A look at the best 1st-round picks, spot by spot
Drafting in the NFL is a lot like investing on Wall Street. No
matter how extensive the research, there’s no telling what will
happen once the money is plunked down for a Terry Bradshaw or
Lawrence Taylor. Or for a Lawrence Phillips or Tony Mandarich.
It never hurts to try learning from history.
With that in mind, The Associated Press looked back at every
player taken at each spot in the first round of the NFL draft since
the ”common draft” began in 1967. This pick-by-pick approach
compared all the No. 1s to each other, the No. 2s … all the way
to the Nos. 32s.
What follows is a subjective list of the best pick made at each
slot, with the reason they were chosen, and others who were
considered. Picks were based on a player’s entire career. When it
was close, the balance tipped toward the player who meant the most
to the team that drafted him.
The research yielded some nuggets worth keeping in mind for this
The best news is for the Cincinnati Bengals, who pick fourth.
History says that’s a juicy spot. Only No. 1 has produced more Hall
of Famers. The eighth and 19th spots also have been bountiful,
raising hopes for fans of the Tennessee Titans and New York
Sorry, San Francisco 49ers fans, but history shows seventh is a
spot to avoid. It’s the first pick that features an overwhelming
collection of clunkers. Since ’67, no Hall of Famer has been
drafted at No. 7, at least not yet. The same can be said of Nos.
12, 22, 24, 25 and 29-32, although the 29-32 grouping deserves an
asterisk because those didn’t become first-rounders until the
These results also validate several things fans already knew,
such as wise drafting being a big part of the Steelers becoming
such a perennial power. Pittsburgh claimed three of the top 11
”best” picks and five of the 32.
The quality of several college programs jumped out, too.
Southern California and Miami (Fla.) put four guys on this list,
Syracuse had three and Florida and Ohio State had two.
As for the best year, the Class of ’83 lived up to its hype,
putting three guys on this list, more than any other year. The ’83
crop’s great reputation is primarily for quarterbacks, and this
list includes two of those players and a defensive back.
Let the debates begin.
Terry Bradshaw, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1970, Louisiana
John Elway, Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning were far more
dazzling. Earl Campbell was far more feared. Yet teams draft
players they think will help them win championships. Bradshaw
guided the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles and was the MVP in
two of those championship games.
Lawrence Taylor, LB, New York Giants, 1981, North Carolina
He changed the course of his team’s history – Super Bowl titles
following the 1986 and 1990 seasons – and changed the way outside
linebackers are used. Heck, he also led to a change in the
importance of offensive left tackles. All that earns LT this spot
over some other incredible players, such as Randy White, Tony
Dorsett and Eric Dickerson.
Anthony Munoz, T, Cincinnati Bengals, 1980, USC
Barry Sanders was an unbelievable talent, and would’ve been the
NFL’s rushing champion had he not retired early. While he made more
people pay attention to the Detroit Lions, he never got them over
the top. Munoz was among the greatest blockers in league history.
His best work was in 1981 and ’88, years his quarterbacks (Ken
Anderson and Boomer Esiason) were NFL MVPs and the Bengals went to
the Super Bowl.
Walter Payton, RB, Chicago Bears, 1975, Jackson State
”Sweetness” would be in the discussion of greatest running
backs of all time, probably the best of the Super Bowl era. His
only Super Bowl was as part of the ’85 Bears juggernaut, but his
overall dominance makes him an easy choice over fellow Hall of
Famers Joe Greene, Derrick Thomas, John Hannah and Bob Griese.
Deion Sanders, CB, Atlanta Falcons, 1989, Florida State
Although ”Prime Time” won Super Bowls rings with other
franchises, the other guys he’s up against didn’t lead their
original teams to Super Bowl titles either. Thus, his overall
talent wins him this spot over Mike Haynes, Junior Seau and
Floyd Little, RB, Denver Broncos, 1967, Syracuse
Lots of really good players have been taken at this spot, yet
few who jump out as franchise-changers. Little wins out for all
that he meant to the Broncos in their AFL days and then early NFL
years. Others under consideration were John Riggins, James Lofton,
Tim Brown, Walter Jones and Torry Holt.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings, 2007, Oklahoma
The youngster is on his way to becoming the first Hall of Famer
drafted at this spot. The fact the pick is riding on the
expectations for the rest of his career says something about the
rest of the candidates here. Those also in the conversation include
Phil Simms, Sterling Sharpe, Bryant Young and Champ Bailey.
Ronnie Lott, DB, San Francisco 49ers, 1981, USC
Whether he lined up at cornerback, free safety or strong safety,
Lott was among the best at his position. Making the All-Decade Team
twice puts him among the greatest of any decade. Those four Super
Bowls he won with the 49ers make him an easy pick over Larry Csonka
and Mike Munchak.
Bruce Matthews, G, Houston Oilers, 1983, USC
He retired having played the most games by a position player in
NFL history. And he didn’t just play, he excelled, earning nine
All-Pro selections. No wonder he became the rare offensive lineman
welcomed into the Hall of Fame the first time he went on the
ballot. A no-brainer pick over Brian Urlacher.
Rod Woodson, DB, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1987, Purdue
Marcus Allen and Jerome Bettis had terrific careers, helping
teams win Super Bowls. Bettis was probably the better pick because
he was less of a college standout; Allen, after all, won the
Heisman Trophy. Yet Woodson trumps them all. An All-Pro at
cornerback, safety and kick returner, he was voted to the NFL’s
all-time team while still playing. He helped the Steelers reach the
Super Bowl, then was part of Super Bowl teams for the Raiders and
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004, Miami
Big Ben has guided Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl three times in
seven seasons, winning twice. He’s the youngest QB to win a Super
Bowl and he’s still only 29. Pretty amazing that there are only two
QBs on this list so far, and both were drafted by the Steelers.
Michael Irvin and Dwight Freeney were also considered for this
Warren Sapp, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1995, Miami (Fla.)
Voted the top defensive player in college football, he was
supposed to be a top-five pick. Then came rumors he’d tested
positive for cocaine and marijuana, causing him to slip in the
draft. The Bucs took the risk and were rewarded with a standout
career. Between his success and the mediocre careers of all other
No. 12 picks, there are no runners-up.
Kellen Winslow, TE, San Diego Chargers, 1979, Missouri
Tony Gonzalez also was drafted 13th, and he’s broken all of
Winslow’s receiving records at tight end. The pioneer at the
position gets the nod, though, even over another strong candidate,
Jim Kelly, QB, Buffalo Bills, 1983, Miami (Fla.)
The Bills had to wait for Kelly to play out his career with the
Houston Gamblers of the USFL. He was worth it, leading Buffalo to
four straight AFC championships. Although he didn’t win a Super
Bowl, he’s an easy pick over Eddie George and Darrelle Revis.
Alan Page, DE, Minnesota Vikings, 1967, Notre Dame
Page was the first defensive player voted league MVP, and among
the stars of the ”Purple People Eaters.” Like Kelly, we’re
celebrating his role in getting his team to four Super Bowls
without punishing him for going 0-for-4. Now a judge on the
Minnesota Supreme Court, he can appreciate this decision being
Jerry Rice, WR, San Francisco 49ers, 1985, Mississippi Valley
Like Payton, he’s the kind of guy who would’ve been an easy pick
regardless of where he was taken. Any receiving record Rice didn’t
set is probably not very important. He could’ve caught touchdown
passes wearing his three Super Bowl rings. He laps the field over
Russ Francis and Troy Polamalu.
Emmitt Smith, RB, Dallas Cowboys, 1990, Florida
Let’s see, he was the leading rusher in NFL history, led his
team to three Super Bowls in four years, won a regular-season MVP
award and was a Super Bowl MVP. Yeah, that’s pretty good for a No.
17 pick, better than Gene Upshaw and Doug Williams.
Art Monk, WR, Washington Redskins, 1980, Syracuse
It’s often said that Joe Gibbs won Super Bowls with three
different quarterbacks. Well, all three threw to Monk. He held the
record for most receptions until Rice came along. The strongest
competition here are both newcomers with potential for greatness,
Joe Flacco and Maurkice Pouncey.
Marvin Harrison, WR, Indianapolis Colts, 1996, Syracuse
Suddenly, there’s a run on Syracuse receivers. Harrison had the
luxury of being on the receiving end of Peyton Manning’s passes,
but he was very good for a very long time, helping the Colts go
from also-rans to Super Bowl champions. He topped a field that
included Jack Tatum, Randall McDaniel and Shaun Alexander.
Jack Youngblood, DE, Los Angeles Rams, 1971, Florida
You try telling him that Steve Atwater or Javon Walker were
better. Youngblood played 201 straight games in his Hall of Fame
career, and that doesn’t include playing a Super Bowl with a broken
Lynn Swann, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1974, USC
Swann’s specialty was making the big catch in big games, which
earned him this selection over Randy Moss. As great as Moss was in
his prime, he was part of a 15-1 Minnesota team that didn’t reach
the Super Bowl and part of a 16-0 New England team that lost the
Jack Reynolds, LB, Los Angeles Rams, 1970, Tennessee
Those Rams sure were good at drafting in the early ’70s. Along
with Youngblood, ”Hacksaw” helped the Rams get to the Super Bowl.
Reynolds, however, moved north to San Francisco and won two Super
Bowls. The most noteworthy other selection at this spot also is
known by his nickname: ”The Refrigerator.” But William Perry
wasn’t nearly as good for as long.
Ozzie Newsome, TE, Cleveland Browns, 1978, Alabama
As GM of the Ravens, Newsome would love finding a bargain like
himself. He retired with the fourth-most catches in NFL history and
wound up in the Hall of Fame, making him the obvious pick over Ray
Guy and Deuce McAllister. (At a weaker draft spot, Guy – a punter –
might’ve been an intriguing choice for this list.)
Calvin Hill, RB, Dallas Cowboys, 1969, Yale
The Cowboys might have thought their scouting computer hiccuped
when it claimed an Ivy League running back was one of the best
players in college football. They took the chance anyway and were
rewarded with the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Hill tied Jim
Brown’s record for most yards by a rookie and he was second only to
Gale Sayers in the league that season. He helped Dallas reach the
Super Bowl for the first time the next season and win it all the
season after that. Aaron Rodgers makes for tough competition here,
but as a top-10 talent who was slipping, he wasn’t the draft-day
risk Hill was.
Santonio Holmes, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers, 2006, Ohio State
Geez, another Steeler. But being a Super Bowl MVP gives him the
credentials to top the other 25th picks, a crop that includes Ted
Washington and – wait for it – Tim Tebow.
Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens, 1996, Miami (Fla.)
Except for the Colts taking Harrison, it’s hard to imagine what
the other teams drafting ahead of the Ravens were thinking in ’96.
Lewis was a standout player in college who became a two-time NFL
defensive player of the year and a Super Bowl MVP. That gives him
the nod over Hall of Famer Joe Delamielleure and Dana
Dan Marino, QB, Miami Dolphins, 1983, Pittsburgh
Perhaps the greatest value among all first-rounders. No, he
didn’t win a Super Bowl for the Dolphins, but he set virtually
every NFL passing record. No other 27th pick comes close. Few other
first-rounders in any spot do.
Darrell Green, DB, Washington Redskins, 1983, Texas A&I
The Redskins may have been hoping Marino fell to them in ’83.
Regardless, they did darn well, getting a speedy cornerback who was
among the NFL’s best for many years and part of the reason
Washington won two Super Bowls and played for another title during
his career. Derrick Brooks is another No. 28 pick who had a
distinguished career, but not as spectacular as Green’s.
Nick Mangold, C, New York Jets, 2006, Ohio State
After a string of Hall of Famers, a mere two-time All-Pro will
have to suffice now that we’re getting into the spots that are
first-round newcomers. This pick reached top-tier status in 1993,
and Mangold is the best of the bunch by helping the Jets get within
a game of the last two Super Bowls. Nick Barnett and Michael
Jenkins are next-best contenders.
Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts, 2001, Miami (Fla.)
Kudos to Peyton Manning for helping put another guy on this
list, even if he’s not on here himself. Wayne went from excelling
alongside Harrison to proving worthy of taking over as the main
man, keeping the Colts near the top of the NFL and getting them to
another Super Bowl. He beats a solid field that includes teammate
Joseph Addai, Heath Miller and Keith Bulluck.
Nnamdi Asomugha, S, Oakland Raiders, 2003, California
Welcome to the party, Raiders. Alas, this great pick is likely
to leave the club when free agency begins. They’ve already made the
two-time All-Pro, and NFL man of the year for all his off-field
good deeds, the highest-paid defensive back. Now he’s expected to
cash in again. His toughest competition here was Todd Heap.
Logan Mankins, G, New England Patriots, 2005, Fresno State
The way this powerhouse club has been built, it’s fitting that
its only appearance on this list is with an interior offensive
lineman taken with the final pick of the first round, out of a
non-BCS school. Mankins is a two-time All-Pro who protects Tom
Brady (a sixth-rounder, by the way). Other guys up for this choice
were Mathias Kiwanuka and Anthony Gonzalez.
NOTE: The length of the first round has fluctuated:
25 picks – 1990.
26 picks – 1967, 1969-75.
27 picks – 1968, 1982, 1986, 1988, 1991.
28 picks – 1976-81, 1983-85, 1987, 1989, 1992.
29 picks – 1993-94.
30 picks – 1996-98.
31 picks – 1999-2001, 2008.
32 picks – 1995, 2002-7, 2009-10.
This list did not take into consideration supplemental