NFL Draft history: Best and worst No. 3 picks in last 35 years

NFL Draft history: Best and worst No. 3 picks in last 35 years originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The New England Patriots are not total strangers to picking in the top three of the NFL Draft. It's actually happened seven times.

But they haven't been in that position for a while.

The last top-three pick the Patriots had was the No. 1 overall selection in 1993. They used it to select Washington State quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who helped restore the franchise to credibility.

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The Patriots actually had the No. 1 pick three times (1982, 1984 and 1993) in a 11-year span.

New England enters the 2024 NFL Draft with the No. 3 pick after finishing at the bottom of the AFC standings with a 4-13 record during the 2023 season. It's the franchise's first No. 3 overall pick since 1966. The Patriots selected offensive tackle Karl Singer from Purdue with that pick, and he only played in 39 career games.

Will the Patriots make a better pick at No. 3 this time around? Here's a look at the best and worst No. 3 picks over the last 35 years.

Best No. 3 picks

2008: Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons

Ryan was a top-tier quarterback for more than a decade and ranks 7th in passing yards (62,972) and ninth in passing touchdowns (381) all time. He also won league MVP in 2016. If not for the Patriots' historic comeback in Super Bowl LI, Ryan would have a Super Bowl ring, too. Either way, the Falcons hit a massive home run with this pick.

2007: Joe Thomas, OT, Browns

The Browns haven't drafted very well since returning to the NFL in 1999, but Thomas was a phenomenal pick. He was one of the best left tackles of his era and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the 2023 class.

2004: Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals

Fitzgerald is a Hall of Famer and a top 10 wide receiver in league history. He ranks No. 2 all time in receiving yards (17,492), No. 2 in receptions (1,432) and No. 6 in receiving touchdowns (121). Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, he never enjoyed much success in the playoffs, mostly because he played his entire 17-year career with the Cardinals.

Larry Fitzgerald ranks second all-time in total receiving yards and receptions.
Larry Fitzgerald ranks second all-time in total receiving yards and receptions.

2003: Andre Johnson, WR, Texans

Johnson was a hyped prospect coming out of Miami, where he won a national title in 2001. He lived up to expectations by putting together a Hall of Fame-caliber resume that included seven 1,000-yard seasons and four All-Pro selections. His stats are really impressive, especially when you consider he never played with an elite quarterback.

1996: Simeon Rice, Edge, Cardinals

Rice was the 1996 Defensive Rookie of the Year and got selected to three All-Pro teams. His 122 sacks rank 21st all time, and he tallied 10-plus sacks eight times. He joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001 and was a key player on a historically great defense that helped the franchise win Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002.

1995: Steve McNair, QB, Oilers

McNair was one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks of his era and caused a lot of problems for opposing defenses. He helped lead the Titans to their only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history in 1999. He also was the co-league MVP with Peyton Manning in 2003. McNair finished his career with a 91-62 record.

1990: Cortez Kennedy, DT, Seahawks

Kennedy spent his entire 11-year career with the Seahawks and was selected to four All-Pro teams. He also won Defensive Player of the Year and finished fifth in MVP voting in 1992. Kennedy was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012.

1989: Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit Lions

Sanders is arguably the most talented running back in league history. His highlight reels are insane. Despite retiring earlier than many people expected in 1999, Sanders still ranks fourth in career rushing yards with 15,269 over nine seasons.

Barry Sanders ranks fourth on the NFL's all-time rushing list despite playing just nine seasons.
Barry Sanders ranks fourth on the NFL's all-time rushing list despite playing just nine seasons.

Worst No. 3 picks

2021: Trey Lance, QB, 49ers

Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and only Trevor Lawrence -- who went No. 1 overall to the Jaguars -- has worked out so far. In Lance's defense, injuries were a huge factor in why he wasn't able to impress in San Francisco, and the 49ers traded him to the Cowboys before the 2023 season. Luckily for the Niners, Brock Purdy has emerged as a very good starting quarterback despite being a seventh-round pick.

2018: Sam Darnold, QB, Jets

Darnold played three seasons in New York and compiled a 13-25 record in that span. Not all of that was his fault, but he failed to meet expectations after a fantastic career at USC. Darnold is currently the backup QB for the 49ers.

2017: Solomon Thomas, DT, 49ers

Thomas played 48 games and tallied six sacks over four seasons with the 49ers. Notable players taken after Thomas in the top 15 of the 2017 draft include Leonard Fournette, Jamal Adams, Mike Williams, Christian McCaffrey, Patrick Mahomes, Marshon Lattimore, Deshaun Watson and Derek Barnett.

Solomon Thomas played a total of 48 games over four seasons in San Francisco.
Solomon Thomas played a total of 48 games over four seasons in San Francisco.

2013: Dion Jordan, DE, Dolphins

Jordan tallied just 13.5 sacks over six seasons from 2013 through 2020. He missed the entire 2015 campaign for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Jordan never lived up to the hype after his stellar career at the University of Oregon.

2012: Trent Richardson, RB, Browns

Richardson was fantastic at Alabama, and then he ran for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie for the Browns. Unfortunately for Richardson, it was all downhill from there. He was traded to the Colts in 2013 and was out of the league following the 2014 campaign.

2002: Joey Harrington, QB, Lions

Expectations were high for Harrington after he won Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting as a senior at Oregon in 2001. He played four seasons in Detroit and never won more than six games. He led the league with 22 interceptions in 2003. Harrington retired after the 2007 season.

Joey Harrington lasted just six seasons in the NFL.
Joey Harrington lasted just six seasons in the NFL.

1999: Akili Smith, QB, Bengals

Smith was a disaster in the NFL. He threw five touchdown passes and started just 17 games in four seasons with the Bengals. Smith was out of the league by 2002. Two Hall of Famers (Champ Bailey and Edgerrin James) and another Hall of Fame-caliber player (Torry Holt) were selected with three of the next four picks.

1994: Heath Shuler, QB, Commanders

Shuler played 29 games in four seasons and was out of the league in 1997. He threw 13 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions in 19 games for the Commanders. This is one of the worst picks in league history.