In a few weeks, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will announce something like this, “With the first pick in the draft, the Cleveland Browns select…” At that point, NFL history will be made. The player who has his name announced will either be listed among the legendary like Peyton Manning or he will forever be linked with infamous draft busts such as Courtney Brown. There’s so many articles and television shows that pontificate about the latter that I have chosen instead to celebrate those who lived up to their hype and rewarded the team with this first overall pick with an outstanding career. Let’s list the top ten greatest number one overall draft picks in NFL history.
Before we dig into our top ten, let’s name drop a few players that just missed the cut. Orlando Pace was the first ever player selected during the Dick Vermeil renaissance for the St. Louis Rams. He was a seven time Pro Bowler at left tackle protecting Kurt Warner during the “Greatest Show on Turf” seasons. Billy Sims out of Oklahoma and Texas-alum Earl Campbell were two outstanding running backs from a time period when the starting running back was almost as important as the starting quarterback. Also, speaking of quarterbacks, Drew Bledsoe carved out for himself a nice career starting in 1993 for three different teams and Matthew Stafford is in the process of trying to get the Detroit Lions to the next level. Those were the best of the rest. Let’s now look at our top ten.
#10 Ron Yary, 1968 Minnesota Vikings
Yary was the first offensive lineman ever selected with the first overall pick and to this day, he goes down as the best. He was part of a Minnesota Vikings that won four NFC championships and he blocked for the likes of Fran Tarkenton and Chuck Foreman. He was outstanding when lined up against great players like the Los Angeles Rams’ Jack Youngblood and Dallas Cowboys’ Harvey Martin. He was enshrined in Canton in 2001.
#9 Eli Manning, 2004 San Diego Chargers
Manning obviously ended up as a member of the New York Giants. With the G-men, Manning has carved out for himself a career which will likely land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s won two Super Bowls and has been named to four Pro Bowls. He’s had some poor seasons along the way, but his good days definitely have outnumbered his poor ones. He’s also been a tremendous ambassador for the game and a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award recipient.
#8 Too Tall Jones, 1974 Dallas Cowboys
Ed Jones played for a long time on the Dallas “Doomsday” defense. Watch the 1978 Super Bowl if you want to see Jones at his nastiest and finest. He took one season off from football for boxing in 1979, but came back strong in 1980 and played ten more seasons. “Too Tall” is synonymous with the Cowboys “America’s Team” era and goes down as one of the franchises’ most popular players.
#7 Lee Roy Selmon, 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Selmon was the first ever player taken by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and they nailed it. Over the first 20 years of the franchise, he was far and away the best player to wear the classic pirate logo. Selmon was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year during the Bucs’ magical 1979 season and six Pro Bowls overall. Sadly, Selmon passed away in 2011 at the age of 56.
#6 O.J. Simpson, 1969 Buffalo Bills
Simpson was a sensation out of USC when the Buffalo Bills took him with this first overall pick. His talents were somewhat wasted over his first few seasons as Buffalo had no offensive identity. When Lou Saban took over as head coach, everything changed. In 1973, Simpson put together a season for the ages becoming the first ever runner to eclipsed the 2,000-yard plateau.
#5 Troy Aikman, 1989 Dallas Cowboys
Aikman was a key cog of Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys reclamation project. Highly touted out of UCLA, the Cowboys chose Aikman over USC’s Rodney Peete and they hit the jackpot. Aikman led the Cowboys to three world championships during his Hall of Fame career and after football, he has become a highly respected game analyst.
#4 Terry Bradshaw, 1970 Pittsburgh Steelers
Terry Bradshaw, another FOX employee, didn’t start his career on the path to the Hall of Fame. However, he developed into a championship-caliber quarterback by his fifth season. Bradshaw was not an all-time great at the position, but he was outstanding when he needed to be and a 4-0 record on the biggest stage speaks for itself.
#3 John Elway, 1983 Baltimore Colts
Elway never played a down with the Colts forcing a deal that landed him in Denver. As a member of the Broncos, Elway became the signature player in team history leading them to five Super Bowls over 16 seasons and winning it all in his final two years. He still works for the team and was instrumental in obtaining Peyton Manning prior to the 2012.
#2 Bruce Smith, 1985 Buffalo Bills
Smith was the first Hall of Fame piece acquired by the Bills ahead of their reign atop the AFC in the early 1990’s. He ended up as the NFL’s All-Time sack leader and regularly disrupted offensive game plans. Smith was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 alongside original team owner, Ralph Wilson. It was a glorious day for the Bills.
#1 Peyton Manning, 1998 Indianapolis Colts
Manning is easily the top choice for this category. He was simply one of the best players ever to wear a uniform on a football field. Incredibly, there was much pre-draft debate about whether the Colts should select Manning or Washington State-great Ryan Leaf. General manager Bill Polian made the right choice and Manning rewarded the Colts with 13 unbelievable seasons and a Super Bowl championship. He’ll likely be in NFL record books as long as records are kept; for he is a true legend of the game.