The pressure placed on the first overall pick of any NFL Draft is extraordinary. That player is expected to immediately become one of the faces of the franchise that grabbed him, and, in some cases, he is deemed by fans and analysts as a team savior. Regardless of the position that he plays, anybody selected first in any draft who doesn’t evolve into a perennial All-Pro is viewed as being a bust, somebody not worthy of such a high pick.
The subject of NFL Draft busts is brought up so frequently each and every spring that it’s easy to forget that plenty of teams have hit the jackpot on first overall picks. Hall-of-Fame players that featured on either side of the football have been taken No. 1 overall. Two such players who won Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Awards never played a down for the team that selected them.
One of those players kicks this list off.
Note: Years with both AFL and NFL drafts were not included.
10. Eli Manning – QB – San Diego Chargers 2004
The San Diego Chargers knew what they were doing when they drafted a quarterback who had made it clear that he did not want to play for the club. San Diego selected Eli Manning with the plan that the team would obtain a solid QB – Philip Rivers – and also multiple draft picks from the New York Giants. That is exactly what happened, and the Chargers enjoyed some super seasons because of that draft class.
Manning, meanwhile, has twice been named Super Bowl MVP.
Observers of the game will likely always have varying opinions on Manning. The scoreboard, not to mention Manning’s trophy case, tell all you really need to know about his value. Manning will, when the day comes, retire as the greatest quarterback in the history of the Giants, and he could be one championship away from being a future Hall-of-Famer.
9. John Elway – QB – Baltimore Colts 1983
I went back and forth when ranking John Elway. The Baltimore Colts were clearly spot on in their evaluations of the Stanford product. Elway broke Cleveland hearts in conference title games on multiple occasions, he was named to nine Pro Bowl squads, and he also won two Super Bowls.
Elway never played a down for Baltimore, though, and the Colts didn’t have a plan as did the Chargers in ’04.
The Colts didn’t get a franchise quarterback three decades ago. Baltimore lost the team to Indianapolis and Elway had a Hall of Fame career with the Broncos. He was absolutely worth the No. 1 pick, just not for the team that selected him.
8. Ron Yary – OT – Minnesota Vikings 1968
The offensive tackle won a starting job with the Minnesota Vikings in his second year in the league. From there, he was, while in his prime, one of the best in the business. Yary was named to the All-NFC team each year from 1970 to 1977. He only twice missed games due to injuries in his 14 professional seasons.
It is, these days, a widely held belief that the first overall pick of any draft should be used on a play-maker. Yary was the exception to that rule. He was rightfully named to the Hall of Fame as a member of the 2001 class.
7. Lee Roy Selmon – DE – Tamp Bay Buccaneers 1976
Lee Roy Selmon will forever go down as one of the best draft picks ever made by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The defensive end made an immediate impact with the team, being named Tampa Bay’s Rookie of the Year in ’76. Selmon only got better as the years went on. He was named to every NFC Pro Bowl squad from 1979 through 1984.
Perhaps most astonishing about Selmon’s career was that he was affected by injuries throughout his playing days. He may, had he eluded such problems, have been an even greater force in the NFL. That’s saying something considering that Selmon is enshrined in Canton.
6. Bruce Smith – DE – Buffalo Bills 1985
I was born two years before the Buffalo Bills drafted Bruce Smith, and thus I grew up having the pleasure of watching the best defensive end of his generation and one of the greatest pass rushers to ever play the game. His 200 career sacks remains the most in NFL history. Smith had 13 seasons with at least 10 sacks, another NFL record. He won AFC Defensive Player of the Year honors on four occasions.
Smith is the prototypical pass-rushing defensive end, one with the perfect amount of athleticism and power. That he never won a championship with those Bills teams is close to criminal. There literally may never be another able to play the position as did Smith.
5. Troy Aikman – QB – Dallas Cowboys 1989
Troy Aikman‘s NFL career didn’t begin as he had probably planned. The Cowboys won a single game in ’89. Aikman improved along with the roster of the Cowboys and Dallas would eventually evolve into the team of the 90s.
No quarterback has notched more wins in a single decade than did Aikman in the 90s (90, as history would have it). It would be easy to dismiss Aikman as merely being a QB picked by fortune to play on some of the top football rosters ever assembled. Doing so would also be foolish, as much of Dallas’ success two decades ago was because of the man leading those offenses.
4. Terry Bradshaw – QB – Pittsburgh Steelers 1970
Terry Bradshaw, like Aikman, was not a hit right out of the gates. Also like Aikman, Bradshaw dramatically improved. The resume of Bradshaw reads like one belonging to a Hall of Fame quarterback, which is exactly what Bradshaw became in the mid-70s.
Bradshaw led the Steelers to four Super Bowl championships from 1974 to 1979. He was named the MVP in two of those contests. The Steelers, one of the most-successful NFL franchises to exist, have his number retired. Bradshaw was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.
3. Earl Campbell – RB – Houston Oilers 1978
Unlike Bradshaw and Aikman, Earl Campbell was a hit right from the very start of his professional football career. Campbell won both Rookie of the Year and the NFL MVP Awards in his first pro season, leading the league in rushing in ’78 with 1,450 yards. Campbell would go on to lead the NFL in rushing in the next two seasons, and he was named to five Pro Bowl squads in his first six seasons.
Campbell is, for me, the best “power back” to ever play in the NFL. He doesn’t get nearly enough love from fans and from analysts when you consider the numbers that he produced and also the beatings that he sustained (and handed out to would-be tacklers). Campbell remains the greatest player in the history of the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans franchise.
2. Peyton Manning – QB – Indianapolis Colts 1998
Critics of Peyton Manning are quick to point out his lackluster postseason record, and the fact that he has only won one Super Bowl. Big whoop. Manning will, the day that he retires, go down as the best regular season quarterback in NFL history. Some will see him as the best to ever play the position.
Imagine, if you will, a fictional world in which Manning was a decade older, and that it was he and not Aikman that was drafted by the Cowboys in ’89. Manning would possess several Super Bowl rings, he would, as he will in real life, have been a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, and there would be zero questions about his legacy.
There shouldn’t be any to begin with.
1. O.J. Simpson – RB – Buffalo Bills 1969
This is a football piece, not one about the personal lives or after-career activities of the athletes involved. Jim Brown is, in my eyes, the best running back to ever play the position. A close second is O.J. Simpson, and I have been told by multiple people who have watched both play live that my order should be reversed.
Named NFL Player of the Year in three seasons. A four-time league rushing champion. An All-Pro for five straight years. Simpson won’t be remembered for what he achieved in games, and that truly is a shame for many, many reasons.