Ranking the 51 No. 1 overall picks of the common-draft era


If you're scoring at home, the 2018 NFL Draft will be the league's 52nd since the great college marketplace was turned into a single venture. Prior to 1967, the NFL and the AFL were employing their own drafts. That lasted until bidding wars for prospects with two suitors got too pricey. Thus, we now have one prime, combined NFL draft.

Last year, I went through every draft since the two leagues merged this process, assessing the value of all the top overall picks ... a perfect 50 to go through. The list, and each player's journey, sparked much conversation. We now have 51 careers to document, as well as an update as to where many players stand. Why not reassess?

One note: More value was placed on those who paid off for their original franchises, as opposed to journeymen who produced a solid career with other outfits. Your thoughts are always valuable ... @HarrisonNFL is the place.



JaMarcus Russell, quarterback

Drafted by: Oakland Raiders, 2007.

Does anyone remember JaMarcus Russell completing 72 percent of his passes with a 128.1 passer rating in a win over the Texans, or going 15 of 22 against the Dolphins earlier in that 2008 season? I remember the latter, as I wrote about it for There was a time, in Russell's second season, when it looked like he would and could be a player. It was mostly downhill from there, as he was less ready to be a franchise leader off the field than on it. His "want to" was questioned. His passer rating plummeted. And so did Oakland's hopes of not having to lean on guys like Andrew Walter.



Myles Garrett, defensive end

Drafted by: Cleveland Browns, 2017.

Myles Garrett went first overall in 2017, then we didn't hear about him much. That's what happens when you don't have "QB" listed on your draft card, apparently. The Browns going 0-16 didn't really push Garrett's decent rookie season to the forefront of greater foodballdom's consciousness, either. Decent, only because the top overall pick was not able to play a full schedule last year ... ankle injuries have been around even longer than the NFL draft. Garrett has already been more effective than JaMarcus Russell and will probably push much farther up this list with more than 11 games under his belt. Still, even in that limited time, Garrett posted seven sacks, 31 tackles, and a forced fumble last year. He is a certifiable building block on what could be an exciting (gulp) Cleveland team.



Steve Emtman, defensive end

Drafted by: Indianapolis Colts, 1992.

Like several of the players coming up on this list, Steve Emtman's career was ravaged by injury. Through nine games of his rookie year with the Colts, Emtman displayed moments where it looked like he could be the dominant force Ted Marchibroda's Colts desperately needed. He even took a Dan Marino pass 90 yards to the house to beat the 6-0 Dolphins. It was all downhill from there, whether because of his patellar tendon or a neck injury suffered in 1994. Fun fact: The Colts owned the top two picks in 1992, selecting linebacker Quentin Coryatt one spot after Emtman.



Courtney Brown, defensive end

Drafted by: Cleveland Browns, 2000.

Courtney Brown's career didn't go the way media or the fans expected, but the man himself accepted. A quiet player, Brown maybe didn't take his on-field struggles in stride internally, but he kept plugging away through several injury setbacks. His career as a pass rusher (17 sacks in five years with Cleveland) and a first-round pick was one of many developments to set the Browns back. What was known then but not remembered now is that this guy flashed serious potential before suffering ankle and knee injuries. He had microfracture surgery in the early 2000s when that wasn't really a thing yet. It wrecked his career. This was a defensive end who ran a 4.52. Think about that.



Ki-Jana Carter, running back

Drafted by: Cincinnati Bengals, 1995.

Ki-Jana Carter was the most talented running back in the top conference in college football, but he's remembered for being a mediocre NFL running back. The bridge -- the broken bridge -- between the two is what happened on Aug. 17, 1995: Carter made a cut in the Pontiac Silverdome on his third professional carry, tearing a ligament in his knee, which set him on the path to what he would become with the Bengals. He was never the same explosive (but still powerful) back again. Talk to any evaluator or anyone covering the Big Ten at the time, and they will tell you how unique this guy was. Despite a myriad of injuries and comebacks, Carter scratched out seven years and 1,144 yards in the league.



Kenneth Sims, defensive end

Drafted by: New England Patriots, 1982.

A big defensive lineman taken first overall from the University of Texas was supposed to be dominant. Yeah, it didn't really work out that way for Kenneth Sims, who stumbled out of the blocks in a rookie season interrupted by a players' strike. Sims was hurt in Year 2, and by Year 3 was considered a bust with all of 6.5 sacks to his name. He stuck with it through off-the-field ups and downs, enjoying his finest season in 1985 with 5.5 sacks and a Super Bowl berth for the upstart Patriots. By his final season, he had worked himself into a decent player ... for a 5-11 team.



Tim Couch, quarterback

Drafted by: Cleveland Browns, 1999.

Loved what Bruce Arians said a few years ago about Tim Couch to Peter King, and it bears repeating ... "Tim Couch. Hell of a player. Tim was no bust. It kills me when people call him a bust. His arm was just so torn up couldn't play anymore. He would have been a real good one." The problem specifically? A torn labrum suffered in 2000. That, and taking a pounding as a rookie (56 sacks to lead the league.) Couch led the Browns to a playoff berth in 2002, but got injured, giving way to Kelly Holcomb. The arm problems took care of the rest.



Aundray Bruce, outside linebacker

Drafted by: Atlanta Falcons, 1988.

Aundray Bruce was the tall, athletic linebacker every team wanted in 1988. Or, in other words, the Lawrence Taylor they were all trying to get. Fresh off an awful 1987 season, the Falcons thought Bruce would spruce up their defense. His play was worse than that rhyme. After a promising rookie campaign with 70 tackles and six sacks, Bruce could never take the next step ... either toward the quarterback or in his career in Atlanta. Bruce became a situational rusher for the Raiders and played 11 seasons in the league.



Walt Patulski, defensive end

Drafted by: Buffalo Bills, 1972.

Would you believe the first Notre Dame player to go No. 1 overall was Walt Patulski? Feel free to use that bit of trivia at the sports bar. Patulski started in Buffalo for four seasons before putting in a final year with Don Coryell and the 1977 St. Louis Cardinals. Patulski never lived up to his draft status, unfairly described as not being mean enough. His intellectual approach didn't mesh with Bills head coach Lou Saban, which Patulski admitted last year wrecked his career.



Eric Fisher, offensive tackle

Drafted by: Kansas City Chiefs, 2013.

Eric Fisher has at least become a reliable starter in Kansas City, even if he hasn't been the sort of All-Pro level player most offensive linemen taken that high are expected to be (think Joe Thomas). Fisher has only missed six starts since being tabbed as the top prospect in the 2013 NFL Draft. He's definitely a better player now than he was then, although 2017 wasn't his best season. Perhaps he can get a stronger grip on the left tackle position as he grows older. Don't watch this if you're a Chiefs fan. Please do if you like the Steelers.



Tom Cousineau, linebacker

Drafted by: Buffalo Bills, 1979.

What a ride for Tom Cousineau. Drafted first overall by the Bills in 1979, Cousineau jumped to Montreal of the CFL to make double the cash. He was the Grey Cup MVP in 1979, but before too long looked to get back into the NFL. Art Modell ponied up big money at the time, as well as a first-, second-, and third-round pick for a linebacker in Cousineau. He was a decent player in Cleveland, leading the team in tackles multiple times. Ah, but that first-round pick ... can you say Jim Kelly?



Jared Goff, quarterback

Drafted by: Los Angeles Rams, 2016.

Last year, Jared Goff kicked off the list of the top 50 No. 1 overall picks. While we still have no idea who or what he's going to be as a quarterback, he more than displayed his long-term potential in 2017 by leading the Rams to the playoffs, or at least being a major part of the equation. Goff tossed 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions while pacing the entire league in yards per completion at a robust 12.9. I wrote about the situation Goff inherited last year. Would Dak Prescott, Jameis Winston or Peyton Manning have done that much better with Jeff Fisher's 2016 squad? Doubtful. Besides the obvious impact of handing the reins to Sean McVay, signing Andrew Whitworth at left tackle was a master stroke by Los Angeles.



John Matuszak, defensive end

Drafted by: Houston Oilers, 1973.

John Matuszak -- better known as "Tooz" -- is as well known for his acting roles as his playing career, which ... wasn't bad. The first overall pick of the Oilers in 1973 was traded to the Chiefs in the deal that landed Hall of Famer Curley Culp in Houston. Two years later, Matuszak landed in Oakland, where he won two Super Bowls and was a starter five of six seasons for the Silver and Black. Hey, the dude, was Sloth in "The Goonies" and played in "The Ice Pirates." He deserves to be higher than a few peeps on this list.



Dan Wilkinson, defensive tackle

Drafted by: Cincinnati Bengals, 1994.

Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson never played to the level of the game-changer he was purported to be. In fact, he was one of several top draft picks that didn't quite pan out for the Bengals in their putrid decade of the '90s. Big Daddy was far from a bust, though, ultimately playing 13 years in the league and racking up 54.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position. That ain't bad.



Jadeveon Clowney, defensive end

Drafted by: Houston Texans, 2014.

Jadeveon Clowney didn't take over the league last year as some predicted, but he was pretty solid. Especially when you consider all the additional attention he received once J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus went down with injuries. All those who bet on Clowney being a bust went bust with that prediction, as the rangy edge rusher has now made the Pro Bowl two years in a row, and he set a new career high with 9.5 sacks last season. With two standout seasons behind him, he moves past a couple of players who played a long time for multiple teams but didn't really pay off for the franchises that drafted them.



David Carr, quarterback

Drafted by: Houston Texans, 2002.

The first thing that comes to anyone's mind regarding David Carr's career is how much he was annihilated. No one -- from the fans to assorted media members -- can get past the constant barrage of pressure the elder Carr was under early in his days with the Texans. Which means that we all miss the outstanding talent he possessed. Carr's arm strength was fantastic, as was his overall athletic ability. He made plenty of big plays, too, be it to Corey Bradford, Andre Johnson or Billy Miller. You've probably never heard of two of those guys, which is another reason Carr led the league in being sacked three of his five seasons as a starting QB.



Sam Bradford, quarterback

Drafted by: St. Louis Rams, 2010.

Sam Bradford might be the most difficult player on this list to evaluate. He's enjoyed two nice seasons in the NFL, although neither were with the franchise that drafted him first overall, or even with the same team. While Bradford set a temporary NFL record for completion percentage in 2016 (which Drew Brees topped last year), his yards per attempt still ranked below the league average. Which means that too many of those throws were 2-yard dumpoffs to Jerick McKinnon. Even though his statistics weren't as impressive, his best work might have come down the stretch of his lone season in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Howie Roseman dumped him off to the Vikings to make way for a No. 2 overall pick ... Carson Wentz. Now Bradford is on this fourth team in five years.



Ricky Bell, running back

Drafted by: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1977.

Ricky Bell was a workhorse back. He could flat-out play. But many people didn't see it that way after his production slowed down severely in 1980, and he was out of the league in 1982. What they didn't know was that Bell was suffering from heart failure caused by dermatomyositis. Prior to that, Bell had been an ascending player on an ascending expansion team, culminating with a 1,263-yard season and an appearance in the 1979 NFC Championship Game. Unfortunately, Bell would be out of football within three years and die two years later from heart failure. A tragedy in every sense of the word.



Jameis Winston, quarterback

Drafted by: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2015.

Jameis Winston has probably carried as much team responsibility as any three-year player in recent memory. The Bucs revolve around his play, and they often fail or succeed because of it. In fairness to Winston's good-but-not-great-enough 2017 campaign, too much is on him. Take, for example, Jared Goff, who can lean on a game-breaker in the backfield and an innovative offensive mind to create opportunities for him. Winston does seem to work well with Dirk Koetter, but Tampa's deep abyss at running back continues to be a black hole for its offense and dynamic young quarterback.



Jeff George, quarterback

Drafted by: Indianapolis Colts, 1990.

The Jay Cutler of his day. (In fact, the Bears were the last team to take a look at George.) Like the much maligned Cutler, George's attitude, or perceived attitude, had him looking for a job at 34 when his arm was still stronger than that of anyone in the league. It was also the reason he played for five teams (and was on the roster of seven) in his career. There were highlights along the way, however, like in 1995, when he threw for 4,143 yards and led the Falcons to the playoffs. Or 1999, when he went 8-2 with the Vikings, taking them to the postseason, as well.



Jake Long, offensive tackle

Drafted by: Miami Dolphins, 2008.

Jake Long was a top performer at left tackle early in his run in pro football, even making first-team All-Pro in only his third season with the Dolphins. Shortly thereafter, injuries and a general decline in play saw Long play for four teams in five years. Otherwise, he would be higher on this list. Still, people forget he made four Pro Bowls right out of the gate.



Russell Maryland, defensive tackle

Drafted by: Dallas Cowboys, 1991.

Russell Maryland might have been the oddest No. 1 overall pick of the last 51 years. In 1991, the consensus top player in the country was Rocket Ismail. The speedster flew north to the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL, leaving Jimmy Johnson to take someone he was comfortable with in Maryland (his former player at Miami). Maryland was a fine defensive tackle in the NFL, winning three Super Bowl rings and making a Pro Bowl in a 10-year NFL career.



Bo Jackson, running back

Drafted by: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1986.

While many people will want to see Bo Jackson much higher on this list, reality versus myth comes into play. Was Jackson an exceptional athlete? Absolutely. But splitting time with MLB meant that Jackson never even rushed for 1,000 yards (he came quite close in 1989 in only 11 games). Incidentally, Jackson did not play at all the year he was taken No. 1, passing on suiting up for the Bucs to play for the Memphis Chicks in the Kansas City Royals' farm system.



Keyshawn Johnson, wide receiver

Drafted by: New York Jets, 1996.

Often discussed more for his mouth than his play on the field, Keyshawn Johnson accomplished much during a noteworthy 11-year career with the Jets, Buccaneers, Cowboys and Panthers. He caught 814 balls, posted four 1,000-yard seasons and won a Super Bowl while in Tampa Bay. Unfortunately, Johnson was often seen as a bit of a blowhard. But that didn't make him a bad player.



Michael Vick, quarterback

Drafted by: Atlanta Falcons, 2001.

Like Eli Manning, Michael Vick's selection as the top overall pick involved his future team making a trade with the Chargers. Soon thereafter, the speedy lefty became the most exciting player in football, leading the Falcons to a win at Lambeau in the playoffs in 2002 (the first ever postseason loss for the Packers there), then the 2004 NFC Championship Game. Off-the-field decisions affected Vick's career from there, although he experienced a nice renaissance in Philly in 2010.



Andrew Luck, quarterback

Drafted by: Indianapolis Colts, 2012.

Andrew Luck stays at the same spot on his list from a year ago, mostly because his career is in neutral. After a prolific start, which included guiding the Colts to the postseason his first four years in the league, no one is quite sure what to make of Luck as of today. He didn't take a snap in 2017, and has yet to resume fully throwing after recovering from shoulder surgery. It's too bad, too. This is a guy who tossed 40 touchdown passes in only his third season, while already throwing for over 4,000 yards three times in his career.



Mario Williams, defensive end

Drafted by: Houston Texans, 2006.

Much debate came with Mario Williams going ahead of Reggie Bush, but now there is little doubt that it was the right choice. For all the criticism of Williams by various media members and fans, the guy who never seemed to do enough accomplished much in his 11 years in the league. That includes 97.5 sacks and four Pro Bowls. The recent one-year stint in Miami? Not as memorable.



Vinny Testaverde, quarterback

Drafted by: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1987.

Quarterbacks drafted before everyone else always get saddled with the most pressure, which is compounded by the fact that they are usually joining a lousy football team. Case in point: Vinny Testaverde, who suffered through six tough years in Tampa Bay before turning into a solid veteran QB for the Browns, Ravens and Jets. Testaverde not only played until he was 44, but he threw for 46,233 yards and 275 touchdowns. Wow.



Irving Fryar, wide receiver

Drafted by: New England Patriots, 1984.

Irving Fryar struggled early in his career, especially with the incredible expectations of being the top overall pick a year after so many rookies made a huge impact (1983). Over time, though, Fryar developed into a reliable possession receiver who was better in his 30s than he was in his 20s. Fryar played until he was 38 years old, at wide receiver no less, posting 851 career catches and 85 total touchdowns (84 receiving).



George Rogers, running back

Drafted by: New Orleans Saints, 1981.

You won't find too many No. 1 overall picks who paid more immediate dividends than George Rogers, who led the NFL in rushing with a whopping 1,674 yards as a rookie. Rogers ran for 1,000 yards twice for the Saints and twice for the Redskins, and he even won a Super Bowl ring with Washington in his final season. Oh, and Rogers' rookie rushing total is still second all-time.



Alex Smith, quarterback

Drafted by: San Francisco 49ers, 2005.

Once plagued by instability at offensive coordinator and head coach early in his career, Alex Smith has evolved into a much more steady performer as he's enjoyed more stability around him. That will change this year, as Smith embarks on a new journey in Washington, where he replaces Kirk Cousins. Before we speculate too much about how he'll fare with Jay Gruden and the Redskins, let's not get too far from his run in Kansas City, starting with last season, in which Smith led the NFL in passer rating for the first time in his career. He also turned that bias against him -- that he was ineffective throwing the long ball -- on its ear, as the vertical aspect of his game was a clear strong suit in 2017.



Carson Palmer, quarterback

Drafted by: Cincinnati Bengals, 2003.

Carson Palmer sat his entire rookie season to learn, but by Year 3, he had the Bengals in the playoffs, with the promise of much more to come. However, injuries and inconsistent play marred much of Palmer's time in Cincy, which was followed by a sub-.500 two-year stint in Oakland (Palmer went 8-16 with the Raiders in 2011 and '12). Now retired, he managed to be a more effective player under Bruce Arians in Arizona. Palmer's ability to throw a nice deep ball dovetailed with Arians' belief that routine checkdowns are as enjoyable as routine enemas.



Jim Plunkett, quarterback

Drafted by: New England Patriots, 1971.

Jim Plunkett won two Super Bowls for the Raiders, and he might be one of the least-talked about successful quarterbacks in NFL history. Unfortunately, at least for the Patriots, Plunkett endured plenty of growing pains early in his career. A promising rookie campaign was followed by years of struggle -- including a trade to San Francisco -- before Oakland owner Al Davis brought Plunkett into the fold in 1979.



Bubba Smith, defensive lineman

Drafted by: Baltimore Colts, 1967.

Bubba Smith was a monster to play against when healthy. A better athlete than almost anyone he lined up against, Smith was a major force on the Colts' Super Bowl teams in 1968 and 1970. Unfortunately, knee problems limited Smith's long-term effectiveness; otherwise, he'd be higher on this list. Still, he managed to play nine years in the league while winning a ring in Super Bowl V.



Steve Bartkowski, quarterback

Drafted by: Atlanta Falcons, 1975.

Steve Bartkowski played 11 seasons in Atlanta, taking the Falcons to the playoffs three times. His finest season came in 1980, when he led the NFL with 31 touchdown passes. He also paced all passers with a sterling 97.6 passer rating in 1983. Bad knees, not an inability to play quarterback, shortened Bartkowski's career.



Drew Bledsoe, quarterback

Drafted by: New England Patriots, 1993.

Despite being largely known as the man replaced by Tom Brady in New England, Drew Bledsoe should be remembered for being a fine passer in the 1990s. In fact, Bledsoe led the NFL with 4,555 yards in only his second season. He also led New England to Super Bowl XXXI. While his stints with the Bills and Cowboys were often underwhelming, he did throw for over 4,000 yards in his first year in Buffalo while putting together five game-winning drives in his only full season as a starter in Dallas.



Billy Sims, running back

Drafted by: Detroit Lions, 1980.

Another first overall pick whose career was derailed by a knee injury, Billy Sims was simply brilliant in four-and-a-half seasons with the Lions. He rushed for 1,303 yards as a rookie, then followed up with 1,437 the next season. He was both explosive and shifty. He was on his way to easily topping 1,000 yards again in 1984 when disaster struck. In Week 8 against the Vikings, Sims tore up his knee on the Metrodome turf and would never play again.



Cam Newton, quarterback

Drafted by: Carolina Panthers, 2011.

Cam Newton and the Panthers bounced back in 2017 after a subpar 2016 season that saw them miss the playoffs after a Super Bowl berth the season prior. While Newton's passing numbers weren't much better than in 2016, he convinced the coaching staff to let him, well, do him ... Newton ran the ball about three times more per game, with resounding effect. By the end of the year, he had tallied 754 rushing yards and six touchdowns, then capped it off with an excellent performance in the wild-card round. Newton is still a more effective player when he runs, even though this will be Year 8 for him. While most quarterbacks shy away from the contact, Carolina's face of the franchise utilizes his unique skill set as a balance to his effectiveness throwing downfield. Like Jameis Winston with the Bucs, he's often the entire Panthers offense. Like Andrew Luck when healthy, he can almost change a game with his willpower. Consistency keeps him from being higher on this list.



Matthew Stafford, quarterback

Drafted by: Detroit Lions, 2009.

While it was admittedly not fun for me, Matt Stafford leapfrogs another Lions great (and a favorite) on this list in Billy Sims. That's because the latter's career was cut short by injury. Stafford has endured his own share of issues in that regard, but he came out of 2017 mostly unscathed with another solid year under his belt. He has evolved from an exciting young player to the rock of Detroit's franchise. His last three years have been remarkably consistent, with passer ratings in the 90s. He's managed to produce 85 scoring passes versus only 33 picks during that time with a passer rating of 96.5. Those are better numbers than almost every quarterback in the league over the same duration. Stafford's only shortcoming thus far is a lack of playoff success (he is 0-3). Yet, he sits higher than Jim Plunkett or Bubba Smith here because of the value he has provided for the organization that made him a top overall pick.



Eli Manning, quarterback

Drafted by: San Diego Chargers, 2004.

Not wanting to play for San Diego, Manning was part of a draft-day trade with the Giants that included Philip Rivers. So while he never succeeded for the original franchise that drafted him, no one was expecting him to compete for the Chargers anyway. He also wasn't a player who enjoyed an improved Act II with another team, a la Jim Plunkett or Carson Palmer (Act III) or Vinny Testaverde (too many Acts to count). Thus, Manning is only like one other player on this list in that he regard -- John Elway. Manning has been much maligned over the last two seasons, but critics would do right to recall that last season was his 14th tour of duty in the NFL. Not every player can still play at his highest level after taking that many hits. Manning is partly responsible for that, due to one of the real feathers in his cap ... he's always been available. Only Brett Favre started more consecutive games at the quarterback position. Those two Super Bowl rings (one more than Favre) aren't bad, either.



Ed Too Tall Jones, defensive end

Drafted by: Dallas Cowboys, 1974.

Not many people were scouting Tennessee State back in 1974, but former Cowboys personnel czar (and my colleague) Gil Brandt was. Dallas was rewarded for its interest in the 6-foot-9 Jones with 15 fine years. No player was ever better at anticipating and swatting down passes. Despite being overshadowed by Hall of Fame teammate Randy White, Jones made three straight Pro Bowls from 1981 to '83.



Orlando Pace, offensive tackle

Drafted by: St. Louis Rams, 1997.

Pace was maybe the best player at his job on the 1999 Rams, a.k.a. "The Greatest Show on Turf." When he entered the NFL, Pace joined a terrible football team in need of an identity. But that was not the case for long. Pace made seven straight Pro Bowls in developing into a top-flight left tackle, quietly and consistently performing his role so that the Rams' offense under Kurt Warner -- and, later on, Marc Bulger -- could thrive.



Lee Roy Selmon, defensive lineman

Drafted by: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1976.

The Bucs' first real star, Lee Roy Selmon came out of Oklahoma ready to play in 1976, and by 1979, he was making the Pro Bowl every year. Selmon would make six straight Pro Bowls before a bad back forced him to retire prior to the 1985 season. Selmon was the best player the Bucs ever had prior to the Tony Dungy teams.



Ron Yary, offensive tackle

Drafted by: Minnesota Vikings, 1968.

A Hall of Fame tackle, Ron Yary was as steady a player as there was in the 1970s, a six-time first-team All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler. While you hear so much about the Vikings' defense from Yary's era (the "Purple People Eaters"), Yary was the most consistent offensive performer on Minnesota's four Super Bowl teams.



Earl Campbell, running back

Drafted by: Houston Oilers, 1978.

Quite simply the greatest power back in NFL history. Earl Campbell pummeled his way through the league, leading the NFL in rushing with 1,450 yards as a rookie, 1,697 in Year 2 and a staggering 1,934 yards in 1980. Think about those numbers, then realize he did it all while running through people. Like, plowing them over, often 30 times a game.



O.J. Simpson, running back

Drafted by: Buffalo Bills, 1969.

O.J. Simpson didn't hit his stride with the Bills until Lou Saban took over head coaching duties in 1972. Simpson led the NFL in rushing in four of the next five seasons, including with 2,003 yards in 1973.



Troy Aikman, quarterback

Drafted by: Dallas Cowboys, 1989.

Hard to believe that it was 29 years ago when Troy Aikman was drafted first overall by the Dallas Cowboys. Aikman was the first ever draft pick by Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones. After beginning his career with 11 straight losses, Aikman would eventually start (and win) three Super Bowls. He also posted an 11-5 playoff record in the process. Many league observers consider him the most accurate intermediate thrower they've ever seen. His leadership? Off the charts.



Terry Bradshaw, quarterback

Drafted by: Pittsburgh Steelers, 1970.

One of only three quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls, Terry Bradshaw did it first. Though Bradshaw struggled the first five years of his career, the Steelers' draft investment paid major dividends in the late 1970s. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, partially because he was a highly successful game manager. Not later in his career, though, when his downfield passing often compensated for a defense that wasn't as strong as it had been. Pittsburgh doesn't win Super Bowl XIII and XIV without his 300-yard passing performances in each game. His 64-yard moon shot to Lynn Swann in Super Bowl X might be the best big-game throw ever.



John Elway, quarterback

Drafted by: Baltimore Colts, 1983.

You could make the argument that John Elway belongs even higher, but given that he never played a down for the team that originally drafted him, third seems right. Elway refused to play in Baltimore, so in May 1983, the Colts traded him to the Denver Broncos for Chris Hinton (a fantastic offensive tackle), backup QB Mark Herrmann and a 1984 first-round pick. Of course, Elway wound up starting five Super Bowls for the Broncos. The two Super Bowl wins at the end of his career pushed him into legendary status, but fans should remember that Elway won the league MVP in only his fifth year, becoming one of the youngest quarterbacks to ever accomplish that feat.



Bruce Smith, defensive end

Drafted by: Buffalo Bills, 1985.

The NFL's sack king deserves this high ranking, especially because Bruce Smith provided 15 Hall of Fame seasons for the team that drafted him. Hard to believe now, but people questioned the Bills' decision back in 1985. Smith's 200 sacks are beyond question, as are his eight first-team All-Pro selections and 11 Pro Bowl nods. Oh, he also was Defensive Player of the Year twice and was named to two different All-Decade teams by the Hall of Fame. So basically, he deserves to be above the quarterbacks on this list. Except one.



Peyton Manning, quarterback

Drafted by: Indianapolis Colts, 1998.

Easy choice at the top of the list. Not only is Peyton Manning one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time (I have him at third), he remains at the top of the charts in most major passing stats. Manning threw 28 interceptions as a rookie but started picking things up over the back half of his debut season. By Year 2, he was a Pro Bowl-level player and had the Colts in the playoffs. Manning's total of five MVPs continues to boggle the mind. What player, in any sport, can lay claim to being the best of the best in five different years?



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