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Diamonds in the rough: The biggest steals in the history of the NFL Draft

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 12:31, 29 April 2022

A look back at some of the greatest bargains in the history of the NFL Draft.

Every year, at this point on the sporting calendar, an annoyingly accurate mantra echoes around the airwaves, on podcasts, on the internet and, well, my head.

‘The NFL draft is an imperfect science.’

You’ve likely heard it before. I’ve certainly said and written it many times before. Of course, that’s not to say that certain nailed-on, blue chip prospects whose preternatural talent and/or physical dominance have had them destined for glory seemingly since childhood – and who’ve dominated every step of the way – don’t actually go ahead and deliver on their potential.Lawrence Taylor, John Elway, Barry Sanders, Deion Sanders, Junior Seau, Jonathan Ogden, Peyton Manning, Julius peppers, Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson… you know the types. Sometimes the favorites are favored for very good reason.

The imperfection of the science of drafting comes in when these spectacular prospects who’ve exhibited every skill needed to thrive in the NFL, for one reason or another, simply never puts it together. Now, there’s no need to rattle off a laundry list of draft busts (though, if you’re into that sort of thing, this may give you a fix). Suffice it to say, though, that on NFL draft days past, many a ‘sure thing’ has proven to be anything but.

The good news is that the imperfection in the science can also work in a team’s favor. For a variety of reasons, including but not limit to: subpar coaching in college, underexposure in college, uncertainty over size, speed or other measurables, injury history, character concerns, or some combination thereof, a handful of the greatest players in NFL history have fallen through the cracks… and right into the laps of some fortunate franchises.

It was a bit tough to determine where exactly to set the threshold for a ‘steal’. After all, high quality players regularly fall into the late first round (Aaron Rodgers, Dan Marino, Ray Lewis, Derrick Brooks), not mention the second (think Drew Brees or Chicago Bears legendary linebacker Mike Singletary). Though the teams that pass on them are invariably regretful, it’s not as though those players were completely ‘slept on’.

Thus, in describing one imperfect science, I’ve chosen to create one of my own, and declare any player selected prior to the third round of the NFL Draft as ineligible for ‘steal’ status. ALL of that aid…

How about we find some of the greatest steals in NFL draft history?

Joe Montana – QB, San Francisco 49ers, 3rd round (#82 overall) in 1979

It’s insane to consider now, but in the spring of 1979, Joe Montana, then 23 years old and fresh out of the University of Notre Dame, was decidedly not a premier NFL prospect. Everything from his size, to his speed, to his arm strength, to his consistency was questioned. Montana didn’t grade out as even a second round pick!

Having seen Montana work out in Los Angeles, one man – legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh – had fallen in love with him as a prospect. But Walsh wasn’t confident that he’d get his man, as the Niners had no first round pick, and just one pick in the first 80 selections. In the end, however, his fears were unfounded, as the league’s naivete became the Bay Area’s dynasty. In the end, the names of some 81 players (only two of them future Hall of Famers), three of them quarterbacks (only one of whom, #7 overall pick Phil Simms, had any measure of success), were called before Montana’s.

However, things worked out just fine for the 82nd overall pick in the ’79 draft, who quickly made San Francisco his own, earning eight Pro Bowl and three All Pro selections, throwing for more than 40,000 yards and 273 TDs, winning a pair of league MVP awards, and guiding one of the great dynasties in NFL history to four Super Bowl titles.

Steve Largent – WR, Houston Oilers, 4th round (#117 overall) in 1976

Three years before the NFL collectively gifted Joe Montana to the 49ers, another West Coast franchise stumbled into an icon. In 1976, with the eighth-from-last pick of the fourth round of the draft, the Houston Oilers selected an All-American wide receiver out of the University of Tulsa, Steve Largent.

It was a bit odd for a player who’d achieved as much as Largent had at the collegiate level to fall so far in the draft. Stranger still was the fact that, after failing to turn heads in four preseason games with the Oilers, Largent was reportedly on the chopping block. However, before the Oilers went ahead with actually releasing him, the Seattle Seahawks offered a token eighth round pick in exchange for the young receiver. Happy to get anything at all in the deal, the Oilers agreed.

What happened in Seattle? What Houston didn’t see?

These things I can’t tell you for sure, but what we do know is that Largent spent the next 14 seasons with the Seahawks, where he topped 1,000 receiving yards eight times (he led the league twice), and hauled in 100 touchdown passes, and retired as the NFL’s an all-time leader in receptions (819), receiving yards (13,089), touchdown receptions (100) and consecutive games with a reception (177) and waltzed into the Hall of Fame.

Richard Dent – DE, Chicago Bears, 8th round (#203 overall) in 1983

Despite possessing all of the physical tools and a perfect physique (6-foot-5, 265 pounds) to thrive as an NFL Defensive end in the 1980s, that Richard Dent played his college ball at a small, historically black university (Tennessee State) kept him off the radar of just about every NFL talent evaluator.

It wasn’t until about the midway point of the eighth round of the 1983 draft, when the Chicago Bears, then led by head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, selected the small school star. Dent’s speed, strength and agility were almost immediately a perfect fit in Ryan’s then-revolutionary 46 defense, which prioritized precisely those traits in generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

By his second year in the league, Dent was a Pro Bowler and Second Team All-Pro, recorded 17.5 sacks. The following season, 1985, Dent, led the NFL in sacks (17) and, along legendary middle linebacker Mike Singletary, defensive tackle Dan Hampton, was the catalyst for arguably the greatest defense of all time, which carried the Bears to a 15-1 regular season record and a dominant romp to the franchise’s only Super Bowl victory.

Dent spent the entirety of his 11-year prime with the Bears, during which he racked up 124.5 sacks, forced 34 fumbles, recovered 13, Intercepted eight passes, earned four Pro Bowl selections (and one All-Pro nod) and, ultimately, punched his ticket for the Hall of Fame. It’s worth noting that, in terms of Pro Football References AV, not a single player drafted after #28 in 1983 draft (Darrell Green) provided more value than Dent.

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Karl Mecklenburg – LB, Denver Broncos, 12th round (#310 overall) in 1983

Suffice it to say that 1983 was not the finest hour for the NFL’s defensive scouts. Some 107 picks after Richard Dent – so, the third pick in the 12th round – the Denver Broncos selected a linebacker from the University of Minnesota.

At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Karl Mecklenburg possessed the ideal size needed to play outside linebacker and defensive end. Yet, for reasons that remain a mystery, the future six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro who’d go on to rack up over 1,100 career tackles and 79 sacks over 12 NFL seasons (all in Denver). had to wait until 309 other players had had their names called before getting his call.

Like Dent, Mecklenburg provided hilarious value relative to his draft position. In fact, no played selected after the 49th pick in ’83 offered more value over the course of his career than Mecklenburg.

Hardy Nickerson – LB, Pittsburgh Steelers, 5th round (#122 overall) in 1987

Between 1983 and the franchise’s Warren Sapp/Derrick Brooks/Warrick Dunn-led ascent in 1997, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were an absolute laughingstock. Between 1983 and 1996, the Bucs (or ‘yucks’, as they were sometimes called) neither posted a winning record nor appeared in the playoffs. They only won as many as seven games once in that span, while posting three wins or fewer four times. It was bleak. Despite the gruesome numbers, it’s actually tough to properly convey just how utterly bereft of excitement and star power the Bucs were during the worst of these times.

In 1993, the signing of five-year veteran linebacker Hardy Nickerson (formerly of the Steelers) brought the franchise the first ray of hope it had seen in some time. The 122nd overall pick in the 1987 draft arrived in Tampa, where he was allowed to play in his preferred 4-3 defensive formation, and immediately blossomed into a star.

In seven years in Tampa, the should-be Hall of Famer recorded more than 900 tackles, nine sacks (this was not his game), intercepted seven passes, forced 13 fumbles, and recovered nine. Nickerson’s style of-off ball linebacker is decidedly out of fashion in today’s NFL but, for the majority of the 1990s, this five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro personified this once-vital role for a team that couldn’t get anything else right.

Zach Thomas, LB, 5th round (#154 overall), 1996; Jason Taylor, DE, 3rd round (#73 overall), 1997 – Miami Dolphins

To get a single multi-time All-Pro in the third round (or later) of the NFL Draft is a monumental victory. To get two, really at any point in franchise history, is pretty spectacular. To do so in consecutive years – and lay the foundation for a spectacular defense – borders on sorcery.

In 1996, on the heels of the retirement of legendary head coach Don Shula, fellow coaching great (with the Dallas Cowboys and the University of Miami) and noted draft whiz Jimmie Johnson returned to the NFL and took over the Miami Dolphins. In Johnson’s first-ever draft, the Dolphin spent a fifth-round pick on Zach Thomas, a rock-solid but undersized (just six feet tall) linebacker from Texas Tech University. This profile of player, from a non-glamor program, drafted at that point typically hopes to carve out a career as a useful special teamer or a backup.

Taylor hit the ground sprinting in the NFL, recording a monstrous 154 tackles as a rookie, while also intercepting three passes, one of which he returned for a touchdown. With that began an 11-year run in which he recorded at least 145 in each of the ten seasons in which he appeared in at least 13 games. In 2000, when injury limited him to 11 games, he managed a paltry 99 tackles. That Thomas is not yet in the Hall of Fame is a bit baffling, but he was certainly appreciated in his time, with seven Pro Bowl selections and an incredible five First Team All-Pro selections.

The following year, Johnson was at it again. This time, while shopping for defense in the third round, Johnson nabbed a statuesque defensive end from the University of Akron, Jason Taylor, with the 73rd overall pick.

Like Thomas the year before, Taylor wasted no time finding his footing in the NFL. In his first 13 NFL seasons, Taylor was spectacular, logging 117 sacks, forcing 39 fumbles, recovering 26 (five of which he returned for touchdowns), intercepting seven passes (three of which went for touchdowns). For his trouble, he earned six Pro Bowl and three First Team All-Pro selections, the 2006 Defensive Player of the Year award, and a spot in the 2006 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

If these are the best third and fifth round picks in your franchise’s history, you’ve done well. To get this in consecutive drafts is positively astounding. Fittingly, the story of Taylor and Thomas extends beyond Dolphins stardom and incredible draft day value – the two are actually also brothers-in-law.

Jared Allen – DE, Kansas City Chiefs, 4th round (#126 overall) in 2004

In his first decade in the NFL, Allen had a single season in which he tallied fewer than nine sacks. That was his third season, 2006, in which he still notched 7.5, and added 15 tackles for loss, an interception, five forced fumbles and a league-best six fumble recoveries.

During this astounding opening decade (four seasons with the Chiefs and six with the Vikings), Allen accumulated a ridiculous 128.5 sacks, while defending 51 passes, intercepting five of them (he took one back for a touchdown), forcing 30 fumbles, recovering 17 (he took one of these for a TD as well), hitting opposing quarterbacks 194 times and forcing four safeties.

Teams drafting in the top five often don’t dare dream of that kind of production. To get that – and five Pro Bowl and four All-Pro selections and the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year – at #126 is almost too much to contemplate.

Terrell Owens – WR, San Francisco 49ers, 3rd round (#89 overall) in 1996

Only seven wide receivers in NFL have more receptions than Terrell Owens’ 1,078. Owens’ 15,934 receiving yards are bettered in NFL history by only Jerry Rice and Larry Fitzgerald. His 153 receiving touchdowns also ranked third, behind Rice and Randy Moss. In terms of Approximate Value, Owens’ career mark of 167 ranks all-time, behind only, yup, Rice, with only Moss, fellow 1996 draftee Marvin Harrison and Harrison’s former Colts teammate Reggie Wayne having accumulated at least 90% of TO’s career tally.

And yet, in the 1996 NFL Draft, 88 players, 11 of whom were wide receivers (admittedly, the hit rate on receivers in ‘96 was quite strong, though only Harrison compares to TO) were selected ahead of Terrell Owens.

Again… imperfect science.

Jahri Evans – G, New Orleans Saints, 4th round (#108 overall) in 2006

Exercises like this are inherently unfair to the people who made at-the-moments-reasonable decisions, in real time, years and decades earlier. Sure, with the benefit of hindsight, who among us wouldn’t have stellar track records as an NFL executive?

I say this to say that there is a modicum of understanding when scouts miss out on an offensive lineman from, say, Division II Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. At the same time, however, when that offensive lineman is 6-foot-4 and 300-plus pounds, is a three-time all-conference performer and has twice received the Division II Gene Upshaw Offensive Player of the Year award, you might want to take more than a passing glance.

Fortunately for the New Orleans Saints, around the midway point of the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft, they did. What they got in Jahri Evans is one of the great offensive guards, not just of the modern era, but of all time, and a nailed-on future Hall of Famer. Evans stepped into the NFL as a starter, was never not (seriously, all 183 of his appearances were as a starter), was incredibly durable (in 12 NFL seasons, he started 183 of a possible 192 regular season games).

At no point during his dozen-year NFL career was Evans anything less than ‘above average’ and, during his four-year peak (2009-2012), he not only had a case as the best offensive lineman in the league, but was probably one of the NFL’s best players, period. During that run, he earned four of his six career Pro Bowl selections and all four of his First Team All-Pro. The first of those seasons, 2009, Evans was a key member of the squad that delivered to New Orleans the city’s first-ever Super Bowl title.

Tom Brady – QB, New England Patriots, 6th round (#199 overall) in 2000

What, you thought we were gonna do this whole thing and not mention this guy?

I’ll level with you. I don’t know what there is left to say about Tom Brady.

15 Pro Bowls, three First Team All-Pro selections, three league MVPs, seven Super Bowl titles, five Super Bowl MVPs, 84,500 passing yards, 624 touchdowns (and counting)…

In the 2000 NFL Draft, 198 players were selected prior to the dude who’s done that.

I truly don’t know what else there is to say.

Russell Wilson, QB, 3rd round (#75 overall) in 2012; Richard Sherman, CB, 5th round (#154 overall) in 2011 – Seattle Seahawks

I’ll try not belabor this one too much, since the Seahawks of the past decade and ‘draft day steal’ are almost synonymous. 

With the exceptions of safety Earl Thomas (314 overall in 2010) and running back Marshawn Lynch (#12 overall in 2007, by the Buffalo Bills), just about every the marquee name on the dominant Seahawks teams of the past decade was, at some point, an undervalued draft prospect. The most famous and important, of course, is Russell Wilson. Selected 75th overall

despite a spectacular college record (due to concerns that his diminutive stature would prevent him from succeeding in the NFL), Wilson won the team’s starting QB job as a rookie, beating out high-priced free agent signee Matt Flynn, and proceeded to start all but two regular season game over the next ten seasons. During that run, Wilson earned nine Pro Bowl selections, led the Seahawks to two Super Bowl appearances and, of course, their first-ever Lombardi Trophy.

Then we have Wilson’s defensive counterpart, Richard Sherman. A core member of the legendary ‘Legion of Boom’ secondary, Sherman, like Wilson, was a collegiate star (at Stanford) who, due a relatively recent position change from wide receiver and less-than-impressive measurables, was regarded as an unremarkable prospect. Like Wilson, once Sherman got a chance in the NFL, he made the most of it.

During his first six seasons with the Seahawks Sherman earned four Pro Bowl and three First Team All-Pro selections, turned in one of the best two-run runs in history by a cornerback in 2012 and 2013 and, again, along with Thomas, Kam Chancellor, linebacker Bobby Wagner and a cadre of athletic defensive lineman, powered the Seahawks to a Super Bowl title.

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