I’ve ranked the top 10 first overall picks and have named the best players selected in each first-round draft slot in the past, so today I’m going to look at the other end of the spectrum. First-round picks, especially the first overall selections, enter the league with high expectations. They are the future stars that teams build around.
Unlike those destined stars, there are plenty more that never hear their name called on draft day. If they’re lucky enough to get signed, they have to fight every step of the way to earn a permanent spot on the roster and then push even more to receive actual playing time.
Most slip through the cracks and are forced to either play overseas or just retire. A rare few are able to prove every team’s front office wrong and show they deserved to be as coveted as the highest-drafted players.
For this list, a player’s entire career will be taken into account, but his time in Washington will be prioritized most when compared to others. So while some players on this list may have had a better overall career than a player ahead of them on the list, they are ranked lower due to their stint in Washington not being as strong as the other’s.
In addition, I won’t be including any of the great Washington Senators of the past. The MLB Draft was not implemented until 1965, so while a legend like Walter Johnson would easily top this list of undrafted players, it wouldn’t be an accurate representation since nobody in that era was drafted. The same rules apply to any player in another sport who began their career before their league’s draft was implemented.
Baseball also has the luxury of extracting international free agents from other countries without going through a traditional draft. Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Luis Garcia are just three players in recent years that signed with the team as international free agents out of the Dominican Republic. Technically none of them were drafted, but they all would have been if they were included in the draft pool, so including any of them would skew the rest of the list.
As such, no Nationals players made the list, as the number of rounds in the MLB Draft make it nearly impossible for anyone who reaches the majors to be undrafted. In any case, here are the top 10 undrafted players in city history:
10 – Ben Wallace, Washington Wizards C (1996-99)
Wallace is arguably the best undrafted player in NBA history, but he falls so low on this list because he achieved his greatness after leaving the Bullets/Wizards. After spending his first three years in Washington, Wallace went on to become the best defensive player in the league, making six All-Defensive Teams and winning Defensive Player of the Year four times with the Detroit Pistons. He was instrumental in Detroit’s NBA Championship win in 2004.
The two-time rebounding champ wasn’t close to the caliber player he would become in Detroit during his stint in Washington. He averaged just under six minutes per game as a rookie, but by his third season he was averaging 6.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.1 steals per game in a rotational role. That’s pretty good for an undrafted player, but it pales in comparison to what he became.
9 – Geoff Courtnall, Washington Capitals LW (1988-90)
Courtnall spent just two seasons in Washington, but made the most of his time here. He finished as the second-highest scorer on the team in both years, totaling 80 points in 1988-89 before finishing with 74 in ’89-90.
Courtnall played just 31 total games with the Edmonton Oilers prior to joining the Caps in 1988, but he managed to help the Oilers win their fourth Stanley Cup in five years. In 19 playoff games, Courtnall contributed just three assists.
Despite spending more time with Boston, St. Louis and Vancouver, Courtnall’s two years as a Cap were two of three seasons in which he received All-Star Team votes. (The only other season was with St. Louis in 1997-98 at 35 years old.) Courtnall didn’t spend a lot of time with the Caps, but with a Stanley Cup and 799 points in 1,048 career games played, Courtnall is one of the better undrafted players in NHL history.
8 – Dino Ciccarelli, Washington Capitals RW (1989-92)
Ciccarelli is one of the few Hall of Famers on this list, but he comes in at eight purely because he played just three full seasons with the Caps. Much like Courtnall, Ciccarelli was consistently among the team’s top scorers.
In his first full season with the team in 1989-90, Ciccarelli led the team with 79 points (41g, 38a). He played just 54 games the following season, which dropped him down to 39 points (eighth-most on the team), but he bounced back in ’91-92, where his 38 goals and 38 assists put him back among the top three scorers on the team.
He played 19 years in the NHL, scoring exactly 1,200 points in 1,232 games. His 608 career goals are 19th-most in NHL history.
7 – Mark Murphy, Washington Redskins S (1977-84)
Murphy played just eight NFL seasons — all in Washington — with one of the strangest careers arcs I’ve ever seen. Essentially a non-factor in his first two seasons, Murphy abruptly became a full-time starter by his third season and started every game from 1979-82, and he missed just one game the following year in ’83.
Murphy was an absolute ball-hawk in his prime, finishing in the top 15 in interceptions league-wide three times in four years from 1980-83, culminating with a league-leading nine interceptions in ’83, coinciding with his first and only Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections.
Following that all-time great season, Murphy started just two games in 1984 in what would be his final NFL season at just 29 years old. Many speculate his active role in the union during the 1982 NFL strike had something to do with his ouster from league circles. Regardless, Murphy’s elite play helped Washington win its first Super Bowl, and he made a great career out of an undrafted start.
6 – Neal Olkewicz, Washington Redskins LB (1979-89)
The Washington Football Team dominates this list, as the Super Bowl teams of old were supplemented by undrafted players who broke out in big ways. Olkewicz is one of them; he spent his entire 11-year career in Washington and helped the team win its first two Super Bowls.
Olkewicz never made a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team, but he started every game from 1982-86 and was a constant force in the middle for Washington. Not many defensive stats were tracked back then, but he ironically finished with his career-high for single-season sacks (3.0) in the shortened 1982 Super Bowl season.
He may not be regarded among the very best players in team history, but his impact earned him the distinction of being named one of the 70 Greatest Redskins in 2002.
5 – Jeff Bostic, Washington Redskins C (1980-93)
Bostic was a fixture at center for the famed Hogs offensive line group, and he spent his entire 14-year career with Washington, making him one of only eight players to spend at least 14 years with the franchise. Bostic made just one Pro Bowl in his career (1983), but he was the starting center for all three Super Bowl victories, snapping the ball to a different quarterback in each one.
Bostic’s role in franchise history earned him a spot in the franchise’s Ring of Fame, where he was enshrined in 2015. While he doesn’t garner the same Hall of Fame nomination buzz that teammates Russ Grimm and Joe Jacoby did, he remains an all-time great Washington player.
4 – Mike Ridley, Washington Capitals C (1987-94)
Ridley started his career with the New York Rangers but was traded to Washington in his second season in the Bobby Carpenter trade. He finished fourth on the team in points during his first full season in 1987-88, and spent the remaining six years among the top three scorers on the team.
In fact in 1989-90, Ciccarelli, Courtnall and Ridley made up the top three scorers on the team. All three of them undrafted, all three on this list. Ridley was fifth on the team in points in ’91-92, but led the team in ’88-89 and ’93-94, and finished second or third in every other year. That consistent offensive output landed Ridley on the top 10 franchise leaderboard for goals (fifth with 218) and points (eighth with 547).
Ridley also brought a solid defensive component to his game, earning himself votes for the Selke Trophy in three different seasons. He made one appearance in the All-Star Game in 1989.
3 – London Fletcher, Washington Redskins LB (2007-13)
Fletcher got himself a Super Bowl ring early in his career with the St. Louis Rams in 1999, but he didn’t arrive in Washington until 2007 at 32 years old. In seven seasons with Washington, Fletcher started every single game, extending an incredible starting streak to 215 games, an NFL record among linebackers.
His durability allowed him to be a reliable force commanding the defense. Fletcher led Washington in tackles, often by wide margins, in every season except his final one, when he trailed team-leading Perry Riley (115 combined tackles at 25 years old) by just four (111 at 38). He led the league with 166 tackles in 2011.
Fletcher also totaled 12 interceptions and 11.5 sacks across those seven seasons, and he made the Pro Bowl four years in a row from 2009-12. He only recently became eligible for the Hall of Fame, where he will hopefully be (and should be) inducted within the next few years.
2 – Adam Oates, Washington Capitals C (1997-2002)
Oates is another player on this list who has a bidding to the title of greatest undrafted player in the history of his sport, but he didn’t come to Washington until his 12th NHL season at age 34. Despite his (relatively) advanced age, Oates accomplished a lot in his five-year stint.
In his first full season, Oates was second on the team in points (76) behind Peter Bondra, and his 58 assists more than doubled the next-highest total (Bondra’s 26). His 17 points (6g, 11a) in the playoffs that year co-led the team as the franchise reached its first Stanley Cup Final in 1998.
Oates was named captain prior to the 1999-2000 season, and he led the team in points over the next two years. At 38 years old in 2000-01, Oates co-led the NHL with 69 assists, and he led the league again the following year with 64. A trade to Philadelphia in 2002 marked the beginning of the end for his playing career, but he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.
We won’t talk about his coaching stint — this is purely about Oates as a player.
1 – Joe Jacoby, Washington Redskins OT (1981-93)
Jacoby was also a member of the Hogs, and he tops this list as one of the greatest, if not underappreciated, offensive tackles of his time. Like Bostic, Jacoby was on the team for all three Super Bowls. He primarily played left tackle, but was shifted to the right and briefly played guard in the latter stages of his career.
The fact that the Hogs contained two undrafted players as keystone pieces is mind-boggling; it’s either terrific scouting or terrific luck, but either way, Jacoby established himself as one of the top offensive linemen of the 1980s. He was a two-time AP First Team All-Pro selection, and he earned four consecutive Pro Bowl selections from 1983-86.
Jacoby has been nominated for the Hall of Fame multiple times over the past decade, but he reached 20 years of eligibility in 2018 without being inducted. He still has a chance as a “senior” candidate down the line, but his exclusion to this point is head-scratching. Jacoby spent his entire 13-year career in Washington, and lays claim to the greatest career of an undrafted player in city history.