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J.J. Watt leads top active NFL players who are former walk-ons

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Everybody knows that the majority of guys who sign with schools on National Signing Day never really make a mark for that team.

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Think about it: About 3,000 players sign with FBS schools every year, and guys obviously fall by the wayside at an alarming rate.

Besides, not everybody who makes it to the NFL even signs on National Signing Day. Every college team has at least a handful of guys that began their careers as walk-ons, and every year, some of those players end up being selected in the NFL draft. And some of those players end up being stars. One of the best players in the NFL was a walk-on. Two of the top 10 or so wide receivers were walk-ons. The NFL leader in field goals this season was a walk-on. And there are some 2015 draft prospects who began their careers as walk-ons, including Mississippi State G Ben Beckwith, Kansas State C B.J. Finney, East Carolina WR Justin Hardy (who is leaving school as the FBS career receptions leader), Stanford DT David Parry and Utah State LB Zach Vigil.

Who knows -- maybe one of them one day will be on a list like this, where we look at the 10 best active NFL players who started their college careers as walk-ons. Without further ado, on to the list.

1. DE J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

Particulars: Attended Wisconsin. There is a caveat to Watt's selection: He originally signed in 2007 with Central Michigan, which gave him a scholarship; he was a defensive end in high school but played extensively at tight end at CMU that fall. Watt, a Wisconsin native, always dreamed of playing for the Badgers. He left CMU and walked on at Wisconsin in 2008, earning a scholarship while on the scout team that fall. He was drafted in the first round by the Texans in 2011.

2. WR Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers

Particulars: Attended Central Michigan. A Miami native who played quarterback for a good Norland High program, Brown arrived at CMU after a year at North Carolina Tech prep school. He earned a scholarship one week into fall practice at CMU in 2007. He was drafted in the sixth round by the Steelers in 2010.

3. WR Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers

Particulars: Attended Kansas State. He was a quarterback and defensive back at a small Kansas high school and walked on at K-State in 2003 as a safety. He redshirted that season, then didn't play a down in 2004. He moved to wide receiver in 2005 spring practice, earning a scholarship in the process, and his career took off. He was drafted in the second round by the Packers in 2008.

4. LB Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers

Particulars: Attended USC. Despite coming from a football family with all kinds of Trojans ties, Matthews wasn't considered much of a prospect out of high school. He redshirted as a true freshman in 2004 and was a backup in 2005. He earned a scholarship during fall camp in 2006 but wasn't a starter until his senior season in 2008. He was drafted in the first round by the Packers in 2009.

5. OT Ricky Wagner, Baltimore

Particulars: Attended Wisconsin. He was a tight end and defensive end in high school and walked on at Wisconsin in 2008. He was moved to the offensive line -- a position he never had played -- that fall as a redshirt. He was a backup OT in 2009, then started for the final three seasons of his career. He was awarded a scholarship in 2010. He was drafted in the fifth round by the Ravens in 2013.

6. SS T.J. Ward, Denver Broncos

Particulars: Attended Oregon. Ward suffered a severe knee injury early in his senior season at powerhouse Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, and because he never had been a starter, colleges backed off. He redshirted as a true freshman with the Ducks in 2005, then earned a scholarship as a redshirt freshman in 2006. He was drafted in the second round by the Browns in 2010.

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7. DE Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, Detroit Lions

Particulars: Attended BYU. Arrived from Ghana as a track athlete and never played football until 2010 as a Cougars sophomore. He was Detroit's first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

8. SS Rashad Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

Particulars: Attended Alabama. He had no FBS offers out of high school but was recruited by Division II North Alabama and FCS member The Citadel. He chose to walk on at Alabama as a running back. He played special teams as a redshirt freshman in 2005, then moved to safety in 2006 and earned a scholarship; he started in his final two seasons with the Tide. He was drafted in the third round by the Cardinals in 2009.

9. K Stephen Gostkowski, New England Patriots

Particulars: Attended Memphis. As with numerous kickers in college football, Gostkowski was a walk-on. He earned a scholarship a week before the season opener in 2002, his freshman season. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Patriots in 2006.

10. G Logan Mankins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Particulars: Attended Fresno State. He played tight end at a small California high school and walked on at Fresno State in 2000. He became an offensive lineman in 2001, earning a scholarship in the process, and also was a four-year starter for the Bulldogs. He was drafted in the first round by the Patriots in 2005.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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