A few ground rules for this top five:
- To make the list, a player had to have entered the NFL as a draft pick -- no undrafted free agents or guys who played in the NFL before the draft began. (We bent the rules a bit on three guys who began their careers in the AFL.)
- All things being equal, we gave more value to a middle- or late-round pick who hit it big. It's possible that a fourth-round pick, for instance, shows up on our list instead of a first-rounder. First-rounders are supposed to pan out, whereas teams hope a fourth-rounder produces. But don't fret: The majority of players who made our list were indeed first-rounders.
Four of the five teams we've selected probably won't be a surprise. Three of the five are long-time powers, and one is a relative newcomer to the scene (17 of the 22 players selected were drafted in the 1980s, 1990s or 2000s). The other, while it hasn't been nationally relevant in a while, has pumped out numerous stud players, and definitely belongs.
A lot of big-name programs didn't make the cut. We discuss them at the end; for the most part, they fell short -- frankly, way, way short -- at one key position.
Here is our top five. Feel free to disagree -- and we know you will.
QB: Bobby Layne (1st round, Chicago, 1948)
RB: Earl Campbell (1st round, Houston, 1978)
RB:Jamaal Charles (3rd round, Kansas City, 2008)
WR: Eric Metcalf (1st round, Cleveland, 1989)
WR: Roy Williams (1st round, Detroit, 2004)
TE: Pete Lammons (8th round, New York Jets, 1966/AFL draft)
OT: Jerry Sisemore (1st round, Philadelphia, 1973)
OT: Dave Studdard (9th round, Baltimore, 1978)
G: Leonard Davis (1st round, Arizona, 2001)
G: Harley Sewell (1st round, Detroit, 1953)
C: Mike Baab (5th round, Cleveland, 1982)
Overview: There's a surprisingly blah group of wide receivers from which to choose, though Metcalf would've been perfect for today's NFL: a space player with speed. (Texas alum George Sauer was an undrafted free agent out of college and thus doesn't qualify.) Layne and Campbell are Hall of Famers who lived up to their first-round billing. Studdard was a nine-year starter after being a ninth-round pick. Baab was a 10-year starter after being a fifth-round pick. Davis, Sewell, and Sisemore were first-rounders who paid off. Lammons was drafted by the Jetsand Cleveland in 1966, but chose the Jets and got to play with Joe Namath.
DE: Tony Brackens (2nd round, Jacksonville, 1996)
DE:Cory Redding (3rd round, Detroit, 2003)
DT: Steve McMichael (3rd round, New England, 1980)
DT: Bud McFadin (1st round, Los Angeles Rams, 1951)
LB:Derrick Johnson (1st round, Kansas City, 2005)
LB: Tommy Nobis (1st round, Atlanta, 1966)
LB:Brian Orakpo (1st round, Washington, 2009)
CB: Raymond Clayborn (1st round, New England, 1977)
CB: Jerry Gray (1st round, Los Angeles Rams, 1985)
S: Bobby Dillon (3rd round, Green Bay, 1952)
S:Earl Thomas (1st round, Seattle, 2010)
Overview: Oh, my, the defensive tackles Texas has produced. Not on this list are Pro Bowlers Doug English, Casey Hampton, John Elliott, and Shaun Rogers. McFadin and McMichael were All-Pros a combined five times. The secondary is excellent, too, with the listed quartet having combined for 11 Pro Bowl appearances and seven All-Pro nods; Dillon alone was a four-time All-Pro, which isn't bad for a third-rounder. Nobis and Johnson were first-rounders who lived up to their billing. The ends are the weak link, though Redding has been a starter for nine years after being a third-round pick.
QB: Dan Marino (1st round, Miami, 1983)
RB: Tony Dorsett (1st round, Dallas, 1977)
RB: Curtis Martin (3rd round, New England, 1995)
WR: Antonio Bryant (2nd round, Dallas, 2002)
WR:Larry Fitzgerald (1st round, Arizona, 2004)
TE: Mike Ditka (1st round, Chicago, 1961)
OT: Jimbo Covert (1st round, Chicago, 1983)
OT: Mark May (1st round, Washington, 1981)
G: Ruben Brown (1st round, Buffalo, 1995)
G: Russ Grimm (3rd round, Washington, 1981)
C: Mark Stepnoski (3rd round, Dallas, 1989)
The overview: Here's the "surprise team." The interior of the line combined for 18 Pro Bowl appearances, and Grimm and Stepnoski were tremendous values in the third round. Brown was one of the best guards of his era and was a nine-time Pro Bowler. Grimm is in the Hall of Fame. The tackles are solid as well. The entire backfield is in the Hall of Fame. Marino was a steal late in the first round; his right arm is one of the natural wonders of the world. Dorsett was expected to be a star and was. And getting Martin in the third round was a master stroke by the Patriots, even if he did a lot of his damage for a division rival. Ditka also is in the Hall of Fame, and Fitzgerald definitely is a candidate to end up in Canton, too. Those running backs running behind this line, with Marino at quarterback? My goodness.
DE: Chris Doleman (1st round, Minnesota, 1985)
DE: Bill McPeak (16th round, Pittsburgh, 1948)
DT: Sean Gilbert (1st round, Los Angeles Rams, 1992)
DT: Bill Maas (1st round, Kansas City, 1984)
LB: Hugh Green (1st round, Tampa Bay, 1981)
LB: Rickey Jackson (2nd round, New Orleans, 1981)
LB: Joe Schmidt (7th round, Detroit, 1953)
CB:Darrelle Revis (1st round, New York Jets, 2007)
CB: Ed Sharockman (5th round, Minnesota, 1961)
S: Richie McCabe (22nd round, Pittsburgh, 1955)
S: Carlton Williamson (3rd round, San Francisco, 1981)
The overview: Doleman, Jackson, and Schmidt are in the Hall of Fame. Schmidt is one of the best value picks in NFL history. He played for 13 seasons and was an eight-time All-Pro and a 10-time Pro Bowler. McPeak provided great value; he was a three-time Pro Bowler after being selected in the 16th round. Jackson had been in Green's shadow in college, but he surpassed him in the NFL. Doleman and Jackson were big-time pass rushers. Sharockman was a steady hand in Minnesota's secondary for a decade and was a fifth-round find. McCabe played only six seasons -- and for three teams -- but he was an all-league pick in the AFL. Revis seemingly is bound for Canton. Gilbert and Maas were top-10 picks who played at a high level for a while.
QB: Jim Kelly (1st round, Buffalo, 1983)
RB: Chuck Foreman (1st round, Minnesota, 1973)
RB: Edgerrin James (1st round, Indianapolis, 1999)
WR: Michael Irvin (1st round, Dallas, 1988)
WR:Reggie Wayne (1st round, Indianapolis, 2001)
TE: Jeremy Shockey (1st round, New York Giants, 20002)
OT: Bryant McKinnie (1st round, Minnesota, 2002)
OT: Leon Searcy (1st round, Pittsburgh, 1992)
G: Dennis Harrah (1st round, Los Angeles Rams, 1975)
G:Chris Myers (6th round, Denver, 2005)
C: Jim Otto (taken in initial AFL draft, no rounds denoted, Oakland, 1960)
The overview: Irvin, Kelly and Otto are in the Hall of Fame, and Wayne could end up there, as well. The skill-position group is absolutely tremendous (Ottis Anderson, Frank Gore and Clinton Portis are among the running backs who were left out) and the line is solid. Harrah was a six-time Pro Bowler. Myers was drafted as a guard and started his NFL career there before moving to center. McKinnie was absolutely massive and was one of the best tackles in the league from 2006-10. Otto was known for his toughness and his jersey number (00).
DE: Kevin Fagan (4th round, San Francisco, 1986)
DE: Kenard Lang (1st round, Washington, 1997)
DT: Cortez Kennedy (1st round, Seattle, 1990)
DT: Warren Sapp (1st round, Tampa Bay, 1995)
LB: Jessie Armstead (8th round, New York Giants, 1993)
LB: Ted Hendricks (2nd round, Baltimore, 1969)
LB: Ray Lewis (1st round, Baltimore, 1996)
CB: Ryan McNeil (2nd round, Detroit, 1993)
CB: Burgess Owens (1st round, New York Jets, 1973)
S: Ed Reed (1st round, Baltimore, 2002)
S: Sean Taylor (1st round, Washington, 2004)
The overview: The ends and the corners are solid, nothing more. But the tackles, linebackers and safeties are excellent. Kennedy and Sapp are Hall of Famers, and not listed among the defensive tackles is Vince Wilfork. Getting the mobile Armstead in the eighth round is impressive. Even more impressive: Getting Hall-of-Famer Hendricks in the second round; put the "Mad Stork" (one of the greatest nicknames ever) at OLB in a 3-4 defense against today's pass-happy offenses and he would be devastating to quarterbacks. Actually, put Lewis -- who will be in Canton soon -- in between Armstead and Hendricks, and this linebacker group would be devastating to all offensive players. And that's a pretty nice duo at safety, isn't it? Reed is Canton-bound, as well.
QB:Carson Palmer (1st round, Cincinnati, 2003)
RB: Marcus Allen (1st round, Los Angeles Raiders, 1982)
RB: O.J. Simpson (1st round, Buffalo, 1969)
WR: Frank Gifford (1st round, new York Giants, 1952)
WR: Lynn Swann (1st round, Pittsburgh, 1974)
TE: Charle Young (1st round, Philadelphia, 1973)
OT: Anthony Munoz (1st round, Cincinnati, 1980)
OT: Ron Yary (1st round, Minnesota, 1968)
G: Roy Foster (1st round, Miami, 1982)
G: Bruce Matthews (1st round, Houston, 1983)
C: Don Mosebar (1st round, Los Angeles Raiders, 1983)
The overview: This is the only group on our list made up entirely of first-rounders, and three of them were the overall No. 1 pick (Palmer, Simpson and Yary). The one "weakness" is quarterback. Palmer occasionally has been great, but steady is a more apt description. Both running backs are in the Hall of Fame, and a lot of people have forgotten that Simpson was the first 2,000-yard rusher -- and that he did it in 14 games. Gifford and Swann are in the Hall. So, too, are Munoz and Yary, and it's hard to imagine a better tackle duo from one school (we're leaving out OT Ron Mix, who also is in the Hall; he, too, was a first-round pick). Matthews is another Hall of Famer. The bottom line: All these first-round picks more than lived up to their hype.
DE: Ed Henke (13th round, Washington, 1949)
DE: Willie McGinest (1st round, New England, 1994)
DT: Shaun Cody (2nd round, Detroit, 2005)
DT: Volney Peters (13th round, Chicago Cardinals, 1951)
LB: Chip Banks (1st round, Cleveland, 1982)
LB:Clay Matthews (1st round, Cleveland, 1978)
LB: Junior Seau (1st round, San Diego, 1990)
CB: Lindon Crow (2nd round, Chicago Cardinals, 1955)
CB: Don Doll (9th round, Detroit, 1948)
S: Ronnie Lott (1st round, San Francisco, 1981)
S: Troy Polamalu (1st round, Pittsburgh, 2003)
The overview: The defense isn't as impressive as the offense, though USC has produced an incredible group of safeties. Lott was drafted as a corner but eventually became perhaps the best safety in NFL history. Polamalu produced at a high level. Not listed at safety: Mark Carrier, Tim McDonald and Dennis Smith, a trio that combined for 15 Pro Bowl appearances. (Hall of Famer Willie Wood doesn't qualify because he was an undrafted free agent.) Doll was one of the best corners in the league in the early 1950s before transitioning to safety, and Crow was one of the best corners in the league in the late 1950s. Henke and Peters were big-time value picks who were starters for almost a decade apiece despite being 13th-round selections. Like his brother Bruce Matthews, Clay Matthews seemingly was in the NFL for about three decades. Seau is a Hall of Famer, and Banks started in each of his 10 NFL seasons and was a four-time Pro Bowler. Again, the first-rounders in this group lived up to the hype.
1. Notre Dame
QB: Joe Montana (3rd round, San Francisco, 1979)
RB: Jerome Bettis (1st round, Los Angeles Rams, 1993)
RB: Paul Hornung (1st round, Green Bay, 1957)
WR: Tim Brown (1st round, Los Angeles Raiders, 1988)
WR: Wayne Millner (8th round, Boston Redskins, 1936)
TE: Dave Casper (2nd round, Oakland, 1974)
OT: George Kunz (1st round, Atlanta, 1969)
OT: Frank Varrichione (1st round, Pittsburgh, 1955)
G: Bob Kuechenberg (4th round, Philadelphia, 1969)
G: Ray Lemek (19th round, Washington, 1956)
C: Dick Szymanski (2nd round, Baltimore, 1955)
The overview: Montana is one of the best value picks ever; a case can be made that he is the best draft pick ever, given where he was selected and what he accomplished. Millner was great value, too: He was an eighth-rounder (in the first-ever draft) who became a Hall of Famer. Bettis, Casper, and Hornung also are in the Hall of Fame. Kunz was the No. 2 overall pick (behind O.J. Simpson) in the 1969 draft and lived up to the hype. Kuechenberg was cut by the Eagles and picked up off waivers by the Dolphins, where he became part of one of the best offensive lines in history (the interior: "Kooch" and Hall-of-Famers Larry Little and Jim Langer). Lemek was a 19th-rounder who started for eight seasons and became a Pro Bowler. Varrichione was one of the best tackles in the league in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There's a lot of talent on this list and an incredible amount of high-value picks.
DE: Ross Browner (1st round, Cincinnati, 1978)
DE:Justin Tuck (3rd round, New York Giants, 2005)
DT: Alan Page (1st round, Minnesota, 1967)
DT: Bryant Young (1st round, San Francisco, 1994)
LB: Nick Buoniconti (13th round, Boston Patriots, 1962)
LB: George Connor (1st round, New York Giants, 1946)
LB: Myron Pottios (2nd round, Pittsburgh, 1961)
CB: Todd Lyght (1st round, Los Angeles Rams, 1991)
CB: Dick Lynch (6th round, Washington, 1958)
S: Dave Duerson (3rd round, Chicago, 1983)
S: Dave Waymer (2nd round, New Orleans, 1980)
The overview: Buoniconti, Connor and Page became Hall of Famers. Connor was absolutely enormous for his time (6-3, 240). Page is one of the best defensive tackles in history. At 6-foot-1, 202 pounds, Lynch also was big for his time -- teams salivate for corners of his size in today's NFL -- and was a ballhawk who twice led the league in interceptions; not bad for a guy taken in the sixth round. Waymer played some cornerback but made his mark at safety. Duerson hit a ton for some fierce Chicago defenses. Tuck was a third-rounder who has been an All-Pro. Interestingly, most players from this group were not first-rounders. Those that were paid off, but this group as a whole provided excellent value for the teams that drafted them, and that's why the Irish are No. 1 on this list.
Just missed the cut
As for why some other big-name schools aren't on the list:
Alabama: No problem at quarterback or linebacker; the Tide is as deep as anybody at quarterback. But wide receiver (Alabama alum Don Hutson started his NFL career before there was a draft) and the secondary are problems, as are two spots along the offensive line.
Georgia: A Hall-of-Fame quarterback in Fran Tarkenton, a bunch of good running backs and a stout defensive front don't make up for average offensive tackles and shortages in the secondary.
Florida: You have to have a quarterback.
Florida State: Quarterback is the problem.
LSU: An All-Hall-of-Fame backfield with QB Y.A. Tittle and RBs Jim Taylor and Steve Van Buren. But there are average receivers, a paucity of offensive tackles and a so-so defensive line.
Nebraska: Vince Ferragamo would be the quarterback. Next.
Ohio State: Who's the quarterback? Without a quarterback, Ohio State has no shot at this list.
Oklahoma: Another school where quarterback is an issue.
Penn State: Yep, it's all about the quarterback.
UCLA: The positives are Troy Aikman, a surprisingly good offensive line and a great secondary. But the defensive line is a problem, as is a lack of receivers and running backs.