The Best NFL Draft Picks in History

The annual draft is one way NFL teams acquire players coming out of college. Picking the right athletes is important in a league that doesn’t have as much trade or free agent activity as other pro sports leagues. Throughout the years, many draft picks have been busts, failing to live up to their potential entering the NFL. On the flipside: The best NFL draft picks have exceeded expectations and proved haters wrong, creating underdog tales that live on well past retirement.

The best NFL draft picks in history

CBS Sports lists its list of the best NFL draft picks, but this is a subjective topic and not everyone agrees. Here’s our top five:

1. Tom Brady

It’s hard not to pick Tom Brady as the best draft pick ever — possibly in any sport. The Patriots took him in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft, and he has become the greatest quarterback in football history. The now-44-year-old has won six Super Bowls with the Patriots before winning a seventh with the Buccaneers last season.

2. Joe Montana

The 49ers took Joe Montana with the 82nd overall pick in the 1979 NFL Draft. He went on to play 13 seasons for them and win four Super Bowls in San Francisco. Considered one of the best quarterbacks in history, Montana went in the third round to the 49ers.

3. Peyton Manning

The Colts made Peyton Manning the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 draft, so he wasn’t a value pick like Brady or Montana, but his stats speak for themselves. He ranks in the top five in major passing categories, including completions, yards, and touchdowns. Despite only two Super Bowl titles, Manning’s skill and stats make him one of the best NFL draft picks.

4. Roger Staubach

The Cowboys got Roger Staubach in the 10th round of the 1964 NFL Draft, which is a draft round that doesn’t even exist anymore. The quarterback led Dallas to five Super Bowl appearances, including two wins, in his 11-year career with the team.

5. Emmitt Smith

Another longtime Cowboy, Emmitt Smith was the 17th overall pick in 1990 and played a major role in the Cowboys’ dynasty in the ’90s when the team won three Super Bowls. Smith would go on to become the league’s all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns.

What was the best NFL draft ever?

NFL Player Eric Dickerson poses with ownership of the Rams after he was selected in the first round by the team
Standing between Rams owner Georgia Frontiere and coach John Robinson, Eric Dickerson is introduced shortly after the 1983 NFL Draft | Bettmann/Contributor

When you discuss the best NFL draft class ever, 1983 always lands at the center of the conversation. Eight players from that year’s draft have become Hall of Famers; 42 Pro Bowlers emerged from the event as well. Just the quarterbacks alone make it a top class, with John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino all chosen in the first round.

Although Elway is the only one who won Super Bowls, all three had tremendous careers under center. Other Hall of Famers chosen in ’83 include Eric Dickerson, who remains in the top 10 in career rushing yards almost 30 years after he retired, and Bruce Matthews, who is ranked No. 3 all-time in games played and made 14 Pro Bowls in his career.

Which college has the most first-round NFL picks?

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

What college is the most prolific when it comes to first-round draft picks? The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is Alabama. According to Sports Illustrated, Alabama was tied with Ohio State with 31 prior to the 2020 draft. Alabama added four more first-rounders that year and six this year.

Some of the best Alabama alum selected in the first round include Julio Jones and Mark Ingram, both in the 2011 draft, as well as 2021’s No. 5 pick Tua Tagovailoa, who the Dolphins hope is their franchise quarterback. The rest of the top five schools in terms of volume of first-round picks are:

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

The Buckeyes have 35 first-round picks, including defensive star A.J. Hawk, brothers Nick and Joey Bosa, and Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.

3. Miami Hurricanes

Miami (FL) has had 32 players selected in the first round of the draft. The prolific list features numerous Hall of Famers, including Jim Kelly, Michael Irvin, Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis, and Ed Reed.

4. Florida State Seminoles

Twenty-four Florida State alumni have been chosen in the first round of the NFL draft throughout the years. Some of the most successful selections include Lawrence Timmons, Jalen Ramsey, and Antonio Cromartie.

5. USC Trojans

The Trojans have had 24 players selected in the opening round of the draft. Some names that NFL fans will recognize include Clay Matthews III, Troy Polamalu, and Carson Palmer.

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