Top 20 No. 1 Picks in NFL Draft History
Top 20 No. 1 Picks in NFL Draft History
Selecting Peyton Manning first overall seems like an obvious choice in retrospect, but at the time Ryan Leaf heated up many legitimate debates about who should go No. 1.
The Indianapolis Colts, who also struck gold with Andrew Luck, know full well how easy it is to hold the top selection in the NFL Draft yet still blow it, with nightmares of Jeff George and Steve Emtman haunting the franchise. The Cleveland Browns have also showed that No. 1 overall is no sure thing, whiffing in consecutive years on Tim Couch in 1999 and Courtney Brown in 2000.
However, the purpose of this article is to shine a light on the 15 greatest top picks in NFL history; the types of positive forces that teams envision as they prepare to kickoff the draft. Since Jay Berwanger went first to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1937, there have been decades worth of jackpots, busts and players falling in the grey area between.
I will attempt to narrow the list of quality top picks down to 15, and in doing some place an emphasis on how high a ceiling the player reached as well as their overall body of work — so an absolutely incredible stretch of five years will be given preference over a very good stretch of eight years. Playing a major role in transforming the sport as we know it will also be valued highly, and players will be ranked in an order that places heavy consideration on the evolution of the game in which they participated.
Please do tell me how I got it wrong, right or otherwise.
20) Ed "Too Tall" Jones
Jones took a year out of his prime to pursue a boxing career, before returning to Dallas and notching consecutive All-Pro accolades at defensive end from 1981 to 1983. The franchise's top pick in 1974 was hurt statistically due to half his career occurring prior to the advent of recording official quarterback sacks.
19) Drew Bledsoe
Though Bledsoe would ultimately play second fiddle to Tom Brady, that doesn't shame a prolific career that currently lands the 1993 top pick at 10th on the all-time passing yardage list.
18) Keyshawn Johnson
Johnson's career barely spanned more than half the length of Jerry Rice and his most impressive career mark lands him in the top 30 for receptions. Yet in the first few years after Gang Green selected Johnson in 1996, you could make an argument him as the league's best possession receiver.
17) Irving Fryar
Fryar finished 15th on the all-time receiving list and has inspired some compelling arguments for Hall of Fame induction. The 1984 top pick adds yet another Patriots selection to this list, though most would find success on other teams.
16) Jim Plunkett
It's practically unheard of for a quarterback to win two Super Bowls as a starter and not make the Hall of Fame. The Pats took Plunkett in 1971 before he snagged two titles with the Raiders, but Plunkett must still wait to see if a Canton bust is next.
15) Terry Bradshaw
Bradshaw gets onto this list on the back of four Super Bowl rings as starting quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but lands at No. 15 due to a career passer rating of 70.9.
14) Paul Hornung
A star quarterback, running back, kicker and pretty much whatever the Green Bay Packers wanted him to be in the pre-Super Bowl era, Hornung held the single-season scoring record until LaDainian Tomlinson broke it.
13) Orlando Pace
Pace formed the blindside protection for the Greatest Show on Turf, earning a spot at left tackle on the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team as chosen by the Hall of Fame Selection Committee.
12) Troy Aikman
The No. 1 selection in 1989, Aikman quarterback the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl wins in his first seven years in the league.
11) Chuck Bednarik
Intimidating, nasty linebackers are era-transcendent, so Bednarik climbs his way up this list to No. 11. He sealed an 1960 NFL championship for the Philadelphia Eagles by tackling the Green Bay Packers' Jim Taylor near the end zone — and staying on top of him — until time expired.
10) Cam Newton
The Newton pick drew controversy due to off-field issues during college and lack of experience in a pro-style offense, but he's quickly went about proving himself as a passer and revolutionizing the game.
9) Andrew Luck
Luck could've been the No. 1 pick in 2011 but decided to head for the draft in 2012, going No. 1 anyways. His arm strength and ability to escape sacks while moving within the pocket raise his ceiling as high as any player in the league right now.
8) Steve Young
Technically, Young was the first pick in the NFL Supplemental Draft, but he's still worth including in this list. Young proved one of the earliest models of the mobile quarterback who doubles as a deadly passer, currently holding the second all-time highest career passer rating.
7) Earl Campbell
The first overall selection in 1978, Campbell spent the next three years defining how great a punishing halfback could become, averaging around 1,700 yards and 15 touchdowns a year for the Houston Oilers in that span.
6) Eli Manning
When factoring in both the regular season, playoffs and serious issues in the offensive line and run game, Manning's 2011 Super Bowl-winning season stands with the best in NFL history. That alone bumps him from teens to top 10.
5) Bo Jackson
This one falls under the justification of "short burst of greatness," as his interest in baseball and a career-ending injury robbed us of seeing more from arguably the greatest athlete to play the game. Jackson was selected first overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1986 and subsequently got no value out of him, but that doesn't detract from the brief awesomeness that is Bo Jackson and no one can tell me different.
4) O.J. Simpson
I thought about keeping Simpson off this list for doing so many terrible, terrible things in his post-NFL life, but I'm keeping this list purely to football. "The Juice" was the most electrifying player in the league in the 1970s, holding the single-season rushing record well into the 80s.
3) Bruce Smith
The No. 1 pick in 1985 out of Virginia Tech owns the all-time sacks record at 200. The closest active player is John Abraham with 122.
1) Peyton Manning
The distinction of the best No. 1 NFL Draft pick of all time goes to Manning, who will surely own most major passing records when he retires. Before he does call it quits, Manning may make like Elway and tag on a couple Super Bowl titles with the Broncos as an encore.
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