by Julian Spivey
32. Drew Brees (San Diego Chargers – 2001)
San Diego had one helluva 2001 NFL Draft. The team originally had the no. 1 overall pick that year but traded it to the Atlanta Falcons (who selected quarterback Michael Vick) for the fifth pick. The Chargers selected future hall of fame running back LaDanian Tomlinson with that pick. Then with the first pick of the second round they drafted quarterback Drew Brees out of Purdue. Brees was expected to go mid-to-late first round, but some thought his six foot height was a bit small for an NFL QB. Rather idiotically the Chargers acquired Philip Rivers in a 2004 NFL Draft day trade and Brees would leave for New Orleans after the 2005 season as a free agent. Brees would become a legend with the Saints leading them to the first ever Super Bowl title in franchise history and he’s become the NFL’s all-time leader in touchdown passes, passing yardage and completions.
31. Curley Culp (Denver Broncos – 1968)
Curley Culp would become one of the most feared defensive tackles of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, mostly for the Kansas City Chiefs, but never played a single NFL game for the Denver Broncos, who selected him 31st overall (the fourth pick of the second round) in the 1968 draft. Their loss. Culp would win Super Bowl IV with the Chiefs, while making six Pro Bowl teams and winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1975. Culp was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
30. Sam Huff (New York Giants – 1956)
When Sam Huff was drafted by the New York Giants out of West Virginia in 1956 as the 30th overall selection it was already the third round of the draft. Huff would become one of football’s most fearsome linebackers of the late ‘50s and ‘60s with the Giants and Washington and is a member of both team’s Rings of Honor. Huff was a five-time Pro Bowler, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.
29. Fran Tarkenton (Minnesota Vikings – 1961)
Fran Tarkenton was drafted by both the NFL and AFL in 1961. The Minnesota Vikings selected him 29th overall in the third round of the draft in the NFL draft. The Boston Patriots selected him in the fifth round of the AFL Draft. He signed with the Vikings and would go on to become the greatest quarterback in franchise history leading the team to three Super Bowls, unfortunately losing all three. The nine-time Pro Bowler was named league MVP in 1975.
28. Darrell Green (Washington Redskins – 1983)
Cornerback Darrell Green would be the final first round selection of the 1983 NFL Draft by Washington. He would go on to be one of the franchise’s greatest defensive players of all-time and one of the most feared defensive backs of his era. Green would win two Super Bowls with Washington and was named to seven Pro Bowls. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
27. Dan Marino (Miami Dolphins – 1983)
Dan Marino was part of the famous quarterback club of the 1983 NFL Draft and the lowest selected future hall of famer of the three to be inducted from the first round of that draft. The Miami Dolphins took Marino out of the University of Pittsburgh with the 27th pick. He would go on to become the best player in the history of the franchise, but notably also likely the greatest player in NFL history to never win a Super Bowl.
26. Ray Lewis (Baltimore Ravens – 1996)
Ray Lewis is arguably the second greatest linebacker in NFL history behind Lawrence Taylor, who you’ll see a little bit later on this list. The Baltimore Ravens selected Lewis out of the University of Miami with the 26th pick in the 1996 draft. Lewis would lead a terrifying Ravens defense to its two franchise Super Bowl titles, the first in 2001 and the final in his farewell season in 2012. The 13-time Pro Bowler was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year winner in 2000 and 2003.
25. Stanley Morgan (New England Patriots – 1977)
In a list filled with Pro Football Hall of Famers and some of the most legendary names to ever set foot on a gridiron here we have Stanley Morgan, a name many hardcore football fans may not even recognize. It seems crazy that in the long history of the league that a position this high in the draft wouldn’t have a greater name than Stanley Morgan, but let’s stop ragging on the poor guy. Morgan was selected with the 25th overall pick in the 1977 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots and would go on to make four Pro Bowls for the franchise. Here’s a Stanley Morgan tidbit – he’s the NFL record holder for most yards per catch for a career at 19.2.
24. Ed Reed (Baltimore Ravens – 2002)
The Baltimore Ravens sure knew how to draft excellent defensive talent in the first round in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. In the 2002 they took safety Ed Reed from the University of Miami and he went on to be the best and most feared safety in the league for the majority of his career. Reed would win a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2012, was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 and was a nine-time Pro Bowler.
23. Ozzie Newsome (Cleveland Browns – 1978)
The Cleveland Browns selected Ozzie Newsome 23rd overall in the 1978 NFL Draft out of the University of Alabama. Newsome would go on to be one of the league’s most dominant, if not the most dominant, tight end of the 1980s. The three-time Pro Bowler finished his career with the most receiving yards and receptions in Browns franchise history. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
22. Ernie Stautner (Pittsburgh Steelers – 1950)
Ernie Stautner might not be a household name today among NFL fans, but he was one of the game’s best defensive tackles in the 1950s. Selected 22nd overall in the second round of the 1950 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Stautner would go on to make nine Pro Bowl teams and was named the league’s best lineman in 1957. Stautner was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969.
21. Randy Moss (Minnesota Vikings – 1998)
It’s somewhat crazy that Randy Moss, often considered the second greatest receiver in NFL history behind only Jerry Rice, could go as late as 21st overall in the first round. The stand-out from Marshall was taken by the Minnesota Vikings and would go on to excite the league with his circus catches with the team for seven seasons. Moss would also notably team up with quarterback Tom Brady for a few season stint with the New England Patriots. Moss would be named to six Pro Bowl teams, lead the league in receiving touchdowns five times and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.
20. Jack Youngblood (Los Angeles Rams – 1971)
Jack Youngblood was one tough sonuvabitch. One of my all-time favorite NFL stories was how Youngblood broke his leg in 1979 and still played the entire postseason and in Super Bowl XIV. Youngblood was taken with the 20th pick by the L.A. Rams in 1971 and would play his entire 14-season career with the franchise. Youngblood was named to seven Pro Bowls, was the NFC Defensive Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons (’75 & ’76) and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
19. Marvin Harrison (Indianapolis Colts – 1996)
The Indianapolis Colts selected wide receiver Marvin Harrison with the 19th selection in the 1996 NFL Draft out of Syracuse and he would reward the franchise by playing his entire 13-season career with them and becoming the greatest receive in franchise history. Every great quarterback had a great receiver catching passes for them and for Peyton Manning it was Harrison. Harrison won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, was named to eight Pro Bowls, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
18. Paul Krause (Washington Redskins – 1964)
Paul Krause played the bulk of his career with the Minnesota Vikings, but he was drafted 18th overall (in the second round) by Washington in 1964 out of the University of Iowa. Krause would become one of the greatest defensive backs in NFL history and to this day his 81 career interceptions are an NFL record. Krause would make eight Pro Bowls during his career and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998.
17. Emmitt Smith (Dallas Cowboys – 1990)
Emmitt Smith would go on to rush for more yards than any running back in the history of the NFL and would certainly appear on a Mount Rushmore of running backs, but he wasn’t originally the Dallas Cowboys first option. The Cowboys wanted to draft Baylor linebacker James Francis, but he was selected before them by the Cincinnati Bengals. After Francis was taken the Cowboys decided to focus on their running game and Smith was falling in the draft due to some GMs believing he was too small for the NFL despite collegiate success at the University of Florida. The Cowboys moved up four positions, giving the Pittsburgh Steelers a third round pick, to take Smith overall. It obviously became one of the all-time draft steals.
16. Jerry Rice (San Francisco 49ers – 1985)
Jerry Rice seems to top more “greatest NFL players of all-time” lists than any other in NFL history, thus making his selection at the 16th pick a genuinely great draft steal when the San Francisco 49ers took him there out of Mississippi Valley State. If the 49ers hadn’t scooped him up with that pick, the Dallas Cowboys were set to take him with the very next selection. Rice was more highly sought after by the NFL’s then competition, the United States Football League with the Birmingham Stallions selecting him first overall in that draft. Rice decided on the NFL and the USFL would fold the next year. Rice would go on to win three Super Bowls with the 49ers, while making 13 Pro Bowls and setting virtually every important record for the wide receiver position.
15. Alan Page (Minnesota Vikings – 1967)
Only two defensive players in the history of the NFL have ever been named Most Valuable Player of the league – Lawrence Taylor (who you’ll see a bit later on this list) and Alan Page. Page, a defensive tackle, was drafted 15th overall by the Minnesota Vikings and would become a key member of their feared Purple People Eaters defense of the ‘70s. Page led the Vikings to four Super Bowls, but unfortunately the team never won one. He would be named to nine Pro Bowls and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.
14. Jim Kelly (Buffalo Bills – 1983)
Jim Kelly was the second future Hall of Fame quarterback selected in the famed QB class of the 1983 draft and much like the first overall pick in that draft – John Elway by the Baltimore Colts who forced a trade to the Denver Broncos by refusing to play for the team – his selection proved to be a bit controversial. Kelly was taken by the Buffalo Bills, who he’d play his entire Hall of Fame career with, but he first shunned the Bills to join the NFL’s rival USFL and play for the Houston Gamblers. When the USFL folded in 1986 he moved over to the Bills and would help lead the team to four consecutive Super Bowls, all of which the team lost, from 1990-1993. Kelly would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
13. Tony Gonzalez (Kansas City Chiefs – 1997)
Tony Gonzalez is arguably the greatest tight end in the history of the NFL and the Kansas City Chiefs knew he had a world of potential during the 1997 NFL Draft when they traded up five positions to select him out of the University of California. When Gonzalez’s stellar career was said and done, he’d have the second most receptions in NFL history (he’s since been surpassed by Arizona Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald to slip to third).
12. Warren Sapp (Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 1995)
Warren Sapp was set to be drafted much higher in the 1995 NFL Draft than 12th overall, but the night before the draft reports appeared of multiple failed cocaine and marijuana tests that saw him slip to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The defensive tackle would go on to become one of Tampa Bay’s greatest players of all-time and helped to lead the to the only Super Bowl title in franchise history in the 2002 season. Sapp’s 96.5 sacks are the second most in league history for a defensive tackle. He would make seven Pro Bowls and win Defensive Player of the Year in 1999. Sapp was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
11. Frank Gifford (New York Giants – 1952)
This might be the most controversial selection of this list as I’m taking Frank Gifford, who became a standout for the New York Giants as both a halfback and a receiver, over Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Dallas Cowboys hall of fame receiver Michael Irvin. Gifford would score 77 career touchdowns in a 12-year career for the Giants (43 receiving and 34 rushing). He was the league’s MVP in 1956, the same year he led the Giants to the NFL Championship title.
10. Rod Woodson (Pittsburgh Steelers – 1987)
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected defensive back Rod Woodson with the 10th overall pick in the 1987 NFL Draft out of Purdue and he would go on to become one of the most feared defensive backs in the league for 17 seasons (10 of which he spent in Pittsburgh). Woodson would win Super Bowl XXXV with the Baltimore Ravens and was a part of many greatest defensives in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Oakland. The 11-time Pro Bowler was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1993 with the Steelers and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
9. Bruce Matthews (Houston Oilers – 1983)
Back when The Word did a Greatest Football Players of All-Time tournament during the most recent football season fans voted Bruce Matthews as the greatest offensive lineman of all-time. Matthews was selected ninth overall in the 1983 NFL Draft by the Houston Oilers and would spend his entire 19-season career with the Oilers/Tennessee Titans franchise. Matthews was so versatile that he started at every position on the offensive line throughout his career and incredibly never missed a single game in 19 seasons. The 14-time Pro Bowl was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
8. Ronnie Lott (San Francisco 49ers – 1981)
Ronnie Lott was likely the most feared defensive back in the history of the NFL. He was selected eighth overall in the 1981 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers and would lead that defense to four Super Bowl titles in the ‘80s. Lott was such a tough SOB that he once had doctors amputate the top of his left pinky finger just so he wouldn’t miss games. The 10-time Pro Bowler was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
7. Adrian Peterson (Minnesota Vikings – 2007)
Adrian Peterson, the University of Oklahoma standout running back, was taken seventh overall by the Minnesota Vikings in 2007 and has been the league’s top running back in the almost decade and a half since that pick. Peterson was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player with the Vikings in 2012 when he became just the fifth player to ever rush for more than 3,000 yards in a season. The seven-time Pro Bowler to date is still going strong as Washington’s running back and rushed for almost 900 yards in 15 games last season. His 14,216 rushing yards are currently the fifth most in NFL history, three of the four guys ahead of him are also on this list.
6. Jim Brown (Cleveland Browns – 1957)
Some consider Jim Brown to be the greatest player to ever set foot on the gridiron and perhaps he’d appear at the top of even more lists had he not retired young after just nine seasons. The Cleveland Browns selected Jim Brown out of Syracuse with the sixth pick in the NFL Draft and he’d go on to be the greatest player – by far – that franchise has ever seen. Making the Pro Bowl every season of his career Brown retired as the league’s all-time leading rusher. He led the Browns to the NFL Championship title in 1964, the most recent title in franchise history and was a three-time league Most Valuable Player.
5. Deion Sanders (Atlanta Falcons – 1989)
A two-sport star at both football and baseball Deion Sanders was taken with the fifth overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons out of Florida State. Sanders is considered by many to be the greatest cornerback in league history, spending the bulk of his career with the Falcons and the Cowboys. He’d win back-to-back Super Bowls with two different teams (San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys) in the mid-‘90s and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1994.
4. Walter Payton (Chicago Bears – 1975)
The Chicago Bears had experienced some down years after the retirement of their star running back Gale Sayers in 1972 and sought to reenergize its running game by taking Walter Payton out of Jackson State with the fourth overall pick in the 1975 NFL Draft. They certainly wouldn’t regret that decision as Payton went on to become one of the two-to-four greatest running backs in NFL history and retired as the league’s all-time leading rusher (a record since broken by Emmitt Smith). Payton would be named to nine Pro Bowls, win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award in 1977 and lead the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl title in the 1985 season.
3. Barry Sanders (Detroit Lions – 1989)
The greatest running backs in the history of the NFL are all on this list (Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith) and Barry Sanders was taken highest of them all in the draft when the Detroit Lions selected him third overall in 1989. Sanders would spend his entire 10-year career with the Lions before retiring early, something that certainly kept him from surpassing Walter Payton as the league’s all-time leading rusher (which Emmitt Smith ultimately did). Sanders won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award in 1997 and was named a Pro Bowler in all 10 of his seasons (like Jim Brown had done decades before him).
2. Lawrence Taylor (New York Giants – 1981)
Lawrence Taylor is almost always considered to be the greatest defensive player in NFL history and it all started at the 1981 NFL Draft when the New York Giants took him with the second overall pick. Taylor would lead the Giants defense to two Super Bowl titles in 1986 and 1990 and was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year three times (1981, 1982 and 1986). In 1986, Taylor became just the second defensive player in league history to win Most Valuable Player (and he still is to this day). Taylor would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
1. Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts – 1998)
I could’ve gone with John Elway, who spurned the Colts franchise after being taken first overall in 1983, but I think Peyton Manning, the one who stuck it out with the Colts, is the rightful selection here. Manning is arguably one of the three greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and retired with the most touchdown passes and passing yardage in league history (he’s since been passed by Drew Brees and Tom Brady). Manning quarterbacked two teams to Super Bowl titles, the Colts in the 2006 season and the Denver Broncos in his final season in 2015. The 14-time Pro Bowler won an incredibly five Most Valuable Player awards in his career and holds the record for most passing yards and touchdowns in a single season.