5 Biggest Steals from Each Round of the Draft in NFL History

Field YatesCorrespondent IIIApril 19, 2012

5 Biggest Steals from Each Round of the Draft in NFL History

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    Some of the best players in NFL history weren't highly touted coming out of college.

    Tom Brady was pick No. 199 in 2000, taken after quarterbacks who quickly washed out of the league. Zach Thomas waited until Day 2, but had a clear Hall of Fame career. Shannon Sharpe was very close to being undrafted, but he now represents the gold standard for the tight end position.

    Here are the five biggest steals from each draft round in NFL history.

Round 1: Marino Fits the Bill

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    A note to start: No matter where a player is selected, he's not unqualified to be a steal.  A steal, in my eyes, is a player who far exceeds expectations that were associated with where he was drafted.  Just because a guy was picked in the first round, it doesn't prevent him from overachieving and outperforming his draft slot. With that in mind, here are five first-round steals.

    Dan Marino, 1983, No. 27 to Miami: The sixth and final quarterback taken in the first round in 1984 (behind the likes of Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien), Marino went on to enjoy one of the most statistically decorated careers in NFL history.  He went to nine Pro Bowls, won an MVP and took the Dolphins to a Super Bowl in 1984.

    Aaron Rodgers, 2005, No. 24 to Green Bay: It took a while, but once Rodgers got his shot, he cashed in.  And the Packers couldn't be happier for it.  He's already won a Super Bowl and an MVP in four years as a starter, and to think that San Francisco hitched its wagon to Alex Smith with pick No. 1. And Jason Campbell was drafted just a pick behind Rodgers...  

    Ray Lewis, 1996, No. 26 to Baltimore: By the end of Week 1 of the 2012 season, Ray Lewis will have surpassed 2,000 career tackles.  He's the undisputed leader of a Ravens defense that has been excellent for more than a decade and is perhaps the greatest middle linebacker to ever play the game. 

    Jerry Rice, 1985, No. 16 to San Francisco: If Jerry Rice had gone first overall, I'd still consider it a steal, as he's easily the greatest receiver in NFL history and perhaps the finest player to ever step onto the gridiron, regardless of position. The 49ers' track record of drafting was so superior during the 1980s, and no player exemplifies that more than Rice.

    Jack Youngblood, 1971, No. 20 to the Los Angeles Rams: The Hall of Fame defensive end was a catalyst of the Rams' defense throughout his 14-season career, recording 151.5 sacks and earning five first-team All-Pro selections. It would have been an absolute treat to see him play in this era of dominant pass-rushers. 

Round 2: Elite QBs Can Be Found Here

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    Mike Singletary, 1981, No. 38 to Chicago: It's no matter that Singletary was drafted near the top of the second round; he's a steal based on the fact that he made it out of the first round.  Not only that, but he became a critical member of maybe the best defense of all time and was enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame.  He hasn't been quite as successful as a coach, but there's no denying his success as a player.

    Brett Favre, 1991, No. 33 to Atlanta: Think the Falcons were kicking themselves for trading Favre after he went on to win a Super Bowl and multiple MVP trophies with Green Bay?  I do, too, but hats off to the Falcons for identifying the talent in the Southern Miss quarterback and doing what no team in the first round was willing to—take a chance on him.  Problem was, that came in the form of a roster spot, not a starting role.

    Drew Brees, 2001, No. 32 to San Diego: One day, we'll look back at the historical relevance of the Chargers' 2001 draft class, which boasts two first-ballot Hall of Famers in LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees.  Brees has shined with New Orleans after multiple above-average years in San Diego.  Philip Rivers has been a great a Charger, but it's impossible to deny Brees' success and wonder if the team should have held onto Brees rather than draft Rivers.

    Willie Lanier, 1967, No. 50 to Kansas City: During my time working for the Chiefs, I came to further appreciate the excellence of Lanier's game.  He was as tough a guy as there was on the field and a revered teammate by all.  He was a tremendous man and person, earning six Pro Bowl selections and being enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 1986.

    Thurman Thomas, 1988, No. 40 to Buffalo: A Hall of Fame running back and offensive cog throughout Buffalo's early 1990s success, Thomas is a member of the 10,000-rushing-yards club and one of the greatest of all time. He was part of a stretch of impeccable drafting in Buffalo, much of which was orchestrated by Bill Polian.

Round 3: Not Your Average Joe

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    Joe Montana, 1979, No. 82 to San Francisco: If Jerry Rice isn't the greatest player of all time, then Joe Montana likely is. When measuring quarterbacks, the metric ought to be how they stack up to Montana. And while there are a couple of guys who could give him a run for his money, Montana is still king in the land of quarterbacks.

    Mel Blount, 1970, No. 53 to Pittsburgh: Even in today's era of athletes bigger, stronger and faster than ever before, Blount would seem like a man amongst boys.  At 6'3", 225 pounds and a master roamer in the secondary, Blount was one of the most physically imposing presences of his time.  He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.

    Dan Fouts, 1973, No. 64 to San Diego: Another Hall of Famer, Fouts led the charge for San Diego's electric offense for many years.  He threw for over 4,000 yards each season from 1979-1981 (a feat that was virtually unheard of at the time) and was one of the most prolific passers of his era.

    Jason Taylor, 1997, No. 73 to Miami: What was most impressive about Taylor in my eyes was his ability to stay effective until the end of his career.  Even during his final hurrah in 2011, Taylor struck some fear in opponents as a pass-rusher.  A tremendous athlete with superior instincts, he'll one day earn a bronze bust in Canton.

    Terrell Owens, 1996, No. 89 to San Francisco: Say what you will about him as a person, but the numbers simply don't lie.  One, just one, player has more receiving yards and touchdowns than Owens, and that's undeniable production for this mercurial receiver.  Might he continue his career some day?

Round 4: Sack Master

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    Jared Allen, 2004, No. 126 to Kansas City: As an active player, it's a little bit difficult for us to make a comprehensive evaluation of Allen's career, but if the remainder of it is even a fraction as good as what he's done so far, watch out.  He's already 20th on the all-time sacks list; could he surpass Bruce Smith's total of 200?

    Joe Theismann, 1971, No. 99 to Miami: You might be able to mark this one with an asterisk because Theismann never put on a Dolphins uniform and eventually made his fortune as a Redskin.  That being said, he's a Super Bowl champ with over 25,000 career passing yards. Not bad for a fourth-rounder.

    John Stallworth, 1974, No. 82 to Pittsburgh: The Steelers built a dynasty through the draft, and finding Stallworth in the fourth round was a big part of that.  A four-time Super Bowl champion and Pro Bowler, Stallworth is also a Hall of Fame inductee.

    Charles Haley, 1986, No. 96 to San Francisco: Winning! As in, Haley is the only player in NFL history to ever win five Super Bowls.  His five Pro Bowls and 100.5 career sacks aren't bad, either.  Here's to hoping he lands in the Hall of Fame one day.

    Cris Carter, 1987, Supplemental draft to Philadelphia: His fourth-round status might be a bit of a technicality, but Carter made good on the Eagles' decision to nab him in the supplemental proceedings. All he did was catch everything thrown his way, and he may soon find himself in the Hall of Fame.   

Round 5: Who Says Size Matters?

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    Zach Thomas, 1996, No. 154 to Miami: Size never stopped Thomas from flying around the field in Miami, where he starred for years and seemingly made a tackle on every play.  He played with unbelievable instincts and passion, and earned numerous personal accolades for it.

    Rodney Harrison, 1994, No. 145 to San Diego: The NFL's bad boy for many years, Harrison was amongst the most feared hitters in all of football during his career.  He earned two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots and proved he was more than just a tackler.  Harrison retired with 34 interceptions.

    Mike Webster, 1974, No. 125 to Pittsburgh: There's a theme of Steelers draft picks popping up on this list, and that helps to explain why the franchise has been such a model of consistency throughout its existence. A member of the 1970s and 1980s All-Decade team, he might just be the best center in Steelers history.

    Dan Koppen, 2003, No. 164 to New England: This name doesn't seem right to you on this list?  Well, consider the fact that Koppen has started every game but one that he's played in his career, won two Super Bowls and earned the deep trust of both Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. An incredibly underrated career.

    Larry Centers, 1990, No. 115 to Arizona: It takes a lot for a fullback to make an all-time great list, so you know Centers was a special player.  He scored 42 touchdowns, racked up almost 7,000 yards receiving and won a Super Bowl with the Patriots.  A versatile guy whose value exceeded what the numbers might suggest.  

Round 6: The Steal

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    Tom Brady, 2000, No. 199 to New England: Simply put, there is no greater steal in NFL-draft history than Tom Brady.  He's the second-greatest quarterback in NFL history on my unofficial list and has a chance to unseat Joe Montana with a strong finish to his career—something we are all counting on.  The hardest worker on the most successful team of his era, this guy is the steal. 

    Terrell Davis, 1995, No. 196 to Denver: It's a shame that this former Georgia Bulldog's career was cut short due to injuries because "TD" was the real deal.  Twice a Super Bowl champion, once an NFL MVP and always one of the great Broncos in their franchise's history.

    Matt Birk, 1998, No. 173 to Minnesota: Like Brady, Birk is still getting it done at a high level in the NFL, as he will play his fourth season with Baltimore in 2012.  At this point in his career, the only thing eluding Birk is a Super Bowl ring.  Can the Ravens make that change in 2012?

    Jay Novacek, 1985, No. 158 to the St. Louis Cardinals: The athletic tight end born in South Dakota who went on to star at Wyoming eventually became an indispensable part of the Cowboys' Super Bowl squads during the early 1990s.  His game wasn't flashy, but the results were, as Novacek scored five All-Pro selections throughout his career.

    Antoine Bethea, 2006, No. 207 to Indianapolis: One of the few Colts who wasn't part of the roster purge, Bethea has developed into a nice secondary player with two Pro Bowls to show for it.  The Colts' defense was never the main attraction in Indy, but this guy was an integral part of the team's march to a Super Bowl.  

Round 7: The Round of Steals

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    Shannon Sharpe, 1990, No. 192 to Denver: You could make the case for Sharpe as the greatest tight end of all time.  Eight hundred and fifteen receptions, 10,060 yards, 69 touchdowns.  Enough said.  He's taken his boisterous personality to the television screen, where he continues to entertain on CBS' pregame show.

    Marques Colston, 2006, No. 252 to New Orleans: 251 guys went ahead of Colston in 2006.  251! That's incredible, much like his career in New Orleans has been.  Colston owns the slot and is a favorite target of Drew Brees, one of the many reasons that New Orleans gave him many reasons to remain a Saint this offseason.

    Donald Driver, 1999, No. 213 to Green Bay: Somehow, Driver has remained underrated throughout his playing career, much like he evidently was coming out of Alcorn State.  He's a Super Bowl champ with over 10,000 career receiving yards, and he might soon be a Dancing with the Stars champion.  Not a bad run.

    Tom Nalen, 1994, No. 214 to Denver: A true grinder in the trenches, Nalen was John Elway's center during the twilight of his career and a great one.  He was universally respected and unbelievably durable.

    T.J. Houshmandzadeh, 2001, No. 204 to Cincinnati: The Bengals nailed it with wide receivers in 2001, selecting both Houshmandzadeh and Chad Ochocinco (Johnson at the time).  And while Ochocinco has enjoyed the more productive and colorful career, Housh was no slouch during his time in Cincinnati, highlighted by 112 catches in 2007.  A dependable, smart, sturdy wideout who may still have a spot in the league, he was worth the investment 100 times over in the seventh round.