Even within the context of the National Football League and its absurd popularity and superstar-at-every-turn embarrassment of riches, there's little better in the world of sports than a rags-to-riches story. Great players are always remembered fondly, but great players that came out of nowhere hold a special place in our hearts.
A loyal Buffalo Rumblings reader sent me an email talking about all of the undrafted free agents that the Buffalo Bills have "discovered" over the years (and his email, of course, focused predominantly on the one and only Fred Jackson). It got me thinking: who are the best former undrafted free agents that the Bills currently employ?
Let's get into it after the jump. Surprisingly, there are much more than five former undrafted free agents that could merit consideration for a list like this.
Honorable Mentions: The Bills have found themselves a pretty reliable trio of special teams players on the proverbial scrap heap. Rian Lindell, Brian Moorman and Garrison Sanborn are all former undrafted free agents. (But then again, so are most kickers, punters and long snappers.)
5. RT Erik Pears: Buffalo can't claim credit for "discovering" Pears, by any means, as he came to the Bills in 2010 as a journeyman street free agent that already had 30 starts under his belt - 26 of which came with the team that signed him as an undrafted free agent, the Denver Broncos. More of a flier signing by GM Buddy Nix, Pears has emerged as the Bills' starting right tackle, and earned a pretty lucrative three-year contract extension for his play last season.
4. DT Spencer Johnson: Again, this is a player that the Bills can't claim total credit for; Johnson was a diamond-in-the-rough discovery of the Minnesota Vikings. He started seven games as an undrafted rookie in 2004, and spent three more seasons in Minnesota as a key reserve before signing a free agent contract with Buffalo in 2008. In his four years with the Bills, Johnson has recorded two sacks every season despite playing several different positions in a part-time role, and stands to benefit from a return to the 4-3 defense this year.
3. WR David Nelson: Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Florida by the Bills in 2010, Nelson quickly worked his way into the lineup for Buffalo and has become a favorite target for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. In four years as a Gator, Nelson caught 46 passes for 630 yards and seven touchdowns; in just two years with the Bills, Nelson has 92 catches, 1,011 yards and eight touchdowns. His upside may not be tremendous, but he's already a very valuable and consistent performer in the NFL.
2. SS George Wilson: Wilson was originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Detroit Lions, but was added to Buffalo's practice squad roughly a month into his rookie season. He spent his first three years in the league toiling on the practice squad and the back end of the roster as a wide receiver, but then moved to safety at the request of Dick Jauron prior to the 2007 season. He's now been a defensive back for five seasons (going on six), is entering his second season as a full-time starter, and has 12 career interceptions in 39 starts. He's also emerged as a special teams captain and one of the team's most respected veteran leaders.
1. RB Fred Jackson: Clearly, Jackson was going to top the list, and his story is well-known. He went undrafted out of Division III Coe College, spent time playing indoor football in Iowa before Marv Levy added him to the roster in 2006 and sent him to NFL Europe, and was a member of the 53-man roster in 2007, when he started getting playing time. Today, he is probably Buffalo's best player, a face of the franchise, on the fringe of "best tailback in the NFL" discussions, does everything well, and is simply one of the greatest and most under-appreciated stories in the NFL today. For his career, he has 3,794 rushing yards, 1,535 receiving yards, 1,426 return yards and 21 total touchdowns - one of which was a touchdown pass. Fred Jackson is the man.