NFL Injury Replacement Stars

29+ NFL Injury Replacements Who Went On To Become Stars


| LAST UPDATE 01/03/2023

By Elizabeth Russo

Not all NFL players got off to a memorable start. From Tom Brady to Todd Christensen, these football stars' careers took a dramatic turn for the best after replacing an injured teammate.

Todd Christensen

Christensen spent most of his career playing tight end for the Los Angeles Raiders before passing away almost a decade ago. After retirement, he became a sports analyst for NBC Sports, ESPN, and other networks.

Injury Replacement NFL Stars Injury Replacement NFL Stars
Ron Eisenberg/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Eventually, he landed a spot on the Raiders, but it took him three seasons to be a starter for the time. Derrick Ramsey was the star of the Raiders in 1981, but after an injury, Christensen took the spot and traded Ramsey in '83. Christensen became the team's key player and eventually took his team to the Super Bowl.

Victor Cruz

Unexpectedly, Cruz became the New York Giants' golden player after he was drafted as a free agent in 2010. After Steve Smith's 2011 free-agency exit, the Giants needed to fill his spot. Although the wide receiver was second on the list after Domenik Hixon, Hixon suffered an ACL injury, and Cruz was tapped to play.

NFL Injury Victor CruzNFL Injury Victor Cruz
Michael Reaves via Getty Images

Two years into playing for the Giants, Cruz helped his team take home the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots, and he was deemed a star. After the success of the super bowl, the athlete signed a $43 million extension and a five-year deal with the team but suffered a major knee injury in 2014 that hurt his career.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Brett Favre

Greenbay Packers alum, Brett Favre, goes down in history as perhaps one of the greatest players the NFL has ever seen. But just so it happens, the QB started his career playing for the Flacons back in 1991 as second-round pick behind Chris Miller before he was turned over to the Packers.

Brett Favre NFL Injury ReplacementBrett Favre NFL Injury Replacement
Bruce Dierdorff via Getty Images

In 1992, the new Packers GM Ron Wolf sent the Atlanta team a first-round pick for Favre, and eventually, his talents were recognized. Don Majkowski suffered an ankle injury, and the QB stepped in and got the job done. The now-retired football legend holds the NFL title as the leader of every significant passing category.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Doug Flutie

The proud Heisman Trophy winner spent 21 seasons as a quarterback, but he had a rough start getting into the NFL. He began his career playing with USFL in the '80s before getting drafted to the NFL for a short period of time and then joining the Canadian Football League, where he would eventually be recognized for his extreme talent.

Famous NFL Injury BillsFamous NFL Injury Bills
 John Bohn/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

However, in 1998 he was signed to the Buffalo Bills, where the five-foot-nine quarterback stepped in after Rob Johnson suffered from multiple injuries and showed off what he's made of! During the 1999 season, he led the Bills to the playoffs before moving over to the San Diego Chargers in 2001.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Jeff Hostetler

The two-time super bowl winner, Jeff Hostetler, was drafted to the Giants in the third round back in 1984, where he spent years in the shadows of Phil Simms, barely making the active roster. In fact, he was close to retiring in 1990, but then Simms faced a massive foot injury, and Hostetler was put in.

Injury Replacement Stars NFL Injury Replacement Stars NFL
Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Although he hadn't made much of an impression on the league by that point, he quickly became one of the most favorable players when he led the team to three wins in the postseason and a Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills. However, he injured himself two years later and began playing for the Raiders in '93.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Kurt Warner

Kurt Warner was bagging groceries back in the '90s after being released during training camp when he was signed as an undrafted free agent for the Green Bay Packers. He played a few seasons in the Arena Football league and a season in NFL Europe before joining the Rams in the 1998 season as the team's third QB behind Tony Banks and Steve Bono.

Injury Replacement NFL PlayersInjury Replacement NFL Players
Eliot Schechter /Allsport via Getty Images

The QB became number 2 behind Trent Green when the team released Bobo and traded out Banks. However, when Green tore his ACL before the season even started, Warner secured the top spot, and he dominated the field. Warner ended up winning NFL MVP, scored a Super Bowl win, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Steve Young

Young didn't have it easy being backup to one of the greatest players in history, four-time Super Bowl winner and two-time NFL MVP Joe Montana. However, after spending four seasons playing second string to Montana on the San Francisco 49ers, he pulled through when the MVP player suffered an elbow injury and missed the entire 1991 season.

Joe Montana Injury Replacement Joe Montana Injury Replacement
MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

He began starting for the team before he himself suffered an injury in the team's ninth game of that year's campaign and was replaced by Steve Bono. It took some time for him to get his job back, but eventually, he completely stole the show and became an NFL MVP himself.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Jeff Garcia

So after Steve Young replaced Joe Montana in the '90s, young himself suffered an injury years later that ended his career. It was the same year the San Francisco 49ers signed Jeff Garcia - but there were some concerns that the rookie was not ready to play just yet.

Jeff Garcia Injury Replacement NFL Jeff Garcia Injury Replacement NFL
Stephen Dunn/ALLSPORT via Getty Images

However, Garcia surpassed all expectations when he got on the field. He made three Pro Bowl appearances and took the team to two playoffs in the 2001 and 2002 seasons before he signed a contract with the Cleveland Browns in 2004. Impressive, huh?

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Terrell Owens

Owens was not high on the NFL scout's draft list when he was playing college football. But when it came down to the 1996 NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers saw the wide receivers' potential and signed Owens to the team. He began his career as backup for the team's top receiver Jerry Rice, but when Rice tore his ACL, Owens stepped up!

Terrell Owens NFL DraftTerrell Owens NFL Draft
MONICA DAVEY/AFP via Getty Images

Together with Young, the 49ers won 13 games, and just like that, Owens would become one of the greatest wide receivers of all time. Before retiring from the league after 15 seasons, Owens made it to the Pro Bowl six times and was named the NFL receiving touchdowns leader twice, eventually earning him a spot in the 49ers Hall of Fame.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Jim Plunkett

Jim Plunkett also stepped up to the plate for the Raiders not once but twice after replacing two injured quarterbacks. In 1980, Plunkett took over the team's starter Dan Pastorini after he broke his leg early in the season. That season, Jim took the team to the Super Bowl and was named the season's Super Bowl MVP.

NFL Injury Replacement Super BowlNFL Injury Replacement Super Bowl
 Tony Duffy via Getty Images

A few seasons later, Plunkett replaced Marc Wilson after an injury and again led the Las Vegas team straight to a Super Bowl title over the Redskins. That year, Plunkett went down 10-3 as a starter in the regular season and was recognized for his ability to come in and sweep the field.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Earl Morrall

Morall's name went down in history after replacing not just one but two quarterbacks during his career due to injuries and absolutely slaying it. The former QB stepped in for Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas in 1968 after he was injured, and Morall ended up taking the team straight to victory in a 13-1 record in their regular season.

Injury Replacement NFL StarsInjury Replacement NFL Stars
 Focus on Sport via Getty Images

A couple of years later, Earl replaced starting quarterback Bob Griese when he was playing for the Miami Dolphins. It was early on in the season, and with his help, he helped the team accomplish an undefeated season. Morrall ended up starting in 11 games that season.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Colin Kaepernick

Although his career playing for the NFL was cut relatively short, Colin Kaepernick rose to fame as a starting quarterback during his second season playing for the league. Kaepernick was drafted in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft for the 49ers and took over for Alex Smith during week 10 of the 2012 campaign.

NFL Injury Replacement Colin KaepernickNFL Injury Replacement Colin Kaepernick
 Jim McIsaac via Getty Images

Kaepernick was crushing the field, and even when Smith was deemed fit to return, the quarterback stayed on as the lead starter and ended up taking the team all the way to the super bowl (where they eventually lost, but still). However, the QB remains a free agent after kneeling during the U.S. national anthem back in 2016.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Nick Foles

Although he began his career as a backup player for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2012 NFL season, Foles became one of the team's key players that year. After his rookie season, he continued on in his starting position and set the NFL season record for the best touchdown, and earned himself a Pro Bowl honors award!

Pro Bowl Nick FolesPro Bowl Nick Foles
Patrick Smith via Getty Images

However, things took a turn when he was traded to the St. Louis Rams and then spent a season as a backup player for the Kansas City Cheifs. In 2017, he returned back to the Eagles as Carson Wentz's backup and was promoted to first strong when Wentz was injured, where he led the team to their first Super Bowl title.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Randall Cunningham

Although he never made it to the Super Bowl, Randall Cunningham is still recognized for his unbelievable achievements as a former quarterback. In the league for 16 seasons, Cunningham was first drafted back in 1985 by the Philadelphia Eagles and spent his rookie season as a backup for Ron Jaworski.

Injury Replacement Stars NFL Injury Replacement Stars NFL
David Madison via Getty Images

However, things shifted when Jaworski injured his hand in '87, and Cunningham stepped in and took over full-time, eventually earning him three Pro Bowl appearances from 1988-1990. The QB took a second off before getting drafted to the Vikings in '97, where he replaced Brad Johnson and again showed the world what he's really capable of.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Philip Rivers

Playing for the league for 17 seasons, Rivers spent those first 16 years dedicated to the Chargers. He was the fourth overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft by the New York Giants but then was traded over to the Chargers when they were still in San Diego. However, as a rookie, he was third in line to Drew Brees and Doug Flutie.

Injury Replacement Drew Brees  Injury Replacement Drew Brees
Jayne Kamin-Once via Getty Images

Coincidently, Flutie also made it to the list, but after he was released in 2005, Rivers became QB2. It was in the final game in 2005 that Brees disclosed his shoulder, and Rivers took on QB1 responsibilities. Sure enough, he went on to break every passing record in his team's history and was chosen to the Pro Bowl eight times.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Rich Gannon

Although Gannon was initially drafted to play for the Patriots, he was soon traded to the Minnesota Vikings, where he began as a backup player for Wade Wilson. Shortly after, Wilson was injured, and Gannon took over as starting QB, where he led the team to an 11-5 season.

Injury Replacement Stars NFL Injury Replacement Stars NFL
JUDY GRIESEDIECK/Star Tribune via Getty Images

After a couple of years with the Vikings, he moved around to the Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, and Oakland Raiders, where he saw major success. It was during his time with the Raiders he scored four consecutive Pro Bowls, two All-Pro selections, a Super Bowl appearance, and was even named MVP!

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Tom Brady

While he is now regarded as perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, Brady got his start in the NFL playing backup for former All-Pro player Drew Bledsoe. Brady was drafted into the league over 20 years ago in the sixth round by the New England Patriots, his home for years to come - but he threw only three passes in his rookie season.

NFL Contract Tom BradyNFL Contract Tom Brady
Maddie Meyer via Getty Images

His career changed went Bledsoe was injured in 2001, and Brady stepped into the starting role - and, we all know how that turned out. He took the franchise to their first-ever Super Bowl victory, and then helped them take home five more. And in doing so, secured nearly every major quarterback record to date, becoming the ultimate GOAT.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Mike Anderson

The six-foot-tall running back was drafted into the league in 2000 during the Denver Broncos' sixth-round pick, where he played for five years. Anderson was third in line behind Terrell Davis and Olandis Gary, but both players suffered from injuries, and the rookie was called upon to show off his stuff!

NFL rookie of the yearNFL rookie of the year
 Brian Bahr/Allsport via Getty Images

And well, he definitely didn't disappoint. Anderson played five seasons for the Denver-based team and was named the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year after taking over Gary's spot. Once his time for the Broncos came to a close, he played two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens before he retired in 2008.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Mike Pruitt

Pruitt began his career playing for the Cleveland Browns back in 1976 after being chosen as the seventh overall pick in the first-round draft. He saw little playing time in his first few years as a backup player to Greg Pruitt (no family relationship there); he eventually became a starter mid-season when Greg suffered a knee injury.

NFL Injury Replacement BrownsNFL Injury Replacement Browns
Ronald C. Modra via Getty Images

The athlete's career skyrocketed after he took over the fullback position full-time, and he started all 16 games creating a career high for himself with 1,294 rushing yards, 4.9 rushing yards per carry, and 1,666 yards from scrimmage. Pruitt's career peaked playing for the Browns before he was released in '85 and switched teams.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Arian Foster

This running back was known for both his signature namaste bow following every touchdown, as well as his incredible run in the league after replacing Ben Tate after a season-ending injury. The originally undrafted free agent totally impressed the world after taking over Tate's position and winning the 2010 rushing title.

Famous NFL Injury ReplacementFamous NFL Injury Replacement
 Bob Levey via Getty Images

During his time playing for the Houston Texans, Foster secured the franchise's records for rushing touchdowns and rushing yards before playing for the Miami Dolphins. The athlete retired from the NFL after only a few seasons in 2016 with four Pro Bowls under his belt.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

DeMarco Murray

The former running back sensation DeMarco Murray played in the NFL for only seven seasons, but he sure made his mark. Murray was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the third round back in 2011 and eventually took over Felix Jones's running back position after he suffered an ankle sprain that put him out of commission for a few games.

NFL Injury Replacement CowboysNFL Injury Replacement Cowboys
Ronald Martinez via Getty Images

Murray shined playing for the Cowboys and took home the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award while making three Pro Bowl appearances and was named the NFL rushing yards leader in 2014. He spent the remainder of his career playing for the Eagles and the Titans before serving as his college alma maters running back coach.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Shaun Phillips

Philips started his rookie season in 2004 as a backup pass rush specialist for the San Diego Chargers before making a real name for himself years later. After the unfortunate shooting of his teammate Steve Foley in 2006, Phillips moved up the ranks and scored the linebacker spot previously held by Foley.

NFL Injury Replacement Steve Foley NFL Injury Replacement Steve Foley
George Gojkovich via Getty Images

It was then he instantly dominated the field as an outside linebacker and continued to emerge as a leader of the team. Phillips signed a six-year extension with the Chargers, where he earned a Pro Bowl and was named an NFL forced fumbles leader, before getting hurt and signing with the Broncos in 2013.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Dak Prescott

Prescott was chosen by the Cowboys in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft and is still playing as the team's quarterback a few years later. Although he was initially serving as a backup during his rookie season, Dak was the team's starting quarterback just after Tony Romo was injured in the preseason.

NFL Draft Dak PrescottNFL Draft Dak Prescott
Jonathan Bachman via Getty Images

That year he earned the Offensive Rookie of the Year award after taking his team to the top of the National Football Conference and winning 13 games. Since then, he has appeared in two Pro Bowls and has set the NFL record for the highest passer rating by a rookie QB (104.9) and highest completion percentage by a rookie QB (67.8%).

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Gerald Riggs

The Louisiana native stepped up his game after taking over for Williams Andrews, who suffered a major knee injury during the Falcon's 1984 training camp before the season started. Riggs was a top ten pick in the 1982 NFL draft, and after Andrews' injury, took over as the Falcons full-time running back.

NFL Injury Replacement StarsNFL Injury Replacement Stars
Focus on Sport via Getty Images

During his career, he made the Pro Bowl three times and hit numerous benchmarks, making him the franchise's all-time leading rusher with 6,631 yards under his belt. However, it was during his run with the Washington Redskins that he took home a Super Bowl and even scored two touchdowns while doing so.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Shannon Sharpe

Although he was selected as the 192nd pick in the seventh round of the 1990 NFL Draft for the Broncos, Sharpe's talent was soon recognized, becoming one of the greatest tight ends in the league's history. At the beginning of his football career, Sharpe was considered as Clarence Kay's backup until Kay was injured, and everything changed.

NFL Injury Shannon SharpeNFL Injury Shannon Sharpe
Tom Van Dyke/MediaNews Group/Mercury News via Getty Images

His injury took a toll on the team's passing game, but Sharpe soon became the team's secret weapon and took the team all the way to the Super Bowl (twice). He retired from the league with three Super Bowls, hit multiple accomplishments as a tight end, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Art Shell

The Oakland Raider's future Hall of Famer was chosen as a third-round pick during the 1968 NFL Draft - but it wasn't until two seasons later that the world truly saw his skill as an athlete. Shell took over veteran player Bob Svihus as their left-side starter after he faced an injury leading up to the beginning of the season.

NFL Injury Replacement RaidersNFL Injury Replacement Raiders
 George Gojkovich via Getty Images

Svihus was traded to the Jets in '71, and Shell took over as the team's offensive line until he retired just over a decade later. During his NFL run, Shell was named to eight Pro Bowls, and he made it to two Super Bowls, eventually leading him to make The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Rayfield Wright

Nicknamed the "Big Cat," Rayfield Wright got his start in the NFL when he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys back in 1967. It was only during his third season that Wright got the chance to start after Ralph Neely had to take a step back after his injury.

NFL Cowboys Rayfield WrightNFL Cowboys Rayfield Wright
Richard Stagg via Getty Images

The franchise was so impressed by his talent that he was awarded a starting position as right tackle before training camp went down in 1970. During his thirteen-season reign, he played in five Super Bowls (and won two of them), went to 5 Pro Bowls, and even was awarded the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Osi Umenyiora

Osi Umenyiora established himself as a valuable player early on in his career. After Michael Strahan and Keith Washington from the New York Giants suffered injuries, Osi Umenyiora stepped up to the defensive line and showed the crowd what he could do!

NFL Injury Replacement GiantsNFL Injury Replacement Giants
 Benjamin Solomon via Getty Images

At the end of his career, the New York Giants player created a record for the most sacks in one game for the franchise and went on to become a two-time Pro Bowl holder and a Super Bowl champion. He even holds an NFL record for the most forced fumbles in a season, with 10.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Donnie Shell

Before becoming a five-time Pro Bowler and the Steelers team MVP, Donnie Shell spent the first three years of his career sitting on the bench. However, when Mike Wagner was injured in 1977, Shell took over as strong safety stared for 11 seasons to come.

NFL Injury Replacement SteelersNFL Injury Replacement Steelers
George Gojkovich via Getty Images

Shell was a part of the 1974 rookie class that included future Hall of Famers John Stall worth, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann, and Mike Webster. Throughout his career with the Steelers, he took home four Super Bowls and five Pro Bowls, amongst many other accomplishments that eventually led him to the franchise's Hall of Honor.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Bailey Zappe

Just this year, the New England Patriots selected Zappe in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft as the 137th overall pick. Upon signing with the Patriots, he was chosen as the team's third-string quarterback behind Mac Jones and Brian Hoyer.

NFL Injury Bailey ZappeNFL Injury Bailey Zappe
 Michael Reaves via Getty Images

However, when an injury caused Jones to back up, Zappe was moved up to the second option once Hoyer was too injured. Since stepping up as QB, Zappe has impressed the franchise after becoming the first rookie to throw a touchdown pass during the season and continues to amaze us with his quick skill.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below