NFL injury replacements who went on to became stars

Several NFL standouts’ paths toward awards, Pro Bowls or the Hall of Fame began with another player’s injury opening the door. Here are 25 memorable injury replacements whose careers turned out quite well after they capitalized on opportunities. 


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After ACL and MCL tears ended Terrell Davis’ 1999 season, the Hall of Famer suited up for Denver’s 2000 opener. So did ’99 Davis sub Olandis Gary. The Broncos lost both during a shootout loss in St. Louis. Davis’ decline continued with an ankle injury; Gary tore an ACL. This summoned Anderson, a sixth-round rookie who was 27 after a military career. Anderson’s 2000 season: 1,487 rushing yards, 15 TDs, Offensive Rookie of the Year acclaim. After a stay as Clinton Portis‘ fullback, Anderson resurfaced in 2005 to lead the 13-3 Broncos in rushing (1,014 yards, 12 TDs). Though not a flashy back, Anderson played eight seasons.


Tom Brady

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The Patriots signed Drew Bledsoe to a then-record 10-year, $103 million contract — with substantially less guaranteed — in March 2001. This came nearly a year after the Pats drafted Brady in the sixth round. Mo Lewis’ crushing hit on Bledsoe changed NFL history; Brady is now in his 20th season as a starter. While Bledsoe took over for an injured Brady in the 2001 AFC title game, helping the Patriots past the Steelers, Brady started in Super Bowl XXXVI and in eight other Super Bowls. The Pats traded Bledsoe to the Bills during the 2002 draft and subsequently agreed to seven more contracts with his legendary successor.


Todd Christensen

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A college fullback who did not stick with the Cowboys or Giants, Christensen landed with a team keen on reclamation projects. However, it took him three seasons to become a primary starter. Derrick Ramsey led the 1981 Raiders in receiving, but a year later, an injury led to a Raiders changing of the guard at tight end. Christensen took over in 1982, and the Raiders traded Ramsey in ’83. Over the next five seasons, Christensen became the team’s go-to target (and go-to interview). Leading the NFL in catches in 1983 and ’86, the loquacious tight end collected a Super Bowl ring and made five straight Pro Bowls after winning the job.


Victor Cruz

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Steve Smith’s 2011 free agency exit created a void in the slot for the Giants. Domenik Hixon was ahead of Cruz on the team’s 2011 depth chart, but after the return man tore an ACL, Cruz delivered one of the most surprising seasons in NFL history. The 2010 undrafted free agent posted 1,536 yards and nine TDs, and his end zone salsa routines became commonplace for years. Cruz helped the Giants to a Super Bowl win, made the 2012 Pro Bowl and signed a five-year, $43 million extension. Although a severe knee injury hijacked Cruz’s career in 2014, he parlayed that 2011 emergence into stardom.


Brett Favre

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Favre would have taken the Packers’ QB reins soon, but the way it happened makes him an injury replacement. The Falcons picked the Hall of Famer in the 1991 second round and stashed him behind Chris Miller, who made the Pro Bowl that season. New Packers GM Ron Wolf sent the Falcons a first-round pick for Favre in 1992, and after sixth-year incumbent Don Majkowski suffered an ankle injury in Week 3, Favre did not allow another Packer passer to start until Week 1 of the 2008 season. In between, Favre started 253 games, became the only NFLer to win three straight MVPs and led the Packers to a Super Bowl title.


Doug Flutie

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Flutie’s second time as an injury replacement went much better than his first. Twelve years after Mike Ditka summoned the former Heisman winner and USFLer to replace Jim McMahon, Flutie was readier in 1998 after an acclaimed CFL run. Multiple Rob Johnson injuries allowed for a Flutie return, and the popular 5-foot-9 veteran catalyzed a Bills playoff trip. The Pro Bowl season earned Flutie a lucrative extension, and he led the 1999 Bills back to the playoffs. While Buffalo controversially went back to Johnson for what became the “Music City Miracle” game, Flutie ended up playing six more seasons and retiring at age 43.


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Nick Foles and Jeff Hostetler

Nick Foles and Jeff Hostetler

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Combining these QB2s-turned-Super Bowl winners’ careers (two total Pro Bowls) creates a fringe star. Hostetler backed up Phil Simms from 1985-90, but a Dec. 15, 1990 Simms injury thrust him into action. Hostetler led the Giants to five straight wins, helped them dethrone the 49ers and win Super Bowl XXV. This later prompted the Raiders to make him a four-year starter. Carson Wentz’s knee injury on Dec. 10, 2017 moved Foles back to a starting role. Foles quarterbacked five straight wins (in games the Eagles tried to win), was Super Bowl LII’s runaway MVP, and he parlayed a 2018 Eagles playoff run into a big Jaguars payday.


Arian Foster

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After spending time on the Texans’ practice squad as a rookie in 2009, Foster was on track to be part of the team’s 2010 backfield picture. But second-round rookie Ben Tate’s season-ending injury thrust Foster into a full-fledged bellcow role. The undrafted free agent flourished, winning the 2010 rushing title — 1,616 yards, 16 TDs — and enjoying the most productive season a Gary Kubiak back has outside of Terrell Davis. Foster did not relinquish Houston’s RB1 gig, and his Pro Bowl slates in 2011 and ’12 powered the team to the playoffs and led to an extension. Foster ended an eight-year career as a four-time Pro Bowler.


Rich Gannon

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Gannon spent much of his prime as a backup, but his late-career resurgence began with an injury to Chiefs starter Elvis Grbac. A 32-year-old Gannon drove the 1997 Chiefs to the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and the team reinstalling Grbac as its starter led to a major playoff “what if?” For Gannon, it keyed a re-emergence. He signed a four-year, $16 million Raiders deal in 1999. All Gannon did during his six Raider years: go 4-for-4 in Pro Bowls in his four full season as Oakland’s starter, win MVP acclaim at age 37 and take the Raiders to Super Bowl XXXVII. The ex-Patriots fourth-round pick is probably the best Raiders QB in 40 years.


Jeff Garcia

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Eight years after a crushing hit required Steve Young to replace Joe Montana, a violent collision ushered in Garcia. An Aeneas Williams hit concussed Young and ended his career in a September 1999 game. The 49ers signed Garcia that year, but their CFL convert was not quite ready as a 29-year-old rookie. He developed fast. Teaming with ascending superstar Terrell Owens, the mobile passer made three straight Pro Bowls and broke Young’s single-season passing yardage record — which he still holds 20 years later — and piloted the team to two playoff brackets. Garcia ended up starting 116 games in an 11-year career.


Earl Morrall

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Morrall was a No. 2 overall pick who played 21 NFL seasons; he is best known as a high-profile injury replacement. The journeyman twice replaced Hall of Famers — Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese — and quarterbacked teams to Super Bowls. The Colts traded for the veteran after a Unitas preseason injury in 1968, and Morrall’s MVP season steered a dominant team to Super Bowl III. He later split time with Unitas in Baltimore’s 1970 Super Bowl-winning season. After Don Shula left for Miami, he signed Morrall. That became key when Griese missed most of the Dolphins’ perfect 1972 season. Morral started in 10 of those wins.


DeMarco Murray

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The fantasy footballers who started Murray following Felix Jones‘ 2011 injury found themselves part of an all-time breakout performance. Murray, a 2011 third-round pick, shredded the Rams for a Cowboys-record 253 yards and became the team’s go-to back for four seasons. Murray was the first Dallas back to benefit from the team’s Tyron Smith-Travis Frederick-Zack Martin setup. When Martin completed the All-Pro O-line trio in 2014, Murray totaled a Cowboys-record 1,845 rushing yards en route to Offensive Player of the Year honors. He cashed in afterward and started three more seasons, with the Eagles and Titans.


Terrell Owens

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Owens was not the 49ers’ first choice as Jerry Rice’s WR1 heir apparent. J.J. Stokes was. It cost San Francisco first-, third- and fourth-round picks to trade up 20 spots to select the UCLA standout in the 1995 first round, but a wrist injury in 1996 changed the team’s plans. A third-rounder out of Tennessee-Chattanooga in ’96, Owens flashed while Stokes missed time that year. When Rice went down with an ACL tear in Week 1 of 1997, Owens replaced him as the 49ers’ No. 1 wideout. T.O. played six more 49ers seasons, with three of his five All-Pro honors coming in San Francisco, to chart a drama-filled Hall of Fame course.

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Shaun Phillips

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Injuries slowed Shawne Merriman in the late 2000s, but a scarier incident led to Phillips’ rise. An off-duty police officer shot Chargers starting linebacker Steve Foley in September 2006 ; the incident ended the then-30-year-old’s career. Phillips was not quite a star, but he anchored a few playoff teams’ pass rushes. The former Round 4 pick excelled as a Bolts starter from 2006-12 and came through for the AFC champion Broncos in 2013. Denver lost Elvis Dumervil in a strange free agency saga, and a suspension and an injury dogged Von Miller. Phillips led the Broncos with 10 sacks and totaled two against the Bolts in the playoffs.


Jim Plunkett

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Traded from the Patriots to the 49ers for a bounty of picks, Plunkett was a former No. 1 pick on the scrap heap after his San Francisco tenure did not pan out. The Raiders pounced, installing him as Ken Stabler’s backup. After Oakland and Houston swapped QB1s in 1980, Plunkett loomed as Dan Pastorini’s caddy. Pastorini suffered leg injuries in Week 5, dusting off his former Heisman-winning backup. Plunkett led the 2-3 Raiders to a Super Bowl title, helping the team become the first wild-card squad to claim the prize, and was at the controls when the Raiders won again in 1983. Plunkett did not retire until he was 39.


Dak Prescott

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Prescott injecting relevance into the Mississippi State program did not attract NFL teams. He lasted until pick 135 in 2016 but became a central figure that fall. Coming off a season marred by collarbone injuries, Tony Romo suffered a back malady in the preseason. Prescott never gave the job back, stepping in on a stacked offense and becoming the first Cowboy since Emmitt Smith to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Prescott led the Cowboys to 13 wins in 2016 and lost a shootout to the Packers in Round 2. Dak has two Pro Bowls on his resume and started 69 straight games prior to 2020’s ankle injury.


Mike Pruitt

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The Browns’ run of backfield production should not be overlooked. From 1957-80, Cleveland saw five backs combine for 23 Pro Bowl nods . The last transition here came in 1979, when returner/halfback Greg Pruitt suffered a knee injury that halted his run as Cleveland’s lead ball-carrier. The Browns gave the keys to fullback Mike Pruitt — a 1976 top-10 pick who had shown little — and Greg’s unrelated successor carried the torch. Mike amassed four 1,000-yard seasons and was a key part of the Browns’ 1980 “Kardiac Kids” team. He sits third on the team’s all-time rushing list — behind Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly. Not bad.


Gerald Riggs

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William Andrews made four straight Pro Bowls from 1980-83, but the decorated fullback suffered a brutal knee injury during the Falcons’ 1984 training camp that sidelined him for two years. The career-altering setback opened a job for Riggs, a top-10 pick in 1982. After mixing in behind Andrews for two years, Riggs dominated upon receiving a full-scale opportunity. He rushed for more than 1,300 yards in each season from 1984-86 and made the Pro Bowl from ’85-’87. While he toiled somewhat off the grid due to the Falcons’ struggles, Riggs delivered high-level work for years. He finished his career as a Super Bowl champion in Washington.


Shannon Sharpe

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Prior to securing a Hall of Fame bust and several TV gigs, Shannon Sharpe was Sterling’s younger brother who narrowly made the Broncos’ roster as a 1990 seventh-round pick. For two seasons, Shannon vacillated between backup wideout and Clarence Kay’s tight end complement. A Kay 1992 injury changed Denver’s passing game. Sharpe became its centerpiece and remained there through the team’s late-’90s Super Bowl wins. After seven straight Pro Bowls, Sharpe was the 1990s’ All-Decade tight end. A 1999 injury preceded Sharpe’s two-year stay in Baltimore, with which he won a third Super Bowl, but he returned for two final Denver seasons.


Art Shell

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The Raiders of the 1970s employed more glamorous players, but few tackles have ever outplayed Shell. Oakland found the future Hall of Famer as a third-round pick out of Maryland-Eastern Shore, and it took a bit for Shell to begin his run as an era-defining left tackle. The Raiders featured veteran Bob Svihus as their left-side starter, relegating Shell to a backup in his first two seasons. A Svihus injury in ahead of the 1970 season led to Shell taking over for good. The Raiders traded Svihus to the Jets in 1971, and Shell joined an offensive line that housed four Hall of Famers. He remained a starter until 1981.

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Donnie Shell

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The Pro Football Hall of Fame made Shell part of its centennial class this year, giving the Steel Curtain a fifth Hall of Famer. This honor came 33 years after the safety ended one of the best careers an undrafted player has ever submitted. Shell was part of the Steelers’ historic 1974 rookie class that included Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster. But he rode the bench for three years. When Mike Wagner went down with a 1977 injury, Shell stepped in for the back half of the Steelers’ dynasty and started 11 seasons. The three-time All-Pro’s 51 INTs are the most by a strong safety.


Osi Umenyiora

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DeMarcus Ware’s Troy teammate entered the NFL to less fanfare in 2003, going to the Giants in Round 2 and sitting behind Michael Strahan and Keith Washington. But both defensive ends suffered season-ending injuries during a November 2004 game. In came Umenyiora, who went on to become a crucial component of two Super Bowl-winning defensive lines. The elusive D-end was an All-Pro in his first starter season (2005) and dropped a six-sack game in Big Blue’s 2007 Super Bowl slate. Umenyiora recovered from a 2008 knee injury to start four more seasons with the Giants, finishing with 85 career sacks.


Kurt Warner

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This well-documented story includes a backup stay with each of the three teams with which Warner started. Warner sat behind Tony Banks with the 1998 Rams and was set to back up free agent signing Trent Green in 1999, but a Rodney Harrison preseason tackle opened the door to one of the best seasons in quarterback history. Warner won two MVPs as a Ram but was benched and released and on the Giants by 2004. Eli Manning usurped Warner that year, and the Cardinals replaced him with 2006 first-round pick Matt Leinart. Warner recapturing that job led to the Cards going to Super Bowl XLIII and cemented a Hall of Fame bid.


Rayfield Wright

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While tackles generally are not stars, the Cowboys slow-played their hand with a Hall of Famer. One of the gems to come out of Dallas’ cutting-edge scouting operation, Wright went from backup tight end/defensive lineman to starting right tackle. An injury to right tackle starter Ralph Neely moved the Cowboys to start Wright against Deacon Jones in a November 1969 game. The seventh-round 1967 pick passed the test. Kicking Neely over to left tackle, Wright remained Dallas’ right-side starter until 1979. The ex-college basketball player racked up six Pro Bowls and helped the Cowboys reach five Super Bowls along the way.


Steve Young

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A starter for the USFL’s Los Angeles Express and NFL’s Buccaneers, Young could have kept his QB1 run going. The Cardinals offered the Bucs a first-round pick for Young in 1987, but multiple factors drove Tampa Bay to accept San Francisco’s offer of second- and fourth-round picks. Though he played often, Young sat behind Joe Montana for four seasons. Following what turned out to be a severe Montana elbow injury in the 1991 preseason, Young ripped off an eight-year starter run that included two MVPs, three All-Pro finishes (1992-94) and a record-setting Super Bowl performance. He sailed to first-ballot Hall of Fame entry.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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