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Each NFL franchise’s best-ever first round draft pick, NFC edition

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 15:45, 28 April 2022

We’re finding the best-ever first-round selection in the NFL Draft for each of the league’s 32 franchises. Here we’re wrapping up this two-part series with the NFC.

Last week we mined the annals of NFL Draft history to find the greatest player selected at each spot in the modern-day first round – from pick #1 through pick #32 – since 1967. That exercise proved to be so fun, fascinating and educational, that now, with the hours ticking down until the start of the 2022 NFL Draft, we’re back at it! This time, we’re looking for the best first round pick in the history of each NFL franchise. In the first of these two articles, we singled out the top first-rounder for each the 16 franchises in the AFC. Now we’re doing the same for each NFC franchise.

As far as the criteria is concerned, I’ve done my best to lay out the rationale for each selection. I’ve leaned largely on the principles that govern last week’s list, while trying to take into consideration:

  • Value offered by a pick (finding a Pro Bowler at #25 is more impressive than drafting a nailed-on superstar at #1)
  • Longevity and production with the franchise that made the pick are key
  • There is a certain element of intangible impact on a franchise and a city that plays a role.

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

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys – Emmitt Smith, RB, #17 overall, 1990

There’s no need to get cute here.

Though Cowboys history is littered with greats, several were. Non-first-rounders, while the likes of Troy Aikman (1989) and Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones (1974) were #1 overall picks and Hall of Famers Randy White (1975) and Tony Dorsett (1977) were drafted second overall. Even legendary receiver Michael Irvin, the #11 pick in 1988, came in a collegiate star and national champion. Future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware, also selected #11 overall, in 2005, was a physical marvel whose stock suffered from questions about the quality of competition he faced at Troy University.

Smith, meanwhile, though a star at the University of Florida, wasn’t seen as a nailed-on superstar at the highest level. Thus, in 1990 – in an age when running backs still regularly warranted top five picks – fell into the ‘Boys’ laps at #17. Four rushing titles, an MVP, eight Pro Bowls, four All-Pro selections, three Super Bowl rings and the NFL’s all-time rushing record later, suffice it to say the pick offered decent value.

New York Giants – Lawrence Taylor, LB, #2 overall, 1981

This was always going to be Lawrence Taylor. For as heavily-touted as he was coming out of the University of North Carolina, and despite the fact that he only ‘fell’ to the second overall pick, Taylor is forever one of a miniscule group of players whose otherworldly talent has an impact that’s so seismic, so era- and franchise-defining, that even their obvious election feels like a stroke of genius.

Cementing Taylor’s place here is a rather sad first round history for Big Blue. To say that Giants – one of the earliest organizations in the history of pro football – have underwhelmed early in the draft would be a wild understatement. The only way to fashion anything remotely resembling competition for LT here would be to consider either a man who was not actually drafted by the franchise, Eli Manning (#1 overall in 2004), or the man who was selected by the Giants (#4 overall) and traded for Manning that draft day, Philip Rivers. Otherwise, we’re left to contemplate the likes of Taylor’s 1980s teammate, QB Phil Simms (#7 in 1979) or former All Pro and 2010 draft steal (#15) Jason Pierre-Paul – neither of whom is within shouting distance of being within shouting distance.

Philadelphia Eagles – Donovan McNabb, QB, #2 overall, 1999

The obvious answer here is McNabb. In the simplest of terms, McNabb justified his lofty draft status to a greater extent than any other player in franchise history, with more than 37,000 passing yards, 234 touchdowns, six Pro Bowl selections, five trips to the NFC title game and an NFC title over 11 stellar seasons in Philadelphia.

There is added value in the selection of McNabb in that he was not one of the monumental QB busts – Akili Smith (#3 overall, to the Bengals) or Cade McNown (#12 overall, to the Bears), for instance – from the (in hindsight) comically overhyped 1999 QB class.

While we’re here, we should take a moment and consider a man who certainly have had a solid case for this spot had his life not tragically been cut short. Defensive tackle Jerome brown, the 9th pick in the 1987 NFL Draft, was the epitome of a defensive force. Big (6-foot-, 292 pounds), by all accounts epically strong, with incredible speed and agility for his size, and a snarling swagger and downright meaningless on the field that made him not a nightmare matchup, but simply a nightmare for opponents.

Over five NFL seasons, Brown evolved into a legitimate superstar. In his final two seasons, 1990 and 1991, he was selected both to the Pro Bowl and the All Pro First Team. As he was just 27 years of age at that point, he was likely only at the beginning of sustained run of dominance. Tragically, however, in June 1992, while spending the offseason in his hometown of Brooksville, Florida, Brown was killed in a car accident.

Washington Commanders – Darrell Green, CB, #30 overall, 1983

The apex of Washington’s draft history is the selection of two of the great defensive backs of all time.

in terms of on-field value over the course of a career, Champ Bailey (our best-ever #7 overall pick) is the best player ever drafted by the franchise, with 12 Pro Bowl and three All-Pro selections in 14 seasons. However, that he only spent five of those seasons in Washington

works against him here. Plus, for as generationally great as Bailey wound up being, a certain level of greatness was expected when he entered the NFL. This was not the case for a man selected 16 years earlier.

Darrell Green arrived in the nation’s capital an ultra-speedy #28 overall pick out of tiny Texas A&M-Kingsville with no hype and no Hall of Fame pedigree. Over the next two decades, Green became one of the faces of pro football in Washington DC. He appeared in nearly 300 games, all of them for Washington, earned seven Pro Bowl selections, was named First Team All Pro in 1991, and helped Washington to a pair of Super Bowl titles.

NFC North

Chicago Bears – Walter Payton, RB, #4 overall, 1975

Just about everything in every NFL franchise’s history is going to pale in comparison with getting Walter Payton with the fourth pick of the draft (1975).

I don’t make the rules. (I’m lying. I do make these particular rules. And this is a hard-and-fast one)

This is a tough break for Brian Urlacher, the eight-time Pro Bowler, four-time All Pro linebacker who was selected with the #9 overall pick in 2000, who won a Defenive Player of the Year award and more than ably carried on the franchise’s legacy of dominant middle linebacker play established by the likes of Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary during his Hall of Fame career, and was, by far, the best player selected in the first round in 2000.

But, hey, them’s the breaks.

Detroit Lions – Lomas Brown, OT, #6 overall, 1985

I’ll level with you, Detroit Lions draft history it gets pretty grim, pretty quickly. At the top, though, there’s no shortage of quality.

However, the generally-recognized four greatest players in franchise history – Barry Sanders (#3 in 1998), quarterback Matthew Stafford (#1 in 2009), defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (#2 in 2010) and wide receiver Calvin Johnson (#2 in 2007) – all fell into the ‘clear and obvious’ category, as all were massive stars for major college programs. It’s hard to deem any of their selections, smart as they obviously were, as ground-breaking.

For that reason, the nod here goes to the Lions’ 1985 first rounder (#6 overall), Lomas Brown. The offensive tackle out of Florida started for 17 years in the NFL (11 with the Lions), and earned seven Pro Bowl selections and one First Team All Pro selection.

Green Bay Packers – Aaron Rodgers, QB, #24 overall, 2005

It’s always nice when the Packers come around on any project like this, as they provide a wonderful opportunity to reign in word count.

I’ve said it before, and I will continue to say it: It’s astounding that 23 players were selected in the 2005 NFL Draft ahead of Aaron Rodgers. That’s all.

Minnesota Vikings – Alan Page, DE, #15 overall, 1967

It must be said that the Vikings have drafted spectacularly through the years – and especially over the past three decades. To give you an idea of just how well they’ve drafted, their eight most valuable first round pick, quarterback Daunte Culpepper (#11 in 1999) generated enough on-field value during his career to land in the top three for other franchises.

Directly ahead of him are a pair of future Hall of Famers, running back Adrian Peterson (#7 in 2007) and defensive tackle Kevin Williams (#9 in 2003), and a Hall of Fame offensive tackle (Ron Yary; #1 overall in 1968) with, collectively zero shot at even garnering consideration here.

That’s because each of the four best first round draft picks in Vikings history is an inner circle Hall of Famer: two-time All-Pro, 150-sack defensive end Chris Dolman (#4 in 1985); seven-time All-Pro and one of the great guards in NFL history, Randall McDaniel (#19 in 1988); four-time All-Pro and top-two all-time receiver (yeah, I said it) Randy Moss (#21 in 1998; he doesn’t take this in a walk only because his talent was never actually in question); and… 

The best first round draft pick in franchise history, Hall of Fame defensive tackle Alan Page. The #15 pick in 1967 (selected right after another, eminently forgettable defensive end) was a 15 year starter for the franchise, earning nine Pro Bowl and five All-Pro selections, and racking up nearly 150 sacks as a foundational member of the Purple People Eaters defense that led the Vikings to four Super Bowl appearances in the 1970s.

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NFC South

Atlanta Falcons – Michael Vick, QB, #1 overall, 2001

With all due respect to franchise greats Matt Ryan (#3 over all in 2008) and his devastating top target for a decade, Julio Jones (#6 in 2011), all-time great cornerback Deion Sanders (#3 in 1989), who accumulated the overwhelming majority of his success elsewhere, and five-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Mike Kenn (#13 in 1978), the best first round pick in Falcons franchise history (in conflict with the rationale for several of these choices) might also have been the most straightforward. 

In 2001, after trading up from the fifth overall pick to the top spot, the Falcons selected Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick. Before injuries and incarceration for his role in a dogfighting operation derailed his career, Vick was not only hands down the most spectacular quarterback the league have ever seen, but seemed to play an altogether different sport from his predecessors at the position. Around 2003, it was not the least bit silly to suggest that Vick would go down as one of the greatest players in NFL history.

For the Falcons, who’d habitually failed to sustain success and had a history woefully light on generational talents, he quickly became (and remains) the most important player in franchise (and, among gamers, Madden) history.

Carolina Panthers – Luke Kuechly, LB, #9 overall, 2012

Despite having been in been around for less than three decades, the Panthers have made some significant splashes in the first round of the NFL draft. Their first-ever draft pick, Kerry Collins (#5 overall in 1995) made a Pro Bowl in his second season and led the team to the NFC title game. More recently, there are the top two Panthers draftees (by some margin in terms of AV), defensive end Julius Peppers (#2 in 2002) and QB Cam Newton (#1 in 2011) – excellent picks to be sure, but consensus top-two picks at the time of their respective drafts. 

Thanks to on-field value relative to draft position and leadership and overall impact, this spot the Panthers’ 2012 first rounder, former Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly. In eight NFL seasons, Kuechly earned seven Pro Bowl and five First Team All-Pro selections, and was, alongside Peppers, the heart of some stellar Carolina defense.

New Orleans Saints – Cameron Jordan, DE, #24 overall, 2011

The honor of ‘greatest first round draft pick in the history of the New Orleans Saints’ came down to a two-horse race. In terms of total value provided over the course of a career, 1993’s #8 overall pick, Hall of Famer and four-time All-Pro offensive tackle Willie Roaf has the clear edge.

However, the selection of Cameron Jordan with the 24th overall pick in 2011. falls into the ‘masterclass’ category. 11 NFL seasons in, Jordan has recorded 107 sacks, earned seven Pro Bowl selections and was named First Team All-Pro in 2017.

As he approaches his 33rd birthday, Jordan is still going strong, having turned in a 2021 campaign in which he racked up 12.5 sacks, 22 quarterback hits and 13 tackles for loss, and earned his fifth straight Pro Bowl selection. Assuming he stays healthy and doesn’t inexplicably drop off over the next couple of years, Jordan’s likely to go down as not only the ‘best value first round pick’ in franchise history, but simply the most valuable.

 Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Derrick Brooks, LB, #28 overall, 1995

The Bucs have drafted some pretty, pretty good players over the years. Now, to be fair, spending your first two decades as one of the NFL’s worst teams does net you some pretty decent draft picks. That being said, and with all due respect to Vinny Testaverde (#1 overall in 1987) and Warrick Dunn (#12 in 1997), the Bucs’ most epic draft day successes came on the same day. 

Like the Ravens a year later, in a single afternoon, the Bucs drafted a pair of Hall of Famers and changed the entire trajectory of their franchise. In this case, Tampa nabbed the two greatest players in franchise history, and, in one fell swoop, laid the foundation for the historically devastating defense that would power the franchise to its first Super Bowl title in January 2003.

In just about any other context, the selection of Warren Sapp with the 12th overall pick would be the highlight of a franchise’s draft history. This is, of course, assuming said franchise didn’t select an 11-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro Defensive Player of the Year just 16 picks later.

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals – Larry Fitzgerald, WR, #3 overall, 2004

What is, on paper, a nip-tuck battle between two contemporary Cardinals greats and a star from more than half a century ago was, in fact, a pretty easy call.

With all due respect to three-time All-Pro and Hall of Fame defensive back Roger Wehrli (#19 overall in 1969) draft and one of the best DBs of the modern era, Patrick Peterson, Fitzgerald’s raw productivity alone (1,432 catches, 17,492 yards and 121 TDs) puts him in some truly rarified air. Combine those gaudy numbers (and the 11 Pro Bowl selections they warranted) with 17 years as the superstar anchor for a franchise that had simply never had one before – let alone one that could get them to a Super Bowl – and Fitz’s case is pretty cut and dry.

Los Angeles Rams – Aaron Donald, DT, #13 overall, 2014

For the foreseeable future, all arguments regarding Rams defensive players will come down to Jack Youngblood and Aaron Donald. And, as crazy as it is to get a seven-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro Defensive Player of the Year who racks up over 150 sacks with the 20th pick of the draft, getting a guy at #13 who’s made the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight seasons – and has been named First Team All-Pro in seven of them seven of them – while winning Defensive Player of the Year three times and leading the franchise to its first ever Super Bowl triumph – and is still squarely in his prime – is as spectacular a draft win as one can reasonably hope for.

San Francisco 49ers – Jerry Rice, WR, #16 overall, 1985

Prior to the 1985 draft, experts worried that Jerry Rice might not be big enough to thrive in the NFL. There were concerns that his less-than-elite speed would preclude him from succeeding at the highest level. There were also questions about whether the competition he’d faced at Tiny Mississippi Valley State University had prepared him for the NFL. Thus 13 teams (the Bills and the Houston Oilers each picked twice in the top-15) – including the Bengals and Chiefs, each of whom took a pass catcher in the three picks prior to Rice’s selection – passed.

In the end, Bill Walsh and the 49ers, seeing what the rest league could not, selected Rice at #16. All he did to repay them was become not only the greatest wide receiver of all time, but arguably the best player in NFL history, and, along with Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott, the driving force behind four Super Bowl victories and of the great dynasties in NFL history.

Seattle Seahawks – Earl Thomas, FS, #14 overall, 2010

Three times in the 1990s, the Seahawks selected in the top six of the NFL Draft. In 1993, desperate for a quarterback, they burned the #2 pick on Notre Dame’s Rick Mirer. The other two times they selected Hall of Famers. In 1990, with the #3 overall pick, it was defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy. In 1997, with the sixth pick, it was four-time All-Pro offensive tackle Walter Jones. in terms of overall on-field value, these two top the list of Seahawks first round picks.

Four years after selecting Jones, with the 17th pick, the Seahawks selected guard Steve Hutchinson out of the University of Michigan. Hutchinson went on to earn five All-Pro selections in 11 seasons and is now also a Hall of Famer. However, he only spent five of those 11 seasons in Seattle, which effectively knocks him out of the running here. 

That brings us to Earl Thomas. The #14 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, Thomas not only not only delivered all of the promise he’d shown at the University of Texas, reached the pinnacle of the sport, earning seven Pro Bowl selections in three all pro selections in nine seasons in Seattle. More than that, though he served as the foundational piece of the legendary ‘Legion of Boom’ secondary that led the Seahawks to two Super Bowl appearances and the franchise’s first ever title.

Thus, despite his rather acrimonious exit from the franchise in 2018, Thomas remains as important as any player (yes, Russell Wilson included) in franchise history.

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