Every NFL fan that has ever watched their favorite team struggle has uttered these words in frustration: “I’d rather them just lose them all and get the 1st draft pick.” We all remember the “suck for Luck” campaign, as teams were competing to lose more to draft pro prospect Andrew Luck in 2012.
It’s one of the great geniuses of the draft system. It’s the greatest consolation prize in all of sports. It’s that hidden gem of hope fans can dig for to keep them watching their team even as they get clobbered (sooner or later, it happens to everyone). Or is it?
Recently, statisticians have said that given the history of the NFL draft, you’re just as likely to find a Pro-Bowler in the 7th round than you are in the 1st. That is to say, it doesn’t matter where you have a selection, only how many selections you have. The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks of this year are a fine example of that. They had 6 Pro Bowl players this year, only two of which were first rounders: Earl Thomas and Marshawn Lynch. Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman were both 5th round picks, Russell Wilson was selected in the 3rd round, and Max Unger was a 2nd round selection.
Despite all that, the fanfare that comes along with the 1st overall pick is often so great that fans almost learn to fear it as much as they love it. Like Charlie finding the golden ticket into the chocolate factory, it’s a rare treasure that holds much promise but could go terribly wrong. (Cough, JaMarcus Russell, cough)
This might surprise you, but there are four teams in NFL history that have never had the 1st overall draft pick: the Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens, and Denver Broncos. Three of those four teams are expansion teams, so they’ve had fewer go’s at it, but Denver’s the surprising one on that list, having been around since 1960. They’ve had some bad teams over the years, but never bad enough it would seem.
The following teams have been bad enough, several times as it were. There’s a whole lot of ties for amount of #1 picks here, but we’ve got to pick someone. So if your team sucked enough to get on this list, but we didn’t have enough spots then I’m sorry. Or congratulations. Or whatever.
10. Cincinnati Bengals — 3 First Overall Picks
Ah, the Browns 2.0 and their stripey helmets. Yes, the other pumpkin-headed Ohio team is yet another spawn of the convoluted Cleveland Browns history. The uniforms are so similar because the creator of the Bengals, a man by the name of Paul Brown (whom the Browns are named after) wanted to basically recreate the franchise after he was fired as coach of the Browns in 1963. Since 1970 they’ve had three #1 overall picks, one of which they traded for from the Carolina Panthers. All of the picks ended badly, sooner or later. The first two in 1994 and 1995 were Dan Wilkinson, a DT who only played 3 years with the team and never made the Pro Bowl, and Ki-Jana Carter, a bust who from his rookie season was beleaguered by injuries and never really produced.
The third? a USC Heisman Trophy winning quarterback by the name of Carson Palmer. A great talent, who had a few shining years for the Bengals from 2005-2007, Palmer would eventually become so frustrated with the franchise that he simply refused to play, ‘retiring’ (though everyone knew it was just a leverage ploy) until he was eventually traded to the Oakland Raiders–a trade that gave the Bengals a first and second round pick for the ageing QB. (Wow Raiders, wow.) So in that sense, I guess the 2003 pick worked out in the long run. It’s not a huge coincidence that right now the Bengals are a team laden with talent at all positions and the Raiders are a skeleton crew devoid of much talent and any depth.
9. San Francisco 49ers — 3 First Overall Picks
Somewhere in between winning five championships over two decades with all-universe names like Jerry Rice, Joe Montana and Steve Young, and the powerhouse talent-laden perennial Super Bowl contenders they are now, they managed to squeeze in three first overall picks. Kind of crazy when you think about it, given how many bad teams there are that only ever had one 1st overall pick or less.
The first two picks were in 1953 and 1964, a pair of wide receivers named Harry Babcock and Dave Parks, respectively. Parks was a Pro Bowl wide out but only played a few seasons for the 49ers before moving on to the Saints. The third pick they had you probably already know, a highly touted college QB named Alex Smith. We all know how that story went. He spent a decade struggling to find much success under a multitude of different coaching staffs in San Fran before Jim Harbaugh came and spun Smith into gold. As any NFL fan also knows, his success would be shortchanged by a concussion that gave 2nd round pick Colin Kaepernick an opportunity to win the job, which he wasted no time doing. Alex Smith went to Kansas City where he continues to be a deadly decision-maker. Time will tell if that fated QB change will be one the red and gold regret.
8. Arizona Cardinals — 4 First Overall Picks
What’s that you say? You don’t remember the Arizona Cardinals having a 1st overall pick? That’s because they didn’t, the Chicago/St. Louis Cardinals did. Yep, were digging out some old tomes here. The four picks came between the years of 1939-1958. The franchise didn’t even move to Arizona until 1988. They did however see a Super Bowl in 2008 behind the masterful performances of Kurt Warner. As for the draft picks, they picked Ki Aldrich in 1939, a Pro Bowl center out of TCU, a RB named George Cafego in 1940, another halfback in 1945 named Charley Trippi who is actually a NFL Hall of Famer, and a QB named King Hill from Rice university in 1958.
7. Buffalo Bills — 4 First Overall Picks
It’s hard to talk about the Buffalo Bills and #1 picks without mentioning the first of their four picks, an infamous game-changing running back named Orenthal James Simpson. Yes, O.J. Simpson was a first overall pick, and to anyone who knows football history, an incredible talent who dominated the football field. He ran for over 10,000 yards in 9 years for Buffalo, amassed 75 total touchdowns, and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. He also was the face of the most controversial football scandal in history as a suspect for the murder of his family in a trial the whole country seemed to be embroiled in. He was eventually acquitted to even more controversy, having already been convicted in the court of public opinion.
Aside from O.J., the other three 1st overall picks were Walt Patulksi, a defensive end who only spent three years with the team, drafted in 1972; Tom Cousineau, a disaster of a linebacker drafted in 1979 who never played a single game for the Bills, instead going to the CFL for more money; and Bruce Smith, a DE drafted in 1985 who would go on to be a Hall of Famer.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — 4 First Overall Picks
The lone western Florida team does in fact have four 1st picks, and they picked some good ones, but most of them ended disastrously. The first pick was Lee Roy Selmon, a six-time Pro Bowl Hall of Fame defensive end drafted in 1976. The second didn’t pan out either, a running back named Ricky Bell drafted the very next year. Then in 1986 came the legendary sports icon, Bo Jackson. Bo’s relationship with Tampa Bay became contentious early on when his interview with the team prevented him from playing college baseball which he dearly loved. He vowed he’d never play for Tampa, and sure enough despite being picked 1st overall he instead chose to play baseball as a 4th round pick of the Kansas City Royals. The Buccaneers never traded his rights, and essentially it was a lost pick, one of the most disastrous in their history. Their fourth pick also soured. The next year, 1987 they selected QB Vinny Testaverde. He would flourish late in his career, but struggled mightily over his years in Tampa Bay.
5. Atlanta Falcons — 4 First Overall Picks
It seems like almost every team has had a controversial 1st overall pick. The Falcons certainly did. The most recent of their four picks was in 2001 when they selected a lightning fast dual threat QB named Michael Vick. Basically everyone in America knows what happened here. Michael achieved early success but was criticized heavily for a lack of focus and little desire to improve. His lifestyle off the field was tumultuous, and he would eventually be convicted for an illegal dog fighting ring and sentenced to 21 months in prison. He later would revive his career, but not for the Falcons. The other three picks were Tommy Nobis, a five-time Pro Bowl DE drafted in 1967, Steve Bartkowski, a Pro Bowl QB drafted in 1975, and linebacker Aundray Bruce, a bust of a pick that only played for the team for three years after being drafted in 1988.
4. Detroit Lions — 4 First Overall Picks
The Detroit Lions are certainly known for their, um, failures as a franchise. But as it were, their 1st overall picks thus far have actually been pretty good. The only questionable one was Frank Sinkwich in 1943. This halfback/quarterback tried to enlist in the military despite being selected by the Lions, but later would play for them for two years after a medical discharge. He later would join the armed forces. A different time, folks.
Leon Hart was drafted 1st overall by the Lions in 1950 as a WR-end. He was a Heisman Trophy winner and would go to the Pro Bowl in 1951. In 1980 they Drafted Billy Sims 1st, a Heisman winner, a 3-time Pro Bowler and the Rookie of the Year in 1980. And finally, the gunslinger we know so well, cannon-armed Matthew Stafford. The jury is definitely out on Stafford, having been drafted 1st overall in 2009, but despite needing some polishing he certainly has produced like a gangbuster statistically. A bit careless with the ball, if he can hone his decision making he will truly become great.
3. New England Patriots — 5 First Overall Picks
Yes, the Tom Brady-led powerhouse team was for a long time a miserable franchise in the football world. The 5 picks have a bit of an asterisk attached to them, since the first pick they had was actually an AFL draft in 1964 when they were the Boston Patriots. That pick was Jack Concannon, QB out of Boston College.
Their first real pick was a success, but not for the Patriots. Jim Plunkett was selected first in 1971, but didn’t perform well with New England. He later would be traded and go on to win two Super Bowls with the Oakland Raiders. Next up was Kenneth Sims, a DE selected first in 1982, who was a certifiable bust. The 1984 1st overall pick, WR Irving Fryar was a five-time Pro Bowler but only once while he played for the Pats. The next pick was truly a very talented player who the Pats couldn’t be happier they selected. . . for a very strange reason. The best thing 1993 1st overall pick, QB Drew Bledsoe ever did for the Patriots was get hurt by Mo Lewis in a game against the Jets–and open the door for young sixth round, 199th pick named Tom Brady. The franchise, and football history, would never be the same afterwards. Bledsoe later famously said “Tom never really got the concept of ‘back-up'”.
2. St. Louis Rams — 6 First Overall Picks
With the first pick in the 1938 NFL draft, the Cleveland Rams select Corbett Davis, fullback, Nebraska. You read that right, they were once the Cleveland Rams. The next three came as the Los Angeles Rams, QB Bill Wade in 1952, RB Billy Cannon in 1960, and QB Terry Baker in 1963. The next chance they’d have would be as the now St. Louis Rams in 1997, where they selected a Tackle, Orlando Pace out of Ohio State. This is the first player of all of these 1st overall picks mentioned so far that won a Super Bowl with the team that drafted him. He also was a seven-time Pro Bowler. To think some fans believe offensive linemen are boring picks.
The last of the Rams’ six picks you may know: QB Sam Bradford, 2010. Despite winning Rookie of the Year that year, Bradford’s career is best known for his injuries, and having cashed in like no other rookie in football history. His was the last contract before the new CBA scaled down rookie contracts that were just getting out of control. Bradford’s rookie contract is six years, worth a maximum of $86,000,000. This absurd number is aggrandized by the reality of Bradford’s lack of production, and the success of young QB’s that have come in following years making a fraction of his contract. Perhaps he can pull an Alex Smith and flourish later in his career. For St. Louis fans, one can only hope.
1. Indianapolis Colts — 7 First Overall Picks
File it under ‘you can’t make this up’ that the luckiest franchise in Football history’s symbol is a horseshoe. I mean, come on. It’s like they knew. Look at this nonsense:
1955, QB George Shaw. He would break his leg and be replaced by football legend Johnny Unitas. They’d win a Super Bowl with him at the helm in 1970.
1967, Pro Bowl DE Bubba Smith, key piece helping them win aforementioned 1970 Super Bowl.
1983, they draft John Elway. He’d be traded to the Denver Broncos, but just the fact that they had the 1st overall pick the year Elway declared, and that it played out the way it did is incredible stroke of luck given their history.
1998, Peyton Manning, QB, Tennessee. A billion Pro Bowls. Super bowl XLI. Changed the game. Enough said.
2012, Peyton is sidelined by a neck injury the previous year, they select once-in-a-generation prospect Andrew Luck. Already has two Pro Bowls and more comeback victories than you’d believe.
In between those picks they had two non-superstars, 1990 QB Jeff George and 1992 DT Steve Emtman. One could argue the John Elway situation was bad luck, but the fact they had the opportunity to get him is just crazy. In a way, it’s lucky he did demand to be traded given it would later lead to them getting Peyton and Luck. However you slice it, this franchise is either the most blessed in NFL history, or maybe, if it somehow was all planned, the home to the most genius masterminds sports has ever seen.