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The best selections in the history of the NFL Draft, pick by pick: Part 2

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 16:15, 21 April 2022 | Updated: 8:24, 28 April 2022

A look back at the best players selected with picks #1-#16 of the 45 NFL Drafts following the 1967 NFL/AFL merger.

We’re now just a week away from 2022 NFL Draft in Vegas! As we talked about yesterday, for the overwhelming majority of NFL franchises, this is a time of hope and optimism, during which every draft pick is a potential star in waiting. This is heightened when the pick(s) in question are first-rounders, and ratcheted up even farther when those picks fall in the top half of the first round. And, frankly, that makes sense because, for all of the (deserved) credit given to scouting departments for their unearthing of diamonds in the rough, the reality remains that a franchise’s best shot at securing an era-defining superstar is to be drafting in first half of the first round of the draft. It’s worth noting, of course, that simply picking early in the first round is no guarantee of success, but it does tend to tilt the odds in a team’s favor.

Today, we’re wrapping up our run through the best players selected with each of the top 32 picks of the 45 NFL Drafts drafts that followed the NFL/AFL merger in 1967, with the stars (and, boy, are there ever some stars here!) selected with each of the draft’s top 16 picks. As with my previous article examining some of the worst picks in NFL Draft history and the predecessor to this piece, there’s some stuff to keep in mind:

This is an imperfect exercise. The initial filter here is a player’s career ‘Approximate Value’ (AV) statistic. AV is a stat developed by Pro Football Reference that attempts to put a single numerical value on each individual season since 1960, in order to ‘very approximately’ (in the words of the site itself) compare all players across years and across positions. 

This is a jumping off point. You’ll notice that, by and large, the player in each spot with the highest career AV does tend to be the best of the bunch. However, there are some close calls that defy this, as well as a couple of notable instances in which a player with the higher AV, while undoubtedly an excellent NFLer, was not as great and impactful as another player selected in the same spot.

So, let’s wrap this thing up, shall we?

#16 – Jerry Rice, WR, San Francisco 49ers, 1985 (251 AV)

In the interest of keeping the word count here semi-manageable: getting the undisputed greatest receiver of all time – if not the NFL’s greatest-ever player, period – after 15 other players have been selected is an hilarious triumph. Others needn’t apply here.

#15 – Alan Page, DT, Minnesota Vikings, 1967 (197 AV)

Page will forever rank as not only one of the NFL greatest defensive linemen, but one of the most impressive individuals to grace the league. Minnesota’s future first-ever African-American Associate Supreme Court Justice (yep) racked up 148.5 sacks, made nine Pro Bowls, six All-Pro First Teams and won the 1971 league MVP in a15-year Hall of Fame career in which he was never not a starter – and missed precisely zero games.

#14 –Jim Kelly, QB, Buffalo Bills, 1983 (132 AV)

11 seasons, more than 35,000 passing yards, 237 touchdowns, five Pro Bowls, and an All Pro selection for the perfect conductor for the no-huddle offense that helped lead the ‘90s Bills to four consecutive AFC titles.

#13 – Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams, 2014 (130 AV – and counting)

With all due respect to Steelers Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris (1972; 136 AV); former Falcons Pro Bowl left tackle Mike Kenn (1978; 139 AV); and the greatest receiving tight end of all time, Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez (Chiefs, 1997; 147 AV), but Aaron Donald’s eight-year output already has him in their class. Frankly, Donald’s historical contemporaries are not merely all-time greats – they’re the game’s innermost circle of legends.

#12 – Warren Sapp, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1995 (149 AV)

It’s around this point that the menu of options for each spot gets remarkably deep, and most of the races for the top spot get quite tight. #12 overall is by no means the only example, but it is an excellent one.

A future Hall of Fame defensive tackle (Haloti Ngata, Ravens, 2006; 125 AV); a near-11,000-yard rusher and should-be Hall of Fame running back (Warrick Dunn, Buccaneers, 1997; 124 AV) and ‘Broadway’ Joe Namath (Jets, 1965; 115 AV) are all blown out of the water by the seven-time Pro Bowler, four-time All Pro, Defensive Player of the Year and the unquestioned heart of the generational defense that led the Bucs to their first ever Super Bowl title.

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#11 – J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans, 2011 (125 AV)

I may take some heat for bypassing a future Hall of Fame two time Super Bowl champion quarterback, but at no point during his NFL career did Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers, 2004; 208 AV) approach the unfathomable, irresistible greatness at which J.J. Watt idled from 2012 until 2015. During that four year run, Watt racked up 69 sacks, 119 tackles for loss, 190 quarterback hits, four of his five All Pro selections, and three times was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.

That he’s one of the game’s all-time greats is beyond question. Had he not been slowed by back injuries in the midst of his prime, the future Hall of Famer would undoubtedly have gone down as one of game’s singular legends.

(Full disclosure: I am a Cowboys fan. As such, I would be totally remiss to not shout out future Hall of Fame pass rusher DeMarcus Ware (2005; 128 AV) and one of my all-time favorites, ‘the Playmaker’, Michael Irvin (1988; 126 AV)).

#10 – Rod Woodson, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1987 (192 AV)

It’s a tough break for a trio of under-heralded greats – future Hall of Fame pass rusher Terrell Suggs (Ravens, 2003; 154 AV), Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen (Raiders, 1982; 143 AV) and six-time Pro Bowl and two-time All-Pro pass-defending virtuoso linebacker Isaiah Robertson (Rams, 1971; 131 AV) – but Woodson, a six-time All Pro, a former Defensive Player of the Year and NFL third-leading interceptor of all time (71), is not just on the extremely short list of ‘best ever’ cornerbacks, but is also one of the dozen or so best defenders in NFL history.

#9 – Bruce Matthews, OG, Houston Oilers, 1983 (215 AV)

Though #9 overall doesn’t feature the depth of other top-ten selections, we do have a couple of genuine greats here.

An honorable mention is due to eight-time Pro Bowler, four-time All Pro and 2005 Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher, who, for 13 years, carried on a storied legacy of legendary middle linebackers in Chicago, and help the Bears do their only Super Bowl appearance since 1985.

However, the body of work that Bruce Matthews put together over an incredible 19 seasons – also with a single franchise (the Houston Oilers ultimately became the Tennessee Titans) – is completely unimpeachable.

With the exception of the 1987 season, in which he missed seven games, Matthews not only took part in every regular season game played by the team in career (288) – and started 287 of them! Along the way, he earned 14 Pro Bowl selections, seven First Team All Pro selections, a spot in the Hall of Fame, and case as the greatest offensive lineman ever.

#8 – Ronnie Lott, DB, San Francisco 49ers, 1981 (168 AV)

It’s absolutely crazy that one of the best left tackles of the past 30 years – Saint, Chief, and Hall of Famer Willie Roaf (selected in 1993 by the Saints; 145 AV) doesn’t even get a whiff of the top spot here.

Alas, that’s the fate of stars – even all-time greats – who are pitted against era-, position- and dynasty-defining legends.

To refer to Ronnie Lott as ‘Hall of Famer, six-time All Pro and four-time Super Bowl champion’ feel somehow insufficient. No defensive back in the history of the game has married Lott’s combination of skill, savvy, intelligence and brutal power. Lott was simply the best at what he did, he was essentially playing his own game.

#7 – Champ Bailey, CB, Washington, 1999 (157 AV)

Once again, it’s wild that a player the caliber of Adrian Peterson (selected in 2007 by the Vikings; 128 AV) – he of nearly 15,000 rushing yards, the second-highest single-season rushing total in NFL history, 90 rushing touchdowns, seven Pro Bowl selections, four All Pro selections and a league MVP – is clearly outpaced.

However, as Willie Roaf can attest, when one of the select few defensive backs in NFL has you in his sights, it doesn’t often work out in your favor.

That Champ Bailey is a 12-time Pro Bowler and three-time All Pro, a member of the Hall of Fame, has more than 900 career tackles, 52 career interceptions – 18 of which (returned for 301 yards and 3 TDs) came in a ridiculous two-year stretch – is impressive enough.

However, Bailey is so more than just numbers though. He’s a defensive back so strong, intelligent, adaptable and versatile, that could have not only played – but would have thrived – in any era in NFL history. If you don’t want to take my word for it, maybe you’ll trust the assessment of Bill Belichick: 

‘Champ was great and unique in the fact he could match up with pretty much everybody — fast guys, quick guys, big guys, physical receivers. He has the skill set, anticipation and awareness to play inside in the slot, and he could play outside … really a complete player.’

#6 – Jim Brown, RB, Cleveland Browns, 1957 (122 AV)

I recognize I’m breaking my own rule here – but sometimes that’s what must be done in the name of justice. To adhere strictly to the ‘last 45 years’ guideline would put Tim Brown (Raiders, 1988; 146 AV) – nine-time Pro Bowler, 15,000 yard receiver, Hall of Famer – in the top spot here. There would be no shame in that whatsoever.

However, to do so would be to ignore the achievements of superstar defensive end Carl Eller (Vikings, 1964; 180 AV), who racked up more than 130 sacks over 16 NFL seasons, whose seven-year prime earned him six Pro Bowl selections five First Team All Pro nods and who, along with Alan Page, embodied the legendary ‘Purple People Eaters’ defense that led the Vikings to four Super Bowl appearances in the 1970s.

Even more egregious, though, would be the omission of Jim Brown whose nine NFL seasons not only yielded nine Pro Bowl selections, eight First Team All Pro selections, three league MVP awards and the (at the time) all-time rushing record, but redefine the running back position itself, with a level of explosiveness and brutal finesse the game had never seen before.

That Brown retired after nine seasons capped what would certainly been a truly unfathomable resume at merely ‘incredible’. Additionally, his AV score (a bit pedestrian among the great, no?) is suppressed by the front end of his career, as the stat is simply not yet calculated for seasons prior to 1960, and thus does not factor in Brown’s first three seasons, in which he rushed for 37,98 yards and 40 touchdowns.

Sometimes, rules are made to be broken.

#5 – Deion Sanders, CB, Atlanta Falcons, 1989 (163 AV)

This was the toughest decision of this entire project. Not only has the #5 (as one might expect) yielded a number of phenomenally great players, at the very top of the list, those players are legends.

First off, a shoutout to a pair of truly phenomenal defensive backs – nine-time Pro-Bowler and two-time All-Pro with the Patriots and Raiders Mike Haynes (selected by the Patriots in 1976; 138 AV) and future Hall of Famer Patrick Peterson (119 AV), who was selected by the Cardinals in 2011 – who’d have warranted more than just a passing mention just about anywhere else on this list.

Consider, however: LaDainian Tomlinson (Chargers, 2001; 159 AV), one of the most spectacular, prolific and accomplished running backs of all time, a man who, over 11 NFL seasons, rushed for nearly 14,000 yards, scored 145 touchdowns (including an NFL record 28 rushing touchdowns in 2006), twice led the league in rushing, made five Pro Bowls, three All Pro first teams and won the 2006 MVP, is the bronze medalist here. 

Just ahead of him is another Chargers icon – no, the Chargers icon – one of the league’s greatest-ever linebackers, 12-time Pro Bowler, six-time All Pro, 1992 Defensive Player of the Year, and the heart, soul and spirit of San Diego and the Chargers: the late Junior Seau (Chargers, 1990; 195 AV).

Topping this awesome list not only the arguable greatest cornerback the NFL has ever seen, but one of its most iconic and charismatic game-changers: ‘Neon’ Deion Sanders. ‘Primetime’ (as he’s also known) was selected to eight Pro Bowls and six times All Pro First Teams in 14 NFL seasons, was named the 1994 Defensive Player of the Year, and was vital to 49ers Super Bowl title in 1994 and the Cowboys triumph in 1995. More impressive than any list of accolades, however, is the way in which Deion impacted opposing game plans.

For the entirety of the 1990s, opposing quarterbacks simply refused to throw the ball to the side of the field on which Deion lined up. Think about that. Other maniacally competitive and supremely confident top-tier professional athletes readily accepted the fact that Deion’s mere presence simply closed off half of the field of play.

Most superstars change the way opponents have to play the game. Only a select few simply revoke the privilege of playing at all.

#4 – Walter Payton, Chicago Bears, 1975 (167 AV)

Probably the most loaded spot here. Interestingly, the man who leads the way in Weighted AV, by some margin, Philip Rivers (draft in 2004; 218 AV), despite a stellar 17-year career for the Chargers (and a season with the Colts) probably doesn’t even crack the top five here. Consider:

  • Defensive end Dan Hampton (125 AV), drafted by the Bears in 1979, whose 12-year career in Chicago yielded 82 sacks, four Pro Bowl appearances, an All-Pro selection, a Super Bowl ring and enshrinement in the Hall of Fame…
  • Quarterback Bob Griese (138 AV), drafted by Miami in 1967, who won a league MVP, was named a Pro Bowler eight times and First Team All-Pro twice, helmed the Dolphins to not only back-to-back Super Bowl titles, but also the only ‘perfect season’ in NFL history (1972), and is also in the Hall of Fame…
  • Running back Edgerrin James (135 AV), drafted in 1999 – a year after Peyton Manning and four years after Marvin Harrison, to complete the Colts version of the ‘triplets’– who earned four Pro Bowl selections and an All-Pro nod, accumulated 12,246 rushing yards, over 15,600 total yards from scrimmage with 83 touchdowns and, yep, is now a Hall of Famer…
  • The late Derrick Thomas (1989, Chiefs; 131 AV), a spectacular pass rusher who racked up 126.5 sacks, forced 41 fumbles and recovered 19 – four of which he took back for touchdowns – in an eleven-year Hall of Fame career that was tragically cut short in February 2000, a month after his 33rd birthday, he was killed a car accident in Miami…
  • Offensive guard John Hannah (Patriots, 1973; 149 AV), who, in 13 seasons with the Patriots, earned nine Pro Bowl and seven First Team All-Pro selections en route to the Hall…

Not one of these guys stood anything resembling a realistic chance of getting the nod here. A trio of defenders do make compelling cases as ‘the best fourth overall selection in the history of the NFL Draft’:

  • Selected by the Steelers in 1969, defensive tackle ‘Mean’ Joe Greene’s (143 AV) resume is spectacular in any context – Rookie of the Year, 10 Pro Bowls, four-time First Team All-Pro, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, four Super Bowl rings and, of course, a spot in the Hall. Adding to his legend is his status as not only a core member of Pittsburgh’s legendary ‘Steel Curtain’ defense, but the first to arrive.
  • 16 years after Greene was selected by Pittsburgh’s NFL franchise, the Vikings selected pass rusher Chris Doleman (156 AV) from the University of Pittsburgh. Over a 15-year Hall of Fame career with the Vikings, Falcons and 49ers, Doleman racked up 150.5 sacks, forced 44 fumbles and recovered 24. For his troubles, he earned eight Pro Bowl and two First Team All-Pro selections, and the 1992 Defensive Player of the Year Award.
  • Thirteen years later, the then-Oakland Raiders selected Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson (163 AV) with the fourth pick. Woodson was seen not only the consensus top-DB in the 1998 draft, but as a generational talent. Over 18 awesome seasons, he proved those lofty pre-draft assessments correct. He won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1998, was selected nine Pro Bowl and three All-Pro First Teams, won the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year award, and a Super Bowl ring as a member of the 2010 Green Bay Packers. There’s so much about Woodson’s career that’s incredible – 65 interceptions, 11 of which he returned for touchdowns… 33 forced fumbles, 18 recovered fumbles, 20 sacksPerhaps the most impressive thing, though, is how, in 2012, Woodson, then 36 and already a nailed-on Hall of Famer, moved from his familiar cornerback position to safety, and proceeded to play both safety spots for the next four years, and earned a Pro Bowl selection at his new position in his last season, 2015, at age 39.

Ultimately, however, this spot belongs to Sweetness. In 13 NFL seasons, Walter Payton was selected to the Pro Bowl nine times, First Team All-Pro five times, won a league MVP, was named offensive an offensive player of the year, and won a Super Bowl. Peyton retired as the NFL is leaders all-time rushing yards (16,726 yards; since surpassed by only Emmitt Smith), rushing touchdowns (110), combined rushing and receiving yards (21,264), and combined rushing and receiving TDs. The ‘on paper’ case alone is justifies this selection.

However, to watch highlights of Payton, and especially to hear the accounts of those who witnessed it, is to understand that Payton was a genuine force of nature. He was not so much ‘ahead of his time’, but cut out to dominate any time.

Though Payton’s records have fallen, and a great many awesome running backs have passed through the NFL since Payton’s prime – and yet, Payton’s place among the very best football players (not just running backs) of all time has never come under threat.

#3 – Anthony Munoz, Cincinnati Bengals, OT, 1980 (181 AV)

It’s absolutely wild that Barry Sanders – the third overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft, and a 10-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro, four-time rushing champion, league MVP, two-time Offensive Player of the Year, 15,000-yard rusher and presumptive all-time rushing leader had he not abruptly retired after his tenth season – is bypassed here.

The fact is, if you want to choose the most awe-inspiring and spectacular offensive weapon of his generation (and on the short list for the all-time honor), I will not argue with you for a moment. Sander is, in every sense of the word, an iconic player, and one greatest talents in NFL history.

However, a big thing does work against the former Lions talisman. For one, over a decade in which they had the game’s ultimate game-breaker on hand, the Lions only made the playoffs five times, and only won a single playoff game – with Sanders conspicuously unable to replicate his astounding regular season form.  

Of course, also working against Sanders’ candidacy here is the presence of arguably the greatest offensive lineman in NFL history. Selected third overall out of USC in 1980. Anthony Munoz spent his entire career in Cincinnati with the Bengals. Over those 13 seasons – during which he missed a grand total of 16 games – he earned 11 Pro Bowl selections, nine First Team All Pro nods and, most importantly, providing the foundation up front on offense that allowed the Bengals to reach two Super Bowl in the 1980s.

Also, though Munoz was a consensus blue chip prospect coming out of college, his selection feels more momentous and impressive than of Sanders. This is primarily because of the total dearth of superstars in the 1980 draft, from which Munoz in the best-ever player by a pretty hilarious margin. Had the Lions elected to pass on Barry Sanders in 1989, they’d have almost certainly one of the Hall of Famers that went with the next two picks – Hall of Fame pass-rusher Derrick Thomas or another Sanders, Deion – and felt perfectly fine about it.

#2 – Lawrence Taylor, LB, New York Giants, 1981 (192 AV)

Two of the top dozen running backs of all time – Tony Dorsett (Cowboys, 1977; 137 AV) and Marshall Faulk (Colts, 1994; 164 AV) and a pair of transformative defensive linemen – defensive tackle Randy White (Cowboys, 1975; 150 AV) and Julius Peppers (2002, Panthers; 185 AV) – have been selected at #2 overall.

Every last one of these players lived up to expectations. There were superstars, All-Pros, Defensive Players of the Year and MVPs. They played in, and won Super Bowls. Three have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and the fourth (Peppers) will be, as soon as he’s eligible. And not one of these dudes stood a chance here!

There are only so many ways say it – and, frankly, I feel like I’m beginning to exhaust them, but here goes, one more time: Lawrence Taylor is, by all accounts, most impactful, most terrifying, most difficult to game-plan against and, simply, the greatest defensive player in NFL history. Beating that takes some doing.

#1 – Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts, 1998 (271 AV)

It will come as no surprise that the first pick in the NFL Draft has yielded some prolific and iconic players. What’s fascinating, however, is that, based on both peak production and accumulated value over time, the field of candidates dwindles rather quickly, to just three innermost circle legends: five-time MVP Peyton Manning, Broncos great John Elway (1983; 206 AV) and Bills legend and all-time (based on official stats) sack leader, Bruce Smith (Bills, 1985; 229 AV).

This was a race between Manning and Smith, as each had a sustained peak during which he was unquestionably the best in the league at his position – if not the player in the league period, while Elway, though consistently ‘one of the top signal callers in the NFL’, was never decisively clear of Montana, Marino, Favre and Young in the league’s QB hierarchy.  

To that point, there is literally nothing can be said that pokes any holes in Smith’s resume. He played 19 seasons, appearing in at least 14 games and sixteen times, with a 12-year peak in which he recorded 142.5 sacks, 800 tackles, forced 29 fumbles and even intercepted two passes. Smith retired in 2003 an 11-time Pro Bowler, eight-time First Team All-Pro and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, with an NFL record 200 career sacks, more than 1,200 tackles, 43 forced fumbles, and as much responsibility as anyone for the Bills winning four straight AFC titles in the 1990s. 

Ultimately, though the choice here is Manning. The guy won five MVPs, three AFC titles and two Super Bowls. Over 17 seasons, he threw for nearly 72,000 yards and 539 touchdowns. He twice broke the single-season touchdown pass record (49 in 2004, and 55 in 2013). He was named a Pro Bowler 14 times, and First Team All-Pro seven times. Perhaps most impressively, in 2012, at age 36, he changed franchises (interestingly, to Elway’s Broncos) on the heels of a career-threatening neck injury that had just cost him a full season and proceeded to go on a three-year run in which he threw for nearly 15,000 yards and 131 touchdowns, and (thanks to a defense for the ages) led the Broncos to two Super Bowls, and a Super Bowl win.

Even in Manning’s absence, it would have been tough to give the nod to Elway, as the pick with which he was chosen belong to the then-Baltimore Colts, for Elway refused to play, threatened to pursue a career in baseball (he was also a top baseball prospect) until he was traded to Denver. As well as things worked out for Elway and the Broncos, it’s tough to consider all of that, and declare that pick itself a rousing success.

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