Best first-round draft picks in NFL history

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Rice, Lott among best first-round draft picks in NFL history originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

There are hundreds of picks in the NFL Draft, but the first-round prospects will steal the show starting tonight.

No, not every first-rounder is guaranteed to become a star in the league, but teams have first dibs on some of the top prospects available in that class the higher the pick is.

With the 2022 NFL Draft starting tonight at 8 p.m. ET, let’s take a look back at 10 of the best players in league history who got drafted in the first round:

Jerry Rice, WR: No. 16 overall in 1985

The San Francisco 49ers drafted the best wide receiver of all time in 1985. Rice came out of Mississippi Valley State and went on a legendary 20-year run in the NFL, where his legacy is cemented among the game’s legends. Rice holds NFL records in career receptions (1,549), career yards (22,895), career receiving touchdowns (197), total touchdowns (208) and career all-purpose yards (23,546). 

On top of that, Rice is a three-time Super Bowl champion, including one MVP in Super Bowl XXIII, a 13-time Pro Bowler, a 10-time first-team All-Pro selection, a two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year winner and the list continues. 

Peyton Manning, QB: No. 1 overall in 1998

The Indianapolis Colts drafted Peyton Manning out of Tennessee with the top overall pick in 1998, and the rest is history. Manning played 18 seasons in the league as a member of the Colts and Denver Broncos and has NFL records in most passing touchdowns in a season (55), most passing yards in a season (5,477) and all-time game-winning drives (54). 

He won a Super Bowl with each team he played for, including an MVP when the Colts won Super Bowl XLI. Manning also has five league MVPs, 14 Pro Bowl nods, two NFL Offensive Player of the Years and seven first-team All-Pros, among many other accolades.  

Lawrence Taylor, LB: No. 2 overall in 1981

The New York Giants drafted Lawrence Taylor out of North Carolina in 1981. Taylor played 13 seasons, all with New York. He finished his career with 142 official sacks (sacks became an official stat in 1982), 1,089 tackles, 54 forced fumbles and nine interceptions while revolutionizing the responsibilities of an outside linebacker. 

Taylor helped the Giants win Super Bowl XXI and XXV. He won the NFL MVP in 1986, when he also led the league in sacks. Taylor was selected to 10 Pro Bowls, had eight first-team All-Pro nods and won the Defensive Player of the Year three times.

Walter Payton, RB: No. 4 overall in 1975

The Chicago Bears selected Walter Payton out of Jackson State in 1975. Payton went on to become one of the most successful running backs in league history. He rushed for 16,726 yards throughout his 13-season career, which all came with Chicago. Payton was the all-time leading rusher until another player on this list surpassed him.

Payton helped the Bears win Super Bowl XX, and he also won NFL MVP in 1977, just two years after being drafted. Payton made nine Pro Bowls and appeared on the first-team All-Pro list five times. He also won the NFL Man of the Year award in 1977, which is now named after him and his efforts. 

John Elway, QB: No. 1 overall in 1983

The Denver Broncos picked John Elway out of Stanford No. 1 overall in 1983. Elway spent his entire 16-year career with the Broncos and went on to become one of the best quarterbacks of all time and is now the President of Football Operations for the franchise. 

Elway is a two-time Super Bowl champ, and he won the MVP in Super Bowl XXXIII. He won the league MVP in 1987 and earned nine Pro Bowl nods. He threw for 51,475 yards and 300 touchdowns during his time on the field. 

Ronnie Lott, DB: No. 8 overall in 1981

Before the 49ers hit a home run with the Rice pick, Ronnie Lott came on board in 1981 out of USC. Lott finished his 14-year career with 1,146 tackles, 63 interceptions, 16 force fumbles and 17 fumble recoveries. He played 10 seasons with San Francisco before stints with the then-Oakland Raiders and New York Jets.

Lott ended his career as a four-time Super Bowl champion to go with eight first-team All-Pro nods and 10 Pro Bowl selections. Lott was one of the most feared tacklers of all time with the way he delivered thunderous hits on opponents. 

Emmitt Smith, RB: No. 17 overall in 1990

The Dallas Cowboys took Emmitt Smith in the back half of the first round in 1990. The Florida product played 15 seasons in the NFL, with 13 coming in Dallas and the other two with the Arizona Cardinals. Smith posted NFL records of most career rushing yards (18,355), career rushing touchdowns (164) and career rushing attempts (4,409).

Smith played a crucial role in the Cowboys winning three Super Bowls during his time there, including being named the MVP of XXVIII. He was the league MVP in 1993, made eight Pro Bowls and was named to four first-team All-Pros, among other accolades. 

Deion Sanders, DB/WR/KR: No. 5 overall in 1989

The Atlanta Falcons took Deion Sanders with the fifth overall pick in 1989. The Florida State product became one of the most explosive players the league has ever seen, shining in roles as a defensive back, wide receiver and kick returner. Sanders also played for San Francisco, Dallas, Washington and Baltimore.

He won two Super Bowls, earned six first-team All-Pro nods, made eight Pro Bowls and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1994. His nickname “Prime Time” is one of the most renowned phrases in any sport. 

Anthony Munoz, OT: No. 3 overall in 1980

The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Anthony Munoz out of USC in 1980. Munoz played a vital role at left tackle for the Bengals and finished his 13-year career as one of the best offensive linemen in history. Though he never won a Super Bowl, he helped the Bengals reach two during his tenure. 

Munoz made 11 Pro Bowls along with earning nine first-team All-Pro nods. He started in 182 of 185 games he played in and was the Offensive Lineman of the Year in 1981 and 1988. Munoz illustrated the importance of investing in a quality offensive tackle, especially if they’re a blindside blocker for a quarterback.

Ray Lewis, LB: No. 26 overall in 1996

The Baltimore Ravens found a gem late in the first round in 1996. Ray Lewis came out of Miami and played all 17 of his seasons with the Ravens. He ended his career as the NFL leader in solo tackles (1,568), combined tackles (2,059) and most solo tackles in a season (156).

Lewis’ defensive prowess helped Baltimore win two Super Bowls, and Lewis also won MVP in Super Bowl XXXV. He was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year to go with 13 Pro Bowls and seven first-team All-Pro selections, among other accolades. He went down as one of the best linebackers in league history, which is incredible value for a late first-round selection.

Here are 22 honorable mentions in honor of the 2022 draft:

Marcus Allen, DB: No. 10 overall in 1982

Dan Marino, QB: No. 27 overall in 1983

Rod Woodson, DB: No. 10 overall in 1987

Michael Irvin, WR: No. 11 overall in 1988

Barry Sanders, RB: No. 3 overall in 1989

Jerome Bettis, RB: No. 10 overall in 1993

Marvin Harrison, WR: No. 19 overall in 1996

Tony Gonzalez, TE: No. 13 overall in 1997

Charles Woodson, DB: No. 4 overall in 1998

Randy Moss, WR: No. 21 overall in 1998

Champ Bailey, CB: No. 7 overall in 1999

Brian Urlacher, LB: No. 9 overall in 2000

Sebastian Janikowski, K: No. 17 overall in 2000

Ed Reed, DB: No. 24 overall in 2002

Troy Polamalu, DB: No. 16 overall in 2003

DeMarcus Ware, LB: No. 11 overall in 2005

Aaron Rodgers, QB: No. 24 overall in 2005

Calvin Johnson, WR: No. 2 overall in 2007

Adrian Peterson, RB: No. 7 overall in 2007

Darrelle Revis, CB: No. 14 overall in 2007

J.J. Watt, DE: No. 11 overall in 2011

Aaron Donald, DL: No. 13 overall in 2014