As wild dreams go, this NFL draft was the Playboy Mansion on alumni night.
Five Pro Football Hall of Fame players selected in the first round – a number that will swell to six when Washington Redskins cornerback Darrell Green reaches eligibility. Three franchise quarterbacks who would lead their teams to 10 Super Bowl appearances and obliterate league passing records. Not to be forgotten: one of the best running backs and offensive linemen in history.
Yes, 1983 was a great year to have a first-round pick.
With that particular draft in mind, we got to thinking. If first-round picks mean as much as NFL personnel gurus say they do, what were the greatest first-round picks in league history? Who was the greatest No. 1 ever? The greatest No. 2? And has there even been a greatest No. 32?
So we peeled into the league's voluminous 1,500-page encyclopedia, in search of the ultimate first round – the best No. 1 picks of all time. Some opinions formed won't be surprising, with teams like Pittsburgh, Washington, San Francisco and Baltimore/Indianapolis each landing three of the best first-round picks taken at their respective positions.
But some of the opinions are bound to infuriate. Like Richard Seymour being named the best No. 6 pick in history or the Colts having a quarterback and two wideouts on the list – none named Peyton Manning or Marvin Harrison.
At best, the list is a fluid argument. At worst, some will find it to be an atrocity (like Steelers fans who will see that only two of their famed 1970s draft picks made the cut). Keep in mind that this list doesn't include the USFL draft, which was talent rich, or supplemental picks, which produced some great players as well. And of course, realize that picks 29-32 have a rather limited base of players because league expansion is still fresh.
With all of those factors in mind, here is our list of the best No. 1 picks since the league's merger in 1970.
Many apologies to Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning. Manning might take this spot before it's all over, but Elway gets the nod for having the ultimate mix of credentials: arm strength, clutch play, toughness and statistics. Not to mention the fact that he never had the dominant defenses provided Bradshaw and Aikman. Elway's five Super Bowl appearances are still plenty impressive, particularly the back-to-back championship wins. He hung up his cleats with one more Super Bowl run likely left in him, too. And while he never actually played for the Colts, that doesn't mean they didn't take the right guy.
Marshall Faulk has a legitimate claim to this spot, but Taylor still resonates as perhaps the most feared defensive player in the history of the league. He had speed, strength, and intimidation, and was one of the few defensive players consistently capable of making a game-deciding play. His off-the-field issues leave a slight tarnish on his legacy, but even that can't stand in the way of him being considered the best No. 2 pick ever.
Simeon Rice, Anthony Munoz and Steve McNair deserve honorable mention, but Sanders will likely never be duplicated when it comes to his combination of shiftiness and pure running ability. He was by no means a complete running back, but he was the definition of a player who could break an 80-yard touchdown under any circumstances. And he likely would still hold the league's all-time rushing mark if he hadn't unexpectedly retired in the latter stages of his prime.
Derrick Thomas and Jonathan Ogden get plenty of consideration, but Payton defined toughness at his position – not to mention the city he represented. He set the bar for complete backs with his ability to run, catch and block. And his style mixed power, athleticism and speed. He won a Super Bowl, retired as the league's all-time leading rusher, and is still remembered as one of the best character guys the NFL has ever seen.
Deion or LaDainian Tomlinson? It's amazing that after seeing Tomlinson play only six seasons, this is already a tough choice. But for now, Sanders and his two Super Bowl rings get the honors. Cornerback might be the toughest position to play in the NFL outside of quarterback. Sanders was simply dominant in pass coverage, and a dangerous kick returner as well. His run support and flashy demeanor left something to be desired, but skill-wise he could realistically cut the field in half for opposing passing attacks.
This is bound to be a controversial selection with so many superb candidates: John Riggins, Tim Brown, Walter Jones and Torry Holt. Seymour wins out with his three Super Bowl rings, and the fact that he's been the Patriots' best defensive player during his six-year career. He isn't the sexiest pick because he hasn't loaded up on sacks while primarily playing in the 3-4 defense and then moving to defensive tackle in 4-3 sets. But he's the Tom Brady of the Patriots' defense, and he's just hit his prime. Enough said.
Phil Simms and Troy Vincent have compelling arguments. However, Bailey now belongs in the conversation for best cornerback in history, and has done so in an era when pass-interference and illegal contact rules put his position at an extreme disadvantage. He's arguably the only true "shutdown" cornerback left in the NFL, and it has become absurd to throw in his direction in the red zone.
Willie Roaf and Mike Munchak deserve a tip of the cap for being prolific at their offensive line positions. But Lott lands the honor for being the best safety in league history. He was cut in the monstrous mold of current hitters like Roy Williams and Sean Taylor, but also had the coverage abilities of Ed Reed. Lott was the complete package, and there has yet to be a safety that can approach him.
Brian Urlacher could take this spot before it's all over, but Matthews was one of the elite players at his position (wherever Houston put him) for a ridiculous 19 seasons. He blocked for some of the most prolific offenses in league history and landed in the Pro Bowl a record-tying 14 times.
Another pick with plenty of candidates: guys like Jerome Bettis, Marcus Allen and Willie Anderson. Woodson was a Pro Bowler an astonishing 11 times, and a key member of the 2000 Ravens defense that might be the best in league history. A complete cornerback who could cover physical and finesse wideouts, he didn't surrender anything in run support, either. And his play didn't drop off when he was moved to safety later in his career.
Dwight Freeney is making a push for this spot, but for now it belongs to Irvin. A newly minted Hall of Famer with three Super Bowl rings, Irvin was a perfect prototype of the big, physical receiver with speed. His off-field issues were a big headache and a spinal injury cut his career short, but neither changes his impact. He was one of the most consistently elite players of his era, and an irreplaceable cog in the Cowboys' offense in the championship years.
Warrick Dunn and Clay Matthews were very good players tabbed here, and Shawne Merriman has a great start to his career. But Sapp is unquestionably the best player ever taken at this spot, and second place isn't even close. Love him or hate him, Sapp changed the way we thought about defensive tackles as impact players. A consistent double-team in his prime who sometimes drew triple-team attention, he will end his career as the best pass-rushing defensive tackle in NFL history. He won a Super Bowl, made the players around him better, and was remarkably durable for the beating he took at his position.
Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow get votes, but the best player tabbed at this slot was clearly Harris. He's a nine-time Pro Bowler with four Super Bowl rings, and owner of quite possibly the most legendary play in postseason history (the Immaculate Reception). In an era when running backs were vital to survival, Harris was the cog that made the Steelers go. He was the quintessential workhorse, and carried the offense through the first half of Bradshaw's career.
There have been plenty of good players taken at this slot – guys like Tommie Harris, Jeremy Shockey, Reuben Brown, Eddie George – and seven-time Pro Bowler Randy Gradishar was an immense talent. But it's unlikely we'll see another one lead his team to four straight Super Bowls. Yes, Kelly and the Bills never managed to secure a ring, but his stats were stellar, and leading a team to four straight Super Bowls will likely never happen again.
For whatever reason, this spot hasn't produced "great" players. There was a smattering of good ones, including Cincinnati wideout Issac Curtis, who made four consecutive Pro Bowls in the 1970s. But the title of best No. 15 pick should go to Mobley, who won two Super Bowl rings and was an All Pro with the Broncos before having his career cut short by a spinal injury. Mobley was arguably the best defensive player on the field for the Broncos during his prime, and one of the league's fastest linebackers.
There has been a wealth of impressive talent (Troy Polamalu, Santana Moss, Julian Peterson and Jevon Kearse) selected at this spot. But who are we kidding: Rice is easily the best No. 16 pick ever and probably the best draft pick in league history. He left the game with mind-boggling stats and a career résumé that will likely be untouchable unless the league just does away with cornerbacks altogether. Simply put, Rice is probably the best player in the history of the NFL.
Steve Hutchinson is going to be a Hall of Famer, and Doug Williams won a Super Bowl and set a historic precedent for black quarterbacks in the NFL. But neither had a chance of securing the title as best No. 17 pick of all time. This one was as simple to call as Rice at No. 16. Smith was the complete back – running, receiving and blocking – and was a quality guy as well. Three Super Bowl rings, a perennial Pro Bowler and the league's all-time leading rusher; a title he should hold for a while.
No. 18 overall hasn't churned out much more than a cast of solid talent. That makes Monk, who has near as you can get Hall of Fame credentials without actually getting in, the easy pick. Three Super Bowl rings, and he retired as the league's all-time leader in receptions, single-season catches and consecutive games with a catch. He was a quiet, humble star, which may have something to do with his detriment among Hall of Fame voters.
This might have been the toughest pick to call and any choice was bound to ruffle some feathers. There were some good players to consider, including Shaun Alexander and Jack Tatum. But ultimately it was Marvin Harrison battling it out with McDaniel for the title of best No. 19 pick ever. Harrison will probably take the honors by the time he retires, but the nod goes to McDaniel now, for his 12 straight Pro Bowls and his standing as one of the greatest guards to ever play the game. Harrison's Super Bowl ring should probably give him the edge right now, but I'm giving McDaniel some extra credit for being the sole bearer of his own success. Harrison has the luxury of one of the greatest quarterbacks in history throwing him the ball.
This is another one of those spots that has produced some good players, guys like Javon Walker, Adam Archuleta and Steve Atwater. But Youngblood is a no-brainer. A Hall of Famer and five-time All Pro who played in the 1980 Super Bowl with a fractured fibula, he was the essence of today's defensive end – a mixture of strength, toughness and speed that few ends boasted in the 1970s. Twice named NFC defensive player of the year, Youngblood was also a member of the 1970's All-Decade team.
Basically, this pick boils down to Swann vs. Randy Moss and how you feel about their respective numbers. As it stands, Moss has roughly double the career yardage and receiving touchdowns of Swann. And Swann' didn't quite have the impact on a defense in his heyday as Moss. But Swann has a few things Randy doesn't: four Super Bowl rings, a Super Bowl MVP (first receiver to ever win the award), and the respect of all his former teammates. Not only did Swann put up three straight huge performances in the Super Bowl, he conducted himself with class all the way. In this particular argument, that is taken into account when separating who was the better pick.
Jack Reynolds gets some consideration, particularly with the two Super Bowl rings he won late in his career with the 49ers. But the nod goes to Rison, who was a better player than people seem to remember. He had nice career numbers: five Pro Bowls, 10,205 receiving yards, 84 touchdowns, and a Super Bowl win with the Green Bay Packers (which saw him open the game with a 54-yard touchdown catch from Brett Favre).
Some might make the argument for Ty Law in this spot, but he's not in the Hall of Fame and he may never get there. Ray Guy had a great career, too, winning three Super Bowls and establishing himself as perhaps the best punter in NFL history. But come on: he's a punter. A three-time Pro Bowler who finished his career with an impressive 662 receptions and 7,980 receiving yards (and 47 touchdown catches), Newsome was one of the toughest tight ends to ever take the field. He never missed a single game in his career – 198 straight in the regular season.
There haven't been a lot of impact selections at No. 24. Steven Jackson has a chance to be special, and guys like Dallas Clark and Eric Moulds have been solid. But nobody has come close to Reed, who in only five seasons is already working on a Hall of Fame résumé. A three-time Pro Bowler who earned NFL defensive player of the year in 2004, Reed owns the longest interception return in history (106 yards) and most interception return yardage (358) in a single season. He has 27 interceptions in five seasons and is considered one of the most complete safeties, if not the best, in the game today.
This pick hasn't exactly oozed great players. Bobby Butler had a long career, and guys like Charles Grant, Donovin Darius and Chris Hovan have been good-but-not great. So Washington gets the crown, with his four Pro Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl ring with the Patriots. He'll be remembered as one of the biggest run-clogging defensive tackles in history, with his weight ballooning over 370 pounds at times. What's been most remarkable is Washington's durability: He's going into his 17th NFL season – a span in which he's played in 231 regular season games.
This has been a remarkably lucrative pick over the years, producing Lito Sheppard, Alan Faneca, Dana Stubblefield, Robert Porcher and Jim Harbaugh. But only Hall of Famer Joe Delamielleure rivaled Lewis for the right to be best No. 26 pick ever. Still, the nod goes to Lewis, because he'll be a Hall of Famer, too, and he was the centerpiece of the famed 2000 Ravens defense, which might go down as the best ever. Lewis gets docked points for his role in obstructing a police investigation of a double-homicide in 2000, but even that's not enough to keep him out of this spot.
Larry Johnson was a great pick at this spot, but even he doesn't come within a continent of Marino, who would likely be considered the greatest player in NFL history had he only won even one Super Bowl. Still, Marino's one of the most spectacular to ever pick up a football, and still holds nearly every major passing record in the game (Green Bay's Brett Favre is within reach of a handful). While Elway may have had the strongest arm the league has ever seen, Marino had the quickest release. While the lack of a Super Bowl will forever haunt his résumé, he should get more credit for the numerous times he put average Dolphins teams on his back and took them to the playoffs.
You have to be great to keep Derrick Brooks out of this slot. That applies to Green. While he may never had some of the dominant single-season performances of Brooks, Green did play in seven Pro Bowls and held down a starting cornerback spot for an astonishing 20 years in Washington (tied with Jackie Slater for the most seasons with one team). That's a feat we will undoubtedly never see again at the cornerback spot. The fastest player in the NFL for many of his years, Green notched 54 career interceptions and won two Super Bowls with the Redskins, while maintaining his reputation as one of the best character guys in the NFL.
With only 14 players to choose from at this spot, the pickings are pretty slim. Blake Brockermeyer had a decent career, and Nick Barnett and Nick Mangold look like they have promising careers ahead of them. But in what's essentially a best-available situation, Alexander is the pick, with his three 1,000-yard-plus receiving seasons and career totals of 6,971 receiving yards and 40 touchdowns in nine seasons.
This pick has produced some decent talent despite only having a pool of 12 players having come off the board here in the first round. Keith Bulluck and Patrick Kerney have both made a Pro Bowl and been good starters. And guys like Heath Miller, Joseph Addai and Kevin Jones have gotten off to a good start. That leaves Wayne as the top No. 30 pick in history. Despite playing across from Manning's favorite target in Harrison, Wayne has developed into the true deep threat on that offense, carving out three straight 1,000-yard seasons, a Pro Bowl berth in 2006 and 37 touchdown catches in the last five seasons.
Only nine players have been taken at No. 31 overall, but it's produced good young players such as Todd Heap, Mike Patterson and Nnamdi Asomugha. Wilson has been one of the best playmaking middle linebackers in the league since getting tabbed by Denver at this spot. He's made four Pro Bowls and despite getting shopped this offseason, he's still got some quality years left ahead of him.
With only six players in the pool at this spot, it's probably pointless even picking a player. But for what it's worth, Mankins was slid into the lineup from day one – the first Patriots offensive lineman to start every game as a rookie since John Hannah. He's made big strides both of his first two seasons, and if he continues his current trajectory, should be heading for his first Pro Bowl berth in 2006.
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