Since the first draft in 1936, teams have selected young players coming out of college in the hopes of getting better. More times than not, though, those selections result in busts. These players are often viewed as saviors the minute they don the team’s jersey, but the reality is the odds are against them.
Every once in a blue moon, though, a team hits the jackpot in an epic way. Below are the best historical selections at each spot in the draft:
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Tennessee – drafted by Indianapolis Colts in 1998
There have been a lot of extremely successful first overall picks in NFL history. Picking Manning as the best is debatable based on his relative lack of postseason success with “only one” Super Bowl title. He holds pretty much all the NFL passing records, though, and he’s a clear first ballot Hall of Famer. He’s been to the Pro Bowl 14 times and named MVP five times. No other NFL player in history has ever won more than three MVPs.
2. Lawrence Taylor, OLB, North Carolina – drafted by New York Giants in 1981
Widely viewed as the most devastating pass rusher of all time, he was a difference-maker on the defensive side of the ball like few in NFL history. He helped the Giants win two Super Bowls, went to 10 Pro Bowls and was even named NFL MVP in 1986 — one of only two defensive players ever to receive that award.
3. Anthony Munoz, T, USC – drafted by Cincinnati Bengals in 1980
The model of consistency and dominance on the offensive line for 13 seasons. Munoz went to 11 Pro Bowls and is widely viewed as one of the best offensive linemen to ever play the game. He is a member of the Hall of Fame.
4. Walter Payton, RB, Jackson State – drafted by Chicago Bears in 1975
The Hall of Fame runner is viewed by many as the best back in league history. He went to nine Pro Bowls and was named league MVP in 1977. Payton is second in NFL history for rushing yards and is a one-time Super Bowl champion. He is also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
5. Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State – drafted by Atlanta Falcons in 1989
Viewed as the best cover corner in the history of the game, Sanders won two Super Bowls (each one with a different team) and went to eight Pro Bowls. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
6. Jim Brown, RB, Syracuse – drafted by Cleveland Browns in 1957
Despite playing in only nine NFL seasons (during the era of 14-game seasons), Brown is still the ninth-best rusher in NFL history. Few players dominated the league like he did during his heyday. He made the Pro Bowl in all nine seasons he played and won the MVP award three times. In those nine seasons, he was the NFL rushing champion eight times.
7. Champ Bailey, CB, Georgia – drafted by Washington Redskins in 1999
Bailey retired last season after having been to 12 Pro Bowls. One of the best cover players to play the game, he kept his body healthy for a very long time.
8. Ronnie Lott, S, USC – drafted by San Francisco 49ers in 1981
Tied for seventh in career interceptions, Lott is a Hall of Famer, four-time Super Bowl winner, 10-time Pro Bowler and one of the hardest hitters the league has ever seen.
9. Bruce Matthews, G, USC – drafted by Houston Oilers in 1983
He made 14 Pro Bowls in 19 seasons as an NFL player. The league may never see an interior lineman both this good and durable again. The Hall of Famer stayed with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Oilers/Tennessee Titans franchise his entire career, spanning just short of two decades.
10. Rod Woodson, CB, Purdue – drafted by Pittsburgh Steelers in 1987
Third alltime in interceptions, Woodson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009. He finished his career with a Super Bowl title and 11 trips to the Pro Bowl.
11. Frank Gifford, HB/WR, USC – drafted by New York Giants in 1952
The Hall of Famer went to eight Pro Bowls and won an NFL championship. He was equal parts effective as a runner and receiver.
12. Warren Sapp, DT, Miami, FL. – drafted by Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1995
Hard to believe despite not being an outside speed rusher that he still totaled 96.5 sacks as an interior lineman. No defensive tackle has been as disruptive to quarterbacks. He is a Hall of Famer, seven-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion.
13. Tony Gonzalez, TE, California – drafted by Kansas City Chiefs in 1997
Gonzalez is fifth in NFL history in receiving yards, second in receptions and sixth in receiving touchdowns. He’s done all this as a tight end, mind you, which is far better than any tight end in the history of the game. He paved the way for the modern day tight end we see today. He finished his career with 14 Pro Bowl appearances.
14. Darrelle Revis, CB, Pittsburgh – drafted by New York Jets in 2007
Still playing in the league today back with the Jets, Revis may be considered the best cover corner in history when it is all said and done. He now has a Super Bowl title to add to his resume to go along with six Pro Bowls. And he’s not even 30 yet.
15. Alan Page, DT, Notre Dame – drafted by Minnesota Vikings in 1967
Page is the only other defensive player besides Lawrence Taylor to be awarded the MVP designation. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler, an NFL champion and Hall of Famer.
16. Jerry Rice, WR, Mississippi Valley State – drafted by San Francisco 49ers in 1985
Hands down the best receiver of all time. He’s first all-time by a considerable distance in yards, receptions and touchdowns. He won three Super Bowls and made the Pro Bowl 13 times and is a Hall of Famer.
17. Emmitt Smith, RB, Florida – drafted by Dallas Cowboys in 1990
The NFL career leader in rushing yards. The Hall of Famer has been to eight Pro Bowls, he’s won the Super Bowl three times and was once named NFL MVP.
18. Paul Krause, S, Iowa – drafted by Washington Redskins in 1964
The NFL career leader in interceptions, Krause is a Hall of Famer that made eight Pro Bowls and was an NFL champion once. At the time the 18th overall pick was a second-round selection, so this was a steal.
19. Marvin Harrison, WR, Syracuse – drafted by Indianapolis Colts in 1996
The one time Super Bowl champ and eight-time Pro Bowler isn’t in the Hall of Fame yet. As Peyton Manning’s best target of all time, Harrison is third in NFL history in receptions.
20. Jack Youngblood, DE, Florida – drafted by Los Angeles Rams in 1971
They didn’t record sacks back then, but it’s safe to say Youngblood would have finished his career with several after seven Pro Bowls and a spot in the Hall of Fame.
21. Randy Moss, WR, Marshall – drafted by Minnesota Vikings in 1998
He still holds the NFL single-season record for receiving touchdowns with 23. The seven-time Pro Bowler is considered one of the very best receivers of all time.
22. Ernie Stautner, DT, Boston College – drafted by Pittsburgh Steelers in 1950
One of the most dominant defensive players of his era, Stautner is a Hall of Famer and a nine-time Pro Bowler. He won two Super Bowls.
23. Ray Guy, P, Southern Miss – drafted by Oakland Raiders in 1973
Yes, really, a punter. He’s the only punter in the Hall of Fame, he made seven Pro Bowls and he was the Super Bowl three times. Drafting a punter in the first round may be crazy, but it paid off for the Raiders. They got the best ever.
24. Ed Reed, S, Miami, FL. – drafted by Baltimore Ravens in 2002
The one time Super Bowl champ and nine-time Pro Bowler is sixth all-time in interceptions.
25. Ted Washington, DT, Louisville – drafted by San Francisco 49ers in 1991
The four-time Pro Bowler and one-time Super Bowl champ set the standard for the modern-day mammoth nose tackle. In his prime he was 6-foot-5 and 375 pounds of beast. Running against him was often a useless exercise.
26. Ray Lewis, LB, Miami, FL. – drafted by Baltimore Ravens in 1996
One of the best linebackers to ever play the game. The two-time Super Bowl champion and 13-time Pro Bowler will be in the Hall of Fame soon enough.
27. Dan Marino, QB, Pittsburgh – drafted by Miami Dolphins in 1983
Before the modern day passing craze, Marino broke all of the passing records. The Hall of Famer made it to nine Pro Bowls. He’s third alltime in passing yards in NFL history.
28. Darrell Green, CB, Texas A&M-Kingsville – drafted by Washington Redskins in 1983
The seven-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL champion is said by many to be the fastest player in NFL history. The Hall of Famer was one of the best cover guys to see the field.
29. Steve Wisnieswski, G, Penn State – drafted by Los Angeles Raiders in 1989
Technically a second-round pick at 29th overall back in the day. Not a bad selection by the Raiders as they were rewarded with eight Pro Bowl seasons.
30. Eric Allen, CB, Arizona State – drafted by Philadelphia Eagles in 1988
Six-time Pro Bowler and excellent ballhawk.
31. Curley Culp, DT, Arizona State – drafted by Denver Broncos in 1968
The Hall of Famer was drafted in the second round (but 31st overall) by the Broncos but was immediately flipped to the Chiefs where he made an immediate impact. He won a Super Bowl with the Chiefs and made it to five Pro Bowls.
32. Drew Brees, QB, Purdue – drafted by San Diego Chargers in 2001
One of the elite passers of all time, Brees has been to nine Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl. He’s fourth all-time in passing yards and still going strong.