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The best selections in the history of the NFL Draft, pick by pick: Part 1

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 14:54, 20 April 2022 | Updated: 19:00, 7 July 2022

A look back at the best players selected with picks #17-#32 of the 45 NFL Drafts following the 1967 NFL/AFL merger.

We’re just over a week away from 2022 NFL Draft in Las Vegas. With a few exceptions (hello, Los Angeles Rams!) this is a time of unbridled optimism and hope. Who among us hasn’t daydreamed about first round picks – where in the first round they fall – becoming era-defining superstars. 

This is understandable for fans of teams holding picks in the top five, or even the top ten. How realistic is it, though, for fans of teams selecting outside the top ten, or in the back half of the first round? Though it doesn’t happen at quite the same rate as it does for the earliest picks (who, themselves, are hardly sure things), it does happen! Thus all of that unbridled optimism and hope.

Today, we’re looking back at the very best players selected with each pick in the back half of what is now the first round of the NFL Draft – from #32 down to #17 – in the 45 drafts that followed the NFL/AFL merger in 1967. As with last week’s article examining some of the worst picks in NFL Draft history, there is an important thing 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 get to it, shall we?

PW1DEM New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees gets a pass off under pressure against the Atlanta Falcons on September 23, 2018, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

#32 – Drew Brees, QB, San Diego Chargers, 2001 (277 AV)

It’s been said many times before and will be said many times again: drafting quarterbacks is an imperfect science. It’s also often a high stakes gamble. When it works, of course, no price is too high.

Now, ideally, one of the future all-team leaders in virtually every meaningful passing statistic – who’s also destined for Super Bowl glory – and one of the great quarterbacking minds of all time is allowed to fall into your lap due to concerns about size and strength. Even more ideally, this guy is available at the 32nd overall pick, which you’ve just received (along with the #5 overall pick, which became LaDainian Tomlinson), in exchange for the first overall pick.

Sure, Brees moved on from the Chargers after just five seasons (and the acquisition of another future Hall of Famer, Philip Rivers) and a single Pro Bowl selection, and built his legend as a member of the New Orleans Saints. However that doesn’t diminish the outlandish value of the #32 overall pick the 2001 NFL Draft.

#31 – Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers, 2011 (106 AV – and counting)

With all due respect to five-time Pro-Bowl linebacker Bill Bergey (selected by the Bengals in 1969; 111 AV) and Hall of Fame defensive tackle Curley Culp (selected in 1968, by the Denver Broncos; 106 AV), a five-time Pro-Bowler, three-time All Pro and nine-year starter who’s missed a total of 11 games in 11 years (and counting), and continues to improve with age is a tough act to top. 

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#30 – Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts, 2001 (153)

Much of the attention and praise for the Colts’ dominant run in the first decade of the century is heaped (deservedly) on the shoulders of Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James. However, it’s highly unlikely that the run yields a Lombardi Trophy without soft-spoken six-time Pro Bowler and eight-time 1,000-yards receiver Reggie Wayne.

An honorable mention for six-time Pro-Bowl defensive back Eric Allen (129 AV), who was drafted by the Eagles in 1988.

#29 – Steve Wisniewski, G, Dallas Cowboys 1989 (138 AV)

In the interest of sticking to my own ‘post-merger’ rule, I’ve bypassed legendary Minnesota Vikings QB Fran Tarkenton (233 AV), who was selected #29 overall in 1961.

Still, an eight-time Pro-Bowl and two-time All-Pro (and Second Team All-Pro six other times), only ever suits up for one team (not the one draft him, though, as the Cowboys traded Wisniewski to the Raiders on draft day), and misses all of two regular season games in 13 seasons is a fine ‘consolation’.

#28 – Derrick Brooks, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1995 (192 AV)

In 14 NFL seasons, this future Hall of Famer earned 11 Pro Bowl and five First Team All-Pro selections as one of the greatest pass-defending linebackers (25 interceptions, 6 returned for TDs, and 24 forced fumbles) in NFL history. Also, along with Warren Sapp, Brooks was a talisman of the otherworldly defense that carried the Buccaneers to the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl victory in 2001, over the heavily-favored offensive juggernaut Raiders.

An honorable mention for another Hall of Famer: blazing fast defensive back Darrell Green (152 AV), who was selected in 1983 by Washington, and made seven Pro Bowls and won two Super Bowls with the franchise.

#27 – Dan Marino, QB, Miami Dolphins, 1983 (216 AV)

One of the easiest selections in this exercise.

In a draft is loaded with highly-touted quarterbacks (six selected in the first round), the best of the bunch (along with John Elway at #1) was the fifth one selected, due to concerns that he might have been a bit fond of partying in college.

After 17 seasons, nine Pro Bowls, three All-Pro selections, a league MVP, the (at the time of his retirement) all-time records for passes attempted and completed, passing yards and passing touchdowns, and eternal icon status in Miami, there were no longer any concerns.

#26 – Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens, 1996 (224 AV)

Few players have ever meant as much to a franchise as Ray Lewis meant to the Baltimore Ravens. Over an incredible 17 seasons with the team, Lewis was selected to 12 Pro Bowls, was named First Team All Pro seven times, the team to a pair of Super Bowls (once as the game’s MVP) and won a pair of league Defensive Player of the Year awards. Incredible as the laundry list of accomplishments is, it undersells the extent to which Lewis was the franchise’s beating heart.

No one was ever beating out Lewis here, but shoutouts are due to a trio of offensive linemen: Hall of Fame guards Allen Faneca (Steelers, 1998; 140 AV) and Joe DeLamielleure (Bills, 1973; 112 AV), and five-time Pro Bowl tackle Duane Brown (122 AV), currently of the Seahawks, who was selected by the Houston Texans in 2008.

#25 – Ted Washington, DT, San Francisco 49ers, 1989 (121 AV)

Washington was initially selected by the Niners, with whom he spent three solid, if unremarkable seasons, plus a fourth with the Broncos. It was only after he signed with the Bills in 1995 that Washington blossomed into a star. Over the next seven seasons (six in Buffalo, one with the Chicago Bears), Washington was one of the league top defensive tackles, earning four Pro Bowl selections and an All Pro nod. After an injury-plagued, he turned in four more solid seasons with the Patriots (with whom he won a Super Bowl), Raiders and Browns.

Washington narrowly beat out 10,000 yard receiver and four-time Pro-Bowler Stanley Morgan (111 AV), who was drafted by the Patriots in 1977.

#24 – Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers, 2005 (218 AV – and counting)

I’m going to save some breath here and simply reiterate that it’s utterly inexplicable that 23 players were selected before Aaron Rodgers.

Honorable mentions are due to a personal favorite of mine, Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed (Ravens, 2002; 102 AV) and current Saints star defensive end, seven-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan (92 AV), who was selected in 2011.

#23 – Bruce Armstrong, OT, New England Patriots, 1987 (111 AV); and Ty Law, DB, New England Patriots, 1995 (114 AV)

I realize I’m only supposed to pick one player for each of these spots, but the fact that the Patriots struck gold twice at #23, with roughly a decade in between, was tough to ignore. 

In 1987, the then-reigning AFC champs nabbed offensive tackle Bruce Armstrong. Over nearly a decade and a half, Armstrong anchored the Pats’ line, and earned six Pro Bowl selections. Then, in 1995, it was star cornerback Ty Law, who’d go on to make five Pro Bowls of his own (and earn two All Pro selections). Law’s time in New England overlapped with Armstrong for six years. Sadly, Bruce chose to hang up his cleats after the 2000 season – just ahead of the Patriots’ first breakthrough to Super Bowl glory.

#22 – Andre Rison, WR, Indianapolis Colts, 1989 (99 AV)

This one really was too close to call.

I opted for the spectacular and fun five-time Pro Bowl, one-time All Pro receiver with more than 10,000 yards and 84 touchdowns and one Super Bowl ring, over the two time all pro offensive tackle – Harris Barton, selected by the 49ers in 1987 (95 AV) – who won a pair of Super Bowls with one of the great juggernauts in NFL history.

Your mileage may vary. If so, that’s cool.

 

#21 – Randy Moss, WR, Minnesota Vikings, 1998 (162 AV)

It will never not be ridiculous that 20 times, NFL general managers uttered some version of ‘nah, we don’t need Randy Moss’.

#20 – Jack Youngblood, DE, Los Angeles Rams, 1971 (147)

There’s not a lot of depth in the selections made at #20 overall in the post-merger NFL-draft. However, the premier player in this spot remains, to this day, one of the great defensive ends the league has ever seen. 

In a 14-year career spent entirely with the Los Angeles Rams, Youngblood accumulated 151.5 sacks, and earned seven Pro Bowl selections, five First Team All Pro selections and the 1975 Defensive Player of the Year award. By the time he retired in 1984, Youngblood’s Hall of Fame case was bulletproof. In the years since, his legend has not faded.

#19 – Randall McDaniel, OG, Minnesota Vikings, 1988 (175 AV)

This spot sparked some serious internal debate. 

How, exactly, does one bypass Marvin Harrison (Colts, 1996; 160 AV), a man who epitomized not only quiet professionalism, but quiet greatness. Harrison’s eight-year peak (1999-2006) idles at heights that few players, regardless of position, ever sniff. During that run, Harrison led the NFL in receiving yards twice (with an incredible 1,722 in 2002), topped 1,500 yards three times, caught over 100 passes in a season four times (including a then-record 143 in 2002) and 101 touchdowns, and earned himself eight Pro Bowl selections, three all pro nods, a Super Bowl ring and legendary ‘1-2 punch’ status with Peyton Manning?

Well, sometimes, there’s an iconic offensive lineman who earns 12 Pro Bowl and seven All Pro selections in a 14-year career in which he misses a total of two games and starts all but four of the games in which he appears. McDaniel was not as spectacular, is not as famous, and never lifted a Lombardi Trophy, but his career was, individually, perfection for the position he played.

#18 – Art Monk, WR, Washington, 1980 (90 AV)

A quick shoutout to former Ravens quarterback (and current New York Jet)  – a Super Bowl winner and (for anyone who remembers) the inspiration behind the interminable, unedifying debate over ‘eliteness’, Joe Flacco (selected by the Ravens in 2008; 121 AV).

However, this spot can only belong to one of the best receivers to just miss the wider adoption of pass-happy offense that would have made his already-fantastic numbers (940 receptions, 12,271 receiving yards, 68 TDs) downright legendary: Hall of Famer, All Pro, and three-time Super Bowl champion, Art Monk.

#17 – Emmitt Smith, RB, Dallas Cowboys, 1990 (169 AV)

In 1988, trading a franchise running back for a load of draft picks would invite some rather pointed questions. In hindsight, of course, parting ways with Herschel Walker was a sound decision. That one of the very draft picks that came back in the trade – 17th overall, no less! – yielded a league and Super Bowl MVP, the engine for three Super Bowl victories and the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, makes it the greatest trade of all time.

All due respect to Hall of Fame guards Gene Upshaw (Oakland Raiders in 1967; 149 AV) and Steve Hutchinson (Seahawks, 2001; 117 AV) and Hall of Fame defensive back Mel Renfro (Cowboys, 1964; 133 AV).

 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, in which we’ll break down some incredible races to determine the best player selected at each of the first 16 picks in the NFL Draft!

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