ACC programs have a lot to be excited about in the history of the NFL draft, but who are the best picks from each of the 14 programs?
The conference takes a backseat to no one when it comes to NFL draft bragging rights from its current programs. From Dan Marino to Jim Brown, and from Lawrence Taylor to Derrick Brooks, there’s a lot for the ACC to chirp about.
This isn’t a list of the top pro players to come from the ACC schools – these are the best draft picks.
That means that guys who had great careers for someone other than the teams that drafted them get knocked down a peg, or aren’t on the list at all.
The goal for any draft pick is to get a player who performs at a high level for a long period of time, so longevity matters over one short burst of greatness. You’ll get the idea.
QB Matt Ryan
2008, 1st round, 3rd pick overall, Atlanta
Silver: C Tom Nalen, 1994, 7th round, 218th pick overall, Denver
Bronze: LB Luke Kuechly, 2012, 1st round, 9th pick overall, Carolina
Denver hit the jackpot getting a 14-year center who started 188 times. Tom Nalen went to five Pro Bowls and was named to two All-Pro teams as the anchor of a few Super Bowl champions.
Matt Ryan took his career to a whole other level, earning the 2016 MVP as an All-Pro and a four-time Pro Bowler, coming within a collapse of being a Super Bowl winner, too.
Luke Kuechly doesn’t have the longevity, but the five-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler, and 2013 NFL Defensive MVP has put together a whale of career.
DE Larry Eisenhauer belongs on the list somewhere with three All-Pro teams as a Boston Patriot, and DT Fred Smerlas deserved consideration.
S Brian Dawkins
1996, 2nd round, 61st pick overall, Philadelphia
Silver: DT Michael Dean Perry, 1988, 2nd round, 50th pick overall, Cleveland
Bronze: LB Levon Kirkland, 1992, 2nd round, 38th pick overall, Pittsburgh
Clemson doesn’t have as many star prospects as you might think – Deshaun isn’t there yet. There are plenty of very good pros, but not enough elite ones.
Brian Dawkins put together a special Hall of Fame career as one of the leaders of the Philadelphia defense for over a decade, named to four All-Pro teams with six Pro Bowl trips for the Eagles.
Michael Dean had a far better NFL career than William – he was the better of the two Perrys – while Levon Kirkland was a massive linebacker who became an unstoppable force in the mid-1990s.
LB Mike Curtis
1965, 1st round, 14th pick overall, Baltimore
Silver: OG Ed Newman, 1973, 6th round, 156th overall, Miami
Bronze: C Bill Bryan, 1977, 4th round, 101st overall, Denver
The tone-setter for several championship-level defenses, Mike Curtis spent 11 years in Baltimore as one of the best all-around linebackers of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Ed Newman was a star guard who kicked in just after Miami’s historic 1972 season. It took a while to get the starting job, but he played 12 years for the Dolphins and went to four Pro Bowls and closed out his career with an All-Pro nod.
Sonny Jurgensen would easily make this list for what he did for Washington, but he was drafted by Philadelphia. The red-haired quarterback wasn’t bad for the Eagles, but he wasn’t special outside of one big season.
LB Derrick Brooks
1995, 1st round, 28th pick overall, Tampa Bay
Silver: OT Walter Jones, 1997, 1st round, 6th pick overall, Seattle
Bronze: CB Deion Sanders, 1989, 1st round, 5th pick overall, Atlanta
It might not be quite the group of superstar talents you’d expect, but Florida State’s drafted players up top are as good as any in the history of the NFL.
Derrick Brooks is a Hall of Famer, playing 14 years for Tampa Bay as one of the leaders of several epic defenses and a Super Bowl champion. A five-time All-Pro and 11-time Pro Bowler, he wasn’t all that bad for the 28th pick.
Deion Sanders would probably be No. 1, but he only spent five years at Atlanta – that was enough to get him into the FSU top three. He picked off 24 passes for the Falcons – he came up with 25 in his other eight years – going to three Pro Bowls and being named to three All-Pro teams for the team that drafted him.
Walter Jones is also in the Hall of Fame, earning four All-Pro honors in his 12-year Seattle career.
WR Calvin Johnson
2007, 1st round, 2nd pick overall, Detroit
Silver: LB Pat Swilling, 1986, 3rd round, 50th pick overall, New Orleans
Bronze: OG Billy Shaw, 1961, 2nd round, 11th pick overall, Buffalo
Shaw was a nine-year mainstay at guard for the Bills throughout the 1960s was a five-time All-Pro performer with eight Pro Bowl appearances in his Hall of Fame career.
Pat Swilling isn’t in the Hall of Fame, but the two-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler did most of his best work with New Orleans, highlighted by being named the 1991 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He was good, but he wasn’t Megatron. Calvin Johnson was well worth the second overall pick.
LB Tom Jackson
1973, 4th round, 88th pick overall, Denver
Silver: S Sam Madison, 1997, 2nd round, 44th pick overall, Miami
Bronze: OT Bruce Armstrong, 1987, 1st round, 23rd pick overall, New England
Johnny Unitas is obviously the best pro to come from Louisville – but he was drafted by Pittsburgh and didn’t do anything until going to Baltimore.
Tom Jackson was one of the leaders and stars of Denver’s Orange Crush defense of the 1970s. The 1977 All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler was the ultimate leader. Sam Madison was the nine-year rock of the Miami secondary, and Bruce Armstrong started 212 games for the Patriots.
LB Ray Lewis
1996, 1st round, 26th pick overall, Baltimore
Silver: S Ed Reed, 2002, 1st round, 24th pick overall, Baltimore
Bronze: DT Warren Sapp, 1995, 1st round, 12th pick overall, Tampa Bay
It’s the best list of any college football program to choose from – USC is up there, though.
Who doesn’t make the cut? Some of the most productive runners in NFL history – Edgerrin James and Frank Gore. Amazing receiver talents – Michael Irvin, Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne.
Jim Kelly, Vinny Testaverde, Cortez Kennedy, Vince Wilfork, Bernie Kosar, and on and on, and on, and on.
Ray Lewis was a ten-time All-Pro and 13-time Pro Bowler with two Super Bowl championships. If he’s not the greatest linebacker of all-time, he was close.
Ed Reed belongs in the team photo of the greatest safeties ever, and Hall of Famer Warren Sapp is among the all-time defensive tackle greats.