Published April 23, 2011
| Associated Press
Drafting in the NFL is a lot like investing on Wall Street. No matter how extensive the research, there's no telling what will happen once the money is plunked down for a Terry Bradshaw or Lawrence Taylor. Or for a Lawrence Phillips or Tony Mandarich.
It never hurts to try learning from history.
With that in mind, The Associated Press looked back at every player taken at each spot in the first round of the NFL draft since the "common draft" began in 1967. This pick-by-pick approach compared all the No. 1s to each other, the No. 2s ... all the way to the Nos. 32s.
What follows is a subjective list of the best pick made at each slot, with the reason they were chosen, and others who were considered. Picks were based on a player's entire career. When it was close, the balance tipped toward the player who meant the most to the team that drafted him.
The research yielded some nuggets worth keeping in mind for this year's draft.
The best news is for the Cincinnati Bengals, who pick fourth. History says that's a juicy spot. Only No. 1 has produced more Hall of Famers. The eighth and 19th spots also have been bountiful, raising hopes for fans of the Tennessee Titans and New York Giants.
Sorry, San Francisco 49ers fans, but history shows seventh is a spot to avoid. It's the first pick that features an overwhelming collection of clunkers. Since '67, no Hall of Famer has been drafted at No. 7, at least not yet. The same can be said of Nos. 12, 22, 24, 25 and 29-32, although the 29-32 grouping deserves an asterisk because those didn't become first-rounders until the 1990s.
These results also validate several things fans already knew, such as wise drafting being a big part of the Steelers becoming such a perennial power. Pittsburgh claimed three of the top 11 "best" picks and five of the 32.
The quality of several college programs jumped out, too. Southern California and Miami (Fla.) put four guys on this list, Syracuse had three and Florida and Ohio State had two.
As for the best year, the Class of '83 lived up to its hype, putting three guys on this list, more than any other year. The '83 crop's great reputation is primarily for quarterbacks, and this list includes two of those players and a defensive back.
Let the debates begin.
Terry Bradshaw, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1970, Louisiana Tech
John Elway, Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning were far more dazzling. Earl Campbell was far more feared. Yet teams draft players they think will help them win championships. Bradshaw guided the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles and was the MVP in two of those championship games.
Lawrence Taylor, LB, New York Giants, 1981, North Carolina
He changed the course of his team's history — Super Bowl titles following the 1986 and 1990 seasons — and changed the way outside linebackers are used. Heck, he also led to a change in the importance of offensive left tackles. All that earns LT this spot over some other incredible players, such as Randy White, Tony Dorsett and Eric Dickerson.
Anthony Munoz, T, Cincinnati Bengals, 1980, USC
Barry Sanders was an unbelievable talent, and would've been the NFL's rushing champion had he not retired early. While he made more people pay attention to the Detroit Lions, he never got them over the top. Munoz was among the greatest blockers in league history. His best work was in 1981 and '88, years his quarterbacks (Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason) were NFL MVPs and the Bengals went to the Super Bowl.
"Sweetness" would be in the discussion of greatest running backs of all time, probably the best of the Super Bowl era. His only Super Bowl was as part of the '85 Bears juggernaut, but his overall dominance makes him an easy choice over fellow Hall of Famers Joe Greene, Derrick Thomas, John Hannah and Bob Griese.
Although "Prime Time" won Super Bowls rings with other franchises, the other guys he's up against didn't lead their original teams to Super Bowl titles either. Thus, his overall talent wins him this spot over Mike Haynes, Junior Seau and LaDainian Tomlinson.
Floyd Little, RB, Denver Broncos, 1967, Syracuse
Lots of really good players have been taken at this spot, yet few who jump out as franchise-changers. Little wins out for all that he meant to the Broncos in their AFL days and then early NFL years. Others under consideration were John Riggins, James Lofton, Tim Brown, Walter Jones and Torry Holt.
The youngster is on his way to becoming the first Hall of Famer drafted at this spot. The fact the pick is riding on the expectations for the rest of his career says something about the rest of the candidates here. Those also in the conversation include Phil Simms, Sterling Sharpe, Bryant Young and Champ Bailey.
Ronnie Lott, DB, San Francisco 49ers, 1981, USC
Whether he lined up at cornerback, free safety or strong safety, Lott was among the best at his position. Making the All-Decade Team twice puts him among the greatest of any decade. Those four Super Bowls he won with the 49ers make him an easy pick over Larry Csonka and Mike Munchak.
Bruce Matthews, G, Houston Oilers, 1983, USC
He retired having played the most games by a position player in NFL history. And he didn't just play, he excelled, earning nine All-Pro selections. No wonder he became the rare offensive lineman welcomed into the Hall of Fame the first time he went on the ballot. A no-brainer pick over Brian Urlacher.
Rod Woodson, DB, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1987, Purdue
Marcus Allen and Jerome Bettis had terrific careers, helping teams win Super Bowls. Bettis was probably the better pick because he was less of a college standout; Allen, after all, won the Heisman Trophy. Yet Woodson trumps them all. An All-Pro at cornerback, safety and kick returner, he was voted to the NFL's all-time team while still playing. He helped the Steelers reach the Super Bowl, then was part of Super Bowl teams for the Raiders and Ravens.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004, Miami (Ohio)
Big Ben has guided Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl three times in seven seasons, winning twice. He's the youngest QB to win a Super Bowl and he's still only 29. Pretty amazing that there are only two QBs on this list so far, and both were drafted by the Steelers. Michael Irvin and Dwight Freeney were also considered for this spot.
Warren Sapp, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1995, Miami (Fla.)
Voted the top defensive player in college football, he was supposed to be a top-five pick. Then came rumors he'd tested positive for cocaine and marijuana, causing him to slip in the draft. The Bucs took the risk and were rewarded with a standout career. Between his success and the mediocre careers of all other No. 12 picks, there are no runners-up.
Tony Gonzalez also was drafted 13th, and he's broken all of Winslow's receiving records at tight end. The pioneer at the position gets the nod, though, even over another strong candidate, Franco Harris.
Jim Kelly, QB, Buffalo Bills, 1983, Miami (Fla.)
The Bills had to wait for Kelly to play out his career with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL. He was worth it, leading Buffalo to four straight AFC championships. Although he didn't win a Super Bowl, he's an easy pick over Eddie George and Darrelle Revis.
Alan Page, DE, Minnesota Vikings, 1967, Notre Dame
Page was the first defensive player voted league MVP, and among the stars of the "Purple People Eaters." Like Kelly, we're celebrating his role in getting his team to four Super Bowls without punishing him for going 0-for-4. Now a judge on the Minnesota Supreme Court, he can appreciate this decision being uncontested.
Jerry Rice, WR, San Francisco 49ers, 1985, Mississippi Valley State
Like Payton, he's the kind of guy who would've been an easy pick regardless of where he was taken. Any receiving record Rice didn't set is probably not very important. He could've caught touchdown passes wearing his three Super Bowl rings. He laps the field over Russ Francis and Troy Polamalu.
Let's see, he was the leading rusher in NFL history, led his team to three Super Bowls in four years, won a regular-season MVP award and was a Super Bowl MVP. Yeah, that's pretty good for a No. 17 pick, better than Gene Upshaw and Doug Williams.
Art Monk, WR, Washington Redskins, 1980, Syracuse
It's often said that Joe Gibbs won Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks. Well, all three threw to Monk. He held the record for most receptions until Rice came along. The strongest competition here are both newcomers with potential for greatness, Joe Flacco and Maurkice Pouncey.
Suddenly, there's a run on Syracuse receivers. Harrison had the luxury of being on the receiving end of Peyton Manning's passes, but he was very good for a very long time, helping the Colts go from also-rans to Super Bowl champions. He topped a field that included Jack Tatum, Randall McDaniel and Shaun Alexander.
Jack Youngblood, DE, Los Angeles Rams, 1971, Florida
You try telling him that Steve Atwater or Javon Walker were better. Youngblood played 201 straight games in his Hall of Fame career, and that doesn't include playing a Super Bowl with a broken leg.
Lynn Swann, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1974, USC
Swann's specialty was making the big catch in big games, which earned him this selection over Randy Moss. As great as Moss was in his prime, he was part of a 15-1 Minnesota team that didn't reach the Super Bowl and part of a 16-0 New England team that lost the Super Bowl.
Jack Reynolds, LB, Los Angeles Rams, 1970, Tennessee
Those Rams sure were good at drafting in the early '70s. Along with Youngblood, "Hacksaw" helped the Rams get to the Super Bowl. Reynolds, however, moved north to San Francisco and won two Super Bowls. The most noteworthy other selection at this spot also is known by his nickname: "The Refrigerator." But William Perry wasn't nearly as good for as long.
As GM of the Ravens, Newsome would love finding a bargain like himself. He retired with the fourth-most catches in NFL history and wound up in the Hall of Fame, making him the obvious pick over Ray Guy and Deuce McAllister. (At a weaker draft spot, Guy — a punter — might've been an intriguing choice for this list.)
Calvin Hill, RB, Dallas Cowboys, 1969, Yale
The Cowboys might have thought their scouting computer hiccuped when it claimed an Ivy League running back was one of the best players in college football. They took the chance anyway and were rewarded with the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Hill tied Jim Brown's record for most yards by a rookie and he was second only to Gale Sayers in the league that season. He helped Dallas reach the Super Bowl for the first time the next season and win it all the season after that. Aaron Rodgers makes for tough competition here, but as a top-10 talent who was slipping, he wasn't the draft-day risk Hill was.
Santonio Holmes, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers, 2006, Ohio State
Geez, another Steeler. But being a Super Bowl MVP gives him the credentials to top the other 25th picks, a crop that includes Ted Washington and — wait for it — Tim Tebow.
Except for the Colts taking Harrison, it's hard to imagine what the other teams drafting ahead of the Ravens were thinking in '96. Lewis was a standout player in college who became a two-time NFL defensive player of the year and a Super Bowl MVP. That gives him the nod over Hall of Famer Joe Delamielleure and Dana Stubblefield.
Dan Marino, QB, Miami Dolphins, 1983, Pittsburgh
Perhaps the greatest value among all first-rounders. No, he didn't win a Super Bowl for the Dolphins, but he set virtually every NFL passing record. No other 27th pick comes close. Few other first-rounders in any spot do.
Darrell Green, DB, Washington Redskins, 1983, Texas A&I
The Redskins may have been hoping Marino fell to them in '83. Regardless, they did darn well, getting a speedy cornerback who was among the NFL's best for many years and part of the reason Washington won two Super Bowls and played for another title during his career. Derrick Brooks is another No. 28 pick who had a distinguished career, but not as spectacular as Green's.
After a string of Hall of Famers, a mere two-time All-Pro will have to suffice now that we're getting into the spots that are first-round newcomers. This pick reached top-tier status in 1993, and Mangold is the best of the bunch by helping the Jets get within a game of the last two Super Bowls. Nick Barnett and Michael Jenkins are next-best contenders.
Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts, 2001, Miami (Fla.)
Kudos to Peyton Manning for helping put another guy on this list, even if he's not on here himself. Wayne went from excelling alongside Harrison to proving worthy of taking over as the main man, keeping the Colts near the top of the NFL and getting them to another Super Bowl. He beats a solid field that includes teammate Joseph Addai, Heath Miller and Keith Bulluck.
Welcome to the party, Raiders. Alas, this great pick is likely to leave the club when free agency begins. They've already made the two-time All-Pro, and NFL man of the year for all his off-field good deeds, the highest-paid defensive back. Now he's expected to cash in again. His toughest competition here was Todd Heap.
The way this powerhouse club has been built, it's fitting that its only appearance on this list is with an interior offensive lineman taken with the final pick of the first round, out of a non-BCS school. Mankins is a two-time All-Pro who protects Tom Brady (a sixth-rounder, by the way). Other guys up for this choice were Mathias Kiwanuka and Anthony Gonzalez.
NOTE: The length of the first round has fluctuated:
25 picks — 1990.
26 picks — 1967, 1969-75.
27 picks — 1968, 1982, 1986, 1988, 1991.
28 picks — 1976-81, 1983-85, 1987, 1989, 1992.
29 picks — 1993-94.
30 picks — 1996-98.
31 picks — 1999-2001, 2008.
32 picks — 1995, 2002-7, 2009-10.
This list did not take into consideration supplemental first-rounders.