Nobody knows a thing.
If there’s any lesson that can be taken from the NFL Draft, it’s exactly that: experts, analysts, evaluators, scouts alike don’t know a single damn thing. Countless hours of studying tape, interviewing and visiting players means nothing, especially when surefire No. 1 overall picks turn out to be anything but.
The NFL Draft is equal parts scouting prowess and luck. Nothing is ever a guarantee, even for teams that have that No. 1 overall pick. You’ll notice that as you sift through this list: gold jacket players are limited from that No. 1 spot. Generally speaking, the first overall pick has been a hit in varying degrees since the merger in 1970. There have, of course, been big-time busts through the years, but most players taken in that first spot have had productive careers in one form or another through the years.
That’s mostly because there’s so, so much that goes into drafting a player, and his success — and failures — require a fair bit of context and almost always demands that circumstances be appropriate for a player.
Here’s how they rank with the original team that drafted him:
50. JaMarcus Russell, QB, Raiders
There’s not much of a debate that Russell is the biggest draft bust in the history of the NFL Draft, and certainly a cautionary tale about dubbing someone a franchise player before he even plays a snap on the field.
Blessed with natural gifts, Russell couldn’t put it together on the field, starting 25 games for the Raiders over three seasons before being released. He never another down of pro football.
49. Ki-Jana Carter, RB, Bengals
College: Penn State
The Bengals traded up to the No. 1 pick to take Carter, and Carter rewarded them by rushing for just 744 yards over 35 games in four seasons with the team. Between Carter and Russell, you can make a case for one of the two as the worst NFL draft bust in history.
48. Steve Emtman, DE, Colts
Emtman was a Heisman finalist the year prior to his drafting and was a two-time defensive player of the year in the Pac-12, so he was a pretty safe bet as the No. 1 overall pick. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, as Emtman’s career was totally derailed by injuries, playing 50 games in a six-year career. A neck injury ended his career at age 27.
47. Courtney Brown, DE, Browns
College: Penn State
Named as the Browns’ biggest draft bust by SN in 2017, Brown’s career was marred by injuries, playing in 47 games over his first five years in the league, notching 17 sacks over that span.
Brown was a fairly can’t-miss prospect, coming off a massive career with Penn State, making the first-team Big Ten team twice in 1998 and 1999. Brown finished with 10 sacks over his last three years, reaching the AFC Championship game as a member of the Broncos in 2005 before retiring in 2006.
46. Tim Couch, QB, Browns
The Browns have had their fair share of misses in franchise history, so it’s no real surprise that they have two entrants this low on the list, and in back-to-back years, at that.
While Couch was a part of the Browns making the playoffs in 2002, his NFL career was plagued by injuries, only playing five seasons of pro ball after finishing his college career with two tremendous seasons.
45. Tom Cousineau, LB, Bills
College: Ohio State
Cousineau had a winding path to the NFL. Originally drafted by the Bills, he took his talents north of the border, joining the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL. A few years later, the Bills, who still owned his rights, traded him to the Browns, where he lead the team in tackles for three years. He signed with the 49ers, finishing his career as a backup.
Oh, the Bills traded Cousineau for a first-round pick which was used to select Jim Kelly. The rest, as they say, is history.
44. Kenneth Sims, DE, Patriots
Sims had 17 sacks in 74 career games with the Patriots after being a star for the Texas Longhorns. He was eventually released in 1990 a few weeks after being arrested for cocaine possession.
43. Ricky Bell, RB, Buccaneers
Ricky Bell will be remembered as the player who was taken before the No. 2 overall pick, Tony Dorsett. While Bell was an outstanding college football player, some believed Tony Dorsett was the better overall player. To add to the drama, Bell’s college coach, John McKay, was Tampa Bay’s head coach and selected him with the No. 1 overall pick.
Bell had his best season in 1979, rushing for over 1,200 yards, but wouldn’t reach those heights again. He retired prior to the start of the 1983 season and passed away in 1984 at age 29 from complications caused by dermatomyositis.
42. Walt Patulski, DE, Bills
College: Notre Dame
Patulski was a standout at Notre Dame, winning the 1971 Lombardi Trophy, which was then given to the nation’s best lineman (the award was changed in 2017). In any case, he was another can’t-miss pick.
Patulski was a solid defender for Buffalo, unofficially notching 21.5 sacks in four seasons before being traded to the then-St. Louis Cardinals. Unfortunately, a knee injury prematurely ended Patulski’s career after a single season with the Cardinals.
41. John Matuszak, DE, Oilers
Matuszak gained infamy for being one of a handful of players who tried playing for a WFL (World Football League) team as well as the NFL team that drafted him. The Oilers, dissatisfied with Matuszak, traded him to Kansas City for Charly Culp, who would become a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Kansas City eventually traded Matuszak to the Redskins, who subsequently released him before playing a down in Washington. He went on to play for the Raiders, helping Oakland win Super Bowl 11 and 15 before an injury ended his career in 1982.
Matuszak was also known for his wild personal life, entering the Hollywood scene in the 1980s and playing Sloth in cult favorite “The Goonies.” Matuszak died in 1989 due to an accidental overdose.
40. Billy Sims, RB, Lions
Though his first two seasons in a Lions uniform were dazzling — 3,812 scrimmage yards and 31 total touchdowns — Sims’ career came to an end after a knee injury forced him out. One of the many cases of “what could have been” on this list.
39. Bo Jackson, RB, Buccaneers
Arguably one of the greatest pure athletes to ever step on a professional sports field, Jackson was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1986 draft, but was disinterested in playing for the Buccaneers. Choosing to play baseball instead, Tampa Bay forfeited Jackson’s rights, and he was eventually selected in the 1987 draft by the Raiders, where he would play for three years.
Unfortunately for Jackson, the Raiders, the Royals and fans alike, a hip injury cut both his baseball and football careers short, so it’s tough to say with absolute certainty just how good Jackson would have been. In any case, longevity is key, and the fact that Jackson never took a snap for the team that originally drafted him, he falls far in these rankings.
38. Aundray Bruce, LB, Falcons
Despite having a lengthy, 11-year career, Bruce only started 42 games and had 32 sacks in 151 career games. He became a rotational linebacker with the Raiders later in his career, but there’s little doubt in the title of “bust” for Bruce. He’s widely considered the worst draft pick in Atlanta Falcons history.
37. George Rogers, RB, Saints
College: South Carolina
In 1981, Rogers had arguably the greatest season for a rookie running back ever, when he ran for 1,674 yards, a record that stood for a few years until Eric Dickerson broke it in 1983.
Rogers’ career was marred by drug use, eventually being traded to the Redskins for a few draft picks in 1985, where he was part of the Redskins’ championship-winning team in 1987. A career of ups and downs for Rogers, though never entirely living up to that No. 1 pick hype.
36. Jake Long, OT, Dolphins
Long was ascending with the Dolphins, earned an All-Pro nod in 2010 and then cashed in with the Rams in free agency before the 2013 season. Unfortunately for Long, he suffered several knee injuries with the Rams before being cut in 2015. Several more injuries and limited action over the next few years led to Long’s retirement in 2017.
35. Russell Maryland, DT, Cowboys
Maryland was a fixture of the Cowboys’ D-line during the ’90s Dallas dynasty. Though he had a single Pro Bowl appearance, he was a stout defender against the run and a lynchpin of the Cowboys defense through those teams.
While he was a force in college, it didn’t exactly translate on the field to the pros, but he was still a big part of those Dallas teams when it came to his motor.
34. David Carr, QB, Texans
College: Fresno State
Carr took an absolute beating as the starting QB for the expansion Texans, being sacked 249 times in 76 games as Houston’s signal caller, so a lot of his failings as an NFL quarterback is a direct correlation to that.
That said, Carr was a serviceable quarterback when he wasn’t getting socked, stretched out his career over 10 years, eventually becoming a backup for the Giants.
33. Dan Wilkinson, DE, Bengals
College: Ohio State
Wilkinson was widely considered one of the top players in the 1994 NFL Draft, and that much was evident given his college dominance at Ohio State. While he finished his NFL career with 54.5 sacks, he was consistently inconsistent and split time between the Bengals, Redskins, Lions and Dolphins over his 13-year NFL career.
32. Eric Fisher, OT, Chiefs
College: Central Michigan
The rest of the top 10 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft didn’t exactly set the world on fire, and Fisher was deemed worthy of the top pick in that draft.
Fisher has been a serviceable starter. Nothing special, but not bad either. He has a lone Pro Bowl appearance (2018) and was a member of the starting line for the 2019 champion Chiefs squad.
31. Kyler Murray, QB, Cardinals
As with one of the next entrants, there’s just not enough there to know what Murray is going to be as an NFL player just yet. He certainly showed flashes during his rookie season, easing the minds of Cardinals fans who were skeptical to move on from Josh Rosen just a year later.
Murray’s got the moxie and the tools to survive and become a star in the current era of NFL football, without a doubt. It’s just going to take progress and patience to see if he can put it all together.
30. Steve Bartkowski, QB, Falcons
The 1975 Sporting News NFC Rookie of the Year had an 11-year career, spending 10 of those years with the Falcons. The oft-sacked Bartkowski had back-to-back 30 touchdown seasons in 1980 and 1981 and led the Falcons to their first playoff berth in the 1978.
While the teams around Bartkowski weren’t very good, he led the Falcons to a few of their better offensive seasons until the 2000s.
29. Baker Mayfield, QB, Browns
Given the small sample size but generally mixed back we’ve seen from Mayfield so far, it’s tough to see where exactly he ranks here. Most believe that he’s better than what he showed in 2019, so expect him to bounce back in future years.
28. Jeff George, QB, Colts
George lived an odyssey of an NFL career, never living up to No. 1 overall billing, playing poorly with the Colts and then demanding a trade. He would eventfully be traded to the Falcons, the team that the Colts traded with to get the No. 1 overall pick to select George.
He would go on to be a journeyman starter in the NFL, throwing 154 touchdowns to 113 interceptions and over 27,000 passing yards in 131 games with the Raiders, Falcons, Vikings and Redskins. Those numbers aren’t bad, but George never fully realized his talent as a signal caller.
27. Sam Bradford, QB, Rams
Bradford has made a ton of money in his career and has always been highly valued as a passer, and he’s always been in one of two states as an NFL quarterback: good or hurt, with barely any in-between.
The oft-injured former Sooner last played in the NFL in 2018 as a member of the Cardinals, and he cashed in big-time on his skillset: he’s made close to $130 million in his career between the Rams, Eagles, Vikings and Cardinals.
26. Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers
College: Florida State
Where to begin with Winston?
His talent has been apparent, especially dating back to his Florida State days. But his 2019 season with the Buccaneers — his first and presumably last — under head coach Bruce Arians fully encapsulates the player he is. With 30 touchdowns thrown to match his 30 interceptions, Winston became the first member of the 30-30 club, a bittersweet label.
That said, he’s still just 26 years old and could have his best football ahead of him — if he tunes down the turnovers.
25. Keyshawn Johnson, WR, Jets
Things probably would have worked out for the better if someone just gave Keyshawn the damn ball, but that was not the case.
Johnson was a three-time Pro Bowler and notched four 1,000-yard seasons between the Jets, Buccaneers, Cowboys and Panthers. Known more for his attitude and personality than his on-field play, Johnson wasn’t necessarily a bust at the No. 1 pick, but would maybe be better labeled as “underachiever.” He did have over 10,000 receiving yards in his career.
24. Vinny Testaverde, QB, Buccaneers
If you’re looking for longevity, Testaverde’s your guy.
With his big arm and prototypical QB size, Testaverde seemed like a sure bet as the future of the Buccaneers when he was taken in the ’80s. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay and Testaverde, that wasn’t the case: he struggled with the Bucs, throwing an astounding 112 interceptions with Tampa Bay over seven years (76 games) and never reached the level of consistency Tampa Bay would have liked.
After short stints with the Browns and Ravens, Testaverde revived his career with his hometown Jets in the late ’90s, playing the best football of his career between 1998 and 2003. While Testaverde is likely looked at more as a meme than he was a legitimate player, to stay in the league until you’re 44 says something about you as a player and teammate.
23. Jim Plunkett, QB, Patriots
Of all the players taken No. 1 overall, Plunkett might be the hardest to find a spot for. His career was a tale of two halves: the first, not very good half with the Patriots and the 49ers, and the second much better half with the Raiders, during which he won two Super Bowl rings.
But Plunkett’s overall body of work is less-than stellar even during an era in which passing offense was still years away from what we see today, which means he gets dropped a bit lower than other two-time Lombardi Trophy winners on this list.
22. Mario Williams, DE, Texans
College: NC State
There was some debate as to whether or not the Texans should have taken Reggie Bush over Williams in the 2006 NFL Draft, but it worked out to varying degrees for both teams. Williams played six years for Houston, notched 53 sacks in 82 games for the Texans, before finishing out his career with the Bills and Dolphins.
Was he a bust? Not at all. He was a productive NFL player and a perennial Pro-Bowl talent, even if he wasn’t a franchise-altering pick at No. 1 overall — and even in hindsight, he was the best and safest pick of those who went top three.
21. Myles Garrett, DE, Browns
College: Texas A&M
Garrett was a slam-dunk, no-doubt-about-it No. 1 pick for the Browns, even in a draft that featured Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.
While a suspension cut Garrett’s 2020 season short, he has 30.5 sacks through his first three seasons with the Browns and is developing as a serious pass-rush force for the Cleveland D, and one of the best in all of football. Should he continue to develop and dominate, then expect Garrett to move up this list in future years.
20. Irving Fryar, WR, Patriots
Fryer was the second wide receiver taken with the No. 1 overall pick, and the last wideout to be taken first overall until the Jets took Keyshawn Johnson in 1996.
Fryar, who split time early on in his career between wide receiver and return man, didn’t come into his own as a receiver until later in his Patriots years, eventually notching four more 1,000 yard seasons after leaving New England.
19. Jared Goff, QB, Rams
Regardless of how one feels about the symbiotic relationship between Jared Goff and Sean McVay, in his last three years, Goff has been to a Super Bowl and thrown 82 touchdowns to 35 interceptions and a 33-14 record in that span. Those are pretty good numbers for a guy just four years into his career.
While there will be more questions answered over the next few years in regards to Goff’s career, you can’t deny that Goff has been worthy of the No. 1 overall pick so far.
18. Drew Bledsoe, QB, Patriots
College: Washington State
While Bledsoe will be remembered as the guy who was the quarterback before Tom Brady in New England, he was a pretty good passer in his own right. He’ll also be remembered for throwing four interceptions in Super Bowl 31 vs. the Packers.
Bledsoe’s career came to an untimely end in New England and gave way to the Tom Brady Super Bowl era. His career spiraled after the trade to the Bills, playing five more seasons in the league before walking away.
17. Michael Vick, QB, Falcons
College: Virginia Tech
Vick’s enigmatic career will forever be marred by his arrest and subsequent incarceration for his role in a dog-fighting ring. Vick’s explosive play on the field, though, is the stuff of legend.
While he wasn’t the passer that other No. 1 picks turned out to be, Vick was the blueprint for quarterback play for the next generation of NFL QBs decades later.
16. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Texans
College: South Carolina
Clowney has had something of a mixed bag of an NFL career. While he hasn’t become the dominant pass rusher than some projected him to be, he grades out as an elite run defender.
Clowney is still searching for his first double-digit sack season.
15. Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones, DE, Cowboys
College: Tennessee State
Standing at a very nice 6-9, “Too Tall” Jones was a career Dallas Cowboy and a three-time All-Pro in his career. While sacks would officially be recorded about midway through his NFL tenure, he unofficially recorded over 100 while officially notching 57.5.
For some reason, Jones still isn’t enshrined in Canton, leaving an unfortunate mark as one of the more notable and egregious omissions from the Hall of Fame.
14. Alex Smith, QB, 49ers
Consistently one of the more accurate passers in the NFL, Smith garners criticism for his unwillingness to push the ball down the field. But the one thing Smith can do, is help lead teams to victories: With a 94-66-1 career record, Smith hasn’t had a losing season since 2010 and has thrown 142 touchdowns to 48 interceptions in that span.
While his on-field play isn’t flashy and you’ll seldom find him on a highlight-reel of 2000s or 2010s quarterback play, Smith is a winner, and that counts for something in a sport where winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
13. Carson Palmer, QB, Bengals
Palmer had a very under-the-radar NFL career that was slightly derailed by a few injuries and a disastrous stint in Oakland. But following that, Palmer went through a career rebirth with the Cardinals before knee injury ended his career in 2017.
Of the USC quarterbacks to hit the NFL, Palmer is the best of the bunch. Despite minimal playoff success as a starter in the league, Palmer is still one of the better No. 1 overall picks in draft history.
12. Andrew Luck, QB, Colts
Myriad injuries pushed Andrew Luck into a shocking early retirement in 2019, and he was on an all-time great arc prior to that.
While we’ll never know who Andrew Luck could have been, we got a glimpse of what he was — unfortunately he walked away just as the Colts were putting together a more complete team around him.
11. Lee Roy Selmon, DE, Buccaneers
A six-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro and the first-ever draft pick of the then-expansion Buccaneers turned out to be something of a home run of a pick. Though unofficial, Selmon had nearly 80 sacks in his nine-year career and was forced out early due to a back injury. He was elected to both the College Football and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, becoming the first Bucs player enshrined in Canton.
Selmon died in 2011 after suffering a stroke.
10. Earl Campbell, RB, Oilers
Campbell played just eight years in the NFL, but they were eight impactful years. He was a three-time first-team All Pro, a five-time Pro Bowler and a three-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year in just those eight seasons.
Campbell had over 5,000 yards on the ground his first three seasons in the NFL and had 1,300 yards or more in six of his eight seasons as a running back. A College and Pro Football Hall of Famer, Campbell falls out of the top 10 because the longevity wasn’t there — maybe that’s unfair because of his punishing, physical style.
9. Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
When it comes to size and physical abilities, there have been few more impressive than Cam Newton. Newton is searching for a new home this offseason after spending the first nine years of his career in Carolina, an era that featured a Super Bowl appearance and a league MVP award in 2015.
Nearing 30,000 yards and 200 touchdowns through the air, Newton never quite lived up to the hype as he was leaving college, but he still became a well above-average NFL quarterback.
8. Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
While Stafford might not have the rings or the playoff success that others on the list have, he’s one of the few QBs taken with the No. 1 overall pick that have lived up to the hype.
While the Lions may start looking to the future at signal caller in the coming years, a lot of the lack of success that Detroit has had during the Stafford era hasn’t been on his shoulderpads. Roster construction, instability at the head coaching position and Detroit’s inability to draft well have all plagued Stafford’s tenure — and look at the whole body of work, and you’ll see that Stafford has been the least of Detroit’s issues since coming into the league in 2009.
7. Eli Manning, QB, Chargers
College: Ole Miss
Not a typo, for those who forgot. Manning was originally selected No. 1 overall by the Chargers, but amidst urgings from his father Archie that Eli wouldn’t play for the Chargers, he was eventually traded to the Giants for a future No. 1 pick and Philip Rivers.
While there’s a fair amount of debate as to whether or not Manning is a byproduct of the pass-happy league era, you can’t debate the jewelry: Manning has two championship rings, and will likely end up enshrined in Canton some day.
6. Troy Aikman, QB, Cowboys
Aikman has a complicated place in NFL history, considering he was the quarterback for the ’90s Cowboys dynasty but it often feels like he’s overlooked as an integral piece of that team. Aikman’s career also suffers
In any case, Aikman helped pilot the ‘Boys to three championships in the ’90s and finished with only 165 touchdowns and retired as Dallas’ career leader in passing yards.
5. Orlando Pace, OT, Rams
College: Ohio State
Finding stalwart offensive linemen is never that simple, and the list of O-lineman taken with the No. 1 overall pick is limited to just three. But there’s not much of a debate that of that trio taken at No. 1, Orlando Pace not only was the best of the three, but lived up to the hype of a No. 1 overall pick.
A Super Bowl champ, a three-time first-team All-Pro, seven-time Pro Bowler, a Hall of Famer and a member of “the Greatest Show on Turf,” Pace is, simply, one of the best, most valuable No. 1 picks in NFL Draft history.
4. Terry Bradshaw, QB, Steelers
College: Louisiana Tech
The first pick of the modern era of NFL Draft, Bradshaw was a driving force behind the ’70s Steelers dynasty, winning four titles in the ’70s and becoming a legendary Pittsburgh figure in the process.
While Bradshaw maintains that Ben Roethlisberger, not he, is the greatest quarterback in Steelers history, Bradshaw’s propensity to push the ball down the field in an era where defense was largely unregulated means he offered a glimpse into the NFL’s future. Oh, and he won four championships in the process.
3. John Elway, QB, Colts
Elway was drafted by the then Baltimore Colts, but was traded to the Broncos after urgings by his father to avoid playing for Baltimore, citing how bad of shape the franchise was in. After threats to leave and play for the Yankees — who drafted him in the 1981 MLB Draft — Baltimore traded Elway to Denver, where he eventually won two Super Bowls.
A one-time NFL MVP and a two-time Super Bowl champ, if you were to make QBs in a lab, Elway is what would come out of a tube. While his numbers aren’t as gaudy as a lot of current-era QBs — a 56.9 percent completion rate, 300 touchdowns to 226 interceptions — Elway was one of the last of a bygone era of quarterbacks, and a perenniel winner at that.
2. Bruce Smith, DE, Bills
College: Virginia Tech
The NFL’s all-time sack leader had a lengthy career with the Bills before wrapping up his career with the Redskins. The Virginia Tech product was a force on the field, notching 200 sacks over 279 games and has 13 seasons of double-digit sacks.
There will always be some debate as to who the greatest pass rusher ever is — Smith, Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White will always be the three in the conversation — Smith leaves little doubt as one of the greatest edge defenders of all time.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts
Manning’s standing as one of the greatest NFL players ever makes this an easy pick for the best No. 1 overall draft pick ever.
You know, looking through the list you’ll find an array of players who either underwhelmed, under delivered or whose careers were cut short because of injury. Manning doesn’t exactly fit in any of those categories, and he’ll largely be the marker against which other players who are taken No. 1 overall are judged now and in the future.
Manning was everything an organization could have wanted from a No. 1 overall pick: he was a pro, a Hall of Famer and, eventually, a champion. There’s really no doubt that he’s the single greatest first-overall pick ever.
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