The Biggest Draft Steal in the History of Every NFL Franchise
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Whether by extra scouting work that pays off, or by pure dumb luck, every NFL draft is going to produce a few steals—players taken later in the draft who greatly exceed expectations.
Every team needs to find steals as a way to add quality players at a discount price—that is until they hit it big and demand more money.
Some draft steals, such as Tom Brady, can set a team on a great path for 10-15 years. In fact, Brady can likely lay claim to being the greatest draft steal ever, but what about the rest of the league’s biggest steals?
Maybe 2013 will be the year that your team finds that rare gem buried deep in the draft. But for now, we will take a look at the biggest draft steal in the history of all 32 NFL teams.
Guidelines for an NFL Draft Steal
Rob Gronkowski, a second-round pick, is not quite a big steal.
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First, what are the guidelines for defining a draft steal?
You have to be a draft pick to be a draft steal, so no undrafted players will be included here.
The player also could not have been drafted in the first or second round. The value is generally too high there, which is why those players are deemed busts when they do not pan out.
That does not mean that you cannot make a clever move to gain value in that part of the draft. For instance, Rob Gronkowski would have been a first-round pick in 2010 had it not been for health concerns (he missed 2009 due to back surgery), so the Patriots got an elite talent with the No. 42 pick. Though, go figure, durability has plagued Gronkowski’s NFL career.
But getting a first-round talent high in the second round is not that big of a steal—the lower the round, the bigger the steal.
Other than being a third-round pick or lower, the only other guideline is based off of what the player did for the team that drafted him.
Former Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas was an incredible steal in the ninth round, but the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team that actually drafted him, actually cut him before he ever played a down for them. The Baltimore Colts reaped the benefits of that blunder, but that does not make Unitas a draft steal for the Steelers.
Of the 33 players mentioned in this article, here is the positional breakdown: six quarterbacks, five linebackers, five wide receivers, four defensive ends, three centers, three cornerbacks, three tight ends, two offensive tackles, one defensive tackle and one running back.
On average, these 33 players were drafted in 1978, with an average round of 7.9 and the 149.5 pick.
Why 33 players for 32 teams? One team had a tie, and based on reputation, you will be surprised by which one it is.
The fact that so many teams had an obvious choice for "best steal" speaks to how hard it is to find a great player late in the draft, but the possibility is always there.
If you want my prediction for a 2013 draft steal, how about Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson? Do not overlook the physical tools combined with the rare ability to play well under pressure.
The 2013 steals will take time to show themselves, but for now, onto the greatest draft steals ever.
Arizona Cardinals – Jackie Smith, Tight End
Drafted: 10th round (129th overall), 1963 draft.
Safety Larry Wilson was another Hall of Fame steal that the Cardinals (then in St. Louis) found in the 1960s, but it was Jackie Smith who became the team’s best value.
While he is best known for dropping a touchdown for Dallas in Super Bowl XIII at age 38, Smith was one of the first prolific tight ends in NFL history. He caught 480 passes for 7,918 yards and 40 touchdowns as a Cardinal.
Smith spent over a decade as one of the premiere tight ends in the league, making five consecutive Pro Bowls from 1966-1970.
When he retired following the 1978 season, Smith had more receptions and receiving yards than any tight end in NFL history. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994.
Note that Baltimore’s John Mackey was taken in the second round (19th overall) in the same draft. Though Mackey is universally regarded as the superior tight end, it is Smith who led the entire 1963 draft class in receptions, yards and touchdowns thanks to his longevity (he played 71 more games than Mackey).
That is excellent value for a 10th-round pick.
Atlanta Falcons – Jeff Van Note, Center
Stop laughing. This is a real NFL player and not your uncle Mike.
Drafted: 11th round (262nd overall), 1969 draft
Since 2000, the Falcons have had Todd McClure, a seventh-round pick in the 1999 draft, start 194 games at center. Though McClure has been solid, the Falcons once had a similar player provide a bigger impact at the same position.
Jeff Van Note was just the 262nd pick of the 1969 draft, but a year later, he became the team’s starting center. He would go on to start 226 games for the Falcons, making five Pro Bowls along the way.
No Falcon has played more seasons for the team than Van Note’s 18. He also holds the franchise record with 155 consecutive games played.
Van Note played in a total of 246 games for Atlanta. No other player in the 1969 draft played in that many games, and this was a class that included greats like Joe Greene, Charlie Joiner, Roger Wehrli, O.J. Simpson, Ted Hendricks and Bob Kuechenberg.
Note: Pro-Football-Reference lists Van Note with 226 career starts and five Pro Bowl appearances. The Atlanta Falcons list Van Note with 225 career starts and six Pro Bowl appearances. This study primarily uses Pro-Football-Reference’s data.
Baltimore Ravens – Adalius Thomas, Linebacker
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Drafted: sixth round (186th overall), 2000 draft
This is an easy one, given the fact that the Ravens have only been around since 1996. Should cornerback Lardarius Webb regain his form pre-ACL injury, he could be the choice one day, as he was a late third-round pick in 2009.
But this one is definitely Adalius Thomas, who is the best linebacker drafted in the sixth round since the league decided to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1995.
Not long after becoming a starter alongside Ray Lewis, Thomas made his first Pro Bowl in 2003. In 2006, he became an All-Pro with 11 sacks on a 13-3 Ravens team with the best defense in football.
Thomas then moved on to New England for three seasons, but his best days were as a Raven. His 53.0 career sacks are the most by any linebacker from the 2000 draft.
Buffalo Bills – Andre Reed, Wide Receiver
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Drafted: fourth round (86th overall), 1985 draft
Mike Stratton was a very good linebacker taken by Buffalo at pick No. 100 in the 1962 AFL draft, but this one has to be Andre Reed.
After picking all-time sack leader Bruce Smith with the No. 1 overall pick in 1985, Buffalo found its all-time leading receiver in the fourth round that very same year.
It is not like expectations were high for Reed. Buffalo also drafted wide receiver Chris Burkett in the second round with the 42nd pick, and he went on to catch 137 passes for the Bills.
Reed caught 941 passes in Buffalo and remains an annual Hall of Fame snub. He has been a finalist in each of the last seven years.
Reed was part of the famed "K-gun offense," which led the team to four-straight Super Bowl appearances in the 1990's. He caught 87 touchdowns and made seven Pro Bowls.
Though Jerry Rice was obviously the best receiver found in the 1985 draft, Reed was the second-best. Still, 12 wide receivers were picked before him.
A name to keep an eye on for the Bills is Steve Johnson. He was a seventh-round pick in 2008 who caught 12 passes in his first two seasons, but he has come on strong with three consecutive years of 1,000 yards.
He still has a long way to go to get on Reed’s level in Buffalo, though.
Carolina Panthers – Steve Smith, Wide Receiver
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Drafted: third round (74th overall), 2001 draft
This is not even close. Steve Smith was the 11th wide receiver taken in the 2001 draft, but he remains the best of the bunch along with Reggie Wayne.
Smith is one of the greatest third-round wide receivers in NFL history with 772 receptions, 11,452 yards and 63 touchdown catches for his career. His 2005 season, when he led the league in receptions, yards and touchdowns, remains one of the best seasons in NFL history by a wide receiver.
Making a name for himself as an All-Pro rookie on special teams, Smith ascended to fame in 2003 with an incredible playoff run, nearly leading Carolina to an upset win in the Super Bowl.
Smith will be 34 this season, but he continues to produce, as he had 1,174 yards last year. Should he retire a Panther, Smith will be one of only 10 receivers to gain at least 10,000 yards while only playing for one team.
Chicago Bears – Richard Dent, Defensive End
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Drafted: eighth round (203rd overall), 1983 draft
For a team with a rich history like the Chicago Bears, you should expect many good candidates.
Olin Kreutz and Lance Briggs were great picks in the third round for the recent Bears teams. Hall of Famer Stan Jones was a fifth-round choice for the offensive line in 1953 (George Halas era). Also from that era, linebacker Joe Fortunato (80th pick in 1952) was fortunate to join the team. He does not have the reputation of a Dick Butkus, but he was first-team All-Pro in three straight seasons (1963-65).
But this one goes to Richard Dent, who was part of that famed 1983 draft class. While that draft is best known for the quarterbacks that were taken in the first round, Dent slipped all the way to the eighth round.
He quickly became a premier pass-rusher, leading the league with 17.0 sacks in 1985. Dent was an All-Pro that year, which was of course the infamous 18-1 team who won the Super Bowl. Dent was the Super Bowl MVP in that 46-10 demolition of New England.
Dent did spend a year with four more teams after leaving Chicago in 1994, but he had 124.5 of his 137.5 career sacks with the Bears.
Dent joins Clyde Simmons (Eagles’ ninth-round pick in 1986) and John Randle (undrafted) as the only players drafted after the fifth round to reach at least 100 career sacks. Dent’s 137.5 sacks are tied with Randle for the seventh-most in NFL history (since sacks were tracked officially in 1982).
Dent was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
Cincinnati Bengals – Ken Riley and Lemar Parrish, Cornerbacks (Tie)
Drafted: Ken Riley was drafted in the sixth round (135th overall) of the 1969 draft. Lemar Parrish was drafted in the seventh round (163rd overall) of the 1970 draft.
Here is the lone tie, as it is impossible to mention one player without the other. This is also a great case study for the flaws involved in how players achieve Pro Bowl votes and fame.
The Bengals were able to field arguably the best cornerback tandem in the NFL in the 1970s, and they only had to use two late picks to do it. First, it was Riley in 1969, then it was Parrish in 1970.
Riley intercepted 65 passes in his career, which is still the fifth most in NFL history, but he was never voted to a single Pro Bowl. He was first-team All-Pro in 1983, which was his final season.
Parrish was the flashier player, picking off 47 passes in his career while also contributing to special teams. Parrish made eight Pro Bowls (six of which came as a Cincinnati teammate of Riley), but only once was an All-Pro selection.
It is hard to tell which player was deemed Cincinnati’s No. 1 cornerback. Some research from old gamebooks show Parrish as taking on the (perceived) better receiving option of the opponent.
Was Riley making a lot of interceptions because quarterbacks were staying away from Parrish while throwing to lesser receivers covered by Riley?
We do not have access to the video or advanced statistics from that era to judge, but it is an interesting story. According to Cincy Jungle, the Cincinnati Enquirer chose a Bengals’ Ring of Fame in 2011. Riley was on the first ring while Parrish was on the second.
That does not jive with the way these players were perceived by the media during their playing days.
How does one explain Riley intercepting nine passes in 1976, Parrish intercepting two, and Parrish getting the Pro Bowl nomination? It was the fifth of his career, which speaks to the annoying truth that once a player starts going to the Pro Bowl, there is not much he can do to stop getting that reputation-based vote, year after year.
After Parrish pouted his way out of Cincinnati to join Washington in 1978, Riley did see a slight drop in his picks until a surge in his final three seasons (18 interceptions at ages 34-36).
Normally, any player with eight Pro Bowls is considerably better than one with zero, but I choose to believe this is the extreme case where the the two players in question were very equal in terms of performance.
Cleveland Browns – Leroy Kelly, Running Back
Drafted: eighth round (110th overall), 1964 draft
Cleveland did well to find Hall of Fame guard Gene Hickerson with a seventh-round pick in 1957. Brian Sipe was a league MVP at quarterback, despite being drafted in the 13th round (330th overall) in 1972. Though he was not consistent and did not have many good seasons.
So how about Leroy Kelly? He had huge shoes to fill after Jim Brown retired following the 1965 season. He stepped up right away in 1966 with a league-best 15 rushing touchdowns and 5.5 yards per carry. He won the next two rushing titles as well.
Brown was an incredibly tough act to follow, but Kelly turned in a strong seven-year run from 1966 to 1972. He made six Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro three times. Kelly rushed for 7,274 yards and 74 touchdowns in his career, which lasted 10 years with the Browns.
Kelly was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994.
He wasn’t Jim Brown, but Kelly is the second-best running back in Cleveland history.
Dallas Cowboys – Roger Staubach, Quarterback
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Drafted: Roger Staubach was selected in the 10th round (129th overall) of the 1964 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He was also selected in the 16th round (122nd overall) of the 1964 AFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs.
It should come as no surprise that a successful franchise like the Dallas Cowboys would have plenty of good candidates.
Rayfield Wright was a Hall of Fame left tackle taken in the seventh round (182nd overall) in 1967. Herschel Walker was a fifth-round pick in 1985, but it was a later trade of him that set Dallas up for a dynastic run.
Bob Hayes was also a seventh-round pick by Dallas in 1964, which was a draft class that produced three Hall of Famers for the Cowboys. Mel Renfro was a second-round pick, but then there was the future face of the franchise, Mr. Captain America himself, taken way down in the 10th round.
Even the inferior AFL let him slide 122 picks.
But Roger Staubach’s fall in the draft was the result of his five-year commitment to the Navy. He even spent some time in Vietnam, though when he entered the league in 1969, we would soon get to enjoy the league’s best quarterback in the 1970's.
Staubach became the first quarterback to start four Super Bowls, winning two of them. His passing efficiency was off the charts for a decade that was very difficult to dominate through the air.
He was also one of the more mobile quarterbacks in the league, able to scramble and escape rushers. Staubach was also known for making memorable plays in the clutch (“Captain Comeback”).
One of the 10-best quarterbacks in NFL history, Staubach was an amazing steal for a 10th-round pick, even if Dallas had to wait for him.
Denver Broncos – Shannon Sharpe, Tight End
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Drafted: seventh round (192nd overall), 1990 draft
The Broncos have found some of their best players late in the draft, or not in the draft at all (Rod Smith). Karl Mecklenburg was just a 12th-round pick. Tom Nalen was a five-time Pro Bowl center out of the seventh round. The departed Elvis Dumervil was very successful for a fourth-round pick in 2006.
But this comes down to Shannon Sharpe and Terrell Davis. A lot of people will want to say Davis here since he achieved some incredible honors with a 2,000-yard rushing season, league MVP and Super Bowl MVP.
But stop and consider this: only four running backs drafted in the sixth round since 1995 have topped 1,500 rushing yards in their careers. Three of them played for Mike Shanahan (Davis, Mike Anderson and Washington’s Alfred Morris).
The system argument carries some weight. Davis’ peak was better, but Sharpe gave the Broncos more value over time.
Thought to be too skinny for a tight end, Sharpe generated little buzz in the draft despite the NFL success of his brother Sterling in Green Bay. Denver gave him a chance, and by 1992, he was the team’s starting tight end and second-leading receiver.
Developing a strong connection with quarterback John Elway, Sharpe would make seven consecutive Pro Bowls, four first-team All-Pro selections, and he helped Denver win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997-98.
Sharpe topped 1,000 yards in three seasons, producing at the tight end position in a way that only Kellen Winslow did prior to his time.
Sharpe became the third player in NFL history (Don Maynard and Harold Jackson were the first two) to gain at least 10,000 receiving yards while being lower than a fourth-round draft choice.
After leaving for Baltimore in 2000, Sharpe became the first and only tight end to lead a team in receiving and win the Super Bowl in his first season with the team. He returned to Denver in 2002 for two more seasons.
Sharpe was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
When you can get one of the best tight ends in NFL history in the seventh round, it is a major steal.
Detroit Lions – Joe Schmidt, Linebacker
Drafted: seventh round (85th overall), 1953 draft
Believe it or not, there was a time when the Detroit Lions were competing for (even winning) championships each year. Having great players was the key, and two draft steals in Joe Schmidt and safety Jack Christiansen (No. 69 in 1951) were among the team’s best players.
Christiansen made five Pro Bowls and six first-team All-Pro selections, while being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970 (before Schmidt),but he only played 89 games in his career.
Schmidt played all 155 games of his career for the Lions, becoming one of the game’s best linebackers. He made a staggering 10 consecutive Pro Bowls and had eight first-team All-Pro selections. Both totals are the most among the 360 players taken in the 1953 draft.
Barry Sanders is the face of the franchise, but Schmidt is the all-time face of a Detroit defense. He won two championships and is a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1950's.
Schmidt was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973.
Green Bay Packers – Bart Starr, Quarterback
Drafted: 17th round (200th overall), 1956 draft
The Packers sure have their choices of steals here.
Donald Driver is one of the best seventh-round picks in NFL history, as he just retired with 10,137 receiving yards. Jim Ringo was a seventh-round pick in 1953. He is one of the best centers ever, a 10-time Pro Bowl player and is in the Hall of Fame. Marco Rivera was a pretty good guard that was found the sixth round (1996). Max McGee (fifth round in 1954) is one of the underappreciated receivers from the Vince Lombardi era.
But when you have a Hall of Fame quarterback taken with the 200th overall pick, you have to go there as the greatest steal.
Bart Starr won five championships while guiding the Lombardi machine in the 1960's. Without Lombardi, Starr may not have done much, but under his guidance, he became one of the league’s top quarterbacks.
Not as dominant as some of his elite peers, Starr played efficient and smart football and was MVP of the first two Super Bowls, which completed a three-peat of championships in 1965-67.
Houston Texans – Owen Daniels, Tight End
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Drafted: fourth round (98th overall), 2006 draft
With only 11 drafts in the books, there is not much of a choice for the Texans here.
Owen Daniels has been a real bright spot at tight end, catching 361 passes for 4,365 yards and 26 touchdowns. He has been the closest thing to a second legitimate receiving threat behind Andre Johnson.
Daniels has twice been to the Pro Bowl, though his best season may have been in 2009 when he had 40 receptions for 519 yards and five scores in just eight games before being injured.
He will be 31 this season, but Daniels will look to continue providing 600-800 yards for the Texans for as long as he can.
Indianapolis Colts – Raymond Berry, Wide Receiver
Drafted: 20th round (232nd overall), 1954 draft
Robert Mathis has done quite well with four Pro Bowls and 91.5 sacks after being a fifth-round pick in 2003. Antoine Bethea has twice been to the Pro Bowl as a safety, taken in the sixth round in 2006.
But for the Colts, you have to go way back to the early Baltimore days, and that means Raymond Berry in 1954.
Now the 20th round sounds scary, though it is better to focus on the number, and that is 232. Berry went 232nd in a 30-round draft of 360 players, and he became the very best player (by a wide margin) in the 1954 draft.
Isn’t that the definition of a steal? A total of 360 players are drafted, and you pick the only one who goes on to have a Hall of Fame career?
It did take some time, as Berry had to be acquainted with Johnny Unitas. When Unitas was the full-time starter for the first time, Berry led the league with 800 receiving yards. He also led the league in receiving touchdowns the next two seasons, while helping the Colts claim back-to-back championships.
Berry’s most famous performance came in the 1958 title game against the Giants, when he made 12 receptions for 178 yards and a touchdown.
Berry played all 154 of his career games for the Colts, retiring after the 1967 season with the most receptions (631) and receiving yards (9,275) in NFL history.
Jacksonville Jaguars – David Garrard, Quarterback
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Drafted: fourth round (108th overall), 2002 draft
This was a hard one because the Jaguars have not had much draft success in their brief history. Many of their best players that sparked their first run of competitiveness were acquired from other teams or with a very high draft pick.
In a couple of years, Cecil Shorts could be the best answer here. A fourth-round pick in 2011, he had two catches for 30 yards as a rookie before exploding with big plays and 979 yards in 2012.
But for now, let’s go with David Garrard, if only because finding quality quarterbacks in the fourth round has been nearly impossible for the rest of the league in recent years.
Historically, Garrard’s 89 touchdown passes are the eighth most by a quarterback drafted in the fourth round. His best season was in 2007 when he went 9-3 as a starter, won a road playoff game in Pittsburgh, threw 18 touchdowns against three interceptions and had a 102.2 passer rating.
Garrard has not played since 2010 because of injuries, and should he start this year, it will probably be with the Jets. But through 2012, he has the 11th-best turnover rate (3.45 percent) in NFL history.
Garrard did leave Jacksonville with a winning record (39-37) and 85.5 passer rating. He exceeded expectations there and made Byron Leftwich (No. 7 overall pick in 2003) expendable.
Had Jacksonville showed more faith in Garrard early, the 2003 draft could have yielded an elite talent like Jordan Gross, Kevin Williams or Terrell Suggs instead of Leftwich.
Kansas City Chiefs – Bobby Bell, Linebacker
Drafted: Bobby Bell was drafted in the seventh round (56th overall) by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1963 AFL draft. He was also drafted in the second round (16th overall) of the 1963 NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings.
The Chiefs certainly have their fair share of candidates.
Otis Taylor went in the 15th round of the NFL draft, but he went in the fourth round (29th overall) in the AFL draft. He caught 410 passes for the Chiefs.
Will Shields started 223 games and made 12 Pro Bowls as a right guard. Though, he was taken with a decent pick (73rd overall in the third round in 1993).
Then you have Bobby Bell, with his nine Pro Bowls, six first-team All-Pro selections, Hall of Fame induction in 1983 (first Chief in) and general placement as one of the all-time linebackers in NFL history.
It is interesting that Bell slid as far in the AFL draft as he did, though that was because the Chiefs were certain that he would go to the NFL, which picked him 16th overall.
But Bell stunned everyone by going to the AFL, which was a bold move in 1963. It was a brilliant move, though, as he fit perfectly into Hank Stram’s defense, which became a dominant unit on the way to a Super Bowl win in the 1969 season.
Not only is Bell an all-time draft steal, but he’s one of the most significant steals the AFL made to legitimatize itself as a contender to the NFL.
Miami Dolphins – Zach Thomas, Linebacker
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Drafted: fifth round (154th overall), 1996 draft
It is easy to like what the Dolphins have done in their history late in the draft.
Mark Clayton was an eighth-round pick who exploded with Dan Marino for 18 touchdowns in 1984. He caught 81 touchdowns with Miami in his career.
Safety Jake Scott was just a seventh-round pick (159th overall) in 1970, but he would make five Pro Bowls, two first-team All-Pro selections and was Super Bowl MVP to clinch the perfect 17-0 record in 1972. Many consider him a Hall of Fame snub.
Ed Newman was a sixth-round guard (1973) who made four Pro Bowls with the team.
Known for a “No-Name Defense” at one point in the 1970's, Miami found defensive end Doug Betters in the sixth round (1978). He was an All-Pro in 1983 with 16 sacks.
The Dolphins have had plenty of strong third-round picks: Tony Nathan, Jim Kiick, Jason Taylor, Nat Moore, Mercury Morris and Dick Anderson.
Bryan Cox was a good fifth-round linebacker, though he only lasted five seasons in Miami.
Instead, let’s go with Zach Thomas, who played 12 years and started 168 games with the Dolphins. He made seven Pro Bowls and was a First Team All-Pro five times.
Known for being a tiny middle linebacker, Thomas was a tackling machine, while also making 20.5 sacks, 17 interceptions and 16 forced fumbles.
Though he was drafted in the same 1996 class as Ray Lewis, Thomas is arguably the second-best defensive player taken in the entire draft.
Thomas remains the only linebacker drafted since the merger to have more than three All-Pro selections.
Minnesota Vikings – Matt Birk, Center
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Drafted: sixth round (173rd overall), 1998 draft
The Vikings are another team with a good history of draft steals.
Steve Jordan made six Pro Bowls at tight end for the team, and he was just a seventh-round pick in 1982. Bobby Bryant played 161 games and made two Pro Bowls at cornerback after being a seventh-round pick in 1967. Jake Reed was a productive wide receiver found in the third round in 1991.
Some may want to go with Fran Tarkenton, who in 1961 was drafted 29th overall by the Vikings and 34th overall by the Patriots (AFL). For one of the best quarterbacks ever, the 29th pick sounds pretty good. But it also sounds like a high pick, which it really was, as Minnesota picked first in each of the draft’s 20 rounds. It was their second year in existence.
So for a bigger theft, let’s go with Matt Birk in the sixth round in 1998. He made six Pro Bowls in Minnesota, which often had one of the league’s best offenses at the time. He started 123 games for the team at center.
Birk just wrapped up his career by playing four years in Baltimore, going out on top with a Super Bowl win. But he will be remembered best for his Minnesota days when he was one of the league’s top centers.
New England Patriots – Tom Brady, Quarterback
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Drafted: sixth round (199th overall), 2000 draft
Honestly, there was no point in even looking at any other Patriot. Tom Brady is that one-in-a-million oddity out of the sixth round, and he will go down as the best player in franchise history.
While teams were drafting the likes of Giovanni Carmazzi and Spergon Wynn, there was Brady still sitting at the 199th pick.
Without Brady, the choice for the Patriots on this list may have been Troy Brown. But without Brady, Brown likely never has a huge season in 2001 and the playoff memories that he created for the team.
There were a lot of circumstances that had to happen just to get Brady onto the field for the Patriots, but given the opportunity, he became the greatest steal in draft history.
New Orleans Saints – Marques Colston, Wide Receiver
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Drafted: seventh round (252nd overall), 2006 draft
Jim Wilks (12th-round pick in 1981) played for some of the better defenses in Saints’ history, and so did linebacker Pat Swilling, who was taken 60th overall in 1986.
Eric Martin was a very good wide receiver found in the seventh round in 1985, but the Saints did even better in 2006 with Marques Colston.
Just three picks away from being Mr. Irrelevant, Colston came out of Hofstra to team up with Drew Brees and Sean Payton for a potent offense in 2006.
Now, some would argue that Jahri Evans, taken in the fourth round of the same draft, is the choice here. Evans is arguably the best guard in the NFL right now, but all of his accolades came over the last four years. Colston was impressive right from the start.
If not for an injury in 2008, Colston would have started his career with seven-straight 1,000-yard seasons. Instead he can settle for six of them. Only 19 receivers have more 1,000-yard seasons for their entire career.
With a 1,000-yard season in 2013, Colston can join Donald Driver (seventh-round) and Rod Smith (undrafted) as the only players drafted in the fifth round or lower with at least seven 1,000-yard seasons. Smith had eight. They are the only three such players to do it in six seasons.
With an average of 8.3 touchdown catches per year, Colston’s 58 touchdown receptions are already the most in team history.
Colston is tied with Martin for the most catches in team history (532). He needs just 461 yards this season to become the all-time leading receiver in team history (that would be 7,855 yards).
When you have basically the best wide receiver in franchise history as a seventh-round pick, that is a huge steal.
Colston is also very efficient, as he catches 64.8 percent of his career targets. That is the third-best catch rate of any wide receiver (minimum 300 receptions) since 1990.
It helps to have Brees pulling the trigger, but Colston is a big, effective target and one of the league’s most under-appreciated players. He still has yet to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl.
If he continues doing what he has, and the Saints find more postseason success, he may just have to settle for Canton one day.
New York Giants – Rosey Brown, Offensive Tackle
Drafted: 27th round (321st overall), 1953 draft
The Giants have done well at finding steals.
Homer Jones was a 20th-round pick. David Diehl was a fifth-round pick. Jimmy Patton was an eighth-round safety in 1955 who made five consecutive Pro Bowls and first-team All-Pro selections. Jessie Armstead made five consecutive Pro Bowls (1997-2001) as an eighth-round pick as well.
In fact, linebackers may get the most attention for the Giants, as both Sam Huff and Harry Carson are in the Hall of Fame. But they were also drafted fairly high, with Huff in the third round (30th overall) and Carson in the fourth round (105th overall).
Instead, let’s go with Rosey Brown and that shocking number of Round 27. It is hard to believe that a franchise left tackle who made nine Pro Bowls, six first-team All-Pro selections and the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team lasted until the 321st pick.
Brown went to Morgan State University, which is a black college that also produced the aforementioned Leroy Kelly and Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier among other stars.
But Brown (along with Len Ford) can be credited for putting Morgan State University on the map, as he is one of the greatest left tackles in NFL history.
New York Jets – Joe Klecko, Defensive Tackle
Drafted: sixth round (144th overall), 1977 draft
The Jets are more known for their draft blunders than steals. In fact, the Jets are the basis for my favorite bit of NFL draft trivia ever.
In 1983, the Jets drafted Ken O’Brien three picks ahead of Dan Marino. In 1985, the Jets drafted Al Toon six picks ahead of Jerry Rice. In 1990, the Jets drafted Blair Thomas 15 picks ahead of Emmitt Smith.
Six players, all from the first round, and each time the Jets missed on an all-time prolific player in favor of someone less than impressive at the exact position they were targeting.
How amazing is that?
As for actual steals, you try to shy away from mentioning the name Mo Lewis (63rd overall in 1991), because he is the player responsible for beginning the Tom Brady era in New England in 2001 with his brutal hit on Drew Bledsoe.
Instead, let’s go with Joe Klecko, who made four Pro Bowls and two first-team All-Pro selections all along the defensive line. Klecko starred as a defensive end, a defensive tackle and a nose tackle starting in 1985 in the 3-4 defense.
Klecko played 140 games in 11 seasons for the Jets.
Oakland Raiders – Art Shell, Offensive Tackle
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Drafted: third round (80th overall), 1968 draft
The Raiders presented one of the toughest decisions of any team in picking the best steal.
Lester Hayes was taken in the fifth round and made five Pro Bowls for the team. He intercepted 13 passes in 1980, which was a Super Bowl season.
Cliff Branch is one of the team’s greatest wide receivers, making four Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro selections. He has been a bit of a Hall of Fame snub.
Rod Martin was just a 12th-round pick in 1977, but started 147 games at linebacker and made two Pro Bowls.
But then you have to look at what the Raiders accomplished in the 1968 draft. They found Ken Stabler in the second round. Then they took Art Shell 80th overall near the end of the third round.
That’s our best steal, but the Raiders were not done. They found safety George Atkinson in the seventh round. He made 30 interceptions in 144 career games. Finally, Oakland added two running backs. Charlie Smith was a fourth-round pick who gained 4,947 yards from scrimmage in his career. Marv Hubbard became a three-time Pro Bowl fullback for the Raiders, gaining 5,172 yards from scrimmage in his career.
That is quite the haul, but Shell is the highlight as one of the best left tackles ever. He made eight Pro Bowls, two first-team All-Pro selections, won two Super Bowls and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.
It is interesting to note the 1968 draft was started with Minnesota’s selection of tackle Ron Yary with the No. 1 overall pick. Yary and Shell are both in the Hall of Fame, both played in 207 games, and both retired after the 1982 season.
The difference was 79 picks in the draft, though these players were awfully close otherwise.
Shell also beat Yary to Canton by 12 years.
Philadelphia Eagles – Harold Carmichael, Wide Receiver
Drafted: seventh round (161st overall), 1971 draft
The Eagles have found some quality steals such as Seth Joyner, Clyde Simmons, Brian Westbrook, Wilbert Montgomery and Jeremiah Trotter. Wide receiver has also been a good position to them, as both Pete Pihos (41st overall in 1945) and Tommy McDonald (31st overall in 1957) are in the Hall of Fame.
But the player providing a long-term value was Harold Carmichael, who played 13 seasons and 180 games with Philadelphia. A monster at 6’8”, Carmichael started as a tight end before moving to wide receiver; the biggest wide receiver in NFL history.
He made four Pro Bowls and caught 589 passes with the team. His 79 touchdown receptions were tied for the seventh-most in NFL history when he retired after the 1984 season.
Carmichael remains one of the overlooked wide receivers from the 1970's (he is on the All-Decade Team), but consider his 1,116 receiving yards in 1973 were the most by any player from 1970-77, which was a dead era for passing the ball.
With his size advantage, just imagine Carmichael’s numbers in today’s pass-happy era. He may have come a generation too soon, or else he would certainly be in the Hall of Fame.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Mike Webster, Center
Drafted: fifth round (125th overall), 1974 draft
It is easy to see why the Steelers love the draft so much more than free agency. They historically find a lot of good players in it, especially late.
The team’s leading receivers, Hines Ward and John Stallworth, were third- and fourth-round picks, respectively.
L.C. Greenwood was a 10th-round pick. Mel Blount, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter were third-round picks. Andy Russell and Rocky Bleier were found in the 16th round. Aaron Smith (fourth) and Brett Keisel (seventh) were 3-4 defensive ends chosen with low picks.
Current starters Larry Foote and Ike Taylor were fourth-round picks. Greg Lloyd was just a sixth-round pick and would be good enough to top the list for many of these teams.
But the right choice has to be Mike Webster, especially given the circumstances of his draft.
In 1974, Pittsburgh already loaded up with Lynn Swann in the first round, Jack Lambert in the second round and John Stallworth in the fourth round. That is three Hall of Fame players. You would think they would cool off in finding the talent, but with their fifth pick of the draft, they found Webster out of Wisconsin in the fifth round.
A record four Hall of Fame players taken in one draft is something we may never see again.
Now, many people may not know that Webster was not the starting center for the first two Super Bowl wins by the Steelers. That was Ray Mansfield, who Webster took over for in 1976.
But Webster is still one of the best centers in NFL history. He is the center for the All-Decade Team in both the 1970's and 1980's. He is a center on the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
San Diego Chargers – Dan Fouts, Quarterback
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Drafted: third round (64th overall), 1973 draft
The pickings were a bit slim for the Chargers. Their studs (LaDainian Tomlinson, Lance Alworth and Junior Seau) were all top-10 picks. The steals are just not there.
Rodney Harrison had a very nice career for a fifth-round safety, but his best moments came with the Patriots.
This leaves Dan Fouts, who will remain the best quarterback in team history, assuming Philip Rivers never breaks out of his funk.
Fouts was the sixth quarterback taken in the 1973 draft. He started a bit slow, though after some coaching from the likes of Bill Walsh (offensive coordinator) and Don Coryell, Fouts emerged as the best quarterback of his draft class.
Running the “Air Coryell” offense, Fouts had an eight-year stretch (1978-85) that rewrote the record books and set him on his way to Canton.
San Francisco 49ers – Joe Montana, Quarterback
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Drafted: third round (82nd overall), 1979 draft
Here we go talking about Bill Walsh in back-to-back slides. Walsh pulled the trigger on Montana out of Notre Dame in the third round and forever changed the future of the NFL.
Montana thrived in Walsh’s West Coast offense with the poise and grace under pressure that he demonstrated as a college player. Could you believe Jack Thompson (Round 1, Pick No. 3 to Cincinnati), Phil Simms (Round 1, Pick No. 7 to Giants) and Steve Fuller (Round 1, Pick No. 23 to Kansas City) all went well ahead of Montana?
It really goes without saying, but Montana became the best player in the entire 1979 draft. San Francisco also found wide receiver Dwight Clark in the 10th round. He became the fourth-most productive receiver in the draft, best known for “The Catch” in the 1981 NFC Championship.
Wide receiver steals have been very kind to the 49ers, who also found Billy Wilson in the 22nd round of the 1950 draft. John Taylor was a third-round pick. Then you have Terrell Owens, who is the best third-round wide receiver in NFL history, but he had to do a lot of his damage after he left San Francisco.
Even defensive end Charles Haley was a fourth-round pick by the 49ers, but let’s not fool ourselves here.
When you take what is the consensus-best quarterback in NFL history with the 82nd pick, you have one of the all-time draft steals.
Seattle Seahawks – Michael Sinclair, Defensive End
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Drafted: sixth round (155th overall), 1991 draft
With no disrespect to Michael Sinclair, he is really a placeholder for Russell Wilson being Seattle’s biggest steal. But since this is about all-time history, one year is not enough for Wilson, a third-round pick, to earn it just yet.
Seattle just does not have many great steals. I thought Steve Largent would be one, but he was actually a fourth-round pick by the Houston Oilers, who he never played a down for.
Chris Warren had the same initials as Curt Warner, but he was not as good of a running back.
Darrell Jackson had some good years as a wide receiver, but not quite good enough. I have tried to stay away from the third-round picks unless they were really valuable.
So you end up with Sinclair, who was just a sixth-round pick during some dark times for the Seahawks. He did make three consecutive Pro Bowls, racking up 41.5 sacks in those seasons (1996-98).
Sinclair played 144 games for the Seahawks, collecting 73.5 sacks. For a sixth-round pick, that is very good.
Now, let’s see how Wilson’s sophomore season goes. If it is better than last year, he may already deserve to be here.
St. Louis Rams – Deacon Jones, Defensive End
Drafted: 14th round (186th overall), 1961 draft
This one was fairly easy. While the Rams have had some good third-round picks (Jackie Slater, Lawrence McCutcheon, LeRoy Irvin, Leonard Little and Dave Elmendorf), there was a glaring late-round surprise that went their way.
Deacon Jones, the creator of the term “sack”, was still there in the 14th round of the 1961 draft. He was not even picked in the AFL draft.
It is not that hard to see why, given his shaky college career: one year at South Carolina State, a year off, and one year at Mississippi Vocational College (now known as Mississippi Valley State).
But put him on a NFL field and Jones soon began to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Sack totals are unofficial from Jones’ era, but John Turney has done more research than anyone on them. He credits Jones with 173.5 sacks in his career.
With eight Pro Bowls, five first-team All-Pro selections and a flair for the camera, Jones is often ranked as one of the all-time great defenders in NFL history.
It is only fitting that he would carry a chip on his shoulder throughout his career, but he backed up the talk like few ever have.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Ronde Barber, Cornerback
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Drafted: third round (66th overall), 1997 draft
Let’s be honest, the Buccaneers have not had a ton of success since joining the NFL in 1976, so it is fitting that they would not offer much in the way of draft steals.
This is a two-horse race between third-round defensive backs from the 1990's: John Lynch (82nd in 1993) and Ronde Barber (66th in 1997).
Lynch was a very good safety who may end up in Canton one day, though he did make four Pro Bowls with Denver at the end of his career.
Barber is the elder statesman of the Buccaneers, long outlasting his twin brother Tiki, who was drafted 30 picks ahead of Ronde by the Giants.
But it’s Ronde who continues to start in the secondary for the Buccaneers, though that streak of 215 consecutive starts is likely over with the team adding Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson this offseason.
Barber may even retire, but looking back on his career, it’s been a very good one. He has 47 interceptions and 14 non-offensive touchdowns. He has five Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro selections. He won a Super Bowl ring with the dominant 2002 defense.
Even last year after moving to safety at age 37, Barber still had four interceptions and a touchdown.
Without a doubt, Barber can lay claim to being one of the best third-round picks in NFL history.
Tennessee Titans – Elvin Bethea, Defensive End
Drafted: third round (77th overall), 1968 draft
The Oilers/Titans are probably better known for the steals they drafted that went on to ultimately star with other teams: Dave Wilcox, Steve Largent, Charlie Joiner and even Ken Houston played more years in Washington (eight) than he did Houston (six).
Houston would not be a bad choice, but his six years and Derrick Mason’s eight years are outdone by the 16 years that Elvin Bethea provided for the team at defensive end.
Bethea made eight Pro Bowls in his career and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003. No one from the 1968 draft class played as many games as Bethea’s 210.
Washington Redskins – Chris Hanburger, Linebacker
Jason Miller/Getty Images
Drafted: 18th round (245th overall), 1965 draft
You mean we finally reached the end? Then let’s wrap it up.
Dexter Manley and Russ Grimm were shrewd picks in the 1981 draft. Two years later, Charles Mann was a key pick in the fourth round. Mark Rypien was great for the standards of a sixth-round quarterback, even if his 1991 season was never close to repeated.
Going old school, Larry Brown was an eighth-round running back who won league MVP in 1972. Jerry Smith was a very prolific tight end that goes under the radar too often in NFL history. He had 60 touchdown catches.
But if you want long-term, Hall of Fame value, go with Chris Hanburger. He played 187 games for Washington, made nine Pro Bowls, four first-team All-Pro selections and was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
Hanburger joins Rosey Brown as the only players drafted lower than 220th overall to make at least nine Pro Bowls.
In fact, Hanburger was such a steal from the 18th round, McDonald’s modeled the Hamburglar after him*.
*Not actually a fact.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.