Draft Round by Round: Greatest Players Selected in Pro Football
The year was 1935. The Philadelphia Eagles had just completed their third season and again finished at the bottom of the division. In the infancy of their existence, the Eagles had won a sum total of nine games.
At the time, every college football graduate was a free agent, able to sign with whichever team they desired. The blue-chip players usually signed with the teams that offered the largest contract. That was annually the New York Giants, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, clubs which had larger stadium venues and sizeable gates. Another team, the Green Bay Packers, also offered large contracts to players, although their stadium was a third of the size of their big-city neighbors.
From the inception of the NFL in 1920 until 1935, those four clubs had won nine league titles collectively and numerous championship game runner-ups.
Bert Bell, owner of the Eagles, had made an observation. With the top four teams always in title contention while the rest of the league floundered, the bottom-tier clubs were the franchises which failed financially, folded, relocated and were poorly attended every season.
Bell surmised that the process by which NFL teams formed their rosters had to change.
At the subsequent winter owner’s meetings, Bell told his audience that he had a theory that pro football was like a chain—the league is no stronger than its weakest link. He proposed that at the end of each season, the league should pool the names of eligible college seniors and then make selections in reverse order of the standings.
Essentially, this would force good players to play for bad teams, which would make bad teams better. Then attendance would increase, and competition for the league title would become more intense, and teams would be in the hunt longer.
The word “draft” was never used in Bell’s proposal, but once approved, the media called the procedure what it was. And thus, the NFL draft was born.
On February 8, 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, an historic event took place in the annals of the NFL. The very first college player draft was held.
The first-ever draft was comprised of nine rounds. The Eagles, oddly enough, selected first, having posted a 2-9-0 record in 1935. The first player selected was Jay Berwanger, a running back from the University of Chicago. Berwanger was the first winner of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy, which would be renamed the Heisman Trophy the following year. He was known as the “one-man football team” for his powerful runs and bruising style.
Berwanger never played for the Eagles. The problems before the draft were also problems once the draft was instituted. Berwanger demanded $1,000 a game. The Eagles subsequently traded his rights to the Bears, one of the more financially-stable teams in the NFL.
Round and Round
The number of rounds in the draft has changed as the owners saw fit. In 1937, the draft increased to 10 rounds and then to 12 in 1938. From 1939 to 1942, it jumped to 22 rounds.
From 1943 to 1948, another 10 were added to make a grand total of 32 rounds. This was done solely because of World War II. Every club was faced with player shortages, as hundreds of players left their teams and entered the war effort. The owners decided that they should draft just about every eligible graduated senior. This also allowed teams to hold onto rights longer (than the customary one year) once college players returned and now were past their college eligibility.
1949 saw a drop to 25 rounds. From 1950-1959, 30 rounds were the norm. For the NFL in 1960, 20 rounds occurred.
The upstart American Football League (AFL) did not hold a draft in the beginning, but in 1961 it held a 30-round draft with its owners over the telephone. That draft, along with the 1962 version, saw every AFL team being assigned a region of the country in close proximity to each club. This encouraged local college stars to play with regional teams. The ’62 draft increased to 34 rounds.
Every college draft from 1961 to 1966 was fierce. While each league had a “gentlemen’s agreement” not to sign away each other’s veterans under contract, the gloves were certainly off for the new waves of college talent. And nobody did this as well as the AFL.
During this time period, while the NFL was drafting 20 rounds, the AFL plucked 29 rounds of players. All of the big-name players were drafted by both leagues. Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan was a second-round pick of the Boston Patriots in 1963 yet was the sixth player taken in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys.
QB John Hadl was the 10th pick in the first round by the Lions, but chose the AFL’s San Diego Chargers contract instead. He became the first AFL player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In addition, Hadl wore No. 21 as a quarterback in both leagues. In 1973, the NFL passed a uniform numbering system which allowed QBs to only wear numbers 1-19.
The ferocity of the draft changed in 1967. Part of the merger agreement between the two leagues was that a common draft would begin with the ‘67 college draft.
From 1967-1976 the draft was 17 rounds. This decreased to 12 rounds from 1977-1992. With free agency in its infancy and changes made about player movement through the player’s union, the league adopted eight rounds for 1993 and the now-standard seven rounds from 1994 to present.
This has led to what players now refer to as “having been drafted in the eighth round.” Athletes such as Arian Foster, Victor Cruz and Fred Jackson were all passed in the draft and resorted to being signed via a free-agent contract.
“Mr. Irrelevant” was introduced in 1976. This appellation is designated to the last overall player selected in the draft. In 1980, ESPN boss Chet Simmons approached then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle about covering the draft live. Although Rozelle did not believe it would be entertaining television, he agreed. The 1988 draft was moved from a weekday lineup to a Saturday/Sunday event. This catapulted ESPN’s coverage and ratings to new heights.
For the 75th Anniversary of the draft, in 2010 the NFL moved the first round’s coverage to Thursday night. This is typically the most-viewed TV night, and it placed the NFL Draft into Primetime. The second and third rounds take place on Friday, followed by Rounds 4-7 on Saturday.
As should be expected, the first round is bursting with big names, college stars and future Pro Bowlers and Hall of Famers.
The QB position boasts John Elway, Otto Graham, Y.A. Tittle, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath, Sid Luckman, Sammy Baugh, Peyton Manning and Bobby Layne.
Running backs are just as great: Gale Sayers, Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, Glenn Davis, O.J. Simpson, Hugh McElhenny, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Franco Harris, Ollie Matson, Adrian Peterson, Doak Walker and Frank Gifford.
At every position in the first round, there are great players stacked to the ceiling. Picking just one at each position is almost impossible. How can you omit players such as OT John Hannah, WR Lynn Swann, TE Tony Gonzalez, LB Chuck Bednarik, DE DeMarcus Ware and DB Ronnie Lott? Decisions were not easy to say the least, and this list may not be your list.
And as far as the LB choice, yes….the exclusion of Lawrence Taylor was the toughest of any list. But watch a YouTube video of who was selected.
Reader’s note: The first numbers are the year in which the player was drafted. HOF denotes a player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, followed by induction year. It should also be noted that the team that drafted the player wasn’t always the team in which the player gained most of his fame. Guy was the first and only punter ever to be selected in the first round in the NFL Draft.
QB 1983 Dan Marino, Dolphins HOF 1970
RB 1991 Emmitt Smith, Cowboys HOF 2010
FB 1957 Jim Brown, Browns HOF 1971
OL 1980 Anthony Munoz, OT Bengals HOF 1998
WR 1985 Jerry Rice, 49ers HOF 2010
TE 1978 Ozzie Newsome, Browns HOF 1999
DL 1969 “Mean” Joe Greene, Steelers HOF 1987
LB 1965 Dick Butkus, HOF 1979
DB 1989 Deion “Primetime” Sanders, HOF 2011
P/K 1973 Ray Guy, P Raiders
For some odd reason, the second round has been very productive for selecting great QBs and LBs. How can you argue with Ken Stabler, Drew Brees, Randall Cunningham or Boomer Esiaison? Or linebackers Jack Ham, Chad Brown, Chris Spielman, Ken Lanier, Bill George and Jack Lambert?
QB 1991 Brett Favre, Falcons
RB 2006 Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars
FB 1936 Alphonse "Tuffy" Leemans, Giants HOF 1978
OL 1988 Dermontti Dawson, OG Steelers HOF 2012
WR 1965 Fred Biletnikoff, Raiders HOF 2006
TE 1963 John Mackey, HOF 1992
DL 1952 Gino Marchetti, Yanks HOF 1972
LB 1981 Mike Singletary, Bears HOF 1998
DB 1967 Lem Barney, Lions HOF 1992
P/K 1992 Jason Hanson, K Lions
Future QB greats rule this round: Matt Schaub, Dan Fouts, Fran Tarkenton, Don Meredith and John Hadl. Stenerud is one of three kickers enshrined in the HOF but the first dedicated kicker.
QB 1979 Joe Montana, 49ers HOF 2000
RB 1995 Curtis Martin, Patriots
FB 2005 Frank Gore, 49ers
OL 1968 Art Shell, Raiders HOF 1989
WR 1957 Tommy McDonald, Eagles HOF 1998
TE 2003 Jason Witten, Cowboys
DL 1972 Harvey Martin, Cowboys
LB 1958 Ray Nitschke, Packers HOF 1978
DB 1970 Mel Blount, Steelers HOF 1989
P/K 1966 Jan Stenerud, Chiefs HOF 1991
An abundance of world-class WRs were selected here: Cris Carter, Andre Reed, Roy Green, John Stallworth, Cliff Branch, Vic Washington and Charlie Joiner. Andersen is the NFL’s all-time leading scorer.
QB 1949 Norm “The Dutchman” Van Brocklin, HOF 1971
RB 1990 Chris Warren, Seahawks
FB 2007 Le'Ron McClain, Ravens
OL 1976 Tom Rafferty, OG Cowboys
WR 1976 Steve Largent, Oilers HOF 1995
TE 1985 Mark Bavaro, Giants
DL 2004 Jared Allen, Chiefs
LB 1976 Harry Carson, Giants HOF 2006
DB 1958 Erich Barners, Bears
P/K 1982 Morten “The Great Dane” Andersen, K Saints
There are too many RBs to choose from: Barry Foster, Dorsey Levens, Hershel Walker and Dave Meggett. Defensive line had plenty of options as well: Aaron Kampman, Dexter Manley and Michael Sinclair. Pihos was one semester short of a law degree when he turned to pro football.
QB 1944 Bob Waterfield, Rams HOF 1965
RB 1966 Walt Garrison, Cowboys
FB 2004 Michael Turner, Chargers
OL 1974 Mike Webster, OC Steelers HOF
WR 1945 Pete Pihos, Eagles HOF 1970
TE 1991 Ben Coates, Patriots
DL 1957 Henry Jordan, Browns HOF 1995
LB 1996 Zach Thomas, Dolphins
DB 1977 Lester Hayes, Raiders
P/K 1983 Jim Arnold, P Chiefs
I hated to boot Neil Rackers off the kicker list. And there were DBs aplenty: Dick Lynch, Al Harris, Bo Orlando and Dwight Hicks.
QB 2000 Tom Brady, Patriots
RB 1995 Terrell Davis, Broncos
FB 1966 Emerson Boozer, Jets
OL 1954 Jim Ray Smith, OT Browns
WR 1971 Mel Gray, Cardinals
TE 1985 Jay Novacek, Cardinals
DL 1977 Joe Klecko, Jets
LB 1994 Lee Woodall, 49ers
DB 1951 Jack Christiansen, Lions HOF 1970
P/K 1983 Reggie Roby, P Dolphins
This was the year of the unsung offensive linemen: Adam Timmerman, Max Montoya and Scott Wells. Also, there were quite a few pass defenders: Cortland Finnegan, Jake Scott and Ron Fellows. And WRs: Marques Colston, T. J. Houshmandzadeh and Harold Carmichael.
QB 2005 Matt Cassel, Patriots
RB 1958 Bobby Mitchell, Browns HOF 1983
FB 1991 James Joseph, Eagles
OL 1967 Rayfield Wright, OT Cowboys HOF 2006
WR 1964 “Bullet” Bob Hayes, HOF 2009
TE 1990 Shannon Sharpe, Broncos
DL 1977 Carl Hairston, Eagles
LB 1963 Bobby Bell, Chiefs HOF 1983
DB 1960 Larry Wilson, Cardinals HOF 1978
P/K 1982 Gary Anderson, K Bills
Kicker Pete Stoyanovich was a close call in this round. Cox would gain his fame while playing for the Vikings and is still their all-time leading scorer. He would later invent the Nerf football.
QB 1981 Wade Wilson, Vikings
RB 1963 Hewritt Dixon, Broncos
FB 1964 Leroy Kelly, Browns
OL 1987 Kevin Gogan, OG Cowboys
WR 1983 Mark Clayton, Dolphins
TE 1991 Frank Wainright, Saints
DL 1983 Richard Dent, Bears HOF 2011
LB 1986 Seth Joyner, Eagles
DB 1984 Eugene Daniel, Colts
P/K 1960 Fred Cox, Browns
Unitas never played a down in six preseason games for the Steelers. He was cut and played for a minor league team for one full season before a tryout with the Colts. There were many great RBs to choose from in this round: Terry Allen, Johnny Bailey and Stump Mitchell. Maynard has the distinction of being the first player to gain yardage in an overtime game when he fielded the kickoff in the 1958 game against the Colts.
QB 1955 Johnny Unitas, Steelers HOF 1979
RB 1941 Tony Canadeo, Packers HOF 1974
FB 1985 Thomas Sanders, Bears
OL 1936 Dan Fortmann, OG Bears HOF 1965
WR 1957 Don Maynard, Giants HOF 1987
TE 1987 Keith McKellar, Bills
DL 1971 Vern Den Herder, Dolphins
LB 1977 Scott Studwell, Vikings
DB 1967 Ken Houston, Oilers HOF 1986
P/K 1983 Ali Haji-Sheikh, K Giants
The defensive line had a lot of challengers in this round: L.C. Greenwood, Brad Culpepper and Mike Lodish.
QB 1964 Roger Staubach, HOF 1985
RB 1986 Via Sikahema, Cardinals
FB 1987 Merril Hoge, Steelers
OL 1989 Mark Schlereth, OG Redskins
WR 1987 Robert Clark, Saints
TE 1979 Dwight Clark, 49ers
DL 1986 Clyde Simmons, Eagles
LB 1985 Reggie McKenzie, Raiders
DB 1984 Shaun Gayle, Bears
P/K 1986 Tommy Barnhardt, P Buccaneers
Fears is arguably the fourth-greatest WR in NFL history and was part of a dominant Rams team.
QB 1985 Doug Flutie, Rams
RB 1983 Tim Spencer, Chargers
FB 1953 Alex Webster, Giants
OL 1985 Raleigh McKenzie, OG Redskins
WR 1945 Tom Fears, Rams HOF 1970
TE 1970 Mack Alston, Redskins
DL 1965 Jethro Pugh, Cowboys
LB 1979 Monte Coleman, Redskins
DB 1971 Mike Wagner, Steelers
P/K 1963 Jerrel Wilson, P Chiefs
Taliaferro was the first black player drafted in the NFL but played in another league. He would go on to become a juvenile court judge. Lavelli is still one of the greatest WRs.
QB 1949 George Blanda, Bears HOF 1981
RB 1949 George Taliaferro, Bears
FB 1991 Bob Christian, Falcons
OL 1950 Ray Wietecha, Giants
WR 1947 Dante Lavelli, Rams HOF 1975
TE 1968 Bob Trumpy, Bengals
DL 1979 Dave Logan, Buccaneers
LB 1983 Karl Mecklenburg, Broncos
DB 1972 Joe Lavendar, Eagles
P/K 1992 Klaus Wilmsmeyer, P Bucs
Lockhart was one of the NFL’s first premier defensive backs. Upon his death in 1986, the Giants wore spider patches on their uniforms en route to winning Super Bowl XXI. O'Neal is best known for kicking the longest punt in pro football history, with a 98-yard beauty between the Jets and the Broncos.
QB 1945 Charley Conerly, Redskins
RB 1961 Elijah Pitts, Packers
FB 1970 Don Highsmith, Raiders
OL 1975 Herbert Scott, OG Cowboys
WR 1975 Bob Gaddis, Bills
TE 1972 Jean Fugett, Cowboys
DL 1944 Ray Poole, Giants
LB 1962 Nick Buonicotti, Patriots
DB 1965 Carl “Spider” Lockhart, Giants
P/K 1969 Steve O’Neal, P Jets
Briscoe was not the first black QB but in 1968 became the first starting black QB in NFL history. He later switched to WR and played on the Dolphins' undefeated/untied team in 1972. Owens is the inventor of the “Alley Oop” play, used mainly in basketball today. Jones coined the term "sack."
QB 1968 Marlin Briscoe, Broncos
RB 1962 Ernie Green, Packers
FB 1948 Chick Jagade, Redskins
OL 1975 Joe Fields, OC Jets
WR 1956 R.C. Owens, 49ers
TE 1967 Chet Anderson, Steelers
DL 1960 David "Deacon" Jones, Rams HOF 1980
LB 1973 Brian Kelley, Giants
DB 1975 Randy Rhino, Saints
P/K 1974 Mark Moseley, K Redskins
“White Shoes” Johnson is credited with end-zone celebrations. Davis was used as an offensive tackle while with the Browns, but the Packers switched him to defensive end, where he played for 10 years and earned five Pro Bowls.
QB 1973 John Hufnagel, Broncos
RB 1972 Tom Sullivan, Eagles
FB 1955 J. D. Smith, Bears
OL 1939 Tom Greenfield, OC Packers
WR 1974 Billly "White Shoes" Johnson, Oilers
TE 1973 Gary Parris, Chargers
DL 1956 Willie Davis, Browns HOF 1981
LB 1960 Larry Grantham, Colts
DB 1943 Russ Craft, Eagles
P/K 1975 Bob Thomas, K Rams
Russell went to seven Pro Bowls and won two Super Bowls. After his rookie season, Bleier was wounded in the Vietnam War and earned a roster spot after being waived two straight seasons.
QB 1964 Bill Munson, Oilers
RB 1969 Rocky Bleier, Steelers
FB 1965 Junior Coffe,y Oilers
OL 1939 Dick Farman, OT Redskins
WR 1975 John McKay, Jr., Browns
TE 1964 John Hilton, Bills
DL 1948 Bill McPeak, Steelers
LB 1963 Andy Russell, Steelers
DB 1969 Lloyd Mumphord, Dolphins
P/K 1966 David Ray, K Browns
Who can beat out Jack Kemp or Bob Lee for the QB spot? Harper gained his fame by opening holes for Walter Payton.
QB 1956 Bart Starr, Packers HOF 1977
RB 1971 Don Nottingham, Colts
FB 1975 Roland Harper, Bears
OL 1974 Lawrie Skolrood, OT Cowboys
WR 1971 Randy Vataha, Rams
TE 1947 Elbie Nickel, Steelers
DL 1945 Arnie Weinmeister, Brooklyn Tigers HOF 1984
LB 1953 Harland Svare, Rams
DB 1960 Goose Gonsoulin, 49ers
P/K 1972 David Green, P Bengals
Two future NFL coaches were selected in this round.
QB 1964 George Mira, Broncos
RB 1966 Charlie Harraway, Browns
FB 1964 Sherm Lewis, Browns
OL 1963 Dave O’Brien, OT Patriots
WR 1945 Jim Keane, Bears
TE 1965 Rich Kotite, Vikings
DL 1965 Ed McQuarters, Cardinals
LB 1965 Chris Hanburger, Redskins
DB 1964 Alvin Hammond, Colts
P/K 1965 David Lee, P Patriots
Triplett was the first black player to be drafted and play for an NFL team. Osbourne gained famed as head coach of Nebraska for 25 seasons and then served six years in the House of Representatives. Ettinger is the inventor of the blitz, which he called the “red dog.”
QB 1965 Billy Anderson, Rams
RB 1949 Wallace Triplett, Lions
FB 1965 Jim Nance, Patriots
OL 1964 Bob Young, OT Cardinals
WR 1958 Tom Osbourne, 49ers
TE 1961 Tony Romeo, Redskins
DL 1951 Andy Robustelli, Rams HOF 1971
LB 1949 Don Ettinger, Giants
DB 1963 Eugene Sykes, Bills
P/K1963 Jim Turner, K Redskins
Two future NFL coaching greats are included in this list. Berry is the third-greatest WR in NFL history and invented a drill that is still used today, called the “bad ball drill.”
QB 1964 Dick Shiner, Jets
RB 1948 Cloyce Box, Redskins
FB 1965 Bo Scott, Raiders
OL 1964 Bill Curry, OC Packers
WR 1954 Raymond Berry, Colts HOF 1973
TE 1961 Jacque MacKinnon, Eagles
DL 1944 Ray Kuffel, Cardinals
LB 1953 Chuck Noll, Browns
DB 1947 Tom Landry, Giants
P/K 1960 Don Flynn, P Texans