Really, in the history of the NFL Draft, which picks were the greatest of all-time? Which prospects turned out to be the biggest home runs?
Which NFL Draft picks turned out to be the best selections of all-time? Which ones ended up becoming franchise-defining legends out of unbelievable value gets?
Of course the superstar prospects taken high are usually going to be the stars, but finding the hidden gems is the real fun.
From the first NFL Draft in 1936 until now, which 32 picks were the greatest of all-time? Here’s the criteria.
1. Hall of Fame. If you don’t have a yellow jacket, or you’re not a sure-thing to get one when you’re done playing, move along.
2. The pick had to be made after the top five overall. Anyone can draft a top five talent. Getting a legend after that fifth pick, though, usually means a call had to be made. The later the round the future Hall of Famer was selected, the better the value in the rankings.
3. The player had to be named a First Team All-Pro at least five times. Yeah, this knocks out some all-time value picks like Jason Taylor and Terrell Davis, but this is an elite of the elite list of all-time draft picks – these 32 players are at a whole other level.
Being an All-Pro is different than being named to the Pro Bowl – All-Pro is a much bigger deal. There are a few notable exceptions in this for obvious reasons, considering only one quarterback a year can be named First Team All-Pro. To make this list, though, a QB had to earn the honor at least twice or win a Super Bowl.
And the big key …
4. The player had to earn his Hall of Fame credentials for the team that drafted him. It’s not a great draft pick for your team if Drew Brees or Brett Favre ended up being an all-time great for someone else.
Again, remember … this is about value as well as greatness.
CFN 2021 NFL Draft Prospect Rankings
from the college perspective …
QB | RB | WR | TE | OT | OG & C
DE & Edge | DT | LB | CB | Safeties
Greatest Draft Picks For Each College
ACC | Big Ten | Big 12 | Pac-12 | SEC
32. DE Carl Eller, Minnesota
1964, 1st round, 6th pick overall, Minnesota
There was a fight with the AFL for talent at the time, and Minnesota was able to keep its defensive lineman close to home. Eller played in 225 games in his Hall of Fame career, being named All-Pro five times and going to six Pro Bowls. It was a great draft with Roger Staubach, Paul Warfield, and ten Hall of Famers being drafted overall. No one from this draft class played more games than Eller.
31. DE JJ Watt, Wisconsin
2011, 1st round, 11th pick overall, Houston
And to think, Jacksonville took Blaine Gabbert one pick before Houston snagged Watt. He’s still in the midst of a sure-thing Hall of Fame career, with the three-tine NFL Defensive Player of the Year coming up with 92 sacks so far with five All-Pro nods.
30. OG Gene Upshaw, Texas A&M-Kingsville
1967, 1st round, 17th pick overall, Oakland
There’s a whole lot to like in a 6-5, 255-pound guard who lasted 15 years and went seven Pro Bowls and was a five-time All-Pro. Best of all was his durability, starting every game until his final season in 1981.
29. DE Jack Youngblood, Florida
1971, 1st round, 20th pick overall, Los Angeles
The tough guy’s tough guy defensive end lasted 14 years, but he packed his biggest seasons in the middle of his Hall of Fame run, going to seven straight Pro Bowls and being named All-Pro in five of them. It was a strong draft with four Hall of Famers and several other big names like Joe Theismann, Jim Plunkett, and Archie Maning, but only Pittsburgh LB Jack Ham had a better overall career than Youngblood.
28. QB Dan Marino, Pitt
1983, 1st round, 27th pick overall, Miami
One of the all-time first round value picks, Marino threw for well over 61,000 yards and 420 touchdowns. He was a nine-time Pro Bowl passer, was a three-time All-Pro, and was the 1984 NFL MVP. Why isn’t he higher? He never won a Super Bowl – a killer part of the criteria to be a quarterback and get on this list. And yes, while he slid, he did go in the first round, unlike …
27. WR Terrell Owens, UT-Chattanooga
1996, 3rd round, 89th pick overall, San Francisco
He’s an 89th pick who went to the Hall of Fame after catching 1,078 passes for close to 16,000 yards with 153 touchdowns, so how is he not in the top ten? He was great for San Francisco, but two of his six Pro Bowl nods, and two of his five All-Pro honors came with other teams. Remember, the last seven years were with Philadelphia, Dallas, Buffalo and Cincinnati.
26. S Larry Wilson, Utah
1960, 7th round, 74th pick overall, St. Louis
This wasn’t bad for a seventh round pick. Wilson went to the Hall of Fame with 52 career interceptions for the Cardinals in his 13-year carer. One of the best defensive players in football for a long run, he was named All-Pro from 1966 to 1970, and he was an eight-time Pro Bowl performer.
25. LB Derrick Brooks, Florida State
19955, 1st round, 28th pick overall, Tampa Bay
It wasn’t a bad run for Tampa Bay, taking Warren Sapp with the 12th pick, and grabbing Brooks for way too easy a price. The college superstar slipped all the way to the 28th pick, but turned in one of the all-time greatest careers by any linebacker, starting every game but three – all in his rookie year – over his 14 year career, making 1,710 tackles with 25 picks. The five-time All-Pro and 2002 Defensive Player of the Year also was named to 11 Pro Bowls.
24. TE Tony Gonzalez, Cal
1997, 1st round, 13th pick overall, Kansas City
You had a pretty good career when Jerry Rice is the only guy who caught more passes. The 14-time Pro Bowl and six-time All-Pro Hall of Famer came up with a few amazing years with Atlanta – he didn’t fade or slip a bit, even into his late 30s – finishing with 1,325 catches for 15,127 yards and 111 touchdowns. The only reason he’s not higher – along with being a 13th pick – was because his last five seasons were with the Falcons.
23. S Ronnie Lott, USC
1981, 1st round, 8th pick overall, San Francisco
Yeah, oooooh, real tough trying to get a good player at the 8, but there were some big misses before Lott went – welcome to Green Bay, QB Rich Campbell – and there were some huge mistakes soon after he went.
Try this for an all-time draft season for the defensive side – linebackers Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary and Rickey Jackson, Howie Long and Dexter Manley for the line, and Lott, Dennis Smith, Kenny Easley and Hanford Dixon for the secondary. Only Taylor and Singletary were named to the All-Pro team more than Lott, a six-time honoree.
22. QB Aaron Rodgers, Cal
2005, 1st round, 24th pick overall, Green Bay
Remember, it’s hard for a quarterback to be named First Team All-Pro. Rogers is a three-time NFL MVP, and he’s just a three-time All-Pro. However, he’s an eight-time Pro Bowl producer with a Super Bowl win and close to 43,000 yards with 338 touchdowns.
The pick worked out fine after a run of Travis Johnson, David Pollack, Erasmus James, Alex Barron, Marcus Spears, Matt Jones, Mark Clayton, and Fabian Washington.
21. DT Alan Page, Notre Dame
1967, 1st round, 16th pick overall, Minnesota
Imagine a 6-4, 245-pound defensive tackle in today’s NFL. Page was one of the quickest interior defensive linemen of all-time, heading the great Viking line on the way to six All-Pro teams and making the Pro Bowl nine times. The strongest part of his resumé? He was the 1971 NFL MVP – and not just on the defensive side.
In a draft class of eight Hall of Famers, no one had a better career. Page started in 135 games. The six picks who went before him combined for 131.