Diamonds in the Rough: The Top 10 NFL Draft Steals of the Modern Era
This time of year, the NFL Draft inevitably invites endless speculation; from the "Biggest Busts" lists to the ubiquitous mock drafts, there are enough "if/then" scenarios to make one's head spin.
This slideshow takes a look at the other side of the coin and showcases the best and most legendary players to fly under the radar on draft days past.
The criteria for this list is centered around one phrase: body of work.
Some prolific low picks might not be on this list due to early retirement or Super Bowl futility (see: Blaine Bishop or Zach Thomas).
Others, while perhaps lightly regarded, WERE technically PICKED high (see: Jerry Rice).
There are also some who are currently lighting up the league today, but were left off simply because their respective legacies have yet to be cemented.
And so on.
Without further ado, here's the list.
Let the debating commence.
1981: Dexter Manley—Rd. 5, Pick 119
Though haunted by off-field demons that ultimately led to the end of his career, Manley's on-the-field accomplishments speak for themselves.
Somewhat of a "poor man's L.T.," he was the featured pass rusher on three Washington Redskin Super Bowl teams.
Boasting two championship rings, the "Secretary of Defense" rang up 97.5 career sacks.
Not bad when you're sharing the line and limelight with fellow superstar Charles Mann.
Factor in his dubious multiple suspensions and shortened career, and his numbers are even more impressive.
Not bad for a 5th rounder.
1973: Dan Fouts—Rd. 3, Pick 64
True, the third round is hardly no-man's land, especially in the days of 17-round drafts, as was the case in 1973.
But considering the heights that Dan Fouts quarterbacked the Chargers to and his prolific numbers, one begins to wonder how he was not picked earlier.
While a Super Bowl title eluded him, his 14-year career did earn him a spot in Canton, Ohio in the Hall of Fame.
Granted, hindsight is always 20/20.
But the Chargers—and the NFL, given his broadcasting ventures—definitely got their money's worth.
1976: Jackie Slater—Rd. 3, Pick 86
While probably not a household name, few NFL players—much less offensive linemen—have accomplished what Jackie Slater did during his decorated 20-year career.
For starters, he bridged two distinct eras for both the league and his team.
When he came into the NFL, he was battling in the trenches with teammates Merlin Olsen and Jack Youngblood.
He was a key cog in the 1979 Super Bowl squad that ultimately lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
When he finally retired in 1995, he shared the locker room with Isaac Bruce, who would later become the nucleus of the "Greatest Show on Turf."
Only one other player, Darrell Green of the Wasington Redskins, has played 20 years with one team.
Slater, who also blocked for Walter Payton in college at Jackson (Miss.) State, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001.
1983: Richard Dent—Rd. 8, Pick 203
When looking at the Chicago Bears' draft choices in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it becomes obvious that the Monsters of the Midway were building for a major—and ultimately successful—title run.
Most of the picks were relatively high. But the one player who perhaps best embodies the title of this slide show is Richard Dent.
It's not everyday that an eighth rounder records one of the most dominant defensive postseasons (1985) in NFL history and wins the Super Bowl MVP.
He was a core member of the mid-'80s Bear defenses that were known for their dominance and tenacity.
Although not yet a member of the Hall of fame, his numbers indicate that he will likely make it eventually.
He finished his career with 137.5 sacks and eight interceptions.
1987: Bo Jackson—Rd. 7, Pick 183
With his once in a lifetime talent, Bo Jackson in 1987 was hardly going unnoticed.
However, what earns him a spot on this list is how many teams passed on him due to their disdain for his baseball pursuits.
It's one thing for a baseball owner to frown on their star prospect playing the violent sport of football, but for football owners to pass on a superhuman athlete because of the comparatively easygoing baseball?
True, injuries happen, and no matter how seemingly benign the offseason conquests, football owners are finicky about their investments.
So it could be understood how he would NOT be the No. 1 overall pick like he was the year before (see: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Debacle).
But to be passed over 182 times seemed unfathomable.
However, Los Angeles Raiders owner Al Davis actually supported Jackson's baseball interests. Besides, at the time, his team already had a future Hall of Fame running back in Marcus Allen.
Due to Jackson joining the team when his baseball season ended in mid-autumn, his numbers aren't necessarily staggering. But he provided the perfect mid-season complement to an aging Allen.
In January of 1991 his career ended prematurely after injuring his hip on an 88-yard run against the Cincinnati Bengals during a playoff game.
Jackson was also a star on the baseball field, and continued to play a few more seasons.
Regardless, it is very unlikely that someone who can run a 40-yard dash in 4.12 seconds will ever again slip to the seventh round.
1987: Cris Carter—Rd. 4, Supplemental Draft
Early in his football career, the talented Cris Carter seemed snakebit.
After three impressive seasons at Ohio State University, he was poised to set the world on fire his senior year.
But after it was learned that he had hired a sports agent, an NCAA no-no, he lost his eligibility.
However, banking that talent would trump rust, the Philadelphia Eagles took a chance on Carter in the fourth round of the late summer Supplemental Draft.
Yet in spite of head coach Buddy Ryan's infamous quote on Carter ("all he does is catch touchdowns"), his first few years were modest, numbers-wise. After an unceremonious departure from the Eagles for drug abuse, the troubled receiver was picked up for $100 by the Minnesota Vikings.
After yet a few more mediocre years, he began to shine in 1993 and never looked back.
Although he failed in his lone bid to claim a Super Bowl ring in 1998, his legendary numbers are sure to get him to the Hall of Fame one day.
1990: Shannon Sharpe—Rd. 7, Pick 192
Ever heard of Ronnie Haliburton?
Didn't think so.
He was the LSU tight end who was drafted above future Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe in the 1990 draft.
Yet initially, it seemed Mr. Sharpe was out to prove the Denver Broncos right with his mediocre play.
During his third season, however, the tide turned and Sharpe never looked back.
By 1998, he and the Broncos had two Super Bowl rings for the long-suffering Mile High faithful.
By 2000, he had another for Art Modell and the Baltimore Ravens.
Although he is begrudgingly known by his opponents as a connoisseur of trash talking, the ever-colorful Sharpe has numbers to back it up.
Somewhere, Mr. Haliburton is shaking his head.
1976: Steve Largent—Rd. 4, Pick 117
It takes a special kind of resolve to turn a pink slip into Canton bronze.
Perhaps because of his smallish stature and average-at-best speed, Steve Largent slipped all the way to the fourth round of the 1976 draft.
From there, bad went to worse, with the Houston Oilers wanting to cut him after the four preseason games were done with.
However, a trade was negotiated with the brand new, "nothing to lose" Seattle Seahawks, and off Largent went for an eighth round pick.
Fourteen seasons and a rewritten record book later, one gets the feeling that the Oilers were kicking themselves every time the line was stacked against running back Earl Campbell.
"If only..." proclaims the Pepto-Bismol-swilling GM.
2000: Tom Brady—Rd. 6, Pick 199
As mentioned, current players were for the most part kept off of the list in the name of history—or lack thereof. Yet three Super Bowl titles are hard to argue with.
Even if he theoretically goes the way of Dennis Rodman, Tom Brady's legacy is cemented with his championships and, after the unreal 2007 campaign, his numbers too.
For the better part of this decade, the sports bar debate about him and his rival Peyton Manning was not unlike the 1980s one involving Joe Montana and Dan Marino; one has the titles, the other has the numbers.
Yet given Brady's video game stats from two years ago coupled with his pair of pre-30th birthday Super Bowl MVPs, he technically becomes both.
(Of course, to be fair, Manning and the Colts' 2006 championship ALSO puts him in this hallowed category).
Let's also not forget his appeal that transcends the sport. Many are Hall of Famers, yet few are in the Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods pantheon of legend. This is precisely why his devastating knee injury this past year was a national headline.
It remains to be seen how he can bounce back from it, but rest assured, the whole world will be watching.
1979: Joe Montana—Rd. 3, Pick 82
One thing is certain: The San Francisco 49ers are not short on draft day steals.
From Charles Haley to Jesse Sapolu to Dwight Clark, many could have feasibly made this list.
All of which just goes to show how wise and savvy the management and coaching was for this previously downtrodden franchise that turned things around in the 1980s.
Yet pound for pound, Montana is the man.
Although successful at Notre Dame, scouts were not exactly enamored with his core skill set, be it his arm strength, speed, or otherwise.
If only there was a system to measure the intangibles: coolness under pressure, will to win, etc.
(Then again, if such a system did exist, writers wouldn't really have a story).
But ever since the middle of the 1980 season, when he took over for Steve DeBerg (himself an early entrant on this list), he and the 49ers never loooked back, claiming four Super Bowl titles in the process.
From his coronation, "The Catch," to his 92-yard come from behind Super Bowl drive to beat the Cincinnati Bengals (in which he was infamously more interested in John Candy's presence than the first play), his legend is carved in stone as arguably the best quarterback to ever play the game.
Once an aging legend is traded, he tends to become a caricature of his former self. Joe Namath as a Ram, Franco Harris as a Seahawk, Earl Campbell as a Saint, and Emmitt Smith as a Cardinal come to mind.
Yet Montana continued to defy logic as he guided the perennially mediocre Kansas City Chiefs to the AFC title game in 1993.
As time progresses, athletes tend to get bigger, faster, and stronger.
For instance, a special teams second stringer today looks more fit than the 1961 Mr. Olympia.
Yet Montana's legacy of winning—which never gets outdated—will always remain legendary.
Honorable Mentions and Other Notables
Here's a list of the others, in no particular order, that made the initial field.
1. Adrian Wilson, Cardinals
2. Chester Taylor, Baltimore
3. Max Montoya, Cincinnati
4. Ernest Byner, Cleveland
5. Leon Lett, Dallas
6. Donald Driver, GB
7. Robert Mathis, IND
8. Jared Allen, KC
9. Zach Thomas, Miami
10. Marques Colston, NO
11. Harry Carson, NYG
12. LC Greenwood, Pittsburg
13. Floyd Womack, Seattle
14. John Lynch, Tampa Bay