NFL draft: Power Ranking every No. 1 NFL draft pick

·17 min read

On draft day, there’s nothing more exhilarating -- and, for some teams, terrifying -- than holding the No. 1 pick. You’ve got the entire field laid out in front of you, knowing that a couple dozen of these players will one day develop into Pro Bowlers, and a handful of them will become Hall of Famers. But which ones? Ah, there’s the rub. Sometimes the choice is a simple one -- or seems simple. When Peyton Manning is available, you pick Peyton Manning before the commissioner finishes saying “you’re on the clock” right? Well, if you recall, even that pick wasn't cut and dried. Some thought Ryan Leaf was the guy.

Since the AFL-NFL merger, a half-century’s worth of drafts have resulted in 52 No. 1 draft picks. Some of them rank among the greatest players in NFL history, many more of them … do not. It’s a testament to just how much of a crapshoot the draft itself is — when you’ve got this many blown picks at the very top of the draft, there’s no other conclusion to draw but that the NFL is one grand game of fate.

With that in mind, then, let’s pass judgment on these picks — not the players themselves, per se, but their value to the team that drafted them. Pick a guy who plays for you for a decade? Great pick! Pick a guy who refuses to wear your colors? Not a great pick! Eli Manning and John Elway, for instance, never played a down for the team that drafted them. Points for targeting the right guy, deductions for not being able to put him in uniform. (Our dead-last pick will inspire plenty of outrage, but there’s a very good reason this icon belongs at the bottom of this list. Hint: it’s not his fault.)

Obviously, this ranking is weighted heavily in the direction of older picks, since we don’t know how, say, Baker Mayfield or Jared Goff will finish out their careers. A dodgy pick could turn out to be genius, and vice versa. But enough preamble. Let’s roll, starting with one of those mortal locks that looked good at the time and only glowed brighter every year:

Who's that fresh-faced lad? (AP)
Who's that fresh-faced lad? (AP)
  1. Peyton Manning (Colts, 1998): As you’ll see on this list, very few draft picks delivered on a consistent basis for the team that drafted them … and none delivered the way Manning did, with excellence from the jump. Manning was an instant success in Indianapolis, resurrecting a forgotten franchise and winning a Super Bowl for the city. There was some debate between Manning and Leaf, but the Colts ultimately settled on Manning, a franchise-changing decision that paid off from every possible angle. Picked before: Charles Woodson, Randy Moss

  2. Bruce Smith (Bills, 1985): NFL career sack leader. Eleven-time Pro Bowler. Heart and soul of the great 1990s Buffalo Bills defense. Four-time Super Bowl, uh, participant. Now this is a strong No. 1 pick. Picked before: Chris Doleman, Jerry Rice, Andre Reed

  3. Earl Campbell (Oilers, 1978): Set the tone for the dominant Houston teams of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Pounded himself out of the league by his aggressive running style, but remains one of the defining players of his era. Picked before: James Lofton, Ozzie Newsome

  4. Terry Bradshaw (Steelers, 1970): After an ugly few years to start his career — years he would never get now — Bradshaw went on to quarterback four Super Bowl-winning teams, which is really about all you can ask out of a top draft pick. Picked before: Hacksaw Reynolds, Mel Blount

  5. Orlando Pace (Rams, 1997): An absolute beast of a lineman who anchored the line that blocked for some of the most explosive offenses in NFL history. Played 13 years in the NFL, 12 of them for the Rams, and sailed into the Hall of Fame. Picked before: Tony Gonzalez, Jason Taylor

  6. Troy Aikman (Cowboys, 1989): The epitome of “Cowboy QB,” Aikman led Dallas to three Super Bowls and played his entire 12-year career under center in Dallas. Key cog in one of the most successful eras in Dallas history. A decent selection. Picked before: Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, Deion Sanders

  7. OJ Simpson (Bills, 1969): A force of nature at running back, he was by far the best player on some truly terrible Buffalo teams. Held records for both in-season and in-game yardage pickups. Ran into some troubles after his football career. Picked before: Joe Greene, Charlie Joyner

  8. Ed “Too Tall” Jones (Cowboys, 1974): Played 15 seasons with the Cowboys, only pausing briefly for a stint in pro boxing. One of the cornerstones of the Cowboy defense of the 1970s. Picked before: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert

  9. Lee Roy Selmon (Buccaneers, 1976): The first-ever pick of the expansion Buccaneers, Selmon paid off huge. An enormous, constantly-honored defensive end, he was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise woeful Tampa Bay team, and played his entire career in the Creamsicle orange. Picked before: Chuck Muncie, Mike Haynes

  10. Ron Yary (Vikings, 1968): The model of a high return-on-investment draft pick, Yary played o-line for the Vikings for the entire decade of the 1970s, ranking as one of their best players ever and eventually earning enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Picked before: Claude Humphrey, Larry Csonka, Ken Stabler

  11. Cam Newton (Panthers, 2011): A revolutionary player who continues to deliver dividends for Carolina. Newton takes heat for his decision-making, but it’s undeniable that he’s made Carolina both relevant and fascinating to watch when he’s got the ball in his hands. Put the Panthers into the Super Bowl once, but will need help to do it again. Picked ahead of: Von Miller, Julio Jones, J.J. Watt

  12. Andrew Luck (Colts, 2012): So heralded that he could have gone No. 1 after his junior year, but stayed in school. (The No. 1 team that year, Carolina, ended up with Cam Newton, so they did OK.) When healthy, Luck has kept the Colts relevant if not dominant. His window remains wide open; it’s up to the Colts to help him out. Picked before: Russell Wilson, Nick Foles, Kirk Cousins

  13. Eli Manning (Chargers, 2004): The rare win-win trade of a No. 1 pick; San Diego picked Manning even though he said he’d never play for the Chargers. But San Diego swung a deal to trade Manning to the Giants for Philip Rivers; all these years later, both teams are still running out the same QBs. Two Super Bowls, two Super Bowl MVPs … decent career. Picked before: Larry Fitzgerald, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger

  14. George Rogers (Saints, 1981): An immediate success for the Saints, which in the 1980s was a low bar to clear. Led the league in rushing his rookie year, and would later win a Super Bowl with Washington. Picked before: Lawrence Taylor, Ronnie Lott, Howie Long

  15. John Elway (Colts, 1983): A case study in how you’ve got to use your assets wisely; Baltimore drafted Elway even though he wanted nothing to do with the team, then flipped Elway for future perennial All-Pro o-lineman Chris Hinton and another No. 1 pick, which was about as good a deal as the woeful Colts could swing. (San Diego got a better deal for Eli, that’s indisputable.) Elway, meanwhile, went on to a mildly respectable career. Picked before: Eric Dickerson, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino

  16. Bubba Smith (Colts, 1967): A dominating force on the defensive line, Smith suffered injuries early in his career and played for three teams over the course of his decade in the game. Later became even more famous for his roles in the “Police Academy” movies and beer commercials. Picked before: Bob Griese, Floyd Little, Steve Spurrier

  17. Michael Vick (Falcons, 2001): Focusing entirely on his football accomplishments — which, with Vick, is an incredibly tough ask — Vick was a tremendous short-term success in Atlanta, revitalizing a dead franchise and turning forgotten NFC South games into must-watch events. Picked before: LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees

  18. Steve Bartkowski (Falcons, 1975): The marquee player for a moribund franchise, Bartkowski led the Falcons in their rare pre-Michael Vick/Matt Ryan successes, and ran up huge stats on losing teams. Picked before: Walter Payton, Randy White

  19. Vinny Testaverde (Buccaneers, 1987): After one of the more decorated college careers in then-recent history, Testaverde was spectacularly unspectacular in Tampa Bay, and team and player parted ways after just a few years. But Testaverde stuck around the league for an astounding 21 seasons, bouncing from team to team. Picked ahead of: Rod Woodson, Cris Carter, Jim Harbaugh

  20. Russell Maryland (Cowboys, 1991): The Cowboys only picked Maryland because they were unable to reach a deal with Raghib Ismail, even after Dallas traded with New England for the top pick. Played on the Cowboys’ three Super Bowl-winning teams in the 1990s, so it worked out well enough for him. Picked before: Brett Favre, Aeneas Williams

  21. Drew Bledsoe (Patriots, 1993): Best known as the last guy to hold the Patriots QB job before You-Know-Who, Bledsoe had a respectable 14-year career and even took the Patriots to a Super Bowl. After being supplanted by Tom Brady, he suited up for the Bills and Cowboys. Picked before: Willie Roaf, Jerome Bettis, Michael Strahan

  22. Matthew Stafford (Lions, 2009): How do you even evaluate Matthew Stafford at this point? He’s been a much-better-than-average QB, but his teams have done little. How much is his fault, especially when he might end up one of the league’s all-time passing leaders? Great pickup by the Lions, who did little to follow it up. Picked before: Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Clay Matthews

  23. Mario Williams (Texans, 2006): Currently without a team, he’s been an effective defensive end for both the Texans and the Bills. Delivered exactly what was expected of him, and the Texans can’t have much buyers’ remorse considering they were also contemplating Reggie Bush. Picked before: Reggie Bush, Vince Young, D’Brickashaw Ferguson

  24. Keyshawn Johnson (Jets, 1996): Almost as good as he thought he was, and that’s saying something. Spent four years with the Bill Parcells-led Jets before beginning an odyssey across the NFL. Picked before: Ray Lewis, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens

  25. Irving Fryar (Patriots, 1984): No disrespect to Fryar, but the talent pool for 1984’s draft had been diluted by the USFL; supplemental post-USFL-dissolution picks Steve Young and Reggie White ended up being decent NFL players. Fryar, the first wide receiver picked No. 1, had a long career for a series of NFL teams, and helped the Patriots reach their first, pathetic Super Bowl, where they were trounced by the ‘85 Bears. Picked ahead of: Wilber Marshall, Boomer Esiason

  26. Billy Sims (Lions, 1980): A Heisman Trophy winner, Sims rolled into Detroit with high hopes but never quite delivered on them, for two reasons. First, a catastrophic knee injury ended his career after five seasons, and second, he played all those seasons in Detroit. Picked before: Anthony Munoz, Art Monk

  27. Jim Plunkett (Patriots, 1971): Eli before Eli. Two Super Bowl victories and an MVP, but still not a Hall of Fame enshrinee. He started his career with the Pats, but saw his greatest success years later with the Raiders. Picked before: Archie Manning, Dan Pastorini, Jack Tatum

  28. Dan Wilkinson (Bengals, 1994): An 11-year career at defensive tackle isn’t a bad record, but you wouldn’t be wrong to expect more from a No. 1 pick. Wilkinson played for four franchises over the course of his career, but never ended up reaching leaderboards or garnering postseason honors. Picked before: Marshall Faulk, Willie McGinest, Larry Allen

  29. Alex Smith (49ers, 2005): The ultimate good-enough-to-get-you-to-the-playoffs quarterback, Smith served admirably for the 49ers and Chiefs before being deposed by Colin Kaepernick and Patrick Mahomes, respectively. A gruesome injury in Washington last year leaves his future in doubt, but he’s been a viable if not outstanding QB solution for years. Picked before: Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Rodgers, and also Aaron Rodgers

  30. Jared Goff (Rams, 2016): Here’s the question: is Goff the marginally effective quarterback we saw in the first part of his career and the Super Bowl, or is he the stats-piling demon we saw in the regular season last year? He’s got plenty of time left to travel either path. Picked before: Carson Wentz, Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott

  31. Carson Palmer (Bengals, 2003): Compiled a decent career as a midlevel quarterback for midlevel teams -- Bengals, Raiders, Cardinals -- and garnered three Pro Bowl nods. Might not even be done yet, though he didn’t play last year and was injured most of 2017. Picked before: Andre Johnson, Terrell Suggs, Troy Polamalu

  32. Jadeveon Clowney (Texans, 2014): Still plenty of time to move up this list, the three-time Pro Bowler remains best known for a brutal college tackle where he threw a Michigan running back into the earth’s core. After an injury-ridden start to his career, he’s picked up speed and appears to be a Texans fixture for some time to come. Picked before: Khalil Mack, Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Donald

  33. Baker Mayfield (Browns, 2018): Only reason he’s this low is that we don’t have enough tape on him yet to make a full verdict. So far, though, he’s been exactly what Cleveland needed -- both a talented QB and an outsized personality. This could end up being an all-timer. Picked before: Saquon Barkley, Sam Darnold, Lamar Jackson

  34. David Carr (Texans, 2002): Doomed from the start, playing quarterback for an expansion team. Sacked more often than groceries. Ended up ping-ponging between multiple teams, but picked up a Super Bowl ring as Eli Manning’s backup in 2011. Picked before: Ed Reed, Julius Peppers

  35. Eric Fisher (Chiefs, 2013): Struggled early at offensive tackle for KC, but has improved to the point that he was named to the Pro Bowl this past season. Still room to improve. Picked before: Tyler Eifert, Le’Veon Bell, Travis Kelce

  36. Jameis Winston (Buccaneers, 2015): The farther we get from 2015, the more suspect this pick starts to appear, largely because of Winston’s continuing bad decision-making both on and off the field. Very nearly lost his job to Ryan Fitzpatrick last year, but got an extension from Tampa Bay after the season. Picked before: Todd Gurley, Amari Cooper, Marcus Mariota

  37. Myles Garrett (Browns, 2017): Very much an in-progress pick, but there’s every indication Garrett will continue to move way up on this list. The defensive end has won accolades both as a rookie and in his second season, and he’s already a Browns defensive captain. Picked before: Patrick Mahomes, Alvin Kamara, JuJu Smith-Schuster

  38. Sam Bradford (Rams, 2010): Won rookie of the year as a fresh-faced young quarterback, which portended good things. It didn’t work out that way. There was only so far he could take the Rams, and he lost the entire 2014 season to injury. He’s now a free agent, but he’ll get picked up as an injury replacement before long. Picked before: Ndamukong Suh, Dez Bryant, Devin McCourty

  39. Jake Long (Dolphins, 2008): An immediate, if short-term, success at offensive tackle for Miami, he won awards as a rookie and four Pro Bowl nods. He played five seasons with the Dolphins, then hopped from team to team for another four years. Picked before: Matt Ryan, DeSean Jackson, Ray Rice

  40. Jeff George (Colts, 1990): Signed the largest rookie contract in history at the time, and played four less-than-stellar years for Indianapolis. He then bounced around the league, as quarterbacks do, clashing with coaches and front offices, but managed to play for 15 seasons, which is no small feat. Picked before: Emmitt Smith, Cortez Kennedy, Junior Seau

  41. Ricky Bell (Buccaneers, 1977): A tragic figure who died before he turned 30, Bell had one productive season at running back for Tampa Bay; he ended up there because Bucs coach John McKay had coached him at USC. Bell led the Bucs to their first playoff win, but died of heart failure at age 29. Picked before: Tony Dorsett, who was literally the very next pick

  42. Steve Emtman (Colts, 1992): A college beast, he couldn’t stay on the field for Indianapolis. Injuries followed him; he only played one full season in his six years in the league. He’s a college football Hall of Famer; you wonder how he would have fared had he stayed in games. Picked before: Desmond Howard, Troy Vincent

  43. Aundray Bruce (Falcons, 1988): A linebacker who also saw some action at tight end, Bruce played 11 seasons in the NFL for the Falcons and the L.A./Oakland Raiders, but never put up the numbers you’d expect from a top pick. Picked before: Tim Brown, Michael Irvin, Thurman Thomas

  44. Walt Patulski (Bills, 1972): A bruising defensive end out of Notre Dame, he was a fast starter for Buffalo, but he became expendable after just a few seasons and suffered a career-ending knee injury after one year with the St. Louis Cardinals. Picked before: Franco Harris

  45. Courtney Brown (Browns, 2000): You’d think a guy named Brown going to Cleveland was fate, but not so. After a productive 16-game rookie year, Brown, a defensive end, fell off the map, suffering injuries and failing to produce until Cleveland cut him loose. He played one last unspectacular season for Denver before retiring. Picked before: Brian Urlacher, Shaun Alexander, John Abraham, some guy named Brady

  46. Kenneth Sims (Patriots, 1982): Reliable but unspectacular eight-year career as a defensive end for the pre-dynasty Patriots. Picked before: Marcus Allen, Mike Munchak, Andre Tippett

  47. Tim Couch (Browns, 1999): Quarterback who helped Cleveland get to the postseason, a miraculous achievement in itself. Only played five seasons, but is the only QB to throw two 50+ yard touchdown passes with 0:00 on the clock. Picked before: Donovan McNabb, Edgerrin James, Champ Bailey

  48. Ki-Jana Carter (Bengals, 1995): An often-injured running back, he played full seasons in only two of his first five years in the league. Lasted only four years and 32 total games for Cincinnati. Picked before: Warren Sapp, Ty Law, Derrick Brooks, Curtis Martin

  49. Tom Cousineau (Bills, 1979): Never actually played for the Bills; played in the Canadian League for three years, but gets points in this ranking for getting dealt to Cleveland for a pick that turned out to be Jim Kelly. Decent but unremarkable six-year NFL career in Cleveland and San Francisco. Picked before: Joe Montana, Dan Hampton, Kellen Winslow

  50. John Matuszak (Oilers, 1973): A monster of a defensive end, he only lasted one season with Houston, which dealt him to Kansas City. He caught on with Oakland, but injuries and drug use put a ceiling on his football career. He would go on to star in movies and TV shows (Miami Vice, the Dukes of Hazzard) throughout the ‘80s before dying of an accidental overdose. Picked before: John Hannah, Dan Fouts

  51. JaMarcus Russell (Raiders, 2007): QB who held out for a guaranteed deal, which is fine. Went 7-18 as a starter, throwing 18 touchdowns against 38 turnovers, which is not fine. Cut after three seasons, and never played in the NFL again. Picked before: Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson

  52. Bo Jackson (Buccaneers, 1986): Remember: this is not a ranking of players’ careers, but of their value as draft picks. And no team in history blew its No. 1 draft pick worse than Tampa Bay in 1986. The team effectively got Jackson kicked off Auburn’s baseball team by decoying him into an NCAA violation, possibly hoping that they could foreclose on his wide-open baseball options that way. An infuriated Jackson vowed he’d never play a down for the Buccaneers, and he held true to his word, signing instead with the Kansas City Royals. Tampa Bay was forced to surrender his rights — at least JaMarcus Russell took the field — and the Raiders took him in the seventh round of the 1987 draft. Picked before: Tony Casillas, Jim Everett, Charles Haley

Baker Mayfield's selection came with a bit more hype than most. (Getty)
Baker Mayfield's selection came with a bit more hype than most. (Getty)


Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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