All Time Notre Dame Draft Steals

With the NFL Draft coming up this weekend, I figured it would be a good time to take a look back at the past drafts for some of the Notre Dame hits, misses, and steals.  Today I’ll take a look at some of the biggest Notre Dame steals in NFL Draft history.  Feel free to chime in in the comments with your thoughts or any other steals from the past.

1. Joe Montana

35712936_nfl(3rd Round – 82nd Overall) – San Francisco 49ers – 1979
Notre Dame’s most famous NFL product is also one of the biggest draft steals in NFL history. In fact, before a guy named Tom Brady emerged from the 6th round of the 2000 draft to win 3 Super Bowls for the Patriots, Joe Montana was widely considered THE biggest draft steal of all time. After leading Notre Dame to a national title in 1977 after starting the season 3rd on the depth chart and then finishing his career with the famous Chicken Soup Game in the Cotton Bowl win over Houston, Montana was just a third round pick by the San Francisco 49ers.

Montana went on to become one of, if not the greatest quarterback in NFL history. He led to 49ers to 4 Super Bowl victories in 9 years and made a habit of leading his teams to come from behind victories. His most famous comeback came in Super Bowl XXIII when he led the Niners on a 92 yard drive to score the winning touchdown with less than a minute remaining. In 1999, The Sporting News named Montana the 3rd greatest NFL player of All Time regardless of position and in 2000, ESPN named him the 25th greatest athlete regardless of sport of the 20th century.

NFL Accomplishments:

  • 8x Pro Bowl selection (1981, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1993)
  • 3x First-Team All-Pro selection (1987, 1989, 1990)
  • 3x Second-Team All-Pro selection (1981, 1983, 1984)
  • 4x Super Bowl champion (XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV)
  • 3x Super Bowl MVP (1981, 1984, 1989)
  • 2x NFL MVP (1989, 1990)
  • 3,409 of 5,391 (63.2 Pct) for 40,551 yards; 279 TDs, 139 INTs; 92.3 Career QB Rating

2. Bob Kuechenberg

(4th Round – 80th Overall) – Philadelphia Eagles – 1969
Kuechenberg graduated from Notre Dame in 1969 and was just a 4th round selection by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles, however, cut Kuechenberg before the season. The Miami Dolphins ended up signing him before the 1970 season and were rewarded with a career that included 6 trips to the Pro Bowl. Since his career ended Kuechenberg has been rather vocal about his former teams – both the Dolphins and Notre Dame since Charlie Weis arrived – but that doesn’t diminish what he was able to accomplish on the field. ESPN named Kuechenberg the 31st biggest Draft steal of all time recently and in 2009 he was named a finalist for the NFL Hall of Fame.

NFL Accomplishments:

  • 6x Pro Bowl selection (1974, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1982, 1983)
  • 2x First-team All-Pro selection (1975, 1978)
  • 1x Second-team All-Pro selection (1977)
  • 2x Super Bowl champion (VII, VIII)

3. Nick Buoniconti

(AFL, 13th Round – 102 Overall) – New England Patriots – 1963
Buoniconti was one of the captains of 1961 Fighting Irish as well as its leading tackler. He was a two way player for the Irish playing tackle on offense and linebacker on defense. Buoniconti, however, was not blessed with good size and even his coach, Joe Kuharich, advised NFL scouts not to draft him. As a result, he wasn’t even drafted in the NFL Draft and was just a 13th round selection by the Patriots in the AFL Draft. Buoniconti would go on to have a Hall of Fame career for both the Patriots and Dolphins. In 2001, he was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

AFL Accomplishments:

  • 2x Pro Bowl selection (1972, 1973)
  • 6x AFL All-Star 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1969
  • AFL All-Time Team

4. Ricky Watters

(2nd Round – 45th Overall) – San Francisco 49ers – 1991

Normally, a second round pick would not qualify as a “steal”, but in the case of Ricky Watters the label is legit when you consider that Leonard Russell, Harvey Williams, Jarrod Bunch, Eric Bieniemy, and Nick Bell were the running backs taken before him in the ’91 Draft. Watters ended up playing in 5 Pro Bowls and was one of the elite running backs in the NFL during the 1990’s including stints with the 49ers, Eagles, and Seahawks. Watters holds the NFL record for touchdowns in a playoff game with 5 against the Giants in 1993. The following year, Watters tied an NFL record with 3 touchdowns in the Super Bowl. NFL Network recently listed Watters the 7th best player of all time not to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

NFL Accomplishments:

  • 5x Pro Bowl selection (1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996)
  • 3x All-Pro selection (1994, 1995, 1996)
  • 1x Super Bowl champion (XXIX)
  • 10,643 yards on 2,632 attempts; 4,248 yards on 467 receptions; 91 Total TDS (78 rush, 13 receiving)

5. Dave Casper

(2nd Round –45th Overall ) – Oakland Raiders – 1974
Like with Ricky Watters, it’s rare for a second round pick to be considered a steal, but when the 6th tight end drafted in a single draft becomes an NFL Hall of Famer the label applies. Casper only caught 21 passes for 335 yards at Notre Dame, but was selected by the Raiders in round two of the 1974 Draft. By his third season with the Raiders, Casper was among the top receivers in the NFL. Casper was a 5 time Pro Bowler and was named to NFL All 1970’s Team by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 2002, Casper was also inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

NFL Accomplishments:

  • 5x Pro Bowl selection (1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980)
  • 2x Super Bowl champion (XI, XV)
  • NFL 1970s All-Decade Team

6. Wayne Millner

(8th Round – 65th Overall) – Washington Redskins – 1936
Millner, nicknamed “The Money Player”, was a two time All American for Notre Dame in the 30’s. He caught one of the more famous touchdowns in Notre Dame history when he scored the winning touchdown in Notre Dame’s 18-13 victory over Ohio State in 1935. Both teams entered the game undefeated and the Irish trailed the Buckeyes 13-6 with less than two minutes to go. Millner was an 8th round draft pick in the first NFL Draft in 1936 by the Boston Redskins. In the 1937 championship, Millner recorded one of the best receiving games in post season history with 9 catches for 179 yards and 2 touchdowns. In 1968, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

NFL Accomplishments:

  • NFL 1930s All-Decade Team

7. Joe Theismann

(4th Round – 99th Overall) – Miami Dolphins – 1971
Theisman was a star quarterback for Notre Dame and was runner up for the Heisman Trophy in 1970, but despite his success at Notre Dame, he was only selected in the 4th round of the NFL Draft. Theismann was actually also drafted by the Minnesota Twins. He turned both offers down, however, and would sign with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. After a few successful seasons in Toronto, Theismann joined the Redskins and became their starting quarterback in 1978.  He went on to have a very good NFL career which included a Super Bowl victory in Super Bowl XVII and a MVP Award in 1983.

NFL/CFL Accomplishments:

  • 2× Pro Bowl selection (1982, 1983)
  • 1× Associated Press first-team All-Pro selection (1983)
  • 1× Super Bowl champion (XVII)
  • 2× CFL All-Star selection
  • NFL MVP (1983)
  • 2,044 of 3,602 (56.7 PCT) for  25,206 yards; 160 TDs,  138 INTs; 77.4 Career QB Rating

8. Justin Tuck

Justin Tuck - Former Notre Dame DE

(3rd Round – 74th Overall) – New York Giants – 2005
Tuck could end up working his way up this list if his career continues in the same path it’s currently headed. After leaving Notre Dame as the all time leader in sacks, he was just a third round selection by the Giants due in part to injury concerns after suffering an ACL injury as a junior. Tuck has responded by becoming one of the premiere pass rushers in the NFL. After a slow start to his career, Tuck has collected 22 sacks the past two seasons and was named to his first Pro Bowl and All Pro team following the 2008 season.  He also had a dominant performance in Super Bowl XLII and was felt to be the real MVP of the Giants historic upset of the Patriots by many.

NFL Accomplishments:

  • 1x Pro Bowl Selection (2008)
  • 1x All Pro 1st Team
  • 1x Super Bowl champion (XLII)

9. Daryle Lamonica

(NFL, 12th Round – 168th Overall; AFL, 24th Round – 188th Overall) – Green Bay Packers – 1963

Lamonica platooned at quarterback for Notre Dame in the early part of his career before starting in 1962. He never put up big numbers or gave teams much of a reason to draft him with a high pick. He was selected in the 12th round of the NFL Draft by the Packers and in the 24th round of the AFL Daft by the Bills. He ended up with the Bills and backed up Jack Kemp for four seasons before being traded to the Oakland Raiders. In his first season with the Raiders, he threw 30 TDs and was named the MVP of the AFL. Two years later he threw for 34 TDs and was named MVP once again. Lamonica was one of the winningest quarterbacks in NFL/AFL histor  with a record of 66-16-4 including an impressive 40-4-1 mark in AFL games.

AFL/NFL Accomplishments

  • 3x AFL All-Star selection (1965, 1967, 1969)
  • 2x All-AFL selection (1967, 1969)
  • AFL Champion (1964, 1965, 1967)
  • 2x AFL MVP (1967, 1969)
  • 2x Pro Bowl selection (1970, 1972)
  • 1288 of 2601 (49.5 PCT) for 19,154 yards; 164 TDs, 138 INTs; 72.9 Career QB Rating

10. Steve Beuerlein

(4th Round – 110th Overall) – Los Angeles Raiders -1987

Beuerlein had an up and down career for Notre Dame, but left South Bend as the owner of numerous passing and total offense records for the Irish. For a 4th round pick, Beuerlein turned out to be a very good pro quarterback. He was the 8th quarterback selected in the 1987 Draft and made his first Pro Bowl 12 years later as a member of the Carolina Panthers. In ’99 Beuerlein led the NFL in passing yards with 4,436 passing yards to go along with 36 touchdowns for his best season as a pro.

NFL Accomplishments:

  • 1x Pro Bowl selection (1999)
  • 1x Super Bowl champion (XXVII)
  • 1,894 of 3,328 (56.9 PCT) for 24,046 yards; 147 TDs,  112 INTs; 80.3 Career QB Rating

11. David Givens

(7th Round – 244th Overall) – New England Patriots – 2002

Givens’s career was cut short by injuries but before injuries took their toll on his knees, Givens had developed into one of the more promising young wide receivers in the NFL. Givens was the poster child for under developed players during the Bob Davie Era and was drafted in the 7th round based largely on potential. Givens ended up becoming the #2 wide receiver for the Patriots in 2004 and 2005. As a Patriot Givens scored a touchdown in seven consecutive playoff games – second all time to John Stallworth. After signing a big free agent deal with the Tennessee Titans in 2006, injuries set in and Givens was released two years later and hasn’t been able to catch on anywhere else.

12. Bertrand Berry

(3rd Round – 86th Overall) – Indianapolis Colts – 1997

Berry had a great career for Notre Dame at linebacker. He ended his Irish career with an impressive 16.5 sacks and was selected in the 3rd round of the 1997 draft by the Colts. After a quiet career in the NFL, Berry exploded in his 6th season with 11.5 sacks for the Broncos in 2003. The following season Berry topped himself with 14.5 sacks to earn his only Pro Bowl section. After starting out his NFL career as a linebacker, Berry has turned into one of the better defensive ends in the NFL.

NFL Accomplishments:

  • 1x Pro Bowl selection (2005)

13. Craig Hentrich

(8th Round – 200th Overall) – New York Jets – 1993

Rarely will a punter or kicker be considered a steal, but after having a great career as a place kicker and punter for the Irish, Craig Hentrich went on to become one of the most consistent and productive punters in the NFL. The Jets drafted Hentrich, but released him before the start of the season. Hentrich ended up catching on the Packers where he would play for five seasons and win a Super Bowl. Since 1998, Hentrich has been the punter for the Titans. He recently signed a one year contract with the Titans and will enter his 17th season in 2009.

  • 2x Pro Bowl selection (1998, 2003)
  • 1x Super Bowl champion (XXXI)

14. Mike Golic

(10th Round – 265th Overal) – Houston Oilers – 1985

Golic was a captain of the 1985 Fighting Irish and was a 10th round pick of the Oilers in the 1986 draft. While he didn’t have a stellar career, he was a very solid defensive tackle during his 8 year NFL career which is a pretty good value out of a 10th round selection.

15. Chinedum N’Dukwe

(7th round – 253rd Overall) – Cincinnati Bengals – 2007

N’Dukwe was not considered an elite prospect coming out of Notre Dame, but he quickly established himself as a starter for the Bengals by the end of his rookie season. In 2008, N’Dukwe started all 11 games he played in and will enter the 2009 season as the undisputed starter for the Bengals at strong safety. N’Dukwe might not be on his way to a multiple Pro Bowl selection career, but he has become one of the better young safeties in the NFL despite being a 7th round pick.

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  1. Kuchenberg (who should have been put in the NFL Hall of Fame decades ago) especially dominated his fellow ND alum Alan Page (who is the H of F) in Super Bowl VII. And while Beuerlein (a personal favorite of mine) can be said to have been up-and-down at South Bend, it seems forgotten now that Montana, at best, was only even with Rusty Lisch (who eventually made the NFL too) on the QB depth chart at the start of his 1977 junior (national championship) year.

  2. Enjoyed this a lot.

    For a period in the 90’s, I thought Watters was the best all-around back in the NFL. He could do it all. I remember there was some kinda “all star” race one year, and he absolutely dusted Marshall Faulk (who probably 1-upped Watters as an all-around back later).

  3. Frankie,

    Great list – one possible omission-
    Bob Bleier – Drafted in the 16th round by the Steelers – had a pretty good career on field & even greater credit to the school off it. A steal in the draft & great value for the scholarship.

  4. I would suggest Mark Bavaro—
    4th round–#100 OA– best TE of his time and 2 time pro bowler—-injuries cut his career in 1/2.

  5. Frankie V,
    Great list. Definitely you have to have Montana on top. I liked the write ups on guys like N’dukwe, Tuck, Buonicoti and Kuechenberg. Portraits of perserverence and character. They didn’t give up. And they didn’t just hang on, they excelled.

    The Lamonica and Beurlein stories are similar in that they were good individual talents on bad teams with suspect coaching. Someone saw through that to give them a chance. I always that Beurlein got a raw deal at ND in that people thought he wasn’t as good as he was, but the coaches often put him in tough spots without good preparation. Steve had a bit of an attitude, but I always pulled for him on the field.

    I can see why Ricky Watters was not picked higher. A smart kid who scored over 1400 on his SATs, he had way too big of a head. A truly gifted athlete who could have been a ProBowl receiver as good as he was at running back. He was a “me” guy though. And while his stats were great, I can’t recall him being a clutch guy or a consistent player. It always seemed like he shined when individual glory was on the line. Not a team guy.

    But this is a good list and a fun read. Thanks Frank.

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