Whiffing on a first-round pick can set a team back significantly; nailing the first pick can do wonders for a team. Here are the best first-round picks of all time by slot since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
John Elway, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, Earl Campbell, Lee Roy Selmon and Bruce Smith — all Hall of Famers — were among those selected No. 1 overall. But Manning is the greatest top selection of them all. Drafted by the Colts in 1998, he earned five MVPs, won two Super Bowls and made 14 Pro Bowls with Indianapolis and Denver during a 17-year career. He is third all time in TD passes (539).
An impressive roster of players was selected with the No. 2 overall pick, including Marshall Faulk, Julius Peppers, Randy White, Tony Dorsett and Eric Dickerson. But Taylor may be the NFL's greatest linebacker. He played his entire career with the Giants after his selection in the 1981 draft. Over 13 seasons, he made 10 Pro Bowls, was an eight-time All-Pro and won the 1986 NFL MVP.
The third overall pick in 1989 by the Lions, Sanders had arguably the greatest 10-year run of any running back in history. He rushed for 15,269 yards, leading the league four times and passing the illustrious 2,000-yard mark in 1997. Sanders won the MVP that season but retired one year later while still in his prime. Other outstanding No. 3 picks include Anthony Munoz, Matt Ryan, Cortez Kennedy, Larry Fitzgerald and Joe Thomas.
Payton, taken fourth overall by the Bears in 1975, changed the game on and off the field. He was the 1977 MVP after leading the league in rushing yards and touchdowns. During his 13-year career, Payton rushed for 16,726 yards and scored 125 touchdowns. Following Payton's death in 1999, the NFL Man of the Year Award was named in his honor. Other great No. 4 overall picks include Philip Rivers, Derrick Thomas, Charles Woodson, Justin Smith, Chris Doleman, John Hannah, Dan Hampton, Jonathan Ogden and Kenny Easley.
The Chargers had a franchise-altering draft in 2001, taking Tomlinson in the first round and Drew Brees in the second round. L.T. had a terrific 11-year career with the Chargers and Jets, winning MVP in 2006 and scoring 162 touchdowns during his career. He rushed for 28 TDs in his MVP season, breaking the season record, and ranks second all time in rushing touchdowns with 145. Other Hall of Famers taken fifth overall include Junior Seau, Deion Sanders and Mike Haynes.
One of the greatest wide receivers of his era, Brown made the Hall of Fame after accumulating 1,094 receptions and nearly 15,000 receiving yards in his 17 NFL seasons. Taken by the Raiders in 1988, Brown was also a great punt returner. He still ranks seventh all time in receptions and receiving yards. Hall of Famers James Lofton, Walter Jones, John Riggins and Robert Brazile also were selected with the sixth overall pick.
Peterson, selected by the Vikings in 2007, is a probable Hall of Famer. During his 12-year career, Peterson, who re-signed in March 2019 with the Redskins, has led the league in rushing three times. In his MVP season of 2012, he rushed for 2,097 yards. He ranks fifth all time in rushing yards and is tied for fourth all time in rushing touchdowns. Other great players drafted seventh overall include 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Champ Bailey, Phil Simms, Sterling Sharpe and Bryant Young.
Lott, one of the greatest defensive backs ever, was the eighth pick by San Francisco in 1981. During his 14-year career, he was a 10-time Pro Bowler and four-time Super Bowl winner. He ranks eighth all time with 63 interceptions. Hall of Fame offensive linemen Willie Roaf and Mike Munchak were also taken eighth overall.
Taken ninth overall in 1983 by the Houston Oilers, Matthews was known for his consistency and durability over 19 seasons. The Hall of Famer spent his entire career with the Oilers/Titans organization, making 14 Pro Bowls. Former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher is the only other Hall of Famer taken ninth overall since the merger.
Woodson had a brilliant 17-year career after being taken 10th overall in 1987 by the Steelers. The Hall of Famer was named to 11 Pro Bowls and won the 1993 AP Defensive Player of the Year Award. Patrick Mahomes, Marcus Allen, Jerome Bettis and Terrell Suggs are other prominent players taken 10th overall.
Big Ben, who will enter his 17th season in 2020, was taken 11th overall in 2004 out of Miami of Ohio. He has won two Super Bowls and made six Pro Bowls. Michael Irvin is the only 11th overall pick since the merger to make the Hall of Fame, though DeMarcus Ware and J.J. Watt have excellent chances.
Sapp is the only 12th pick since the merger to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Drafted in 1995 by Tampa Bay, the seven-time Pro Bowler was an elite pass rusher in his prime, peaking with 16.5 sacks in 2000. Other great 12th picks include Deshaun Watson, Haloti Ngata and Marshawn Lynch.
Arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history, Gonzalez played for Kansas City and Atlanta after being drafted in 1997 by the Chiefs. During his 17-year career, he made 14 Pro Bowls and still ranks third all time in receptions, sixth in receiving yards and eighth in receiving touchdowns. He made the Hall of Fame in 2019, joining fellow 13th overall picks Franco Harris and Kellen Winslow Sr.
After he was selected by the Bills in the 1983 draft, Kelly decided to play in the USFL. He joined the Bills in 1986 and put together a Hall of Fame career that included four straight Super Bowl losses and five Pro Bowl appearances. Kelly is the only 14th pick drafted post-merger to make the Hall of Fame, though cornerback Darrelle Revis could soon join him.
The Chiefs selected Johnson 15th overall out of Texas in 2005, and he has put together a terrific, if not Hall of Fame, career. The longtime Chief, who played his final season in Oakland, made four Pro Bowls. Other prominent No. 15 picks include Lawrence Timmons, Jason Pierre-Paul and Brian Cushing.
Drafted by the 49ers in 1985 out of Mississippi Valley State, Rice is the greatest wideout of all time. The 10-time All-Pro is the all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns after an incredible 20-year career between San Francisco, Oakland and Seattle. Troy Polamalu, drafted 16th overall by the Steelers in 2003, was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2020.
Smith, drafted by the Cowboys in 1990, is the only 17th overall pick after the merger who is enshrined in Canton. He won three Super Bowls with the Cowboys and was named NFL MVP in 1993. He is the all-time leader in rushing attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.
Selected in 1980 by Washington, Monk had a Hall of Fame career over 16 NFL seasons. He finished with more than 1,000 receiving yards five times and won three Super Bowls with the Redskins. Ravens Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Flacco was also selected with the No. 18 overall pick.
Drafted by the Colts in 1996, Harrison became 1998 first overall pick Peyton Manning's favorite target. The eight-time Pro Bowl wideout had a streak of eight straight seasons with at least 1,100 receiving yards in his 13-year career. He ranks fifth all time in receptions, ninth in receiving yards and fifth in receiving touchdowns. Guard Randall McDaniel, drafted by the Vikings in 1988, was the only other post-merger Hall of Famer taken in the 19th spot.
Part of the Rams' Fearsome Foursome, Youngblood was drafted 20th in 1971 out of Florida. The Hall of Fame defensive end made seven Pro Bowls and was a five-time All-Pro over 14 seasons.
Moss dropped to the 21st pick in the 1998 draft due to character concerns, much to the Vikings' benefit. He paired with Cris Carter in one of the league's most exciting offenses and was named Offensive Rookie of the Year. Over 14 NFL seasons, Moss made six Pro Bowls and was a four-time All-Pro. He led the league in receiving touchdowns five times.
The No. 22 pick hasn't produced a Hall of Famer since the 1970 draft, but many excellent players were selected in the spot. Rison made five Pro Bowls after being taken in the 1989 draft by the Colts. He was traded to Atlanta after only one season in Indianapolis. He also played for Cleveland, Green Bay, Jacksonville, Kansas City and Oakland. Demaryius Thomas, Jack Reynolds, Harris Barton and Hanford Dixon are among other excellent players selected No. 22 overall.
One of three Hall of Famers drafted 23rd, Newsome played 13 seasons at tight end for Cleveland after being drafted in 1978 out of Alabama. He also made his mark as GM of the Baltimore Ravens, leading the team to two Super Bowls during a tenure that ended after the 2018 season. The other HOFers drafted 23rd are punter Ray Guy and 2019 inductee Ty Law, a cornerback.
Rodgers continues to make his mark as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. After sliding to 24th in the 2005 draft, Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre for three seasons before emerging as an elite player. He has won two MVPs and one Super Bowl with the Packers. 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Ed Reed, a safety, also was drafted 24th.
No 25th overall pick has made the Hall of Fame since the 1970 draft. Four-time Pro Bowler Ted Washington leads the list of players taken there. The giant nose tackle plugged up the run over 17 seasons after being drafted by the 49ers in 1991. He also played for the Broncos, Bills, Patriots, Raiders, Bears and Browns.
Lewis may be the greatest linebacker in NFL history. Drafted 26th in 1996 by the Ravens, he won two Super Bowls, made 13 Pro Bowls and was a seven-time All-Pro in 17 seasons. Guard Joe DeLamielleure is the only other Hall of Famer drafted No. 26 since 1970.
Marino dropped to 27th overall to Miami in the historic 1983 draft that included six quarterbacks in the first round. He failed to win a Super Bowl but won Rookie of the Year and MVP and was named to nine Pro Bowls over 17 seasons with the Dolphins.
Brooks experienced plenty of highs and lows with the Bucs after the franchise selected him in 1995. The Bucs lost a lot early in his career, but Tampa Bay won a Super Bowl in 2002 with Brooks leading the defense. He won the Defensive Player of the Year that season and made 11 Pro Bowls over his 14-year career in Tampa.
The NFL expanded to 29 picks in the first round in 1993, so it's not shocking that a Hall of Famer has never been drafted out of that spot. Productive players have been drafted 29th, including former Jets center Nick Mangold (2006). He was a seven-time Pro Bowler in 11 seasons with the Jets and has a shot at Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Drafted with the 30th pick in the first round by the Colts in 2001, Wayne joined Marvin Harrison in one of the greatest wide receiver tandems in league history. During Wayne's 14-year career, he made six Pro Bowls and ranks 10th all time in receptions and receiving yards.
The 31st pick in the first round was added in 1999 with the return of the Cleveland Browns franchise. Good players have been drafted in the spot, including three-time Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, taken by the Bears in 2007. Other solid players drafted with the pick include Al Wilson, Nnamdi Asomugha and Cameron Heyward.
The 32nd pick was added when the Houston Texans joined the league in 2002. Former Patriots and Bucs guard Logan Mankins, drafted in 2005, has the biggest quantity of career accolades from that spot with seven Pro Bowls during his 11-year career. However, 2018 32nd overall draft choice Lamar Jackson is already on his tail as the best 32nd overall pick ever, winning the NFL MVP in 2019.