No professional sports draft process is an exact science. If it was, every team that possessed a No. 1 overall selection would hit on that pick every year. That’s not always the case, of course, and when it isn’t, an elite player falls to the team that is sitting second in the draft order.
Super Bowl champions. Most Valuable Players. Hall-of-Famers. All-time greats and real gems have been found with second overall picks in NFL Drafts. Here are the 10 best of all time.
10. Donovan McNabb – QB – Philadelphia Eagles – 1999
Boy, did McNabb dodge a bullet way back when. The Cleveland Browns, going through a restart after Art Modell shocked the football world and moved the team to Baltimore, chose Couch over McNabb in the ’99 draft. Couch suffered while playing on some of the worst NFL squads ever assembled, and McNabb flourished in Philly.
He led the Eagles to multiple Conference Championship games, and he played a major role in the franchise making its second ever Super Bowl appearance (Super Bowl XXXIX). Sure, that night did not go well for player or for team, but McNabb absolutely deserves credit for the Eagles being contenders for the better part of a decade. Denying that would be revisionist history.
9. Calvin Johnson – WR – Detroit Lions – 2007
Johnson lands here in this list mainly because we don’t yet know how he will be remembered when all is said and done. There are two things I can confidently say: That Johnson will probably rise on this list before he calls time on his playing career, and that the Raiders would, if they could go back, choose Johnson over Jamarcus Russell every day of the week.
Megatron is already in the top-50 in all-time NFL total receiving yards. He has been an All-Pro in each of the past three seasons. Johnson is today the best wide receiver in the game. At just 28 years old, his future remains bright.
8. Randy White – LB – Dallas Cowboys – 1975
White didn’t find his NFL legs right away. He made just one start in his first two years in the league. White eventually settled in on the Dallas defensive front, where he made an immediate impact beginning in ’77. White recovered two fumbles in his first season as a defensive tackle, and he was named the Super Bowl XII Co-MVP. The following season, White won the NFC Defensive Player of the Year Award.
White was named to every Pro Bowl squad from 1977-85. He was a seven-time All-Pro. While not the most dynamic play-maker in the game, he was the model of consistency, a cornerstone of a championship defensive line.
7. Tom Mack – OG – Los Angeles Rams – 1966
Mack earned a starting gig with the Los Angeles Rams in his rookie campaign, but he truly started showing his greatness beginning in his second season in the league. It was from there that he was named to 11 Pro Bowl teams. He was a four-time first-team All-Pro selection, a prototypical left guard who is largely forgotten only because he played at such an un-sexy position.
Mack’s most important trait was his durability. Once given a shot in his first campaign, Mack didn’t miss one of 184 straight games. That’s remarkable considering his size, and also the fact that he played in the trenches for so many years. Mack had to wait until ’99 to be voted into the Hall of Fame, an honor that he so richly deserved.
6. Marshall Faulk – RB – Indianapolis Colts – 1994
Faulk began his NFL career with the Indianapolis Colts, where he won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in ’94. While he did enjoy much personal success during his five years in Indy, his best days came as a part of the “Greatest Show on Turf” with the St. Louis Rams.
In ’99, his first season with his new club, Faulk set what was, at the time, the record for yards from scrimmage (2,429). Faulk then set a record the following year when he scored 26 touchdowns. He went for over 2,100 yards from scrimmage in each season from 1998-2001, the first player to accomplish that feat in four straight campaigns. Faulk, who is sixth all-time in all-purpose yards, was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
5. Joe Namath – QB – New York Jets – 1965 (AFL Draft)
There will, so long as there are football analysts and passionate fans who love to talk about the game, be discussions about Namath‘s place in history. Broadway Joe twice led the AFL in passing yards (1966-67), and he won the 1974 NFL AP Comeback Player of the Year Award. That said, he is never mentioned as being among the elite QBs in NFL history, and for good reason.
That said, I am one in the crowd who believes the Jets backing Namath’s “guarantee” that Gang Green would win Super Bowl III is one of the best moments in the history of pro football, even if he was far from great in the actual game. The vision of Namath running off of the field while flashing the non-profane No. 1 finger is an all-time iconic image, and he will forever be a New York sports legend.
4. Y.A. Tittle – QB – San Francisco 49ers – 1951
Pro football was a very different game back when Tittle led the AAFC in pass attempts with 289 in 1949. That would amount to a slow half-a-season for the likes of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees these days. Tittle was one of the best in the business when in his prime, winning the NFL MVP Award each season from 1961-1963. He was named to seven Pro Bowl squads from 1953-1963, and he thrice earned All-Pro nods.
Of all of the reasons history will remember Tittle, one is an example of sports sometimes being cruel. He is one of the best players in football history to never win an NFL championship. That fact didn’t keep the New York Giants from retiring his number, nor did it keep him out of Canton.
3. Tony Dorsett – RB – Dallas Cowboys – 1977
Dorsett, a member of the 1994 Hall of Fame class, followed a Heisman Trophy year by winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award with the Dallas Cowboys in ’77. He would go on to rush for over 1,000 yards in eight of his first nine seasons, and the only thing that ruined his streak was the 1982 players’ strike. Only seven men have more career NFL rushing yards than did Dorsett, who twice made appearances in Super Bowl contests.
Outside of his first season in the league, personal accolades eluded Dorsett. He never once won a league rushing title. He was never MVP. None of that takes away from the fact that Dorsett was an all-time great, a consistent weapon out of the backfield who averaged over four yards per carry throughout his 12-season career.
2. Eric Dickerson – RB – Los Angeles Rams – 1983
The NFL running backs record book should probably be renamed “Dickerson‘s Stats.” He wasted no time in making history, setting rookie records for most rushing yards, most rushing touchdowns in a single season, and rushing attempts in a season.
The LA Rams running back was only getting started.
He set the all-time NFL season record for most rushing yards in 1984. Dickerson went on to become the first player in the history of the league to gain at least 1,000 rushing yards in seven straight years. A five-time All-Pro, Dickerson ended his career seventh on the all-time rushing list. He netted over 15,000 yards from scrimmage.
He didn’t enjoy no. 1 pick John Elway‘s postseason successes, but Dickerson’s resume speaks for itself.
1. Lawrence Taylor – LB – New York Giants – 1981
I have to admit that I am a bit biased in that I grew up rooting for the New York Giants. That said, Big Blue supporters are hardly the only individuals out there who view Taylor as the greatest to ever play the linebacker position, or even the greatest defensive player in the history of the NFL.
Taylor was a star from his first year in the league, winning AP Defensive Player of the Year and Rookies of the Year honors. He was an All-Pro in eight of his first nine pro seasons. Taylor is tenth all-time in career sacks, and he was a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.
As great as Taylor was, he could have been even more had he avoided his off-the-field demons. His addictive personality didn’t keep him from winning multiple Super Bowl rings, but one can’t help but wonder what could have been.