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Best Number One Pick for Every Team in NFL Draft History

The 2021 NFL draft is approaching and the Jacksonville Jaguars are on the clock. For the first time in the team’s short history, the Jags own the league’s first overall pick in the selection process.

It is the consensus of most that Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence will be this year’s number one pick and will take over at quarterback in Jacksonville. If the Jaguars in fact draft Lawrence he will either become an instant starter or prepare to be behind veteran Gardner Minshew if the latter is brought back again by new head coach Urban Meyer.

It remains to be seen if Jacksonville hits a home run with their number one pick but their track record for first-round selections is poor. Who has been their best first-round pick in history? Let’s go a step further and pose the question, “who has been every team’s best football player in history chosen in the first round? I will provide you with whom I think all 32 team’s best first-round pick has been and there are some extremely difficult choices.

I’ll give my choices team-by-team and do so alphabetically. The list begins with the Atlanta Falcons and ends with the Washington Redskins, now known as The Washington Football Team.

Jump to team:

Atlanta Falcons

The city of Atlanta landed an NFL franchise in 1966 and their very first #1 was to no surprise a quarterback named Randy Johnson out of Texas A&I University. After going through many drafts of picking QBs, it wasn’t until 2001 when the Falcons drafted the dangerous Michael Vick that they had their first franchise quarterback. These days Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan has been at the helm since being drafted in 2008. Is Ryan the best #1 Atlanta has ever drafted? Perhaps Vick should get the nod. Neither I say. The best first-round pick the Falcons have ever made that paid huge dividends was drafting Julio Jones in 2011. Jones quickly became one of the best wide receivers in the league.

Honorable mentions: Tommy Nobis (1966). Nobis was also the league’s first pick overall. Claude Humphrey (1968), Bill Fralic (1985)

Arizona Cardinals

This team that now calls the west coast home began their franchise history in the city of Chicago before relocating to St. Louis and then to Arizona where they have been since. With an NFL start in 1936, the Cards are one of the league’s oldest teams. Maybe this man would have been the Cardinals’ greatest first-round pick ever, but in 1965 despite being drafted by St. Louis, Alabama’s Joe Namath chose the American Football League (AFL) instead and went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the New York Jets. The choice for best first-round draft choice for the Arizona Cardinals is rather an easy one. Future Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is that man and in 2004 he was the NFL’s third overall draft pick.

Honorable mentions: Charley Trippi (1945), Roger Wehrli (1969), Ottis Anderson (1979), Freddie Joe Nunn (1985), Eric Swann (1991), Garrison Hearst (1993)

Baltimore Ravens

As we look back on the Baltimore Ravens' first-round draft history it is important to keep in mind this team was the old Cleveland Browns before owner Art Modell moved them to Baltimore. After relocating, with their very first draft process, the Ravens had two spots in the first round and made the most of both. With the fourth overall pick, they drafted Jonathan Ogden who would become one of the best offensive tackles during his playing time in the NFL. Incredibly, their second pick in that opening round was not until the 26th overall and 25 other teams passed on a man named Ray Lewis. All Lewis would do is go out and have a Hall of Fame career and become one of the NFL’s greatest linebackers ever. The Ravens who have won two Super Bowls since their debut in Baltimore had had fantastic drafts including another Hall of Fame inductee, Ed Reed. He was a first-rounder in 2002. Todd Heap preceded him the year before. Two years before landing Reed, Baltimore found Jamal Lewis in the first round. From 2000 to 2006, the Baltimore Ravens drafted these first-rounders: Lewis, Heap, Reed, Kyle Boller, Terrell Suggs, Mark Clayton, and Haloti Ngata. In 2008 it would be Joe Flacco who came a year before the 23rd pick overall in 2009, Michael Oher. Then just three years ago it was current flashy quarterback Lamar Jackson. But best for Baltimore? Hands down Ray Lewis closely followed by Ed Reed.

Honorable Mentions: Duane Starks (1998), Chris McAlister (1999), Peter Boulware (1997), Jimmy Smith (2011), C.J. Mosley (2014)

Buffalo Bills

The Bills missed a chance to go to the Super Bowl this past season by losing to the Kansas City Chiefs. Buffalo will continue to seek that elusive Lombardi Trophy that escaped their grasp four times before when they made the big dance. Those four Super Bowl teams the Bills put together dominated the AFC during that time and if not for Scott Norwood, the city of Buffalo would have claimed an NFL title. The quarterback at the time was Jim Kelly. Kelly was the second of two first-round picks in 1983 taken after Buffalo also drafted Tony Hunter. Kelly was a part of a draft class that is considered to have brought the best group of quarterbacks to the NFL in one single draft process. Also taken in 1983 were John Elway, Dan Marino, and a few others who did not have quite the career the aforementioned did (Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien, Reggie Collier, Gary Kubiak). As for the Buffalo Bills' first-round draft history, they’ve had some great picks like Bruce Smith in 1985. But one of the greatest running backs in history who had a negative life following football was the “Juice.” O.J. Simpson came to Buffalo in 1969 as the best running back in college football. He was the first to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. Between Simpson, Kelly, and Bruce Smith, putting his off-the-field issues aside, O.J. would have to be the best number one pick in Buffalo history.

Honorable Mentions: Joe Delamielleure (1973), Nate Clements (2001), J.P. Losman (2004), Marshawn Lynch (2007), Marcell Dareus (2011), Stephon Gilmore (2012), and Josh Allen (2018)

Carolina Panthers

As an expansion team, the Carolina Panthers have been in the draft process only since 1995. Their first two picks that year did not pay dividends. They were Tyrone Poole and Blake Brockermeyer, although Kerry Collins was not a terrible quarterback also drafted in that first-round. The Panthers did find success as a team getting to a Super Bowl not once but twice unfortunately losing both in 2003 and 2015. The Panthers have had some outstanding #1s including Julius Peppers, Jonathan Stewart, Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, and Christian McCaffrey. Their best first-round pick would have to come from that group and for me, that would be Julius Peppers who has been a big-time defensive threat in rushing the passer.

Honorable Mentions: Dan Morgan (2001), Jordan Gross (2003), Chris Gamble (2004), DeAngelo Williams (2006), Jon Beason (2007), Kelvin Benjamin (2014)

Cincinnati Bengals

When not being called the “Bungals” the Cincinnati Bengals have assembled some pretty good teams. After all, they did make two Super Bowl appearances only to lose them both. Joe Burrow may very well one day be known as the best Bengals quarterback in history but for now, that honor belongs to Kenny Anderson. But Anderson was not a first-round draft pick. Carson Palmer was and he had a decent career. Ohio State’s Archie Griffin came to the Bengals with so much promise but was never able to reach that level as he was the 24th pick overall in 1976. A.J. Green was another successful first-round pick in 2011. But the best number one for Cincinnati has to be Anthony Munoz, perhaps the greatest offensive lineman in history.

Honorable Mentions: Dave Rimington (1983), Dan Wilkinson (1994), Ki-Jana Carter (1995), Takeo Spikes (1998), Levi Jones (2002), Tyler Eifert (2013)

Cleveland Browns

Before re-joining the NFL in 1999, the Cleveland Browns had some formidable years. The “new” Browns from 1999 until this year were a laughing stock of the league. This year, however, they made a triumphant return to the top of the NFL with some very good talent. But take a look at their history and the Browns at one time were consistently one of the top teams in the NFL. With their nickname as the “Browns”, one of their greatest players and most dominant players ever carried that name as his last name. Jim Brown is who we are talking about and the former running back ran like a freight train running over anyone in his path. With a draft history that got its start in 1950, seven years later Jim Brown came roaring out of Syracuse University and began steamrolling NFL opponents. Brown would only play nine seasons and then go after an acting career. But in 118 games throughout his career, he started in everyone and averaged a remarkable 104.3 yards rushing per game. He averaged nearly 12 touchdowns per season and in every season he played he had single runs of at least 65 yards or more minus 1961 and 1962 when his longest runs from scrimmage were 38 and 31 yards respectively. His longest run was for 80 yards in 1963. It would be very difficult to name a player drafted in the first round that was a better player than Jim Brown, so there is no need to even go there. He’s it.

Honorable Mentions: Paul Warfield (1964), Mike Pruitt (1976), Bernie Kosar (1985), Hanford Dixon (1981)

Chicago Bears

The Bears have one of the longest draft histories in the NFL given they are also one of the oldest teams. Beginning in 1936, Chicago has yet to find a replacement franchise quarterback for the legendary Sid Luckman. There have been tons of QBs along the way, but none have reached the level of being an elite quarterback. Current signal-caller Mitch Trubisky has been under the gun since being drafted as the second overall pick in 2018. Other quarterbacks drafted by Chicago that have not reached the level that other teams have seen with their stars were Rex Grossman, Cade McNown, Jim Harbaugh, Jim McMahon, Johnny Lujack, and Bobby Layne who would star out with the Detroit Lions instead. With that said, who are the best first-round picks for the Bears? How about Dick Butkus for starters in 1965? Just one of the greatest and meanest linebackers ever. That same year, the Bears drafted the great Gale Sayers. Brian Urlacher, a first-rounder in 2000 was considered one of the best linebackers of his time. There have been average players along the way before and after but for sure, this discussion would be narrowed down to Butkus or Sayers and since the late Sayers had his career cut short due to injuries, I believe the nod goes to Butkus.

Honorable Mentions: Dan Hampton (1979), Jimbo Covert (1983), Willie Gault (1983)

Dallas Cowboys

Tom Landry is well associated with the Dallas Cowboys given the fact he was their first head coach in history when they made their debut in 1961. Landry would be on the sidelines for the next 28 seasons. If not for the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty of the 1970s, the Cowboys probably would have been the best team in the NFL let alone becoming known as “America’s Team.” Landry built a powerhouse team that had some amazing star talent. The very first pick for Landry and the Cowboys was a defensive tackle from Texas Christian University (TCU) who would reach a high level of success in the NFL and he was Bob Lilly. A year later the first pick was a solid Lee Roy Jordan. Two years later the first good quarterback drafted by Dallas would be Craig Morton. Over the next 20-30 years, a slew of great players came along many of which would land in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The names roll of a football fan’s tongue...Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Duane Thomas, Calvin Hill, Tony Dorsett, Randy White, Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith. How does one choose the best of that group when they were that good? Smith is the NFL’s all-time rushing leader. Dorsett was a Barry Sanders type before Sanders came along with a little more flash. Troy Aikman is a multiple Super Bowl winner. Jones a force on defense as was Randy White. For me, it was athleticism that rules the day and for that, my choice would be Tony Dorsett.

Honorable Mentions: Billy Joe Dupree (1973), Larry Bethea (1978), Russell Maryland (1991), Terence Newman (2003), Dez Bryant (2010), Zack Martin (2014), Ezekiel Elliott (2016)

Denver Broncos

Think of the Denver Broncos and the first name that comes to mind is John Elway. Do we need to go on? Of course, for those who don’t know the back story on Elway’s drafting in 1983, he was picked by the Colts but refused to go there. So he made sure a trade was worked up so that he would be traded after Baltimore selected him. The rest is history on his Hall of Fame career. Is there any competition for him as the best #1 pick ever? Technically, he can’t be Denver’s best #1 ever because the Colts drafted him. So with that said, we have Floyd Little and Steve Atwater to consider and aside from those two, no others are worthy of being included in this conversation so the nod goes to Atwater.

Honorable Mentions: Riley Odoms (1972), Randy Gradishar (1974), Chris Hinton (1983), Tommy Maddox (1992), Jay Cutler (2006), Ryan Clady (2008), Tim Tebow (2010), Von Miller (2011)

Detroit Lions

In 2009 the Detroit Lions drafted Matthew Stafford out of the University of Georgia in the first round. In 2021, Stafford was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for another team’s #1, Jared Goff. The year before Stafford came aboard, Detroit’s number one pick in the first-round was Ndamukong Suh who has bounced around several teams since. The Lions have been drafting players since 1936 and early on in their history, they did win championships. But for the most part, they have been perennial losers. That’s a shame for perhaps their greatest first-round pick in history, Barry Sanders who never got to taste a deep run in the playoffs while he became one of the greatest running backs in history. Detroit has drafted some Hall of Fame-worthy players but they didn’t stay with the Lions. Otto Graham would be one of those who established his legacy in Cleveland. Another was Y.A. Tittle in 1948 who would go on to star with the Giants. But without question, the best first-rounder for the Detroit Lions hands down was Barry Sanders.

Honorable Mentions: Alex Karras (1958), Greg Landry (1968), John Hadl (1962), Billy Sims (1980), Robert Porcher (1992), Jeff Hartings (1996), Roy Williams (2004), Calvin Johnson (2007)

Green Bay Packers

Considered by many as the greatest franchise in NFL history, the Packers are also the only team publicly owned. Their legacy and past players and coaches are legendary. The Super Bowl trophy is named after one of their former coaches. Vince Lombardi’s teams of the 1960s were some of the greatest ever and like Bill Belichick today, he got the most out of the least in his players. To name all the great first-round picks by Green Bay would be a long list. Picking just one is a very difficult task. With men like Aaron Rodgers, Willie Buchanon, Paul Hornung, Herb Adderley, Clay Matthews, Ron Kramer, and John Brockington just to name a few, most likely anyone in this discussion would be picking from that group. When push comes to shove, I’d cast my vote for Paul Horning just barely edging out Aaron Rodgers.

Honorable Mentions: James Lofton (1978), Eddie Lee Ivory (1979), Sterling Sharpe (1988), Ross Verba (1997), Bubba Franks (2000), B.J. Raji (2009), Bryan Bulaga (2010)

Houston Texans

When the Oilers of Houston bolted town in 1996, they landed in Tennessee and left a huge hole in Texas. It would not be until 2002 before the city of Houston would host another NFL team. The Texans was the new name granted to the latest expansion team and their draft history is also the shortest. Their very first draft pick with the #1 choice overall in the league was David Carr. His brother Derek would become a much better quarterback years later in Oakland, but for David, his career was marred by playing behind a weak offensive line and he paid the price for it getting beat up repeatedly behind the line of scrimmage. In time, the Texans would strengthen their team and become one of the best in the AFC. They did that by building through the draft and on occasion signing a solid free agent. In their second draft, they brought on board a very outstanding wide receiver in Andre Johnson. Their historical draft grade would be a solid B and perhaps better. When choosing the best first-rounder ever, only three names are worth consideration, J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins, and Deshaun Watson. The best of the three? I’d put my money on Watt despite him being injury prone.

Honorable Mentions: Mario Williams (2006), Brian Cushing (2009), Jadeveon Clowney (2014)

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts were a staple in the city of Baltimore for a very long time until they upped and moved over to the state of Indiana in 1984. In 1953 the then Baltimore version of the team held its first draft and as many expansion teams do they began with a quarterback with the first pick. That man was Adrian Burk from Baylor. The Colts would eventually win a Super Bowl in Baltimore and then in Indianapolis. But the early history through the 1960s saw a team that was staunch defensively. On offense behind Johnny Unitas’s arm and a rugged ground game, this Colts team was shocked and upset by a guaranteed win from the New York Jets’ Joe Namath in Super Bowl III. The Colts were heavy favorites for the NFL who had easily won the first two Super Bowls behind the play of the Green Bay Packers.

The Colts had a slew of great players led by Johnny Unitas who was originally drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers but they gave up on him and he was scooped up by the Colts. As for the history of first-round picks in Baltimore and Indianapolis, the first big splash the Colts made came in 1956 when Lenny Moore was drafted after playing college ball at Penn State. In 1967 it was a big man named Bubba Smith who came aboard and eventually would land a starring role in the movie Police Academy. Many know the story of the 1983 draft when the Colts drafted John Elway but he refused to play for the Colts and after Baltimore selected him, he was traded to Denver. The first-round selections from 1994 to 1998 stand out for the Colts. Marshall Faulk came on board in ‘94, Marvin Harrison two years later, Tarik Glenn in 1997, Peyton Manning would be the NFL’s first overall pick in 1998, and then Edgerrin James was the first pick a year later. The Colts would go into the 2000s having some of the best first-round draft picks in the league. But as to who was the best, many names to pick from but it would have to be Peyton Manning.

Honorable Mentions: Tom Matte (1961), Mike Curtis (1965), Bert Jones (1973), Reggie Wayne (2001), Dwight Freeney (2002), Dallas Clark (2003), Andrew Luck (2012)

Jacksonville Jaguars

We’ve reached this year’s team that has the overall number one draft pick and it’s a consensus that the selection will be Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. The word on Lawrence is that he is a “can’t miss.” Jaguars fans will hope this rings true because Jacksonville has had one of the worst track records for first-round picks since coming into the league in 1995. Those picks that went south really began after 2003 because before that they did find very good athletes with their first pick. James Stewart and Tony Boselli came first with their inaugural draft of 1995. Kevin Hardy came to Florida a year later. Donovin Darius and Fred Taylor were drafted together in 1998. Byron Leftwich was thought to be the franchise quarterback when picked first in 2003. But then the failures began with the likes of R. Jay Soward (2000), Reggie Wiliams (2004), Matt Jones (2005), Derrick Harvey (2008), Eugene Monore (2009), Justin Blackmon (2012), Luke Joeckel (2013), and Taven Bryan (2018).

The Jaguars were a stone’s throw away from the Super Bowl just a few short years ago but in 2020 they won their season opener and then lost every game after that to win the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. Best #1 ever in Jag-town? My pick would be either Fred Taylor who many believe belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame or Tony Boselli equally worthy of a Canton bust. I’d say it should be Taylor.

Honorable Mentions: Fernando Bryant (1999), Marcus Stroud (2001), John Henderson (2002), Reggie Nelson (2007), Jalen Ramsey (2016), Blake Bortles (2014)

Kansas City Chiefs

Before the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs called Kansas City home, they were based in Dallas as the Texans. We now have a Texans team in Houston but the original Texans were in Dallas for only three seasons as a member of the old American Football League (AFL). In 1962 the Texans won the AFL title after having a 6-8 and 8-6 season in 1961 and 1960 respectively. The Chiefs’ draft history dates back to 1963 when Buck Buchanan was the first overall pick and he became a star. Another draft stud would not come along until 1989 when Derrick Thomas was chosen in the first round with the 4th overall pick. Thomas would tragically die at the young age of 33 following his football career from heart failure as a result of injuries suffered from a tragic car accident he was involved in that killed a friend who was riding along after he had retired from football. There have been some outstanding picks in the first round by Kansas City and it remains to be seen if Patrick Mahomes will be the best but until he quits the game, but with Tony Gonzalez coming to Kansas City in 1997 he would become one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history. He would be my choice with Derrick Thomas a very close second.

Honorable Mentions: Elmo Wright (1971), Brad Budde (1980), Bill Maas (1984), John Tait (1999), Larry Johnson (2003), Eric Berry (2010), Dee Ford (2014), Clyde Edwards-Helaire (2020)

Los Angeles Chargers

As you have read thus far in this article, teams in the NFL often find themselves relocating to a new city. Such is the case with the team that is also known as the ‘Bolts. The Chargers who were in San Diego for a very long time now share the city of Los Angeles with the Rams. In 2004, the Chargers pulled a stunt much like what was mentioned earlier with John Elway. San Diego drafted Eli Manning who refused to play out west so a trade was made and Philip Rivers came to the Chargers while Manning went to the Giants. Rivers who retired after switching to the Colts in 2020 and playing one season had a Hall of Fame career in San Diego and Los Angeles. The Chargers first draft came in 1967 and their first big-name draft pick was Kellen Winslow in 1979. The late Junior Seau came aboard in 1991. The best of the bunch however has to be LaDainian Tomlinson a terrific and consistent running back from Texas Christian University.

Honorable Mentions: John Jefferson (1978), Leslie O’Neal (1986), Chris Mims (1992), Darrien Gordon (1993), Shawne Merriman (2005), Antonio Cromartie (2006), Joey Bosa (2016), Justin Herbert (2020)

Los Angeles Rams

Next up we have the 3-city Rams. Originating in Cleveland the team would later move across the country to L.A. before skirting out to St. Louis in 1995 before heading back to the west coast again in 2016. One of the older franchises in the NFL, it all began for the Rams in 1937. The first big-name collegiate player taken by the Rams in the first-round was Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch with the fifth pick in 1945. With four Super Bowl appearances to their credit and one Lombardi Trophy, the Rams also won three other league titles. Once known as “The Greatest Show on Turf” the Rams have had a wealth of colorful and talented players. The best first-round pick they have made boils down to two of the league’s greatest running backs in history, Eric Dickerson and Jerome Bettis. However, “The Bus” found nearly all his success in Pittsburgh where he arrived by way of a surprising trade in 1996. Because his stardom came in the ‘Burgh, the nod goes to Dickerson.

Honorable Mentions: Merlin Olsen (1962), Roman Gabriel (1962), Jack Reynolds (1970), Jack Youngblood (1971), Orlando Pace (1997), Torry Holt (1999), Aaron Donald (2014), Todd Gurley (2015)

Las Vegas Raiders

You talk about a team moving around, the Oakland Raiders now in Las Vegas, got started in Oakland, moved to Los Angeles, back to Oakland before setting in the desert lands of Nevada. If not for the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty teams of the 1970s the Raiders would have been the AFC’s dominant team during that period. The Steelers and Raiders did not like each other and their rivalry was brutal with the Raiders fielding some of the most vicious players in history. With their very first pick ever in a draft, the Raiders hit a home run by selecting Jim Otto from the University of Miami (FL). Otto would become by most opinions the best center in the history of the NFL. The next year Roman Gabriel was drafted number one but he would make his mark with the Los Angeles Rams years later. It was three-for-three in 1967 as Gene Upshaw was made number one for Oakland with the 17th pick overall and he would become a cornerstone of the Raiders’ offensive line and one of the best in his era. The Raiders would build a team from that point forward much like Pittsburgh did and they too won Super Bowls but several times simply could not get past those Steelers. There have been some great players to don the Silver and Black but I would narrow it down to Marcus Allen, Charles Woodson, and Tim Brown with my vote cast for Woodson.

Honorable Mentions: Raymond Chester (1970), Jack Tatum (1971), Ray Guy (1973), Chester McGlockton (1992), Sebastian Janikowski (2000), Darren McFadden (2008), Khalil Mack (2014)

Miami Dolphins

Here we have the only team in history to go undefeated in the regular season and then march all the way to the Super Bowl to win a championship and not lose a single game. Bob Griese was the quarterback in 1972 when Miami finished 17-0 and defeated the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl. Griese was not the Dolphins’ greatest quarterback however, instead, it was the first-round pick in 1983, Dan Marino. The former University of Pittsburgh star is hands down the best first-round draft pick in the history of the Dolphins that began with their first year in the league in 1966. Griese was also a first-round pick selected in 1967 with the fourth pick overall. The great Larry Csonka would come two years later in the first round. Miami would win back-to-back Super Bowls with Griese but Marino would never earn a ring during his career making the Super Bowl just once and lost. It’s been a long time since Miami got close to a Super Bowl but they’ve had a lot of great players along the way. Most of them came in later rounds following the opening round of the draft.

Honorable Mentions: Bill Stanfill (1969), Kim Bokamper (1975), A.J. Duhe (1977), Richmond Webb (1990), O.J. McDuffie (1993), Mike Pouncey (2011), Ryan Tannehill (2012)

Minnesota Vikings

Like the Buffalo Bills, the Minnesota Vikings have been to the Super Bowl four times only to lose all four. Minnesota’s last visit to the big dance was way back in 1976. Along the way, they’ve had many great players including their infamous “Purple People Eaters” defensive front (Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall, Gary Larsen). Page and Eller were both first-round draft picks, Eller in 1964 and Page three years later. Best Viking selected in the first-round in history? Randy Moss with Adrian Peterson running a close second.

Honorable Mentions: Gene Washington (1967), Chuck Foreman (1973), Tommy Kramer (1977), Joey Browner (1983), Keith Millard (1984), Chris Doleman (1985), Randal McDaniel (1988), Robert Smith (1993), Daunte Culpepper (1999)

New England Patriots

2020 represented the first time the New England Patriots did not have Tom Brady on the roster since his was drafted in 2000 and they failed to make the playoffs. Brady won the Super Bowl with his new team in Tampa. Yet Brady was not a first-round draft pick. In fact, he came on board from a much later round (6th). Making their debut in 1960, the Patriots then known as the “Boston Patriots” drafted Ron Mix first, a tackle from USC. Jim Plunkett who would establish himself in Oakland was originally drafted by New England in 1971. Darryl Stingley came a year later with the 19th pick in the first round but his destiny was determined by the Raiders Jack Tatum who hit Stingley with a tackle in a pre-season game which left the Patriots player a paraplegic. One of the best guards in history was John Hannah and he was a first-round pick in 1973. Determining who was the Patriots’ best first-round pick ever would either be Hannah or Ty Law and my vote is for the offensive lineman.

Honorable Mentions: Sam “The Bam” Cunningham (1973), Irving Fryar (1984), Willie McGinest (1994), Terry Glenn (1996), Damien Woody (1999), Richard Seymour (2001), Ben Watson (2004)

New Orleans Saints

For many years since their debut in the NFL, the New Orleans Saints suffered through many losing seasons so bad to the point fans put brown bags over their heads and called themselves the “Ain’ts.” But what New Orleans can take credit for is that they started the legacy of the quarterbacking family named Manning. In 1971 Archie Manning was the second pick of the NFL draft but unlike his two sons, he never got to taste much success as a pro because his teams were so bad. The Saints first winning season did not come until 1987 after Manning had retired and the team won 12 games but lost in the wild-card game behind the quarterbacking of Bobby Hebert. That season turned the franchise around and they have been consistently winning since.

The Saints have had some household names taken in the first round of their draft history. “Ironhead” Craig Heyward came to the team with the 24th pick overall in 1988, he being the father of the current defensive star on the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cameron. In 1976 another running back was drafted that being Chuck Muncie. Willie Roaf an outstanding offensive tackle became a mainstay on the line in 1993. Then in 1999 with Mike Ditka as the head coach, the Saints shocked the world and traded their entire slew of draft picks to move up to the 5th slot in the draft just so they could draft Ricky Williams. That trade backfired big time as Ditka was fired following the season and Williams lasted just three years in New Orleans. New Orleans did not have a first-round pick in 2000 so in 2001 they selected Deuce McAllister who would have a much better career than did Ricky Williams. As for the best pick all-time, I think that goes to Chuck Muncie, although Willie Roaf was one of the best linemen of his era.

Honorable Mentions: Russell Erxleben (1979), George Rogers (1981), Jim Dombrowski (1986), Charles Grant (2002), Reggie Bush (2006), Mark Ingram (2011), Kenny Vaccaro (2013), Brandin Cooks (2014), Marshon Lattimore (2017)

New York Giants

The New York Giants' history dates back to the start of the NFL making them among the senior group of franchises in the NFL. The Giants like the Packers, Bears, Redskins, Steelers, Cardinals, and Rams have a very rich history. The Hall of Fame players who wore a Giants jersey is many. Not all were first-round draft picks but in 1981 they made their best first-round pick ever when Lawrence Taylor was the pick with the second overall choice. “L.T.” as he became well known was one of the game’s greatest linebackers ever and one of the toughest to play the position. But the great players that took the field for the Giants are recognizable for any football fan.

Honorable Mentions: Kyle Rote (1951), Frank Gifford (1952), Phil Simms (1979), Mark Haynes (1980), Butch Woolfork (1982), Carl Banks (1984), Eric Dorsey (1986), Mark Ingram (1987), Rodney Hampton (1990), Ike Hilliard (1997), Ron Dayne (2000), Jeremy Shockey (2002), Jason Pierre-Paul (2011), Odell Beckham (2014), Saquon Barkley (2018)

New York Jets

Before the city of Tennessee landed the old Houston Oilers and renamed them to the Titans, there was a Titans team in New York City that would become the Jets. Their very first pick in 1965 with the AFL’s number one overall pick would become known as “Broadway Joe.” Joe Namath would lead the old AFL to its first victory in the Super Bowl over the NFL in 1969 in a monstrous upset over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. By far, Namath is the best first-round pick the Jets have ever made. Rivaling Namath would be Keyshawn Johnson but the best of their first-round picks would be honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions: John Riggins (1971), Richard Todd (1976), Marvin Powell (1977), Marty Lyons (1979), Freeman McNeil (1981), Al Toon (1985), James Farrior (1997), Chad Pennington (2000), Santana Moss (2001), Jonathan Vilma (2004), Nick Mangold (2006), Darrelle Revis (2007), Sheldon Richardson (2013), Jamal Adams (2017)

Philadelphia Eagles

For those of you who are unaware, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles once joined forces because of World War II and a shortage of players and called themselves the “Steagles” The Eagles took part in that first NFL draft ever of 1936 and they made history by having the very first draft pick in a pro draft process. Jay Berwanger put himself into draft lore after becoming the first player to ever be drafted by an NFL team. One of the toughest men ever to play in the NFL was an Eagle and that was Chuck Bednarik who would make waves when in a game against the New York Giants he clothesline tackled Frank Gifford knocking him unconscious, ending his season and affecting his future in football. In that era that kind of tackle was legal. Bednark was a first-round pick in 1949.

Who is the highest-flying Eagle picked in the first round of a draft? My choice is the late Reggie White. A defensive monster on the line, White is one of the NFL’s all-time greats. Philadelphia has had a strong history of drafting superb players with their first-round opportunities.

Honorable Mentions: Davey O’Brien (1939), Steven Van Buren (1944), Frank Tripucka (1949), Jerry Sisemore (1973), Mike Quick (1982), Keith Byars (1986), Keith Jackson (1988), Mike Mamula (1995), Donovan McNabb (1999), Freddie Mitchell (2001), Lito Sheppard (2002), Jerome McDougle (2003), Shawn Andrews (2004)

Pittsburgh Steelers

We’ve reached the team I have been following since becoming a football fan in 1972. There’s plenty of history with the Black and Gold since then and many great players that have come and gone. There are plenty before ‘72 as well but I was fortunate enough to witness some of the greatest players in Pittsburgh Steelers history. The thing about Pittsburgh is they have the reputation of digging deep in draft selections to find talent so some of their best players came from the second round and beyond. That’s not to say they have not had success with the first-round picks they’ve made as there are many who turned out to be great NFL players.

If you were unaware of who the Steelers drafted with their very first pick in 1936 it was William Shakespeare. No joke. Only he went By Bill. While it took 39 years for the Pittsburgh Steelers to become perennial winners, along that downtrodden path there were many great players. Byron “Whizzer” White came to the city of Pittsburgh in the first round of the 1938 draft. A few years later it was “Bullet” Bill Dudley. Lynn Chandois was an excellent draft pick in the first round of 1950’s draft. Future NFL coach Ted Marchibroda was a first-round-fifth pick quarterback by the Steelers in 1953.

The Steelers made a mistake of getting Johnny Unitas and letting him go but they also messed up on drafting Len Dawson in 1957 and not keeping him in Pittsburgh instead he went on to star in Kansas City. But it was 1969 and the hiring of legendary Chuck Noll that the tide began to turn. Noll used the first round of the draft and subsequent rounds to build a powerhouse team that would dominate the 1970s.

Noll’s first pick was a massive defensive lineman who fit the mold of his nickname, “Mean.” That would be Joe Greene who became the cornerstone of the amazing Pittsburgh defenses that began to build with Greene. Before forging ahead, I’d say that the best #1 pick the Steelers ever made would have to be Mean Joe Greene.

In 1970, the NFL’s first overall pick came down to either the Chicago Bears or Steelers and a coin toss was held between Chicago and Pittsburgh with Art Rooney St. Winning the flip and subsequently drafting Terry Bradshaw. If not for the correct coin toss call, the “Blonde Bomber” would have been a bear. The ball started rolling after those first two Noll drafts and he kept his cool despite Pittsburgh losing 13 of 14 games in 1969. The new head coach knew he was on the right track with his first two drafts. In 1971 it was wide receiver Frank Lewis followed by my first year as a fan at the age of 12 when Pittsburgh selected Franco Harris who as well know, would become super famous for his “Immaculate Reception” touchdown in the 1972 playoffs. Lynn Swann came in 1974 a draft that also brought Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster to the team all of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The incredible list of first-round picks that became outstanding players for the Steelers just goes on and on. Louis Lipps, Rod Woodson, Leon Searcy, Mark Bruener, Alan Faneca, Trou Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Santonio Holmes, Lawrence Timmons, Troy Polamalu, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, and T.J. Watt. Faneca just got voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Polamalu made it there last year, and Roethlisberger and Pouncey should be headed there five years after they retire.

Honorable Mentions: Felix “Doc” Blanchard (1946), Bobby Gage (1949), Bennie Cunningham (1976), Robin Cole (1977), Walter Abercrombie (1982), Eric Green (1990), Plaxico Burress (2000), Casey Hampton (2001), Cameron Heyward (2011)

San Francisco 49ers

Think of the 49ers and two names instantly come to mind...Rice and Montana. That was one hell of a combination. Only Rice was a first-round selection amazingly lasting 15 picks before San Franciso drafted him in the 16th slot in 1985. 15 teams passed on Rice who became arguably the greatest wide receiver in history. Only the overall #1 in that draft achieved success in the NFL that is Bruce Smith taken by Buffalo. None of the other 14 picks reached the level of Rice or Smith. As for Montana, he lasted until the third round and not until the 82nd pick came up. There is no need to talk about San Francisco’s other number one picks over the years because no one is going to top Jerry Rice.

Honorable Mentions: Y.A. Tittle (1951), Lance Alworth (1961), Steve Spurrier (1967), Gene Washington (1969), Dana Stubblefield (1993), Bryant Young (1994), William Floyd (1994), J.J. Stokes (1995), Ahmed Plummer (2000), Alex Smith (2005), Vernon Davis (2006), Patrick Willis (2007), Nick Bosa (2019)

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks achieved success quickly after coming into the league in 1976. In just their third year (1978) they finished 9-7. In less than 10 years they were in the conference championship game (1983). Their very first-round draft pick was Steve Niehaus a defensive tackle from Notre Dame. Over the years Seattle built itself into a superb defensive team that focused on the running game for the offense. Former Penn State running back Curt Warner was the third overall pick in 1983 helping the ‘Hawks reach that AFC title game. A few years later he got help in the backfield with one of the best fullbacks of that era, John L. Williams.

One of Seattle’s most controversial first-round picks was that of Brian Bosworth in 1987. A colorful and crazy character “Bos” will best be remembered for getting run over by a train named Bo Jackson in a nationally televised game. Seattle has made some outstanding first-round choices and the names just roll off your tongue...Cortez Kennedy, Joey Galloway, Walter Jones, Rick Mirer, Steve Hutchinson, Shaun Alexander, Jerramy Stevens, Marcus Trufant, and Russell Okung. Best ever? That has to be Walter Jones one of the best offensive linemen in history.

Honorable Mentions: Manu Tuiasosopo (1979), Kenny Easley (1981), Shawn Springs (1997), Anthony Simmons (1998), Marcus Trufant (2003), Russell Okung (2010)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs are Super Bowl champions. In upending the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, Tom Brady in his first season as the starting quarterback in Tampa won his seventh Lombardi Trophy in his 10th attempt. With that said, it becomes the second NFL title for Tampa who in their debut season of 1976 got off to a terrible start losing every game that season and finishing 0-14. But with their very first draft pick for the organization, they hit a home run in drafting the great Lee Roy Selmon. Following that inaugural draft, Tampa did well in finding players that would mold the team into a winner. After Selmon, the Bucs again had the league’s overall #1 pick and this time it was Ricky Bell out of USC. Sadly, both these players passed away too young. Bell from heart failure at just 29 and Selmon at 56 following complications from a stroke.

In their third year of existence, the Bucs found a quarterback that would become a star and his name was Doug Williams. Ray Snell came after that and in 1981 it was the University of Pittsburgh’s Hugh Green. In 1984 Steve Young was drafted but he would become a megastar in San Franciso and win a world title there. Two years later, one of the greatest athletes to play in the NFL ever came aboard and his name was Bo Jackson who would be a big name in baseball with the Kansas City Royals and make his mark in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders leaving his legacy with one big run when he ran over Brian Bosworth on his way to a touchdown in a game with the Seattle Seahawks.

There are several options for Tampa’s best number one pick ever and they probably boil down to Williams, Selmon, or Warren Sapp. While Sapp was a terror on defense, the way Lee Roy Selmon dominated gets him the nod for me.

Honorable Mentions: Vinny Testaverde (1987), Trent Dilfer (1994), Derrick Brooks (1995), Warrick Dunn (1997), Anthony McFarland (1999), Michael Clayton (2004), Aquib Talib (2008), Gerald McCoy (2010), Doug Martin (2012), Mike Evans (2014), Jameis Winston (2015)

Tennessee Titans

In 1996, then Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams did what many owners have done before him...moved his team to a new city. On to Nashville did the Oilers go retaining their nickname until 1999 when the team was renamed to the Titans. They left behind a void in Houston that remained until the Texans were established in 2002. This team was in Houston from the onset in 1961 as a member of the old American Football League and then in ‘96 bolted for the new city.

The Oilers' initial first-round draft pick came in 1964 when they selected Scott Appleton with the sixth overall choice. He was a tackle ironically from the University of Texas. The Oilers then made a splash in 1971 when Dan Pastorini was the third man drafted by Houston. But the Titans/Oilers' best player ever drafted in the first-round was Earl Campbell. A powerhouse running back who would simply mow down defenders, his selection as best might best be rivaled by the late Steve McNair but I think it should be Campbell.

Honorable Mentions: John Matuszak (1973), Robert Brazille (1975), Bruce Matthews (1983), Mike Rozier (1984), Ray Childress (1985), Alonzo Highsmith (1987), Lorenzo White (1988), Brad Hopkins (1993), Jevon Kearse (1999), Eddie George (1996), Albert Haynesworth (2002), Marcus Mariota (2015)

Washington Football Team

As silly as it seems, the Redskins abandoned their name in 2020 resulting from public pressure to change the name after it was deemed racist. But the Redskins have a long and storied history that dates back to the very first draft in 1936. It took Washington just two drafts to find one of the greatest quarterbacks ever in the first-round as Sammy Baugh came to the nation’s capital. Baugh was not just a great quarterback but an excellent punter as well. The Redskins would become a force in those early years but was a team to be reckoned with again in the 1970s and ’80s. In 1940 however, they were on the wrong end of the most lopsided title game in league history when the Chicago Bears wiped out the Redskins 73-0 by scoring eleven touchdowns.

Most of the best first-round picks made by Washington came after 1960 and naming the best one ever in my book comes down to either Baugh, Sean Taylor, or Art Monk. Given his accomplishments, it’s Sammy Baugh as I see it.

Honorable Mentions: Norm Snead (1961), Ernie Davis (1962), Charley Taylor (1964), Mark May (1981), Darrell Green (1983), Desmond Howard (1992), Heath Shuler (1994), Lavar Arrington (2000), Brian Orakpo (2009), Trent Williams (2010), Chase Young (2020)

Now that every team has been covered, who would be the best player ever drafted in the first-round throughout the history of the NFL? There have been so many great ones it’s a very difficult choice. But this would be my list of finalists:

  • 1957: Paul Hornung, (Green Bay)
  • 1957: Jim Brown (Cleveland)
  • 1962: Ernie Davis, (Washington-because of his tragic death, he never got to have a career)
  • 1963: Buck Buchanan (Kansas City)
  • 1965: Joe Namath (New York Jets)
  • 1969: O.J. Simpson (Buffalo)
  • 1970: Terry Bradshaw (Pittsburgh)
  • 1971: Jim Plunkett (New England)
  • 1974: Ed “Too Tall” Jones (Dallas)
  • 1976: Lee Roy Selmon (Tampa)
  • 1978: Earl Campbell (Houston)
  • 1983: John Elway (Baltimore)
  • 1984: Steve Young (Tampa)
  • 1985: Bruce Smith (Buffalo)
  • 1986: Bo Jackson (Tampa)
  • 1989: Troy Aikman (Dallas)
  • 1996: Keyshawn Johnson (New York Jets)
  • 1997: Orlando Pace (St. Louis Rams)
  • 1998: Peyton Manning (Indianapolis)
  • 2001: Michael Vick (Atlanta)
  • 2003: Carson Palmer (Cincinnati)
  • 2004: Eli Manning (San Diego)
  • 2005: Alex Smith (San Franisco)
  • 2009: Matthew Stafford (Detroit)
  • 2002: Cam Newton (Carolina)
  • 2012: Andrew Luck (Indianapolis)

Of this group, if I had to make a choice, I would probably go with a player that was most athletic because while stats are one thing, I prefer the men on the field that can do many different things in the game. With that said, I still can’t name just one player. How about three of the best? Bo Jackson, O.J. Simpson, and Jim Brown.

Agree? Or Disagree?


About the author

Harv Aronson

Harv Aronson was born and raised in Pittsburgh but now lives in Florida with his beautiful wife Melissa.

Harv currently writes for Abstract Sports, the Sports History Network, Yinzer Crazy website, and the magazine Gridiron Greats. Harv wrote the published book "Pro Football's Most Passionate Fans" and as a professional writer has had articles published in an array of sports publications.

Harv loves all sports but football and baseball are at the top of his interest. His passion is for sports history. You can visit Harv's website at and you can reach him at [email protected]

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