By Brian Kalchik @BrianKalchik on June 10, 2014
The NFL Draft is designed to make it easier for struggling teams to acquire great players to instantly change the fortunes of their teams. With 32 picks, however, each team has an opportunity to find a great player if they know where to look. As a result, nearly every team has drafted a legend early at least once in their team's history. Here now are the best first-round picks of every team in NFL history.
As important as Jim Kelly was to the Buffalo Bills' no-huddle offense, Buffalo does not get to four consecutive Super Bowls without Bruce Smith anchoring the defense. Smith was a Pro Bowl selection 11 straight times and an All-Pro selection nine times. He retired with 200 sacks, which is the most in NFL history.
Fellow former first-round picks Larry Csonka and Bob Griese helped the Dolphins win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1972-73, but no player in Dolphins history has been more revered than Dan Marino. After falling all the way to 27th overall in the draft, Marino went on to throw for more than 60,000 yards and 420 touchdowns. Both were records when he retired, and he still remains in the top three in both categories.
Former first-round picks Drew Bledsoe and Richard Seymour may have led the Patriots to Super Bowl appearances, but my choice is the "greatest offensive lineman of all time" in John Hannah. Hannah was an All-Pro 10 times and was voted a Hall of Famer in 1991. Hannah also helped the Patriots reach their first Super Bowl in franchise history in Super Bowl 20.
John Riggins brought plenty of flash to the Jets as a first-round pick in 1971, but he was nothing compared to "Broadway" Joe Namath. What makes Namath the best first-rounder in Jets history is not just his 27,000-plus passing yards and five Pro Bowl appearances, but he legitimized the AFL. His guarantee and victory in Super Bowl III made him a star and brought the Jets their only championship in franchise history.
Both Jonathan Ogden and Ed Reed have been instrumental in helping the Ravens win championships, but Ray Lewis is the only player to be on both of their Super Bowl teams. Lewis had a lengthy 17-year career, made the Pro Bowl 13 times and established himself as one of the best middle linebackers of all time. He was a huge steal for Baltimore with the 26th overall pick in 1996 and will be elected to the Hall of Fame in 2017.
The only player to possibly be the greatest first-round pick in Bengals history is the team's only Hall of Famer in Anthony Munoz. He was the third overall pick for the Bengals in 1980 and immediately established himself as one of the best offensive linemen ever. Munoz went on to play 13 seasons, made the Pro Bowl 11 times and was an All-Pro selection nine times. Munoz also helped the team reach the Super Bowl in 1982 and 1989.
Jim Brown is not just the best running back in NFL history; he is also the greatest player in Cleveland Browns history, and with that comes the title of the greatest first-round pick in team history. The sixth overall pick in 1957 put up staggering numbers in a brief career. When he retired, Brown had 12,312 yards and 106 rushing touchdowns, both all-time records at the time.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had great first-rounders like Terry Bradshaw, Rod Woodson and Troy Polamalu who helped the team get to the Super Bowl, but the best of the best is Joe Greene. As the fourth overall pick in 1969, Greene changed the course of the Steelers franchise. Greene's toughness and attitude helped the Steelers become the team of the decade in the 1970s, winning four Super Bowls.
The Texans have a short history, making for not a lot of first-round picks. Players like J.J. Watt or Jadeveon Clowney could be here 10 years from now, but for now Andre Johnson is easily the best. He was the third overall pick in 2003, and since then he has 12,661 yards and 61 touchdowns. He has led the league in yards twice as well as receptions twice.
The Colts hit many home runs with their first-round draft picks in the Bill Polian era. Players like Marshall Faulk, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Edgerrin James all had great careers, but no one was better than Peyton Manning. The first overall pick in 1998, Manning has become one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He has nearly 65,000 yards and 500 touchdowns, and he could break Brett Favre's records in both this coming season.
The Jaguars have selected great players like Tony Boselli and Byron Leftwich in the first round, but Fred Taylor is the standard bearer for first-round picks in Jacksonville. Injuries slowed him down a bit, but he still managed seven years with 1,000 rushing yards, including more than 1,500 in 2003. He retired with more than 11,000 rushing yards in Jacksonville and 11,695 overall, which ranks 15th all-time.
Earl Campbell and Eddie George are deserving of the honor of best first-round pick for the Titans, originally the Oilers, but there is only one player who blocked for both of them. Bruce Matthews was the ninth pick in the 1983 draft, and throughout his career, he lined up everywhere on the offensive line, mostly at guard and center. He made 14 Pro Bowls, and his 293 games started are second only to Brett Favre in NFL history.
Randy Gradishar and Ryan Clady have been great first-round picks for the Denver Broncos, but only one is a Hall of Famer and that is Floyd Little (left). Little was the Broncos' leading rusher for nine seasons despite being on mostly losing teams. At the time of his retirement, he was the team’s career leading rusher with 6,323 yards in 1,641 attempts and scored 43 touchdowns. He was Denver's first superstar in team history.
Derrick Thomas was one of the best pass rushers of all time, and his seven sacks in a single game can't be forgotten. But it takes being the best at your position to top that, and that is what Tony Gonzalez did. He was the 13th overall selection in 1997, and after 17 seasons, he had more 15,000 yards and 111 touchdowns. His 14 Pro Bowl appearances are tied for the most by a tight end, and he holds virtually every career record for a tight end.
The Raiders have had great success in drafting in the first round. From Tim Brown to Charles Woodson and even the late great Gene Upshaw, there were too many great candidates, but my pick is Marcus Allen. The 10th overall pick in 1982, Allen was named to the Pro Bowl five times in his 11 seasons with the Raiders. At the time of his retirement in 1997, he held the single-season record for most yards from scrimmage with 2,314.
LaDainian Tomlinson has a great case to make as the greatest Chargers first-round pick with 145 career touchdowns, but my choice is linebacker Junior Seau. He was the fifth overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft and played 13 seasons in San Diego. He was the key piece of their lone Super Bowl appearance in Super Bowl 29 in 1994. In his career, he made 12 Pro Bowl appearances and was an All-Pro selection eight times.
The Dallas Cowboys had a slew of elite first-round picks in their history, including Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Randy White, Bob Lilly and Tony Dorsett, but the top choice is Emmitt Smith. Smith was the 17th pick in 1990 and led the Cowboys to multiple Super Bowls and team of the decade status in the 1990s. Smith retired after 15 seasons with 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns and holds the record for attempts, yards and touchdowns in a career.
There is only one choice for the greatest in New York Giants history, and that is Lawrence Taylor. He was the second overall pick in 1981 and led the Giants to two Super Bowl victories in 1986 and 1990. in his career Taylor had 132.5 sacks and more than 1,000 tackles. He was also a 10-time Pro Bowler and an eight-time All-Pro selection.
Despite already having Hall of Famers Bob Brown and Chuck Bednarik as former first-round picks, Reggie White is the greatest Eagles first-round pick, even if he was a supplemental pick. White was the fourth overall pick in the 1984 USFL Supplemental draft and went on to be one of the greatest defensive players ever. As an Eagle, White had 124 career sacks and recorded 10 or more sacks in each of his eight seasons in Philadelphia.
Hall of Famers Art Monk, Charley Taylor and Sammy Baugh certainly have a good case to make for the Washington Redskins, but a fellow Hall of Famer who played the longest for the team made the cut. Darrell Green was the last pick of the first round in 1983 and went on to play with the Redskins for two decades. Green recorded 54 interceptions and made seven Pro Bowl appearances. He was a major part of two Super Bowl wins for the Redskins.
Dick Butkus, Dan Hampton and Brian Urlacher all had excellent careers with the Chicago Bears as former first-round picks, but the greatest of them all is Walter Payton. Payton was the fourth pick in the 1975 NFL Draft. By the end of his 13-year career, he made nine Pro Bowls, scored 110 career touchdowns and had 16,726 rushing yards, which stood as the record for 15 seasons before Emmitt Smith broke it in 2002.
Calvin Johnson might challenge for this spot in the next few seasons, but the title of best first-round pick for the Detroit Lions starts and stops with Barry Sanders. Sanders was the third overall pick in the 1989 draft and went on to become one of the greatest running backs of all time. By the time he retired after the 1998 season, he had made the Pro Bowl each season and had 99 career touchdowns and 15,269 yards.
James Lofton and Herb Adderley were Hall of Fame players for the Packers as first-round picks. Aaron Rodgers may join them soon enough, but my choice for the Packers is Dave Robinson. He was the 14th overall pick in 1963 and helped the Packers win three consecutive NFL championships from 1965-67. Robinson intercepted 21 passes in his career as a linebacker and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
For a team that includes Hall of Famers Carl Eller, Chris Doleman, Ron Yary, Randall McDaniel and Alan Page as first-round picks, it was tough to choose, but instead, I chose Randy Moss. He was the 21st overall pick in 1998 and had one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history with 17 touchdown receptions. Moss had 1,000-yard seasons in six of his seven seasons in Minnesota and led the league in touchdown receptions three times.
Players like Roddy White, Michael Vick and Claude Humphrey have had longer tenures in Atlanta, but the best first-round pick for Atlanta was Deion Sanders. The fifth overall pick in 1989, Sanders had eight All-Pro selections and 53 interceptions, 24 of which came with Atlanta, and he had nine touchdowns on kick and punt returns as well. Sanders went on to win Super Bowl titles with the 49ers and the Cowboys in 1994 and 1995.
The Carolina Panthers, like the Texans, have not had many first-round selections, and recent picks like Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly could end up on this list eventually. But right now, Julius Peppers is the best of them all. He was selected second overall in 2002, and over the next eight years with Carolina, he notched 81 sacks and made five Pro Bowl appearances.
For the New Orleans Saints, one great player who was selected in the first round stands out and that is Willie Roaf. He was the eighth overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft, and he spent the next nine seasons as the team's starting left tackle. In his 13-year career, Roaf was a Pro Bowl selection 11 times and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012 as only the second player in Saints history to be enshrined.
The 1995 NFL Draft paved the way for Tampa Bay's only Super Bowl title in 2002. With two first-round picks, the Bucs first selected Warren Sapp, a Hall of Famer, and with the second, they drafted another Hall of Famer in Derrick Brooks. Out of these two, Brooks is the best. He played in 14 seasons for the Buccaneers and was named to the Pro Bowl 11 times. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014 and will be inducted later this summer.
Both Roger Wehrli and Charley Trippi have been Hall of Famers for the Cardinals as first-round picks, but the greatest of all will be Larry Fitzgerald. He was selected third overall in 2004 and helped lead the Cardinals to four postseason wins for a franchise that only had one since the team moved to Arizona in 1994. Fitzgerald is the franchise's leading receiver with 11,367 yards and 87 touchdowns.
Ronnie Lott was one of the best defensive backs of all time as a former first-round pick, and would have been the choice on every other team, but on the 49ers, he is second to Jerry Rice. He was the 16th overall pick in 1985 and went on to shatter numerous wide receiver records. Rice made 13 Pro Bowls and had 22,000 receiving yards and 197 touchdowns, leading the league in both categories six times.
Cortez Kennedy was one of the premier defensive tackles of the 1990s and was just the second Hall of Famer in Seattle Seahawks history, but Walter Jones was one of the best to ever play at left tackle. Jones was the sixth overall pick in the 1997 draft, and he went on to play 12 seasons as Seattle's left tackle. He missed made nine Pro Bowl appearances and helped the Seahawks reach Super Bowl 40. Jones will be a Hall of Famer this summer.
The Rams have had a great history of first-round picks, including Eric Dickerson and Jack Youngblood, but the greatest was Merlin Olsen. Olsen was selected third overall in 1962 and proceeded to be a key member of the Fearsome Foursome. He played 15 seasons in the NFL and made the Pro Bowl 14 times. During his career, the Rams were a perennial playoff team in the 1960s and the 1970s, most of which can be credited to Olsen.
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