After months and years of scouting and evaluating, the whole thing goes down in an almost completely unpredictable fashion. Just last year the last-second release of Laremy Tunsil wearing a gas mask bong caused a ripple down the draft board. Some organizations are better prepared for those exigencies than others.
Meanwhile some teams prefer to take the “best player available” while others draft based on need. What they all try to do is find an undervalued gem. In the space below we’ve identified the “best pick” of each draft from 1992 to 2016, "best” loosely defined as a pick that delivered a great combination of value based on draft position, and one that substantially impacted the organization.
1992: Darren Woodson (S, Arizona State) by Dallas Cowboys (Rd. 2, pick 37)
The hard-hitting safety quickly became part of the defensive core of the three-time Super Bowl champion Cowboys. This selection is even more beautiful because the Cowboys scooped the pick in the famous Great Trade Robbery in which Dallas shipped Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for a package of players and picks that returned Woodson among others.
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1993: Troy Brown (WR/ST, Marshall) by New England Patriots (Rd. 8, pick 198)
Before the draft was shortened to seven rounds in 1994, Brown, a wideout a return man for the Thundering Herd, had the pleasure of going in the eighth round to New England. Brown was a jack of all trades who played receiver, led on special teams and even pitched in as a defensive back as needed. He spent his entire 15-year career in New England and made several crucial plays along the way, including his late catch and run that helped set up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI.
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1994: Dorsey Levens (RB, Georgia Tech) by Green Bay Packers (Rd. 5, pick 149)
Levens had a standout season at Tech after transferring from Notre Dame and entered the draft as “the most overrated player on the board” according to ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. Levens played second fiddle to Edgar Bennett in Green Bay before stepping up in the 997 playoffs with 205 rushing and receiving yards in the NFC Championship Game and 14 carries for 61 yards as the Packers’ lead rusher in their 34-21 Super Bowl XXXI title over New England. He finished with 6,016 yards from scrimmage as a Packer and was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame.
1995: Terrell Davis (RB, Georgia) by Denver Broncos (Rd. 6, pick 196)
“TD”’s career was too short (knee injuries) but certainly sweet, punctuated by Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII titles and the 1998 NFL MVP Award when he joined the exclusive 2,000 rushing yard club. And more recently, the dynamic running back became a Hall of Famer as the member of the Class of 2017.
1996: Brian Dawkins (FS, Clemson) by Philadelphia Eagles (Rd. 2, pick 61)
Dawkins was a fearsome hitter and a ballhawk. He started as a rookie for the Eagles and became a team captain and a beloved Eagle who had his No. 20 retired by the team. He earned nine Pro Bowl bids over his career (four-time First-team All-Pro in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2006) and, interestingly, was a compensatory selection at the end of the second round in 1996.
1997: Orlando Pace (OT, Ohio State) by St. Louis Rams (Rd. 1, pick 1)
The 6-foot-7, 324 pound blocking machine solidified the blind side for Kurt Warner and helped make the Greatest Show on Turf go. Pace was the first offensive tackle taken first overall since 1968 (Ron Yary). St. Louis acquired the pick and Pace via the New York Jets (for several picks); the Jets then traded down out of the Rams’ 6, allowing the Seahawks to move up and grab their own Hall of Fame left tackle, Walter Jones. The Jets then grabbed LB James Farrior at 8th overall. Farrior went on to win two Super Bowls with the Steelers.
Getty ImagesTodd Warshaw
1998: Randy Moss (WR, Marshall) by Minnesota Vikings (Rd. 1, pick 21)
The Indianapolis Colts correctly decided the Manning-or-Ryan Leaf question but the riskier pick came later when the Vikings decided to roll the dice on the uber-talented but seemingly troubled Moss, who got tangled with the law in college and skipped the NFL Combine but dazzled at his pro day. Things worked out for the athletic Moss, who became NFL Offensive Rookie of the year in 1998 and was a nightmare to cover for most of his 16-year career as he finished with 156 receiving touchdowns, second only to Jerry Rice.
1999: Donald Driver (WR, Alcorn State) by Green Bay Packers (Rd. 7, pick 213)
More accomplished at Alcorn State as a track and field athlete than as a receiver, the Packers parted with a seventh for Driver and found a franchise staple who sent his entire 13-year career with the team. A solid and sure-handed wideout who rarely missed a game, Driver had the luxury of running routes for Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers to the tune of 10,137 career receiving yards and 61 touchdowns.
2000: Tom Brady (QB, Michigan) by New England Patriots (Rd. 6, pick 199)
This one worked out okay for the Patriots. After leading the Patriots to an unprecedented comeback win in Super Bowl LI from down 28-3 in the third quarter, he probably secured his legacy as the greatest QB of all-time.
Courtesy Joe Thomas via Twitter
2001: Steve Smith Sr. (WR, Utah) by Carolina Panthers (Rd. 3, pick 74)
After 16 thoroughly entertaining seasons, 13 of them spent in Carolina, Mighty Mouth called it a career in January. Smith Sr. was a powderkeg of competitive fire, tough as nails and a constant threat to defenses. Obligatory note that the wideout stands “just” 5 feet and 9 inches tall. Ice up, son.
Getty ImagesChris Graythen
2002: Ed Reed (S, Miami) by Baltimore Ravens (Rd. 1, pick 24)
He’s arguably the best safety of his generation, a fearsome force of nature who always had a way of finding the football. Reed helped make the Ravens defense one of the league’s best for nearly a decade and led the league in interceptions three times, retiring with a whopping 61 in Baltimore.
USA TODAY SportsKirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
2003: Jason Witten (TE, Tennessee) by Dallas Cowboys (Rd. 3, pick 69)
Taken one spot after great Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs, who also has a claim for best pick of this draft, Witten probably will go down as one of the five best tight ends of all time. The durable 14-year veteran is only 13 catches from climbing to fourth all time in receptions for any position.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY SportsMatthew Emmons
2004: Bob Sanders (S, Iowa) by Indianapolis Colts (Rd. 2, pick 44)
Three possible Hall of Fame quarterbacks topped the class of 2004 (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger) and we can debate their HoF merits in another story, but Bob Sanders gets the nod because he helped give the Peyton-era Colts defense a lot of the toughness, leadership and playmaking ability that it lacked. Sanders missed a lot of time due to injury but in his two almost-full seasons (2005, 2007), he was a First-team All-Pro and secured Indy’s secondary. He picked off two passes during the 2007 playoffs including one in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLI against Chicago.
2005: Trent Cole (DE, Cincinnati) by Philadelphia Eagles (Rd. 5, pick 146)
With a pick acquired from Washington in exchange for wide receiver James Thrash, the Eagles certainly got their money’s worth when the fifth-rounder Cole turned into an excellent pro. A solid run defender and even pass defender (when converted into an outside linebacker later in his career), Cole could also get after the quarterback and has more all-time sacks (85) than every Eagle not named Reggie White (124).
2006: Devin Hester (KR/DB, Miami) by Chicago Bears (Rd. 2, pick 57)
The phrase “game changer” applies to Hester unlike any predominately special teams player ever. Even when he wasn’t returning kicks or punts for touchdowns, which he did a whopping 19 times as a Bear (including one in the Super Bowl), he flipped field position or caused shorter fields simply by forcing short out-of-bounds kicks because that was a better result than letting him return the ball. He never got to play receiver as much as he wanted but his ridiculous resume as a return man ought to send him to Canton after he retires.
Getty ImagesMatthew Stockman
2007: Darrelle Revis (DB, Pittsburgh) by New York Jets (Rd. 1, pick 14)
Credit to then-Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum, who traded up to nab Revis. who is probably headed to the Hall of Fame one day. Don’t let his dismal 2016 cloud your memory -- Revis was the league’s premiere shutdown corner for about five seasons (give or take one), four of them with the Jets.
2008: Jamaal Charles (RB, Texas) by Kansas City Chiefs (Rd. 3, pick: 73)
Let’s illustrate Charles’ value with two lists of names. Here’s the first: Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Ray Rice and Kevin Smith. Some great names there but now here’s the second list: Jim Brown, Mercury Morris, Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders. The first is running backs taken before Charles in the 2008 draft. The second is a (partial) list of players who averaged five yards or more per rush in their careers. With 5.5 per tote, Charles is ahead of them all as the NFL’s career leader in that category for running backs.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY SportsCary Edmondson
2009: Julian Edelman (QB/KR, Kent State) by New England Patriots (Rd. 7, pick: 232)
It wasn’t until the final year of his rookie contract in 2012 that the Patriots fully realized what they had (or for the conspiracy theorists, perhaps they played the long con, preventing his value from getting too high until the very end). The shifty former college quarterback known as “The Squirrel” has become perhaps Brady’s favorite all-time receiving target or at least in the top three. We also have to mention LB Clay Matthews, a pretty damn great pick too (Rd. 1, pick 26) whom the Packers obtained by trading picks with New England, who flipped picks with Jacksonville and turned it into Edelman at 232 as well as the next guy.
2010: Rob Gronkowski (TE, Arizona) by New England Patriots (Rd. 2, pick 42)
The Patriots combined the 44th overall pick obtained from Jacksonville and the 190th to move up to the Raiders’ spot at 42 to nab Gronk, who fell into the second round because of concerns over a back injury in college. He’s certainly suffered injury setbacks at the pro level but nevertheless has become one of the greatest tight ends of all time -- an excellent blocker but more importantly a huge target with speed and great hands who’s simply a matchup nightmare. He’s also caught more Brady touchdown passes than anyone else (67) by a wide margin.
2011: Richard Sherman (DB, Stanford) by Seattle Seahawks (Rd. 5, pick 154)
If you throw it Sherman’s way, you’re probably going to have a bad time. Quarterbacks don’t test him as much anymore because the three-time first-team All-Pro corner has pulled down 30 interceptions in his six seasons so far. The 2011 draft class is pretty loaded at the top (Cam Newton, Von Miller, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Patrick Peterson, etc.) but Sherman stands beside them in terms of impact and came to Seattle full four rounds later.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY SportsCary Edmondson
2012: Russell Wilson (QB, Wisconsin) by Seattle Seahawks (Rd. 3, pick 75)
Along with Earl Thomas in 2010 and Sherman in 2011, here is one of the other franchise cornerstones drafted by general manager John Schneider that turned Seattle into an NFC powerhouse. Browns head coach Hue Jackson may like his QBs 6-foot-2 or taller, but Schneider saw in the 5-foot-11 Wilson what we’ve all now seen. Credit to coach Pete Carroll and the Seahawks who had the guts to make him the starter as a rookie despite having sunk $9 million guaranteed into Packers one-game wonder Matt Flynn.
Considered a risk because of repeated drug test failures in college, the Cardinals decided to give the Honey Badger a whirl in the third round. It’s worked out wonderfully for them and for Mathieu who’s turned into an excellent pro -- safety/corner hybrid with (forgive the cliche) a “nose for the football.” Coming off a season in which he returned pretty quickly from an ACL injury, look for Mathieu to return to All-Pro form in 2017.
2014: Odell Beckham Jr. (WR, LSU) by New York Giants (Rd. 1, pick 12)
This wasn’t a universally lauded pick at the time by draft experts or Giants fans, many of whom in the latter camp hoped that tight end Eric Ebron (10th to Detroit) would remain on the board long enough. OBJ didn’t make his mark right away, either. He nursed a hamstring injury through the first four games of the season and then blew up, managing 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 scores in his rookie season in just 12 games. He’s an athletic freak and a touchdown threat every time he touches the ball. He could use a bit more emotional restraint as we all know and perhaps that will come in his age 25 season.
2015: David Johnson (RB, Northern Iowa) by Arizona Cardinals (Rd. 3, pick 86)
Another third round score, Johnson began to get his shot in his rookie season (4.6 yards per carry on 125 rushes) before exploding in 2016 with an NFL record 14 consecutive games of 100-plus yards rushing and receiving to start a season. A superb runner, receiver and blocker, DJ finished the season with over 2,100 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns.
2016: Dak Prescott (QB, Mississippi State) by Dallas Cowboys (Rd. 4, pick 135)
The eighth QB taken in the draft, Prescott was actually a compensatory pick who neither team nor player realistically expected to see the playing field, let alone start all 16 games plus a Divisional Round contest. Sure, he had the luxury of starting behind the league’s best offensive line and alongside the league’s leading rusher, but Prescott was not simply a game manager. He led five game-winning drives, averaged 8.6 yards per attempt, uses his legs when needed but not as a crutch and limited turnovers with a sterling 23:4 TD to INT ratio. And this is how the post-Tony Romo era begins.