Top 5 Best First Overall Draft Choices Since 2000

In 2012, columnist Bo Mitchell of SportingNews.com, wrote a piece that highlighted the chance first-round picks would make the Pro Bowl. He cited that from 2002-2012, only 31% made at least one Pro Bowl. That number dropped to 17% when it came to multiple Pro Bowls. Yet, the most surprising statistic was this: From 2002 - 2012, only five out of 10 first overall picks made at least one Pro Bowl.

Out of the players listed here, only quarterback Matthew Stafford failed to be selected to a Pro Bowl. So what do these statistics say about first round picks, especially first overall picks? It likely says something we already knew. It’s difficult for scouts to gauge how successful players will be at the pro level.

The stars listed here beat those odds. Most have made Pro Bowls and even one hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Their consistency helped them become the centerpieces of their individual units. These players either pushed their team to the top of the NFL or at least to the forefront of water-cooler talks on Monday mornings. 

Further, teammates, fans and communities look up to these top selections. Unlike other draft picks, these players are unlikely to bring their franchises crashing to the ground. It just isn’t in their makeup.

Usually, your team never wants to earn the number one overall pick. In most cases, that means you, as a fan, had to endure a horrible season the year before; however, if you were to pick number one overall during this time, these are the players you would want on your team.

5 Matthew Stafford, QB, Drafted in 2009 by the Detroit Lions

Before arguing a case for Stafford, we should address the 6 foot 5 inch, 236 pound elephant in the room, Calvin Johnson. Likely, we all agree Johnson has helped Stafford succeed. Since 2011, the quarterback has thrown 32 out of his 90 touchdown passes to the future Hall-of-Fame receiver, and in 2011, tossed 1,681 of his 5,000 total passing yards his way. Some quarterbacks make receivers look great. Calvin Johnson is the one player who can make quarterbacks look like Pro Bowlers.

So yes, maybe Stafford’s stock would drop without Johnson, but we don’t know that, and I’m not here to turn back the clock and make predictions. So, we must judge Stafford on his current body of work. In 2009, he helped turn around a Lions’ franchise that had fallen straight into the doldrums of hell the previous season. The year before, the Lions became the first team to finish 0-16 and just the second team in the modern NFL to lose every regular season game. The Georgia product is more of an answer for the Lions than a problem, but moving forward, the franchise must build a more disciplined team around him.

4 Jake Long, OL, Drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 2008

As a former first overall pick, Jake Long has performed much better than his fellow colleague and quarterback Sam Bradford. We might even agree the locker room of his former team, the Dolphins, fell into disarray after he departed in free agency. 

Long’s positive influence on a locker room is as large and significant as his massive body frame.  In recent seasons, his only problem has been staying healthy, which has cut into his playing time and performance level. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Long ranked 47th out of 75 tackles in 2012, by far his worst season, but fared much better in previous seasons with the Dolphins.

While injuries have slowed the 28-year old, he still tops out as a great pick by Miami. Since 1970, Long is only the fourth number one overall selection to be selected to a Pro Bowl following his rookie season. Further, he’s been selected to the Pro Bowl three out of his five years in the league. Long also helped lead the Dolphins to an AFC East crown in 2008 and paved the way for the NFL’s fourth ranked rushing attack in 2009.

3 Cam Newton, QB, Drafted in 2011 by the Carolina Panthers

As it stands, Cam Newton is the most talented and skilled first overall quarterback since 2000. Since that time, he has shown he has much more upside than any first overall quarterback drafted who is currently or not currently playing. Some may argue he has more support around him than those other quarterbacks, like a stable franchise, a top defense and the NFL's Coach of the Year. Regardless, Carolina’s signal caller is responsible for a large part of his franchise’s resurgence.  

Newton has rejuvenated the Panthers and a fan base who watched a 2-14 season unfold a mere four seasons ago. Prior to last season, many questioned his leadership skills because of the team’s poor records. In 2011, the Panthers went 6-10 and in 2012 finished 7-9. Prior to being drafted, analysts such as Mike Mayock predicted Newton would be “content to be a multi-millionaire who’s pretty good” and remarked, “I think the kid is smart enough…I just don’t know if he cares enough.”

Since then, I’m sure Mayock has stopped calling him “kid” and used his real name. Newton was actually more impressive in his first three years on the job than a certain Manning brother was during that same time frame. In his first three years, Eli Manning’s quarterback rating stood at 55.4, 75.9 and 77.0 and Newton’s was 84.5, 86.2 and 88.8. 

2 Mario Williams, DL, Drafted in 2006 by the Houston Texans

It’s never easy being the first player selected, but that is especially true for Mario Williams, out of North Carolina State, who was questioned and scrutinized coming out of the 2006 draft.

Williams’ draft class included Heisman Trophy winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, as well as national title winning quarterback Vince Young. Analysts favored Bush to go first overall, so many criticized the Texans when they selected Williams. The St. Louis Post- Dispatch said the team's decision could go down as the “dumbest move in the history of the NFL draft.”

Nine years later, these papers probably wish their stories never went to press. Because the NFL had not established its rookie-wage scale at the time, we can better judge Williams by his most recent contract. In March 2012, the Bills signed Williams to a six year, $96 million contract, which he has justified. In two seasons with the team, he’s recorded 23.5 sacks and is a key cog on the Bills’ potent defensive line.

The other draft picks mentioned had a tough go-around at the pro-level. Bush has been productive, but never lived up to his hype, and most consider Vince Young and Matt Leinart to be busts. Now, is it fair to grade Williams by also comparing him to busts who almost took his place in the draft? I believe it’s part of the discussion, but the defensive lineman has also done enough to warrant his place on this top five list.

1 Eli Manning, QB, Drafted in 2004 by the San Diego Chargers (Traded to the Giants).

Last season while his brother Peyton was working his way toward the NFL’s record book, Eli was working his way toward his own record book. That is, Eli was completing one of his worst statistical seasons to date. He finished the year with a 36.5 QBR, 69.4 quarterback rating, 18 touchdowns and 27 interceptions. In all, it was a forgettable year for the two-time Super Bowl champion.

Wait, did I say two-time Super Bowl champion? That’s right, I did. While Peyton may own the breathtaking statistics, his brother carries around more Super Bowl rings, and that is why Eli ranks first on this top five list. Some may even put him ahead of his older brother who the Colts chose first overall in 1998. Since 1990, former Cowboys' defensive tackle Russell Maryland is the only other, first-overall selection to own more than one Super Bowl ring.

While at Ole Miss, Eli Manning set or tied 47 single-game, season and career records. His success prompted the Chargers to select him first overall, which he and his father oh-so politely turned down. Actually, through his agent, Manning made it stubbornly clear he would not play for San Diego.

Manning and his father’s public denunciation of the Chargers put a large burden on the young quarterback’s shoulders, which he eventually shook off after his Super Bowl win against the Patriots in 2007/2008. He would later follow up the win with an encore performance during the 2011/2012 Super Bowl against New England.

While Manning’s career has been chiseled with peaks and valleys, his peaks have been taller than any first overall draft pick since 2000. More so, I can’t remember the last time a rookie had enough moxie to force a trade on draft day and enough skill to back up his decision on the field.

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