Larry Fitzgerald was the No. 3 overall pick by the Cardinals in 2004 after Eli Manning and Robert Gallery were the first two picks. Fitzgerald was one of five receivers taken in the first 15 picks that year and one of seven first rounders at the position, joining Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, Lee Evans, Michael Clayton, Michael Jenkins and Rashaun Woods.
The decision was an easy one for head coach Dennis Green to make despite taking receiver Bryant Johnson in the first round the year before and Anquan Boldin having a record-breaking rookie season. Fitzgerald was a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings when Green was the team’s head coach in the 90s and their history opened the door for Fitzgerald to be the team’s best receiver in franchise history.
After winning the Biletnikoff and finishing second in the Heisman in his last year at Pittsburgh, Fitzgerald has been one of the best players at his position the last decade with eight trips to the Pro Bowl. He has 909 receptions, 12,151 yards and 89 touchdowns to rank fifth, sixth and second among active NFL players.
Imagine how much better those numbers would look if he had a serviceable quarterback throwing him the ball his entire career.
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Deion Sanders - CB
The top of the 1989 draft is easily one of the best in history after four of the top five picks made the Hall of Fame, including Deion Sanders, who went fifth. Troy Aikman went first, the incredible bust Tony Mandarich went second, Barry Sanders went third and Derrick Thomas went fourth in a remarkable run that may never be duplicated.
Sanders was a two-time All-American cornerback at Florida State in 1987 and 1988 and won the Thorpe Award in 1988 when he also finished eighth in the Heisman vote. He played five years with the Falcons, making 24 interceptions during his tenure, including a career-high seven in only 11 games in 1993. It was with the Falcons where Primetime established himself as the premier cornerback in the NFL and revolutionized the position.
He took away half the field and opposing quarterbacks didn’t even bother looking his direction as a true shutdown corner. When he was challenged, he’d pick you off and return it for a touchdown, something he did nine times in his career.
Sanders was also the most dangerous return men in league history, before Devin Hester came along, with six punt returns and three kick returns for touchdown. In total he has 19 non-offensive touchdowns and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011.
(AP Photo/Spencer Weiner)
Ray Lewis - LB
Ray Lewis was the second draft pick in Ravens history when he was the No. 26 selection in 1996 out of Miami. The first was Jonathan Ogden who was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2014. Lewis was the fourth linebacker taken in the first round after Kevin Hardy, John Mobley and Reggie Brown, but you’d be hard pressed to name four middle linebackers to ever play the game who were better than Lewis.
For 17 seasons, Lewis was the heart and soul of the Ravens and their unquestioned leader who led them to nine playoff appearances and a pair of Super Bowl’s. The undisputed premier linebacker of his generation, Lewis made 13 Pro Bowl teams and won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2000 and 2003.
He retired after the 2013 season and will be inducted in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
(AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Bruce Smith - DE
The first No. 1 overall selection to make the list, Bruce Smith was the first pick in 1985 after he won the Outland Trophy in his final year at Virginia Tech.
This was a signature draft for the Bills who played in four consecutive Super Bowl’s with Smith and his draft classmate Andre Reed who was the team’s fourth round pick. Not to mention, Frank Reich was the third-round pick that year and led the team to the biggest comeback playoff win against the Houston Oilers. Reed joined Smith in the Hall of Fame last year, but Smith didn’t have to wait as long after he was inducted in his first year of eligibility in 2009.
Smith retired as the NFL’s all-time sack leader with 200 but oddly enough never led the league in sacks in any of his 19 seasons. He did, however, win the 1990 and 1996 Defensive Player of the Year and was an eight-time first-team All-Pro.
(AP Photo /John J. Gaps III)
Steve Smith - WR
Steve Smith was a better punt returner than he was a wide receiver in his two years at Utah and even at the start of his NFL career, but the Panthers saw something special in him as a receiver and made him the No. 74 overall pick in 2001. Little did they know they were getting the franchise’s best receiver and arguably their best player.
While players like Koren Robinson, David Terrell and Rod Garner were drafted in the first round and busted, Smith was the 11th receiver taken and the third-round pick could be headed for the Hall of Fame when his career is over.
In 13 years in Carolina, Smith caught 836 passes for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns. His best year came in 2005 after he was injured in the first game in 2004 and made up for lost time with a NFL-high 103 receptions, 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Good thing they went with the 5-9 receiver from Utah instead of Florida State’s 6-1 Snoop Minnis who went three picks later and had 34 catches for 515 yards and one touchdown in his career and was out of the league after two years.
(AP Photos/Kathy Willens)
Walter Payton - RB
The Bears have some great picks in their history, namely Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers who went third and fourth in 1965, but Walter Payton gets the nod as the best in franchise history. Payton was the No. 4 pick in 1975 out of Jackson St and retired as the NFL’s all-time rushing leader with 16,726 yards.
Payton has since been passed by Emmitt Smith for the rushing record but sits second for carries and yards, he’s third in yards from scrimmage, trailing Jerry Rice and Smith and is fourth with 110 touchdowns.
He won the MVP in 1977 after leading rushing for 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns on 339 carries. Payton led the NFL in carries, yards, touchdowns, yards per carry, yards per game, yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns that year. He led the league in carries four times and in rushing once during his 13-year career and made nine Pro Bowl teams.
Payton played his entire career with the Bears, winning the Super Bowl after going 15-1 in 1985 and was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1993. The player with the most appropriate nickname of all-time, “Sweetness” was and remains Chicago’s most beloved athlete.
Anthony Munoz - OT
Anthony Munoz was the No. 3 pick in 1980 but at the time it was a risky choice considering injuries limited the USC tackle to a total of eight games in his junior and senior years with the Trojans. The reward outweighed the risk considering Munoz missed only 23 games in his 13-year career and is in the Hall of Fame as one of, if not the greatest, offensive tackle in NFL history.
The 6-6, 280-pound left tackle was the first great athlete to play the position and today’s NFL is looking for players like Munoz to protect the quarterback’s blind side. A college baseball pitcher who won a national championship in 1978, Munoz also combined strength training and distance running to become the prototype for the position.
He played for two Cincinnati teams that went to the Super Bowl, was an 11-time Pro Bowler and a nine-time first-team All-Pro. As great as he was on the field, he was just as great off it, winning the Bart Starr Man of the Year Award in 1989 and the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 1991.
Inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1998, Munoz was also named to the NFL’s 75th anniversary all-time team.
(Photo by: Tony Tomsic/Getty Images)
Jim Brown - RB
The Browns may be known more their misses on draft day, but this one is easy as Jim Brown is easily the team’s best draft pick, with Ozzie Newsome a distant second. Brown may be the greatest football player to ever play the game so it’s a no-brainer to have him as the Browns best pick after they took the Syracuse back with the No. 6 pick in 1957.
Brown lost the Heisman to Paul Hornung and saw the Golden Boy go first overall in the draft that saw nine Hall of Fame players taken in the first 109 picks, but none who had the career of Brown.
The 6-2, 232-pound Brown was an unstoppable force who was the biggest, fastest, strongest and toughest guy on the field. He led the NFL in rushing in eight of his nine seasons, including the first five of his career, and was the league’s all-time leading rusher with 12,312 yards at the time of his retirement at 29. He led the league with 289 carries for 1,584 yards and matched his career-high with 17 touchdowns in his last year.
Can you imagine how ridiculous his numbers would be if he didn’t pursue a career in Hollywood?
The Hall of Famer still holds the record for 104.3 rushing yards per game which likely will never be broken.
(Photo by: Tony Tomsic/Getty Images)
Emmitt Smith - RB
The Dallas Cowboys “triplets” were completed in 1990 when Emmitt Smith was the No. 17 pick and joined Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman in Big D. The trio won three Super Bowl’s together but head coach Jimmy Johnson had his sights set on improving the defense and tried to trade up for Junior Seau, according to Dan Pompei of Bleacher Report.
Johnson wasn’t able to trade up for Seau but he was able to trade up for Smith who Johnson rated as the No. 4 player in the draft. All Smith would do was rush for at least 1,000 yards in 11 straight seasons from 1991-2001, including four years he was the rushing champion and three times he led the league in touchdowns, including a then-record 25 in 1995.
Smith is the NFL’s all-time rushing leader with 18,355 yards with 17,162 yards coming with the Cowboys. He also leads all players in carries with 4,409, touchdowns with 164 and only trails Jerry Rice for total touchdowns and yards from scrimmage.
(PAUL BUCK/AFP/Getty Images)
Terrell Davis - RB
Terrell Davis isn’t the best sixth-round pick in NFL history, but he’s got a case for second after three All-Pro seasons with the Broncos and a pair of Super Bowl’s. The No. 196 pick in the 1995 draft was the 17th running back taken, but none of the 16 backs taken before him, including Hall of Famer Curtis Martin, had the a season like Davis did in 1998.
Davis rushed for 2,008 yards and an NFL-high 21 rushing touchdowns that year to lead John Elway and the Broncos to a second straight Super Bowl. He won the MVP that year to add to the Super Bowl MVP he won the year before after the Broncos beat the Packers and the AP Offensive Player of the Year he won in his second season.
Injuries derailed his career after that season and he only played 17 games after that magical 1998 season, but on a per-game basis few running backs had the type of impact TD had in his career. Davis finished his career with an average of 97.5 yards per game, which ranks in NFL history behind Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson.
Davis was one of 15 modern-day finalists for the Hall in 2015 but didn’t make the cut down to 10 finalists.
(Photo by Allen Kee/Getty Images)
Barry Sanders - RB
The most electrifying running back to ever play the game was he No. 3 pick in the star-studded 1989 draft that featured Aikman, Sanders and Thomas in the top-five. Sanders went third, one pick after division rival Green Bay took Mandarich. He was great from the start, rushing for 1,470 yards as a rookie, his first of 10 straight seasons with at least 1,100 yards.
Sanders led the NFL in rushing four times, including in 1997 when he joined the exclusive 2,000-yard club when he ran for 2,053, including a remarkable 2,000 yards in the last 14 games. He shared MVP honors with Brett Favre that year to go with a pair of Offensive Player of the Year Awards and a Rookie of the Year already on his resume.
He abruptly retired after the 1998 season when he ran for 1,491 yards and likely would have broken Walter Payton’s record for most rushing yards in a career, but he finished with 15,269 yards, the third most in league history. He is second 99.8 yards per game and was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2004.
(BRIAN BAHR/AFP/Getty Images)
Aaron Rodgers - QB
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL and at 31 could just be hitting his peak years with the Packers, which is a frightening proposition for opposing defenses. Rodgers slid to the 24th pick in 2005 draft and even though Brett Favre was still there, the Packers saw the value in a player who was in contention with Alex Smith to be the No. 1 overall pick and couldn’t pass it up.
He sat on the bench behind Favre for the first three years but the wait proved to be worth it after he’s won 70 of his 103 starts and led the Packers to the Super Bowl in 2010 when he was named the Super Bowl MVP. This matched him with Favre for rings and he is closing in on No. 4’s MVP honors, winning the MVP in 2011 and 2014 to get within one of his predecessor and former teammate.
Rodgers is a two-time first-team All-Pro pick whose best football is still in front of him and he already holds the NFL record for quarterback rating with a 106 mark, adjusted net yards/pass attempt and interception percentage.
He led the Packers to the postseason in six of his first seven seasons as a starter and considering the state of the division and the strength of the Packers will likely make it another six in the next seven seasons too and should be in contention for the MVP each year.
The Packers have made a number of great draft picks but none better than Rodgers who is headed to the Hall of Fame five years after he retires.
(AP Photo/Tom Lynn)
J.J. Watt - DL
This was the toughest pick yet as I wrestled with the decision to pick Watt over Andre Johnson who was the team’s second-ever draft pick when he went third overall in 2003 out of Miami, but I think Watt’s best was better than Johnson’s best with the Texans.
Johnson twice led the NFL in receptions and led the league in yards twice, but Watt already has more first-team All-Pro selections (three vs two) than Johnson and in only four seasons and is the best defensive player in the NFL. Watt won the Defensive Player of the Year Award 2012 and 2014 and arguably should have beat Rodgers for the MVP in 2014 after matching his career high with 20.5 sacks and scoring five total touchdowns, including three on offense.
Watt was the No. 11 pick in 2011, three picks after Jake Locker, one pick after Blaine Gabbert and one pick before Christian Ponder, three of the worst quarterback draft picks of all-time. Meanwhile, Watt has 57.5 career sacks in four seasons and is just beginning his Hall of Fame career.
(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Peyton Manning - QB
This was another no-brainer as Peyton Manning was the Indianapolis Colts for the 14 years he was with the franchise after they made him the No. 1 pick in 1998 instead of Ryan Leaf, arguably the biggest bust in draft history.
Meanwhile, Manning may go down as the greatest quarterback to ever play the game with a record five MVP awards and a slew of other individual records to go with that. He broke the career touchdown record last year and has 530 for his career and could hit 600, that’s 92 more than Favre, if he stays healthy for two more seasons.
The 14-time Pro Bowl selection ranks second in attempts, completions and yards and should have those records when he retires. His 97.5 quarterback rating is third all-time and he is the all-time leader in game-winning drives with 52 and comebacks with 41.
Manning led the Colts to his first Super Bowl in 2006 and played in another with the franchise, albeit a loss to the Saints before a neck injury led to his exit in 2012. Manning won double-digit games in his last 10 seasons with the Colts and went 141-67 in his time in Indy.
(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Fred Taylor - RB
The Jacksonville Jaguars don’t have a lot of great candidates considering they joined the league in 1995 as an expansion team and many of their first-round picks didn’t pan out for one reason or another.
I went with Fred Taylor, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, over Tony Boselli who was headed for a Hall of Fame-type career with five Pro Bowl selections from 1996-2000 before injury ended his career prematurely and Maurice Jones-Drew.
Taylor was the No. 9 pick in the 1995 draft, four spots after Chicago took Curtis Enis, and the first of three first-round picks to come from Florida for the Jaguars. Although, Taylor turned out far better than Reggie Nelson and Derrick Harvey after rushing for 11,271 yards in 11 years with the Jaguars.
During that time he had seven, 1,ooo-yard seasons, made one Pro Bowl team and led the NFL in rushing yards per game in 2000 with 107.6. He played his last two years with the New England Patriots and his 11,695 rushing yards ranks 15th all-time.
(AP Photo/Phil Coale)
Tony Gonzalez - TE
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs presented another tough call for the best draft pick of all-time. Derrick Thomas is in the Hall of Fame as one of the best pass rushers of all-time and spent all 11 years in Kansas City, but I went with a future Hall of Famer in Tony Gonzalez who played 12 of 17 seasons with the Chiefs.
Gonzalez was the No. 13 pick in 1997 and ushered in a new era of athletic tight ends who were glorified receivers as opposed to a sixth offensive lineman as many teams wanted from the position.
During his 12 years with the Chiefs, Gonzalez had 916 receptions, 10,940 yards and 76 touchdowns. Four times he had more than 1,000 yards and he led the NFL in receptions with a career-high 102 in 2004.
He didn’t have much playoff success with a 1-6 record in five appearances, but the former college basketball player at Cal, Gonzalez revolutionized the position and retired with 1,325 receptions, trailing only Jerry Rice for the most all-time. His 15,257 yards rank fifth and his 111 touchdowns rank sixth all-time and is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history.
(Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images)
Dan Marino - QB
The 1983 draft was one of the best for quarterbacks with John Elway going first overall and Jim Kelly going 14th before Dan Marino went to the Miami Dolphins with the No. 27 pick. All three are in the Hall of Fame, but Marino slide to the second-to-last pick with Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason and Ken O’Brien drafted before the former Pitt signal-caller.
Marino made the teams who passed on him in the draft immediately regret the decision when he threw for a record 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns in his second year and led the Dolphins to a 14-2 record and led the team to the Super Bowl while capturing the MVP.
He would lead the NFL in completions, yards and touchdowns for the next three seasons and was a first-team All-Pro in all of those years. He even led the Dolphins to an upset over the eventual Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears on Monday night in 1985 to hand them their lone loss of the year.
Marino spent his entire 17-year career with the Dolphins, compiling a 147-93 record, 61,361 yards and a then-NFL record 420 touchdowns. He currently ranks third in NFL history in completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns and is second to Peyton Manning with game-winning drives and comebacks.
(Photo by Sylvia Allen/Getty Images)
Randy Moss - WR
The Minnesota Vikings have some good candidates with Hall of Famer’s Ron Yary and Alan Page and future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson in the running but I went with another future Hall of Famer in Randy Moss.
Moss was a Heisman finalist after winning the Biletnikoff his final year at Marshall where he toyed with opposing defensive backs but slid to the No. 21 pick due to off-the-field concerns but Dennis Green’s gamble paid off in a big way for the Vikings.
The appropriately nicknamed Freak was a 6-4, 215-pound athlete who was the fastest player on the field and had the vertical leaping ability of an NBA shooting guard. He was unstoppable and made the teams who passed on him in the draft pay immediately after leading the NFL with 17 touchdowns as a rookie. He began his career with six straight 1,000-yard seasons and led the NFL in receiving touchdowns three times.
They traded him after his seventh season to the Oakland Raiders where he lasted two years before setting an NFL record with 23 receiving touchdowns with the New England Patriots when he reestablished himself as the game’s best receiver.
He did have a brief reunion with the Vikings in 2010 when he played four games with the team after he was acquired in a midseason trade. For his Vikings career, Moss had 587 catches for 9,316 yards and 92 touchdowns. He ranks second all-time in receiving yards and touchdowns.
(AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt, file)
Tom Brady - QB
New England Patriots
Tom Brady is the greatest pick in the history of the NFL Draft so of course he is the best pick for the Patriots. The sixth-round pick who went with the No. 199 overall pick in 2000 saw quarterbacks Giovanni Carmazzi from Hofstra and Spergon Wynn from Texas St. picked before him.
Carmazzi was taken by San Francisco, Brady’s childhood team, and never attempted a pass in an NFL game, but in hindsight no one saw Brady developing into one of, if not the greatest, quarterback to ever play the game. He played in six Super Bowls, winning four, is a three-time Super Bowl MVP, two-time NFL MVP and set a then-NFL record with 50 touchdowns in 2007.
Brady’s the consummate professional, teammate and winner who has a 160-47 record in the regular season and is 21-8 in the playoffs. He has won at least 10 games in every season he was the starter with the exception of 2008 when he was injured in the first game of the year and in 2002 when he led the Patriots to a 9-7 record and led the NFL with 28 touchdowns.
Even when Brady has a down year, he still leads the league in touchdowns and nine wins. How many quarterbacks would kill for that in a down year?
If he’s not the greatest, he’s certainly on the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks and is a Hall of Famer as soon as he’s eligible.
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Willie Roaf - OT
New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints have had recent success in finding late-round gems like Jahri Evans in the fourth, Marques Colston in the seventh and nabbed the NFL’s all-time leading scorer in the third in kicker Morten Andersen.
But a kicker can’t be the best pick and as great as the value was on Evans and Colston, they aren’t all-timers so I went with one who is in Hall of Fame tackle Willie Roaf.
New Orleans didn’t have to go too far to find the 6-5, 320-pound Roaf from nearby Louisiana Tech and made him the No. 8 pick in the 1993 draft and the first offensive lineman taken. They chose wisely too because Lincoln Kennedy and Brad Hopkins who were chosen one and five picks after Roaf didn’t end up in Canton like he did in 2012.
He made the first seven of 11 Pro Bowl appearances with the Saints before he finished his career with the Chiefs and put the finishing touches on his Hall of Fame career in Kansas City. He was a mainstay on the Saints line where the left tackle only missed four games in his first eight years before he was limited to seven games in his last year in the Crescent City.
(Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
Lawrence Taylor - OLB
New York Giants
Lawrence Taylor is arguably the greatest defender to ever lace up the cleats and the transcendent outside linebacker is easily the Giants best draft pick. There were four linebackers taken in the first nine picks in 1981, including Hugh Green who should have won the Heisman at Pitt, but the Giants made the right pick in taking Taylor with the No. 2 pick after the Saints made Heisman winner George Rogers the top pick.
Taylor made an impact unlike any rookie in league history when he recorded 9.5 sacks en route to winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and the Defensive Player of the Year becoming the first and only rookie to accomplish such a feat. He also helped lead the turnaround for the Giants who lost in the divisional playoffs that year.
He would add two more Defensive Player of the Year Award’s to his resume, the last coming in 1986 when he had a career-high 20.5 sacks in the Super Bowl winning season in 1986 when he also won the NFL MVP. No defensive player has won the MVP since Taylor revolutionized the outside linebacker position. He was a terror on and off the field, but with 132.5 career sacks and a pair of rings, he was worth the risk for the Giants.
(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Joe Namath - QB
New York Jets
Joe Namath was the No. 12 pick by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1965 NFL Draft and the No. 1 pick by the Jets in the AFL Draft and his signing with New York helped lead to the merger between the AFL and the NFL. Namath may still be the most popular Jets play today.
The five-time Pro Bowlers is a member of the Hall of Fame and is known for his guarantee that the Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. He did that in what is still considered one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.
Namath led the NFL in completions, attempts and yard in 1966-1967 as well as interceptions, but the game’s most marketable player helped usher in a new era for pro football and opened the door to a whole new base of fans as women became fans like never before.
In his 12 years with the Jets, Namath was 60-61-4 and threw 220 interceptions to 173 touchdowns, but because of the Super Bowl win and the impact he had on the merger, Namath is the Jets best pick over the likes of Joe Klecko, Mark Gastineau, Darrelle Revis and Nick Mangold.
(Photo by Dan Farrell/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
Art Shell - OT
The Raiders have drafted their fair share of great players with the likes of Jim Otto, Fred Biletnikoff, Gene Upshaw and Howie Long all in the Hall of Fame and turned a seventh round pick into 38 games of Bo Jackson, but I think their best pick was Hall of Fame offensive tackle Art Shell.
Shell was the No. 80 selection in 1968 out of Maryland-Eastern Shore and the 14th tackle picked that year and blossomed into an eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro and is enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Upshaw and Otto may have been better players at left guard and center, respectively, but the value in taking Shell out of a small school like Maryland-Eastern Shore in the third round gives him the edge.
We may never see an offensive line with three future Hall of Famers playing alongside each other like we did in the early 70s with Shell, Upshaw and Otto.
(Photo by Rogers Photo Archive/Getty Images)
Reggie White - DL
This comes with an asterisk because Reggie White was taken with the fourth pick in the 1984 supplemental draft after playing for the Memphis Showboats of the USFL. The supplemental draft at that time isn’t what we think of it today where it’s player(s) who aren’t top prospects and are generally ones who were dismissed from their team.
White’s supplemental draft class was better than the actual draft with a pair of Hall of Famers in Steve Young and Gary Zimmerman who went first and third, respectively, and former Heisman winner Mike Rozier going second.
White went on to a Hall of Fame career himself with the Philadelphia Eagles where he played the first eight of his 16 years in the NFL. White was a force at defensive tackle and later at end. The Minister of Defense had at least 11 sacks in every season with the Eagles.
He was a 13-time Pro Bowler and made the first seven of his eight first-team All-Pro teams with the Eagles, including the 1987 season when he won his first of two Defensive Player of the Year Awards when he led the NFL with a career-high 21 sacks.
White finished his Eagles career with 124 sacks in eight years and retired as the all-time sack leader with 198, but is now second to Bruce Smith who has 200.
(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
1974 Draft Class
The Pittsburgh Steelers have plenty of worthy candidates from Mean Joe Greene to Franco Harris to Mel Blount to Ben Roethlisberger but what they did in the 1974 draft is something that will never be done again. Four of the first five picks for the team that Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster who all made the Hall of Fame. Good luck finding one Hall of Famer in one year, let alone an inconceivable four.
By this time the Steelers had most of the pieces needed to contend for a Super Bowl with Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Harris, Blount and Terry Bradshaw, among others, but this class put them over the top to win the Super Bowl that year and three of the next five years.
It’s tough to single out a single player from that class so I’ll bend the rules and pick the entire class to represent the best of the Steelers draft picks. Sure, Greene is the best player in franchise history, Roethlisberger won two Super Bowls and Blount revolutionized the cornerback position, but without the 1974 class they may not win one Super Bowl, let alone four.
(Photo by: Bill Amatucci Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
Deacon Jones - DE
St. Louis Rams
Eric Dickerson would get the nod for the modern era of the draft as the best pick for the Rams who took the SMU running back with the No. 2 pick in the famed 1983 draft and set the rookie rushing record and the next year set the single-season record with 2,105 yards that still stands today.
No offense to Dickerson, but I’m going with the No. 186 selection in 1961 as the franchise’s best when they took a shot on a defensive end from Mississippi Valley State in the 14th round. David “Deacon” Jones was the first truly dominant pass rusher and coined the term “sack” and if the stat was official when he played, he would have retired as the all-time leader in that category.
His head slap move allowed the 6-5, 272-pound end to knock the offensive tackle off balance and get to the quarterback which he did better than anyone before Reggie White and Bruce Smith in the 80s. He unofficially had 26 sacks in 1967 and 24 in 1968 when he won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and finished his career with 194.5 “sacks,” which would be third most in NFL history.
Jones was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and a first-team All-Pro from 1965-1969. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1980.
Junior Seau - LB
San Diego Chargers
Junior Seau was the San Diego Chargers from the time they made the USC standout and San Diego native the No. 5 pick in 1990 until he was traded for a fifth round pick that turned into Michael Turner after the 2002 season.
He was the 1992 Defensive Player of the Year, a two-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year, made 12 straight Pro Bowl’s with the Chargers from 1991-2002 and was a eight-time first-team All-Pro as the modern-day Jack Ham, albeit without the postseason success.
The freelancing linebacker did lead the Chargers to three postseason trips in his tenure, including the Super Bowl in 1994 but were blown out by the 49ers. He was all over the field when you’d watch the Chargers. He had 15 interceptions, 47 sacks, 16 fumble recoveries and averaged more than 100 tackles per season with the team.
Seau will be posthumously inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2015.
(AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
Joe Montana - QB
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers changed the course of the franchise when they spent the last pick in the third round (No. 82 overall) on a skinny quarterback out of Notre Dame by the name of Joe Montana in 1979.
By the time he finished his career he was a four-time Super Bowl winner, three-time Super Bowl MVP, two-time NFL MVP and the 49ers all-time leader in completions, attempts, yards, touchdowns and wins.
He was the perfect quarterback to carry out Bill Walsh’s west coast offense that put a premium on the short-intermediate passes and put a premium on accuracy. Montana led the NFL in completion percentage five times and finished in the top-three another five times. He also led the NFL in touchdown passes two times and was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time first-team All-Pro.
When he retired he was widely considered the greatest quarterback in NFL history and still may hold that title depending on who you ask despite Brady and Manning making their case.
Quarterbacks taken before Montana include Jack Thompson (No. 3 overall) who threw 45 interceptions compared to 33 touchdowns and Steve Fuller (23rd overall) who threw 41 interceptions vs. 28 touchdowns.
(AP Photo/George Nitikin)
Russell Wilson - QB
The best move the Seattle Seahawks ever did was tricking the Chicago Bears to trade their first round pick in the 1997 draft for former No. 2 overall pick and draft bust, Rick Mirer. They used that draft pick from Chicago to draft Florida State offensive tackle Walter Jones sixth overall in 1997.
Jones was the best left tackle of his generation in an era with with Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden and future Hall of Famer Orlando Pace. He and helped pave the way for running back Shaun Alexander who won the MVP in 2005 after rushing for an NFL-high 1,880 yards and set a then-NFL record with 27 touchdowns.
But the single best draft pick is Russell Wilson and it’s not even close. Through three seasons, Wilson has a 36-12 regular season record, won Super Bowl XLVIII and came one yard short of his second Super Bowl in XLIX against the Patriots. If not for his interception from the one-yard line he would have Super Bowl wins against Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
Not bad for the fifth quarterback taken in 2012 behind Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Brock Osweiler and the No. 75 pick overall who only slid to the third round because he’s 5-11. He went five picks after Jacksonville took punter Brian Anger.
Wilson is on a Hall of Fame path and after Brady and Montana could represent the best value pick at quarterback in draft history.
(AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
Warren Sapp - DT
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Warren Sapp was the anchor of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cover 2 defense under Tony Dungy and changed how teams evaluate the defensive tackle position. Sapp was the three-technique and was asked to get upfield as opposed to occupying blockers to free up the linebackers to make plays. He was able to make plays by his lonesome.
The No. 12 pick in 1995, Sapp had to wait to hear his name longer than anticipated after he finished sixth in the Heisman in his final year at Miami when the All-American won the Lombardi, Bednarik and Nagurski Awards. Reports of a failed drug test the day before the draft cost Sapp millions because he could have been a top-three pick, but it was the gain of the Buccaneers who added the player who would help lead them to a Super Bowl.
Sapp wasn’t the only Hall of Famer taken by the Buccaneers in the first round that year as they took Florida State outside linebacker Derrick Brooks with the No. 28 pick. Just as Sapp helped revolutionize his position, Brooks did the same at the weak-side linebacker position where his speed and pass coverage ability ushered in a new era of linebackers.
Both Sapp and Brooks were perennial Pro Bowlers who have a Defensive Player of the Year Award on their resume as well as a Super Bowl, but I picked Sapp because he was the player who made that defense go.
(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Earl Campbell - RB
The Houston Oilers made Earl Campbell the No. 1 pick in 1978 after he won the Heisman at Texas and the 5-11, 244-pound back with 4.5 speed is still the most punishing and powerful back to play in the NFL. Campbell led the NFL in rushing his first three years with 1,450, 1,697 and 1,934 yards to open his career.
He also led the NFL in touchdowns with 19 and 13 in his second and third seasons as he was the epitome of the workhorse running back. Campbell averaged 351 carries in his first four seasons for an average of 1,614 yards but the heavy workload took its toll on him and his body began to break down.
After being named a first-team All-Pro and winning league MVP honors in his first three seasons, Campbell’s body betrayed him and he only had one more 1,000-yard season after his fourth year before his career was cut short due to injury after eight seasons.
He was induced in the Hall of Fame in 1991 and is one of three players to win the Heisman Trophy, be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft and be in the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining Paul Hornung and O.J. Simpson.
His career wasn’t as long as Eddie George’s and the new generation of Tennessee Titans fans may not revere him in the same way they do Steve McNair, but Campbell was the type of player we may never see again whose best was better than any other player to wear the helmet for the Houston/Tennessee franchise.
Sammy Baugh - QB
In the second ever NFL Draft, the Washington Redskins drafted Sammy Baugh out of TCU where he played quarterback, defensive back and punter for the football team in addition to being a MLB prospect for the baseball team.
Baugh was the first great quarterback in NFL history and is largely responsible for the forward pass being implemented in the game. Just imagine how different the game would be if not for Baugh’s contributions to professional football 30 years before the first Super Bowl was played.
Baugh was not only the first great quarterback, he was the greatest football player until Jim Brown, and may still be the most versatile player to step on the field. Baugh led the league in passing a record six times, including the 1943 year when he did the unthinkable when he also led the league in punting with a 45.9 average and led the league in interceptions as a defensive back.
Leading the league in two of those categories will never happen. Leading the league in three of those categories is arguably the most impressive accomplishment in NFL history. Even more than the nine times he led the league in completion percentage or the time he the two-time champion and six-time first-team All-Pro once threw four touchdown passes and intercepted four passes in a win against Detroit in 1943.
Baugh may still be the most popular player in franchise history despite not playing since 1952 and was a charter member of the Hall of Fame in 1963.
I love the NFL Draft and the thought of adding that one player in the first round to push your team over the top into a Super Bowl contender or the fantasy of a sixth-round pick becoming the next Tom Brady or Terrell Davis is as exciting as you can get without actually playing football.
The draft may be the greatest sporting event that doesn't actually involve any sports being played but we scour the Internet for mock drafts, scouting reports, highlights on YouTube and spend way too much time dreaming up half-baked trade proposals.
Over 250 names will be called in the 2015 draft and many of them will never come close to a starting job, let alone a Pro Bowl appearance of Super Bowl MVP, but we can dream, right?
Sometimes general managers, coaches and scouts must feel like they are dreaming when they see a small school prospect blossom into a Pro Football Hall of Famer. I picked the best draft pick for every team in the NFL and some were absolute no-brainers while some teams have had a nightmare of a time finding talent in the draft.
In total, there are six players still active, 21 players in the Hall of Fame and a few recently retired players who will soon join them in Canton.
After reading through the list of the best draft picks for each team, please leave your thoughts and make your own suggestion for your team in the comments section below and continue the conversation.