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Ohio State has had some undrafted free agents step up big in the NFL

Over the years, a number of Ohio State players not drafted in the NFL Draft have gone on to make their way into the league and play big roles.

Cleveland Browns v Carolina Panthers

While every college football player hopes to one day hear their name announced in the NFL Draft, in the end they just hope to somehow make it to the NFL. Just because a player isn’t drafted in the annual draft, it doesn’t mean their professional football career is over even before it has a chance to start. Those players that aren’t drafted don’t have long to be disappointed that they weren’t chosen because often they are taking calls from multiple teams and have to decide where they want to start their career as an undrafted free agent.

Undrafted free agents know they have to work a little harder to earn a spot in the NFL. There have been plenty of players over the years that have gone from being undrafted to becoming a top player in the NFL. After Kurt Warner went undrafted in 1994, the Northern Iowa quarterback won the NFL MVP award in 1999 and 2001. Priest Holmes wasn’t drafted out of Texas, but from 2001-03 the running back eclipsed 2,000 total yards in each of those seasons, winning the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award in 2002. Tony Romo, Wes Welker, and Arian Foster are a few other undrafted players that went on to have successful NFL careers.

Ohio State saw six players drafted in the 2022 NFL Draft. Even though it has to be upsetting for Haskell Garrett, Master Teague, and a few other Buckeyes that were eligible to be drafted to not be picked, they can look to some past Ohio State players as inspiration. Around this time of year, the number of players Ohio State has seen drafted always gets mentioned, but the Buckeyes have seen a lot of players become solid NFL players after not being drafted. We are going to take a look at some notable overlooked Buckeyes.

Lou Groza

Obviously when Lou Groza played college football, things were a lot different than they were now. The drafts during the mid-1940s actually had more picks, with 330 picks being made, but there was also many players that were forced into military service because of World War II. Groza played just one year at Ohio State, making five field goals as a Buckeye in 1942.

Groza enlisted in the army in 1943, eventually being sent to the Pacific as a surgical technician. While in service, former Ohio State coach Paul Brown sent Groza a package with a contract to play with the Cleveland Browns, who Brown was coaching at the time. The kicker agreed to join the Browns after the war ended in 1946.

The list of accomplishments for Groza during his NFL career was impressive. The kicker hit 234 of his 405 field goal attempts over 216 games. Groza was a four-time NFL champion, four-time First team All-Pro selection, two-time Second team All-Pro choice, a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, and a member of the NFL’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. Not bad for a guy that made just five field goals in Columbus.

Bill Willis

Would Groza and Bill Willis go undrafted out of college today? Willis definitely would have been selected had things not been as they were in the 1940s. Along with the country being involved in World War II, no African-American had played in the NFL since 1933 because of a “gentleman’s agreement” was made when segregationist George Preston Marshall entered the league as owner of the Boston Redskins.

After graduating from Ohio State in 1945, Willis actually was the head coach at Kentucky State College for a year before Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown offered Willis a tryout in 1946. After impressing at the tryout, the Browns offered Willis a contract, which allowed Willis to join a group of three other African-Americans in the league to break football’s color barrier as the first black players in the league.

Much like Groza, Willis was very successful with Cleveland, winning a title with the team in 1950, and becoming a four-time First team All-Pro, and three-time Pro Bowl selection. Willis is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as the College Football Hall of Fame. Ohio State not only retired number 99 in honor of Willis, Ohio State also designated the number 0 jersey to be worn by a different player each year in recognition of Willis.

Mike Tomczak

If you plugged Tomczak’s stats into college football today, there is no way he is even getting considered as a undrafted free agent. Luckily for the former Buckeye quarterback, the game was a little different in 1985. Tomczak lucked into a great situation when he signed with the Chicago Bears as an UDFA right before the Bears would go 15-1 and win the Super Bowl.

Chicago Bears v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Tomczak would go on to start 31 games for the Bears before leaving for Green Bay in 1991. The quarterback would spend one year with the Packers, and one year with Cleveland before finding a comfortable spot in Pittsburgh, where he would play from 1993-99. By the time his career was over, Tomczak started 73 games, threw for 16.079 yards, 88 touchdowns, and 106 interceptions.

Alex Boone

Had it not been for alcohol issues coming out of college, Alex Boone would have definitely been drafted at some point in the 2009 NFL Draft. Just two months before the draft, Boone was arrested for an incident where he was jumping on car hoods, yanking on a tow truck cable, and trying to break a window. Had it not been for that, there’s no way a First team All-Big Ten player in 2008 isn’t getting drafted.

Even though the San Francisco 49ers signed Boone as an undrafted free agent, it still took nearly two seasons for Boone to see his first NFL action. The guard would go on to become a key starter on the offensive line for the 49ers. Following the 2015 season, Boone would go on to sign a four-year contract with the Minnesota Vikings worth $26 million, but he was released prior to the 2017 season for refusing to take a pay cut. Boone would sign with the Arizona Cardinals, and start 13 games. By the end of his career, Boone had started 86 games in the NFL.

Jake McQuaide

Sometimes to make it in the NFL you have to get a little creative. If you asked most people who Jake McQuaide was, they’d have no idea. Hardcore football fans would know because he is one of the best long snappers in the game. After not being drafted in 2011, McQuaide caught on with the Rams, who were in St. Louis at the time. McQuaide has played in 177 games since then, earning Pro Bowl selections in 2016 and 2017.

Corey “Philly” Brown

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It was surprising to see Corey Brown not selected in the 2014 NFL Draft after catch 63 passes and scoring 10 touchdowns in 2013. The Carolina Panthers scooped up Brown after the draft, and it took like time for the Buckeye to make an impact. Brown scored Carolina’s first punt return touchdown since 2003 when he housed a punt in October. The receiver would go on to catch 79 passes for 1,019 yards, and seven touchdowns over his three years with Carolina, which included an appearance in Super Bowl 50, where he led Carolina with 80 receiving yards in the 24-10 loss to Denver.

Andrew Norwell

Another Buckeye that fell into Carolina’s lap in 2014 was Andrew Norwell, who was a two-time First team All-Big Ten selection. By the seventh week of the 2014 season, Norwell was starting at guard for Carolina, and was a rock for the Panthers for the next three seasons. Norwell earned First team All-Pro honors in 2017, which led to him becoming the highest-paid guard in football when he signed a five-year, $66.5 million dollar contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. After spending the last four years with Jacksonville, Norwell signed a two-year contract with the Washington Commanders this offseason.

Cameron Johnston

Technically Cameron Johnston didn’t go undrafted professionally, since he was taken by the Melbourne Football Club with the 63rd selection of the 2011 AFL Rookie Draft. After his AFL career didn’t go as planned, Johnston made his way to the United States to punt at Ohio State, where he was the Big Ten’s Punter of the Year in 2016.

New England Patriots v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

After going undrafted in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles signed Johnston, but they would waive him before the start of the season. Johnston kept at it though, making the Eagles roster in 2018, and since then he has started every game. Following last season, Johnston signed with the Houston Texans, where he would have plenty of opportunities to punt during the 2021 season, leading the NFL in punting yardage.