The best hidden gems from past NFL drafts

Profile Picture: Cam Tucker

April 9th, 2020

The first round of the NFL Draft gets all the attention, with college stars pegged as future cornerstone pieces for the league’s 32 franchises. 

There is no exact science to the Draft, and it can be a boom-or-bust business. Some first-round picks live up to their billing, others will be good players for a few years and fade, and more than a few do not pan out at all. 

For all the hype that surrounds the first round, finding good players later in the Draft is crucial for any successful franchise. Those later-round picks can transform into the most productive players at their position within their draft class. They can become franchise players. They can have Hall of Fame careers. 

Here are five hidden gems selected outside the first round from past drafts.

Tom Brady (2000, sixth round, 199th overall)

Brady was not too far off from becoming "Mr. Irrelevant" — a title given to the last player selected in the draft. 

He has gone from draft afterthought to first-ballot Hall of Famer. He has won six Super Bowl titles, has thrown for almost 75,000 yards, and will go down as arguably the greatest quarterback to play the game. 

No one could have predicted Brady would become an all-time great, but how many scouts and general managers would look back at the 2000 Draft and wish for a mulligan?  

Russell Wilson (2012, third round, 75th overall)

Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were drafted first and second overall in 2012, but it was Wilson who truly transformed the franchise that selected him, the Seattle Seahawks, into a perennial playoff contender. 

Wilson emerged as Seattle’s starting quarterback that year (the projected starter at one point was Matt Flynn), led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory the following season, and made another Super Bowl appearance in 2014. 

He leads all quarterbacks from the 2012 draft class in passing yards (29,734), pass touchdowns (227), rushing yards (3,993), and rushing touchdowns (19).

T.Y. Hilton (2012, 3rd round, 92nd overall)

There were 12 wide receivers taken ahead of Hilton in 2012, including four in the first round. 

He is far and away the most productive receiver from that draft, with 8,598 yards receiving and 45 touchdowns for the Colts. He’s not imposing, at just 5-foot-10 and 183 pounds and his size could’ve been a check against him, when teams were evaluating the group of receivers prior to the draft. 

What Hilton lacks in size, he more than makes up for with speed. He has run the 40-yard dash in 4.34 seconds, and opposing defenses have struggled to contain him over the years. 

Hilton, 30, will have a new quarterback to work with next season, as Philip Rivers takes over the starting role in Indianapolis.

Jason Witten (2003, third round, 69th overall)

Four other tight ends were selected ahead of Witten in 2003, yet he is now the third most productive player by receiving yards (12,977) and touchdowns (72) from that draft class. 

He went past 1,000 yards receiving four times with the Cowboys. 

Witten is still playing at age 37, and recently signed with the Las Vegas Raiders. 

He posted 529 yards receiving and four touchdowns last season with the Cowboys, and he still provides a massive target in the Raiders pass game. 

Stefon Diggs (2015, fifth round, 146th overall)

The Minnesota Vikings took a shot at the speedster, and Diggs is now one of the more dangerous receivers in the NFL, with 4,623 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns in his career. 

He is currently the second most productive receiver from that draft class, behind Amari Cooper, the fourth pick, who has 5,097 receiving yards and 33 touchdowns. 

Diggs has provided the Vikings with plenty of value, working in tandem with Adam Thielen.  

The Vikings recently traded Diggs to the Buffalo Bills for four draft picks, including a 2020 first-round selection. 

While the Diggs-Vikings partnership has concluded, he left quite an impact on the offense, with six touchdowns and a career-best 1,130 yards receiving last season. 

Not bad for a fifth-round pick.