Mention the NFL draft, and the debate begins immediately. Who’s the best player ever taken at No. 1 overall or the top player ever taken in a late round?
Well, that actually might be retired, thanks to Tom Brady.
Now the NFL is celebrating its 100th season, and with the league’s latest draft coming up in Nashville, Tennessee, the timing is perfect to comb through the years, and all the drafts, to find the best players ever selected. So that’s just what the AP did, poring over the selections for just the right choice for each spot.
The league didn’t start taking turns choosing players until 1936, and the draft itself has gone through many changes over the decades, with the number of rounds trimmed. For the purposes of this look at the NFL’s best draft picks ever, a player was selected for each of the first 32 slots, using every player ever drafted at the overall pick and not determining the player by round.
No draft discussion ever would be complete without tabbing someone as the best ever by round. The draft has grown exponentially, with the NFL spreading the event over three days, moving it around the country, and adding more picks. The grab bag that started with nine rounds in 1936 increased to 20 in 1939 before going as high as 30 before being reduced to 12 in the 1970s, and to the seven rounds of today.
In selecting the best player by round, the AP went with 12 rounds — eliminating the option of Roosevelt Brown as a 27th-round pick in 1953 by the Giants.
Here are the best players taken at each pick in the first round:
1: Peyton Manning — Holds several NFL records, including touchdown passes (539); AP MVP awards (five); 4,000-yard passing seasons (14); single-season passing yards (5,477 in 2013); single-season passing touchdowns (55 in 2013); most first-team All-Pros for a quarterback (tie) with seven; and is second in career passing yards (71,940). A two-time Super Bowl winner and Super Bowl 41 MVP.
2: Lawrence Taylor — Simply considered best linebacker ever to rush passer even if his 9 ½ sacks as a rookie didn’t count because sack only became an official statistic for 1982 season. He still finished with 132½ sacks. Also had 1,088 tackles, 33 forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries and nine interceptions. A two-time Super Bowl winner, eight-time All-Pro in his 13 seasons that also included an NFL MVP, three-time AP Defensive Player of Year and the AP Defensive Rookie of Year. Entered Hall of Fame in 1999.
3: Anthony Munoz — One of great offensive linemen in history. Member of NFL’s 75th Anniversary team. Was first-team All-Pro for nine of 13 seasons. Also caught four TDs on tackle-eligible plays. Played in two Super Bowls, losing both to San Francisco. Inducted into Hall of Fame in 1998.
4: Joe Greene — Too easy to remember him only for that wonderful Coke commercial, somewhat overshadowing just how great a player he was. Devised tactic of lining up at a sharp angle to break through blocks, and dominated games by himself, including five sacks in one game. Had career-high 11 sacks in 1972. Hall of Famer started first 91 games and played 181 of possible 190 regular-season games. Four-time Super Bowl winner, 10 Pro Bowls, 1969 AP Defensive Rookie of Year and two-time AP Defensive Player of Year (1972 and 1974).
5: Deion Sanders — “Prime Time” was one of most dominant cornerbacks of all time. At his peak, Sanders took away half of field because teams wouldn’t throw near him. Still managed 53 interceptions. Six-time All-Pro also knew how to find end zone with 22 career TDs (nine pick-6s, six on punt returns, three on kickoff returns, three receiving and one on a fumble return). Pro Football Hall of Famer is only player to appear in both a Super Bowl and a World Series.
6: Jim Brown — Walked away from NFL after nine seasons as league’s all-time leading rusher with 12,312 yards and leading league in 14 other categories, including most seasons topping NFL in rushing (eight); most yards in a season (1,863); most yards in a game (237); and most games with 100 yards or more rushing in a career (58). Also threw three TD passes and returned kicks. Went to Pro Bowl each season, eight times an All-Pro, three-time NFL MVP and won one NFL championship in short Hall of Fame career.
7: Champ Bailey — Cornerback elected in February to Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Finished with 52 interceptions in 15-year career. Three-time All-Pro and member of NFL’s 2000s All-Decade team.
8: Ronnie Lott — The man who let doctors snip off tip of his left pinky finger so he could continue playing. All-Pro at cornerback, free safety and strong safety, and led NFL in interceptions twice (1986 and 1991). Hall of Famer finished with 63 career interceptions and five touchdowns over 14 seasons, not counting nine more picks in playoffs. Four-time Super Bowl winner, six-time All-Pro and 10 Pro Bowls.
9: Bruce Matthews — Durable and versatile offensive lineman for Oilers and Titans. Played in more games (296) than any positional player in NFL history at time of his retirement. Seven-time All-Pro and a member of NFL’s 1990s All-Decade team. Inducted into Hall of Fame in 2007.
10: Rod Woodson — Member of both NFL’s 75th Anniversary team and All-Decade team for 1990s, and AP Defensive Player of Year for 1993. Retired as NFL’s all-time leader with 1,483 yards off 71 career interceptions and also had 1,483 yards in kick returns after 17 seasons. All-Pro as cornerback, kick returner, safety. One Super Bowl, 11 Pro Bowls, made Hall of Fame in 2009.
11: Frank Gifford — Hall of Famer helped lead Giants to NFL championship in 1956. Retired in 1961, returned next season and switched positions from running back to wide receiver. Four-time first-team All-Pro. After playing career ended, he began a long and successful broadcasting career, including “Monday Night Football.”
12: Warren Sapp — Named to NFL’s All-Decade teams for both 1990s and 2000s. Finished with 96½ sacks in 13 seasons. AP Defensive Rookie of Year (1995) and AP Defensive Player of Year (1999). One Super Bowl, four-time All-Pro, seven Pro Bowls, entered Hall of Fame in 2013.
13: Bob Lilly — Hall of Fame defensive lineman was a member of NFL’s 75th Anniversary team. Key part of “Doomsday Defense,” Lilly was Cowboys’ first-ever draft pick in 1961. Missed just one game in his 14-year career. Seven-time All-Pro.
14: Jim Kelly — Tenth in NFL history with 35,467 career passing yards when he retired, sixth for career passer rating (84.4, eighth in completions (2,874) and 13th for TDs (237). Led NFL in passing in 1990, threw for more than 3,000 yards in eight seasons, topped 300 yards in 26 games. Threw for 3,863 and 21 TDs in 17 playoff games, including four straight Super Bowls. Five Pro Bowls, one All Pro, elected to Hall of Fame in 2002.
15: Alan Page — Hall of Fame defensive tackle played in four Super Bowls for Vikings in 1970s. Part of “Purple People Eaters” and a six-time All-Pro who played in 238 straight games. Page was NFL MVP in 1971, first defensive player to win award. After his career, he was selected to Minnesota Supreme Court, awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom.
16: Jerry Rice — Led NFL in receiving yards and TD catches six of his 20 seasons and set league records for receptions (1,549), yards receiving (22,895), most 1,000-yard receiving seasons (14), total TDs (208). Finished with 23,546 combined net yards. Won three Super Bowls, a Super Bowl MVP, 11-time All Pro, 13 Pro Bowls. Two-time AP Offensive Player of Year (1987 and 1993). Made All-Decade teams for 1980s and ’90s, inducted into Hall of Fame in 2010.
17: Emmitt Smith — Hall of Famer is NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns rushing. Along with Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, Smith was dynamic part of three Super Bowl titles with Dallas. Smith was NFL MVP in 1993 and MVP of Super Bowl 28. Four-time All-Pro. Made 1990’s All-Decade team.
18: Art Monk — Set then-NFL records for most consecutive games with at least one catch (183), most catches in a season (106) and career receptions (820). Hall of Famer finished with 940 career catches and 12,721 yards receiving in 16 seasons. Three Super Bowl wins, two-time All Pro, three Pro Bowls.
19: Randall McDaniel — Hall of Fame guard who started 202 consecutive games. Was seven-time All-Pro in his 14 seasons and member of NFL’s 1990s All-Decade team.
20: Jack Youngblood — Broke his left leg in first round of playoffs yet played every defensive snap in both NFC title game and 1980 Super Bowl. Played 201 straight games over 14 seasons and five NFC championship games. Five-time All-Pro, seven Pro Bowls. Made Hall of Fame in 2001.
21: Randy Moss — Hall of Fame wide receiver ranks No. 2 with 156 TD catches. He set NFL record with 23 TD catches in 2007 as Patriots finished regular season at 16-0. Led NFL in TD receptions five times (1998, 2000, 2003, 2007, and 2009). Selected to NFL’s All-Decade Team of 2000s. Four-time All-Pro.
22: Ernie Stautner — One of smallest D-lineman in 1950s, he also was one of toughest. A 14-year dependable DT — he also played some offensive guard — Stautner had three career safeties and recovered 23 fumbles. A team leader and highly popular in Pittsburgh, Stautner made nine Pro Bowls and 1950s All-Decade team. Entered Hall of Fame in 1969.
23: Ray Guy — Considered greatest punter of all time and only member of Hall of Fame who exclusively punted. Member of NFL’s 75th Anniversary team. Won three Super Bowls with Raiders.
24: Ed Reed — Member of NFL’s All-Decade team of 2000s, set NFL record for interception return yards (1,590) and had league’s two longest interception returns (107, 106). Intercepted 64 passes returned for seven TDs, had six sacks and 13 fumble recoveries. One Super Bowl title, AP Defensive Player of Year (2004), six-time All-Pro, nine Pro Bowls. Will be inducted into Hall of Fame in August.
25: Dont’a Hightower — Linebacker is entering eighth season with Patriots. He has won three Super Bowls in his first seven seasons. Hightower has more than 400 tackles and 20 sacks as key part of New England’s defense.
26: Ray Lewis — NFL’s only player with at least 40 career sacks (41 1/2) and 30 career interceptions (31), and second only to Jack Ham (53) in takeaways by linebacker since NFL-AFL merger with 50. Member of NFL’s 2000s All-Decade team. Second player chosen AP Defensive Player of Year and Super Bowl MVP in same year. Finished with 2,643 career tackles over 17 seasons. Two Super Bowl titles, eight-time All-Pro, 12 Pro Bowls, two-time AP Defensive Player of Year (2000 and 2003). Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.
27: Dan Marino — Hall of Famer had one of quickest releases of any QB in history. Had 13 3,000-yard seasons in his 17-year career with Miami. Marino was NFL MVP in 1984, only season he made Super Bowl. He was first player to break 5,000 passing yards in a season. Marino led league in passing five times, was three-time All-Pro.
28: Darrell Green — Member of NFL’s 1990s All-Decade team, he picked off pass in NFL-record 19 straight seasons with 54 career interceptions. Considered one of fastest players ever in NFL, he also averaged nearly 12 yards a return on 51 career punts. Two Super Bowl wins, All-Pro, seven Pro Bowls. Entered Hall of Fame in 2008.
29: Nick Mangold — Leader of Jets’ offensive line that reached two AFC championship games in his 11 seasons in New York. Two-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler.
30: Sam Huff — Helped pioneer middle linebacker position with hard hits and 30 career interceptions, five Pro Bowls, two-time All-Pro and played for six NFL championships, winning one. Inducted into Hall of Fame in 1982.
31: Curley Culp (1968) — Defensive tackle was selected in second round by Denver and was traded during training camp to Kansas City. He was part of Chiefs’ Super Bowl-winning team in 1969 season. Traded to Houston and was All-Pro in 1975 for Oilers. Inducted into Hall of Fame in 2013.
32: Drew Brees (2001) — Already NFL’s all-time leading passer and building on that mark with 74,437 career yards. Also holds NFL records for career completions (6,586) and single-season completion percentage (74.4 percent). Second only to Peyton Manning for NFL career TD passes with 520, a mark Saints QB should grab in 19th season. Selected with opening pick of second round by San Diego.
Here are the best players by round:
1: Jim Brown — Member of NFL’s 75th Anniversary team. Led NFL in rushing eight times and was league MVP three times; finished with more than 12,000 yards rushing and 106 rushing touchdowns; averaged 5.2 yards per carry. And he did all this in only nine seasons before retiring at age 30.
2: Brett Favre — Member of 1990s All-Decade team played record 299 consecutive games over his 302-game career and was three-time NFL MVP in consecutive years. Retired after 20 seasons as NFL’s career leader with completions (6,300), attempts (10,169), yards (71,838) and TDs (508). Threw for at least 4,000 yards in six seasons. Had career-high 107.2 passer rating in his next-to-last season. Won one Super Bowl, three-time All-Pro, 11 Pro Bowls. AP Offensive Player of Year (1995). Inducted into Hall of Fame in 2016.
3: Joe Montana — Member of NFL’s 75th Anniversary team. Led 49ers dynasty of 1980s. Four-time Super Bowl champion and three-time Super Bowl MVP and he never threw an interception in any of those Super Bowls. Especially known for delivering in clutch as he led his teams to 31 fourth-quarter come-from-behind wins. Made Hall of Fame in 2000.
4: Norm Van Brocklin —The “Dutchman” led NFL in passing three seasons despite splitting time with Bob Waterfield at quarterback in 1950 and 1952. He threw for 23,611 yards with 1,553 completions and 173 TD passes. Hit Tom Fears on 73-yard TD pass to clinch NFL title for Rams in 1951, one of two NFL titles for Hall of Famer. NFL MVP, nine Pro Bowls.
5: Dick LeBeau — Was cut by Browns during rookie training camp, then signed with Lions and played 14 seasons in Detroit. Had 62 interceptions, which ranked third at time of his retirement and put him in Hall of Fame. Had more than 40-year coaching career and won two Super Bowls with Steelers.
6: Tom Brady — Six-time Super Bowl champ and three-time MVP was 199th draft selection overall in 2000. Two-time AP Offensive Player of Year (2007, 2010) and AP Comeback Player of Year (2009) has career 97.6 passer rating and has thrown for 70,514 yards with 517 TDs.
7: Shannon Sharpe — Three-time Super Bowl champion led all tight ends in receptions (815), yards (10,060) and TDs (62) at time of his retirement. Member of NFL’s 1990s All-Decade team and four-time first-team All-Pro who made Hall of Fame in 2011.
8: Richard Dent — Retired with 137 1/2 sacks that put him third all-time in NFL behind Reggie White and Bruce Smith, and posted double-digit sacks in eight of his 15 seasons. Led NFL with 17 sacks in 1985. Also had eight interceptions, a safety and recovered fumble for TD. Two-time Super Bowl champ, All-Pro, four Pro Bowls. Entered Hall of Fame in 2011.
9: Johnny Unitas — “Johnny U” was member of NFL’s 75th Anniversary team. Was winning quarterback of “Greatest Game Ever Played,” 1958 NFL championship game. Three-time MVP and five-time All-Pro who threw at least one TD pass in 47 straight games for Baltimore Colts. Inducted into Hall of Fame in 1979.
10: Roger Staubach — Retired with 83.4 passer rating that was NFL’s best at that time. Heisman Trophy winner and Navy veteran played 11 seasons after joining NFL at 27. Won two of four Super Bowls played, and 1971 Super Bowl MVP. Led NFL in passing in four seasons. Hall of Famer completed 1,685 passes for 22,700 yards and 153 TDs. The “Dodger” also ran 410 times for 2,264 yards and 20 TDs. Six Pro Bowls.
11: Tom Fears — Hall of Famer caught then-record 18 passes in one game against Packers in 1950. Was first-team All-Pro pick that season. Caught winning 73-yard TD pass as Rams won 1951 NFL title.
12: George Blanda — Career of 26 seasons and 340 games longest in NFL as Blanda played until age 48. Scored a then-record 2,002 points as quarterback and kicker throwing for 236 TDs with 335 field goals and 943 extra points. Three-time AFL titles, 1961 AP AFL Player of the Year, AFL Hall of Fame 1st team All-1960s team.