted players — 10 by kicker Brandon McManus, six by Anderson and two by Bennie Fowler after Anderson’s TD. The other six points came from fifth-rounder Malik Jackson on a fumble recovery in the end zone on Cam Newton’s sack.
Undrafted punter Britton Colquitt also was a quiet hero that day with a 45.9-yard average, pinning Carolina deep three times and twice kicking out of his end zone in the first half.
SB XLIX: Patriots vs. Seahawks
Patriots CB Malcolm Butler
Still revered as one of the most unlikely Super Bowl heroes ever, Butler didn’t enter the game on defense until the third quarter after the Patriots had seen enough of Seahawks WR Chris Matthews (undrafted) repeatedly beat Patriots CB Kyle Arrington (also undrafted).
Butler played 18 defensive snaps that night after being a lightly used defensive back and special-teamer as a rookie that season. It looked like he might be a somewhat unfair scapegoat that night after Butler tipped Russell Wilson’s pass, but the ball ended up in the lap of the Seahawks’ Jermaine Kearse (also undrafted!) with just over a minute left.
That set up perhaps the wildest goal-line stand in Super Bowl history. On second and goal — after Marshawn Lynch nearly scored the play before — Butler undercut Wilson’s slant pass at the goal line in one of the more stunning moments imaginable.
And something we just learned the other day from former Patriots LB Matt Chatham: Butler’s chinstrap wasn’t even buckled on the play!
Just noticing this for some odd reason, but I never realized Malcolm Butler made that best-play-in-NFL-history SB49 INT w/ his helmet COMPLETELY unbuckled, both sides😲! Maybe I’m late to the party on this, but his helmet not sliding down over his 👀 on contact = a damn miracle🙏 pic.twitter.com/hc2OozxPGE— Matt Chatham (@chatham58) January 28, 2020
Yet the Super Bowl became something of a nightmare just three years later when Butler played one snap (on special teams), effectively benched by Bill Belichick in the Patriots’ 41-33 loss to the Eagles after playing nearly 98 percent of the defensive snaps that season.
To this day, Butler — who went to the hospital with an illness the week prior to the game and missed some practice time — says Belichick never gave him a reason why he was sat on defense but was active for the game.
Super Bowl XLVIII: Seahawks vs. Broncos
14 (!) Seahawks players
The game’s MVP was Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, who was 13 picks away from being undrafted in 2011. But there were plenty of undrafted contributors for Seattle, which dominated the 43-8 victory over Denver almost from the game’s first snap.
Chris Clemons had three tackles, two forced fumbles and a sack. Michael Bennett didn’t record a sack but lived in the Broncos’ backfield that night. Doug Baldwin led the team in receptions (five) and receiving yards (66) and scored the final TD. Jermaine Kearse had one fewer catch and one fewer yard than Baldwin and also scored.
Alvin Bailey came in as an extra tackle and fueled a run game that totaled 135 yards. Derrick Coleman made the tackle on the opening kickoff and keyed the special-teams units. Kicker Stephen Hauschka scored 11 points and made all seven of his combined FG and XP attempts.
All told, the Seahawks had a whopping 14 undrafted free agents on the field that night — 31 percent of their active players in the game. And that didn’t include one of their biggest contributors during the season, cornerback Brandon Browner, who got hurt and then was suspended for the remainder of the postseason.
Super Bowl XLVII: Baltimore Ravens vs. 49ers
Ravens LB Dannell Ellerbe
This game is probably best known as Ray Lewis’ final NFL game, with Joe Flacco being named MVP and Jimmy Smith making a big pass breakup on third down and (getting away with a hold?) in coverage on fourth down on the goal-line stop in the final minutes.
But the Ravens might not have won the Super Bowl without the contributions of Ellerbe, the forgotten hero of the game.
The 49ers got the ball back at their own 20-yard line with just under five minutes remaining, trailing 34-29. Ellerbe tackled Frank Gore after a 7-yard gain on first down and then cut off Colin Kaepernick on the second-down scramble.
But the 49ers were poised to erase a 22-point comeback as they got to the Baltimore 7-yard line with just over two minutes left. The Ravens’ defense was reeling, but Ellerbe stoned a first-and-goal run play that then 49ers tight end coach (and current Ravens offensive coordinator) Greg Roman believes was the unsung play of the game.
“[Ellerbe] made a great play that kind of changed the way things went,” Roman told the Ravens’ website two years ago.
After the second- and third-down incompletions, it set up fourth-and-game from the 5-yard line. The Ravens sent and all-out blitz, and Ellerbe came free, which forced Kaepernick to throw the ball a hair early. The ball sailed over Michael Crabtree’s head, in part thanks to Ellerbe’s pressure, and the game was all but over at that moment.
Ellerbe made tackles on three of the first seven plays of the game, two for no gain and one for a loss of 1 yard. He also made three tackles on the final drive and finished with a team-best nine stops.
Super Bowl XLVI: New York Giants vs New England Patriots
Giants P Steve Weatherford
The highest-profile and most popular undrafted Giants player entering Super Bowl Sunday clearly was Victor Cruz, the former UMass wide receiver who went from an absolute unknown to the NFL’s third-leading receiver with 1,536 yards. The Patriots made Cruz the focus of their defensive gameplan, and though he scored a touchdown, Cruz was mostly held in check with four grabs for 25 yards.
But the real hero of the game — who earnestly had a claim as Super Bowl MVP — was Weatherford. Leading up to the game, the running story was about Weatherford’s very un-punter-like physique: the kind of musculature you might typically see on an NFL tight end or a linebacker.
Weatherford, however, not only wowed in the game with his leg strength, but also his touch and placement. The Giants’ opening drive stalled, and Weatherford’s punt dropped at the New England 6-yard line. When Justin Tuck pressured Tom Brady on the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage, he threw the ball away in the middle of the field and was called for intentional grounding.
Brady was in the end zone when it occurred, which meant a Giants safety — and the first 2-0 Super Bowl score in 37 years. Weatherford deserves some credit for those two tone-setting points. His next punt was a touchback, but Weatherford pinned New England on his final two tries at the 4- and 8-yard lines, respectively, consistently forcing Brady and the Patriots to drive nearly the length of the field.
Along with serving as holder on the Giants’ two second-half field goals, plus the extra point on Cruz’ touchdown, Weatherford had a hand in seven additional points. Each one mattered greatly in the Giants’ 21-17 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Super Bowl XLV: Green Bay Packers vs Pittsburgh Steelers
Packers CBs Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Jarrett Bush
The Packer’s run from the NFC’s No. 6 seed to a Super Bowl title was fueled by contributions from unexpected places, such as the running of James Starks and the Super Bowl heroics of a pre-breakout Jordy Nelson. There also were the lesser-known glue guys who played their notable parts: John Kuhn, Cullen Jenkins, Scott Wells and Tom Crabtree.
But you can’t tell the story of the Packers that season without mentioning their hodgepodge secondary.
Anchored by future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson and former second-rounder Nick Collins, the secondary also featured the undrafted trio of Williams, Shields and Bush as key contributors.
Williams picked off six passes and was the team’s best punt returner that season. Shields used his blazing speed to pick off two passes in the regular season and two more in the NFC title-game win over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Bush was a bit of a whipping boy for Packers fans after his uneven play the prior few seasons, but he came up big when needed.
Late in the second quarter with the Steelers trailing 14-3 and driving to midfield, Bush vacated his man (Heath Miller) and jumped Ben Roethlisberger’s throw to Mike Wallace on the crossing route for his first interception that season and only his second in 85 career games (regular season and postseason) to that point. The pick would lead to a Packers touchdown and a 21-3 lead.
Shields didn’t have a banner Super Bowl, getting picked on a few times in coverage, but Williams was excellent in containing Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders. And along with Bush’s pick, this undrafted trio was crucial to the Packers taking home their fourth Lombardi Trophy.
Super Bowl XLIV: New Orleans Saints vs Indianapolis Colts
Several Saints players
This game might have been a matchup of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, two of the greatest quarterbacks of theirs or any other generation. But quietly, both the Colts and Saints relied heavily on the contributions of some unheralded players. The Colts had 26 undrafted players play in at least one game for them that season, and the Saints used 23 of their own. And their imprint was all over this game.
A pair of former second-rounders — Brees and Tracy Porter — were the game’s obvious heroes. But we cannot overlook the contributions of players such as RB Pierre Thomas, CB Jabari Greer, WR Lance Moore, K Garrett Hartley, P Thomas Morestead, safety Chris Reis and others in the Saints’ first and only Super Bowl title.
Thomas came alive in the second half, scoring the diving, go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter and finishing with 85 yards from scrimmage on his 15 touches. Moore had a big 21-yard grab and a two-point conversion to put the Saints up seven with just over five minutes left. Hartley, who made the game-winning kick in OT of the NFC title game, was 3-for-3 on field goals in the Super Bowl, all 44 yards or longer.
And the most famous play of the game — nicknamed “Ambush” — is probably the second-half-opening onside kick, which was an undrafted player’s dream. Thomas Morestead executed the surprise kick, and the almost forgotten Chris Reis jumped on it for the tide-changing play. No team felt either were worth spending a draft choice on.
The Saints were happy to scoop them and other undrafted players up en route to a championship.
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