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

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 12:22, 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, in the first of a two-part series, we begin with the AFC.

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. Here, in the first of two articles, we’re starting with the 16 franchises that comprise the AFC.

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 get cracking shall we?

AFC East

Buffalo Bills – Jim Kelly, QB, #14 overall, 1983

In the not too distant future – and probably for quite some time to come – this spot will belong to Josh Allen.

However, as Allen is just entering his fifth NFL season and still building his body of work – spectacular though it is, including his genuinely unbelievable improvement following his first two seasons – there’s a trio of Hall of Famers at the top who aren’t surrendering the their spots just yet: all-time sack leader and former Defensive Player of the Year Bruce Smith (#1 in 1985), the NFL’s disgraced first-ever 2,000-yard running back O.J. Simpson (#1 in 1969) and Smith’s teammate for four trips to the Super Bowl in the 1990s, Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly.

As Simpson and Smith were #1 overall picks, and Kelly was not only not selected until the 14th pick, but was also the fourth of six first round quarterbacks in 1983 (and one of only three that panned out) makes this selection the more impressive coup.

Miami Dolphins – Dan Marino, QB, #27 overall, 1983

With all due respect to Hall of Fame QB and two-time Super Bowl champion Bob Griese, getting the man who’d go to break every meaningful NFL passing record as the face of the franchise and a local icon not just at #27, but as the fifth quarterback selected, doesn’t leave much room for debate.

New England Patriots – Logan Mankins, OG, #32 overall, 2005

I’m not sure this has ever come up but – just so you know – Tom Brady was apparently not a first-round pick. That, unfortunately, adds a degree of difficulty to this leg of this exercise.

The top three most productive first-round picks in Patriots history – Hall of Fame offensive guard John Hanna (#4 in 1973), Hall of Fame defensive back Mike Haynes (#5 in 1976) and quarterback Drew Bledsoe (#1 overall in 1993) – delivered (to varying degrees, but delivered none the less) on the promise that accompanied their lofty draft status.

However, the Patriots fourth most-productive first-rounder of all time, seven-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins, produced virtually the same on-field value as that high-profile trio, despite not hearing his name called in 2005 until 32nd and final selection of the first round. I know, it’s ridiculous to pick an all-time Patriots offensive guard that’s not John Hannah, but in terms of ‘quality of pick’, Mankins is a bigger win.

New York Jets – Darrelle Revis, CB, #14 overall, 2007

If we’re being honest, the Jets haven’t had a great many hits in the first round.

Interestingly, between 1997 and 2007, the franchise nailed a tree trio of picks, on a trio of future stars, at each defensive level.

In 1997, at #8 overall, it was linebacker James Farrior. In 2000, at #13, it was defensive and John Abraham. Then, in 2007, with the 14th overall pick, they selected cornerback Darrelle Revis. Each played in the NFL for between nine and 12 seasons, each was a multiple-time Pro Bowler (Revis seven, Abraham five, Farrior two), and each was named First Team All-Pro at least once. in terms of (based on Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value, the three are in a virtual dead heat.

Given all of that, the edge goes to Revis, who notched the most First Team All Pro selections (four) and, unlike the other two stars here, was, for a time, the consensus best player in the league at his position.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens – Ray Lewis, LB, #26 overall, 1996

Lewis would probably get the nod here no matter where in the first round he’d been drafted. But, getting a perennial All-Pro, multiple time Defensive Player of the Year and the talismanic heart and soul of a freshly relocated franchise who winds up being the catalyst for a pair of Super Bowl titles at #26?? C’mon!  

While we’re here though, let’s take a moment and appreciate:

  • The Ravens’ staggering record of first round successes on defensive side of the ball between 1996 and 2006, when they drafted not only Lewis, but also current or future Hall of Famers Ed Reed (#24 in 2002), Terrell Suggs (#10 in 2003) and Haloti Ngata (#12 in 2006), all of whom combined to form the backbone of a generationally great defense; and
  • The Raven’s pick at #4 overall in that same 1996 draft: massive (6-foot-9, 345 pounds) UCLA offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. Though the Ogden pick was a straightforward one given his awesome frame and collegiate pedigree, that he went on to earn 11 Pro Bowl selections, four First Team All0Pro selections and a Super Bowl ring in his 12-year career is truly spectacular – and makes Baltimore’s 1996 first round one of the best turned in by any team, EVER.

Cleveland Browns – Alex Mack, C, #21 overall, 2009

In this assessment of Cleveland Browns draft history I’ve taken into account only picks made since the franchise’s revival in 1999. On that criteria, it’s presently a toss-up between 2007’s #3 overall pick, six time All Pro and future Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas, and the winner for now, seven-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, who, while not nearly the same caliber of player, was an absolute steal at #21 in 2009.

It is worth noting, however, that the first overall pick from the 2017 draft, defensive end Myles Garrett, is closing fast, and will likely lay claim to this spot in the coming years.

Cincinnati Bengals – Anthony Munoz, OT, #3 overall, 1980

Like Ry Lewis, Munoz would be the pick here no matter where in the first round he’d been drafted. No matter how highly-touted the prospect, 11 All-Pro selections in 13 years, a pair of Super Bowl appearances, and an indisputable place in the uppermost tier (at worst top-three, and almost certainly not #3) of players ever at a position exceeds even the loftiest of expectations.

Also worth pointing out is interesting pattern from Bengals draft history. Each of the two most productive players in franchise history (Munoz and 2003 #1 overall pick, QB Carson Palmer) went to school at the University of Southern California. The fourth and fifth most valuable players, offensive tackle Willie Anderson (#10 in 1996) and linebacker Takeo Spikes (#13 in 1998), were both drafted out of the University of Auburn. And, today, the Bengals have another duo that seems a lock to crash this party – quarterback Joe Burrow (#1 in 2020) and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (#4 in 2021) – who are also bound by alma mater (LSU).

Pittsburgh Steelers – Ben Roethlisberger, QB, #11 overall, 2004

It’s brutally unfair that a six time All-Pro and one of the dozen or so best defensive players in NFL history, Rod Woodson (#10 in 1987) comes up short. However, when a team selecting outside the top ten finds a six-time Pro Bowl quarterback who starts under Centre for 17 years (the last couple were less than glorious, but he was there nonetheless), throw for more than 64,000 yards and 400 touchdowns, wins three conference championships and a pair of Super Bowls, they’ve hit a generational jackpot.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that I’m not a fan of Big Ben’s, but his impact on the Steelers is impossible to ignore.

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AFC South

Houston Texans – J.J. Watt, DE, #11 overall, 2011

Since the franchise’s inception in 2002, the Texans have had some rather significant hits in the first round of the draft. However, two of the franchises most productive players – wide receiver Andre Johnson (#3 in 2003) and defensive end Mario Williams (#1 in 2006) were top three picks. Johnson was something of a no-brainer coming out of Miami – his selection didn’t require rocket science.

Now, credit is due for taking Williams when the entire world was screaming for the selection either running back Reggie Bush or University of Texas quarterback Vince Young. That, in hindsight,  Williams was the right pick as a huge victory for the Texans’ brain trust at the time. That being said, he was still the #1 overall pick and, though good, didn’t meaningfully change the franchise’s trajectory.

The Texans have also had some phenomenal success outside of the top 10. In 2008, with the 26th pick, they selected offensive tackle Duane Brown, who started for the team for over nine seasons, during which he earned an All Pro selection, and has since earned a pair of Pro Bowl nods (the fourth and fifth of his career) as a member of the Seattle Seahawks.

Five years later, with the 27th pick, the Texans selected Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins went on to put together arguably the best opening seven years for a wide receiver in NFL history, earning three All-Pro selections along the way, before his inexplicable trade to Arizona in the 2020 offseason.

In the end, the pick here has to be the man who went #11 in 2011, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, one of the defining defensive players of his era, and a genuine all-time great, defensive end J.J. Watt.

Indianapolis Colts – Marvin Harrison, WR, #19 overall, 1996

There are no bonus points for picking Peyton Manning #1 in 1998, or even for selecting Marshall Faulk second overall in 1994. 

A tip of the cap is due for 1999, when , despite the availability of the draft’s presumptive top running back, University of Texas superstar Ricky Williams, the Colts opted for the less touted running back Edgerrin James, from the University of Miami. James went on to put together a more successful career than Williams, and is now in the Hall of Fame.

This pick, however, is a toss-up between a pair of star wide receivers: 1996’s 19th overall pick, Marvin Harrison, and 2001’s 30th overall pick, Reggie Wayne. In terms of value delivered relative to draft position, Wayne wins out. However it’s difficult to overstate just how inevitable and unstoppable Harrison was during his peak as Peyton Manning’s unquestioned top target. He was simply inevitable.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Fred Taylor, RB, #9 overall, 1998

The best player ever drafted by the Jaguars on a per-snap basis is also the first player ever drafted by the Jags (#2 overall in 1995): Tony Boselli, a gifted and massive (6-foot-7, 324 pounds) offensive tackle from USC. Though Boselli did prove to be a fantastic player, earning five Pro Bowl and three All-Pro selections, his career was marred by injury effectively over after just six seasons – though those six seasons were enough to get him into the Hall of Fame.

However, in terms of productivity and longevity, another star, drafted three years later (and admittedly a personal favorite of mine) gets the nod here. Over 11 seasons with the Jaguars, University of Florida running back Fred Taylor rushed for at least 1,000 yards seven times – and almost certainly would have on three of the other four occasions, but for season-shorting injuries. In 2008, when Taylor left the Jags, he so with over 11,000 rushing yards, over 2,300 receiving yards and 70 total touchdowns. He remains, to this day, the franchise’s best-ever offensive player.

Tennessee Titans (previously Houston Oilers) – Bruce Matthews, OG, #9 overall, 1983

It’s entirely possible that USC has produced both the greatest offensive lineman of all time (Anthony Munoz) and the greatest offensive guard of all time. 

Drafted three years after Munoz, Bruce Matthews put together one of the most staggeringly consistent and impressive careers as the linchpin of a single franchise. Matthews didn’t fail to appear in a game throughout his 19-year career, and only three times in 296 appearances appeared in a game that he did not start. Over those nearly two decades, he earned 14 Pro Bowl and seven First Team All-Pro selections, and cruised into the Hall of Fame.

Despite the best efforts of a standout quarterback – the late Steve McNair (#3 in 1995) – two of the toughest runners in NFL history, Earl Campbell (#1 overall in 1978) and Eddie George (#14 in 1996) and Matthews’ opposite number on the Oilers’ offensive line, guard Mike Munchak, Matthews’ longevity, consistency and general greatness removed all suspense from this selection.

AFC West

Denver Broncos – Steve Atwater, SS, #20 overall, 1989

John Elway was not drafted by the Broncos. Plus as Elway was the most sought-after quarterback prospect of his generation, his selection didn’t require loads of thought.

The actual most valuable player selected by the Broncos in the first round is future Hall of Fame pass-rusher and newly crowned Super Bowl champion Von Miller. Similarly, though, Miller was seen as a nailed-on superstar and was thus selected #2 overall in 2011.

There is, however, a quartet of defenders from throughout the years who not only produced on the field, but far exceeded their draft day expectations. First, in 1974, at #14, the Broncos drafted Ohio State linebacker Randy Gradishar (I promise I didn’t just make him up), who went on to earn seven Pro Bowl selections and two All-Pro nods. A year later, at #17, they drafted San Jose State defensive back Lewis Wright, who played in the league for a dozen years, earning five Pro Bowl selections and to All Pro selections of his own.

More than two decades later, with the 28th pick, Denver selected Clemson defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, who went on to start for nine seasons, and earned four Pro Bowl selections and an All Pro nod.

However, this spot belongs to 1989 #20 overall pick, strong safety Steve Atwater. The Hall of Famer went on to start in the NFL for 11 years, earned eight Pro Bowl and two All Pro selections and, in the mold of all-time great safety Ronnie Lott, served as a human piledriver in the middle of the field, capable of leveling any running back trying to hit a hole or any receiver brave (or dumb) enough to venture across the middle of the field. There’s a case ot be made that, behind Elway and Miller, Atwater is the most important player in franchise history.

Kansas City Chiefs – Patrick Mahomes, QB, #10 overall, 2017

When the Chiefs nail a first-round pick, they really hit it squarely.

For instance, in 1988 and 1989, with the #2 and #4 overall picks respectively, K.C. selected six-time Pro Bowl defensive end, Neil Smith (who should probably be a Hall of Famer) and one of the most dynamic and disruptive pass rushers in the history of the NFL – and an even greater legend had he tragically died in a car accident at age 32 – the late Derrick Thomas.

Nearly a decade later, they drafted the most prolific receiving tight end of all time, Tony Gonzalez, whose 12 seasons with the team yielded over 900 catches, nearly 11,000 yards, and 76 touchdowns. Of these three, Gonzalez gets the nod, as he was not selected until #13 overall. However…

This spot already belongs to Patrick Mahomes. This would still be the case the even if he’d been a top-three pick – that was not drafted until the 10th pick in 2017 turns his voctory into a landslide.

Mahomes has put together the greatest start to a career for any quarterback in NFL history. In four seasons as a starter, he’s earned four Pro Bowl selections, one First Team All-Pro selection, won an MVP, passed for nearly 19,000 yards and 151 touchdowns, and led the Chiefs to four straight AFC title games, two Super Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl win.

And he’ll barely be 27 When the 2022 NFL season starts

Las Vegas Raiders – Gene Upshaw, OG, #17 overall, 1967

To get three nailed-on Hall of Famers – running back Marcus Allen (#10 in 1982), wide receiver Tim Brown (#6 in 1988) and Charles Woodson (#4 in 1998) over a 17-year stretch is outstanding work. That being said, each of these guys were premier college stars Heisman Trophy winners and the bluest of blue chip prospects.  

For the purpose of this exercise, the franchise’s most impressive first round pick came in 1967 when, with the 17th overall pick, the Raiders nabbed future seven-time pro bowler, five-time All Pro and Hall of Famer, offensive guard Gene Upshaw.

Los Angeles Chargers – Leslie O’Neal, DE, #8 overall, 1986

Suffice it to say the Chargers have done well at the top of the draft, selecting a pair of franchise icons – linebacker Junior Seau and running back LaDainian Tomlinson – at #5 overall, and later (2004) turning the #1 overall pick  that became Eli Manning into future Hall of Fame QB Philip Rivers, who started under center for the Bolts for 16 years.

Their most impressive pick, however, came in 1986. Though Leslie O’Neal’s body of work pales in comparison to the three players just named, his is perhaps the most impressive selection in Chargers history, as not a single player selected later in that draft provided more value (in terms of Approximate Value) than the six-time Pro Bowler.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, in which we’ll break down the best first round pick in the history of each of the NFC’s 16 franchises!


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