2011 NFL Draft: Top 25 Draft Steals of the Last 25 Years

Thomas CopainCorrespondent IMarch 10, 2011

2011 NFL Draft: Top 25 Draft Steals of the Last 25 Years

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    To say the NFL draft is an inexact science would basically be nothing short of stating the obvious.

    Because we all know that no matter how many physical tools a player might have, how much the scouts love him, and how much Mel Kiper and others fawn over him and his "upside," a lot of times those top prospects don't pan out.

    Then there are those late-round guys, usually the ones teams will just take a flyer on and many fans just think of as roster-fillers.  But every once in a while, those late-round picks turn into solid NFL players. And sometimes, those late-round players turn out to be superstars.

    This is the list honoring those guys during the last 25 years, the 25 best late-round draft steals (in this case late rounds being the third round or later). Now, because the list is 25 players long, some players are going to miss the cut. Aeneas Williams, Brandon Stokley and Brian Cox are just some of the names that just fell outside of the list. But there are plenty of big names that did make it.

    And with that in mind, here's the top 25.

25. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB

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    Drafted: Seventh Round (250th Overall), New York Giants, 2007

    Bradshaw was a talented back at Marshall who slipped because of character issues. The Giants took a flyer on him however, and they haven't looked back.

    In a few short years, Bradshaw has gone from third-string running back to starter, and he's only getting better. He broke the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in 2010, and he's not showing signs he'll slow down anytime soon. Now if the Giants can only fix that fumbling problem.

24. Michael Turner, RB

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    Drafted: Fifth Round (154th Overall), San Diego Chargers, 2004

    The Chargers had an idea of the type of runner they found in Turner when they drafted him, but Turner was stuck behind arguably the best running back in the league at the time, LaDanian Tomlinson. Still, Turner showed flashes of that breakaway speed and vision with the Chargers when he got a chance to play.

    But the Chargers and the NFL world didn't know for sure until 2008—when Turner signed with the Falcons. Two Pro Bowls, two All-Pro selections and almost 4,000 rushing yards later, he's become one of the league's best rushers.

23. Keenan McCardell, WR

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    Drafted: 12th Round (326th Overall), Washington Redskins, 1991

    McCardell spent one season with the Redskins without ever playing a game, and then spent four so-so seasons in Cleveland.

    But McCardell shined in Jacksonville, when he combined with Jimmy Smith and Mark Brunell to create one of the best air attacks in the game. He had four seasons of at least 80 catches and 1,000 receiving yards in Jacksonville, and had a couple of more productive seasons after that in Tampa and San Diego before retiring.

22. Tedy Bruschi, LB

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    Drafted: Third Round (86th Overall), New England Patriots, 1996

    Bruschi was never a flashy player (only one Pro Bowl appearance), but for his entire career he was the heart and soul of the Patriots defense. He was a leader on and off the field who took off at linebacker after playing as a defensive end in college.

    Before and even after a shocking stroke in the prime of his career, Bruschi always played his hardest on every play. The Patriots defense hasn't been the same since he left. 

    And considering they found him in the third round, the 1996 draft wasn't bad at all for New England. Their first three picks: Terry Glenn, Lawyer Milloy and Bruschi.

21. Donald Driver, WR

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    Drafted: Seventh Round (213th Overall), Green Bay Packers, 1999

    Donald Driver has never been a flashy receiver, nor has he been of the Terrell Owens, Ochocinco Primadonna school of receiving. 

    All he's done since being drafted in the seventh round is be consistently strong, with seven seasons of at least 70 catches and 1,000 yards. Three Pro Bowls later, Driver's now the No. 2 receiver behind Greg Jennings, but he finally got his Super Bowl ring back in January.

    Plus, it doesn't hurt to have two of the best quarterbacks in the game to catch balls from.

20. Bo Jackson, RB

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    Drafted: Seventh Round (183rd Overall), Los Angeles Raiders, 1987

    Jackson was the first overall pick by Tampa Bay in 1986, but he instead wanted to play baseball and turned down the offer, according to an ESPN story. Instead, the Raiders took him in the seventh round the next season.

    He never became a superstar because of injuries, but he was a serious home-run threat every time he touched the ball. His yards-per-carry average for his career is 10th all-time, and everyone remembers that touchdown run that ended with him running through the tunnel in the old Kingdome.

    One of the best athletes of our generation.

19. Rodney Harrison, S

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    Drafted: Fifth Round (145th Overall), San Diego Chargers, 1994

    For a while, he might be best remembered as the guy who gave Kurt Warner his big break. Albeit, that happened when he rolled into Trent Green's knee and knocked him out for the season. 

    But Harrison, who split his career between the Chargers and Patriots, gained a reputation. He became one of the leaders of a very good secondary as well as one of the league's most dangerous and hard-hitting safeties, as shown by his two Pro Bowls. 

18. Jared Allen, DE

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    Drafted: Fourth Round (126th Overall), Kansas City Chiefs, 2004

    Allen went into the NFL as a fourth-round pick out of Idaho State in 2004, a relative unknown. He's instead become one of the most feared defensive ends in the game. 

    He started to grow in Kansas City, but Allen took off as a player (and as a personality with his hair) in Minnesota. His 83 career sacks are 45th all-time, and he's had four straight seasons of 10 or more sacks. In his entire career, he's never had fewer than seven sacks in a season.

17. Marques Colston, WR

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    Drafted: Seventh Round (252nd Overall), New Orleans Saints, 2006

    Marques Colston might be one of the great finds of the last few years. 

    A seventh-round pick out of Hofstra, Colston walked right into the new-look Saints offense in 2006 and hasn't looked back, reaching the 70 catches and 1,000-yards receiving mark in four of his five seasons in the league.

    His numbers aren't indicative of the type of player he is because of how loaded the Saints are at receiver, but he's one of the best receivers in the game.

16. Joe Horn, WR

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    Drafted: Fifth Round (135th Overall), Kansas City Chiefs, 1996

    Before Colston, there was the guy Colston pushed out of New Orleans. 

    And while Horn was never able to really be a great receiver in Kansas City, he exploded onto the scene in New Orleans with Aaron Brooks throwing him passes.

    In his four seasons in Kansas City, Horn caught 53 passes for 879 yards and seven touchdowns. In his seven years in New Orleans, Horn had 523 catches for 7,622 yards with 50 touchdowns and one infamous touchdown celebration.

15. John Lynch, S

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    Drafted: Third Round (82nd Overall), Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1993

    One of the hardest-hitting and fierce safeties of our era. 

    Lynch's days in Tampa Bay dated back to the Orange Creamsicle days, but he came into his own under Tony Dungy. Between Lynch, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber, those four combined to be the heart of one of the toughest and stingiest defenses in football at the time.

    A defense that only allowed 11 points to the 1999 Rams in the NFC Championship Game and finally got its ring against the Raiders in 2003.

14. Jason Witten, TE

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    Drafted: Third Round (69th Overall), Dallas Cowboys, 2003

    One of the best pass-catching tight ends in the game, if not the best.

    We all heard that Witten had the potential to be a very good offensive threat in the NFL, but I'm not sure if anyone predicted seven Pro Bowls, a two-time first-team All-Pro and 51st all-time in receptions.

    Not to mention that with all the craziness surrounding the Cowboys, he has been the most consistent and perhaps the No. 1 receiving option during his time in Dallas.

13. Robert Mathis, DE

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    Drafted: Fifth Round (138th Overall), Indianapolis Colts, 2003

    From being a back-end draft pick to one of the best pass rushers in the game, Robert Mathis just makes it all look very easy. 

    He's combined with Dwight Freeney to form one of the most dangerous pass-rushing duos around, and while Freeney gets a lot of the credit, Mathis hasn't done too badly for himself either. He's accrued more than 70 sacks in his career and been a Pro Bowler each of the last three seasons.

    Not bad for a fifth-rounder.

12. Brian Westbrook, RB

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    Drafted: Third Round (91st Overall), Philadelphia Eagles, 2002

    There have been few organizations during the past 15 years that have done a better job in turning more mid-to-late round draft picks into productive players and stars than the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Westbrook was another one of those players, taken in the third round because of concerns about his size and how he would hold up in the NFL. Concussions eventually took their toll and ended his Eagles career, but not before he finished second on the franchise's all-time rushing list and 10th on the all-time receiving list.

11. Asante Samuel, CB

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    Drafted: Fourth Round (120th Overall), New England Patriots, 2003

    The Patriots don't do a bad job of developing draft picks either, and they turned a fourth round pick into one of the game's premier corners in Samuel. Many times he plays more like a safety than a cornerback, which can get him into trouble when he can't make a play and there's no safety help over the top. 

    But when he's on, he's one of the most dangerous players on a defense. Few other cornerbacks around can jump a route and make a play on a pass better than he can.

10. Zach Thomas, LB

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    Drafted: Fifth Round (154th Overall), Miami Dolphins, 1996

    The 1996 draft might go down as one of the deepest ever, especially since there were players like Thomas around in the later rounds.

    Thomas quickly became the heart of the Dolphins defense, earning seven Pro Bowl trips for his work quarterbacking the unit. He was never able to get over the hump with the Dolphins, but in his prime he was perhaps the best middle linebacker in the game.

9. Hines Ward, WR

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    Drafted: Third Round (93rd Overall), Pittsburgh Steelers, 1998

    Ward was a former quarterback that the Steelers converted to wideout when they drafted him. 

    The result of that? Only four Pro Bowl selections, three second-team All-Pro selections, two Super Bowl rings in three appearances and a Super Bowl MVP. All that has made Ward one of the best receivers in the game and one of the best in Steelers history.

8. La'Roi Glover, DT

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    Drafted: Fifth Round (166th Overall), Oakland Raiders, 1996

    Like Joe Horn, Glover never was able to break through with his first team. But like Horn, it was when he got to New Orleans that Glover established himself. 

    And boy did he establish himself. In a short time, Glover was one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the game. Glover made six straight trips to the Pro Bowl between 2000-2005, all the while making an impact on the line.

    His 17 sacks in 2000 led the NFL.

7. Steve Smith, WR

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    Drafted: Third Round (74th Overall), Carolina Panthers, 2001

    Smith has never been one of the biggest guys on the field, but he's always been one of the gutsiest. 

    His small stature has never stopped Smith from becoming one of the game's premier receivers during his prime because of his athleticism, his ability to go over the middle on routes and his fantastic hands.

    He's made four Pro Bowls in his career, three as a receiver, and might be the best player in Carolina Panthers history.

6. Terrell Owens, WR

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    Drafted: Third Round (89th Overall), San Francisco 49ers, 1996

    There's a lot of things you may not like about T.O., but you can't deny the talent. 

    For all of the antics, Owens might be one of the best receivers of all time. He's in the top 10 in career receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, and for all the headaches he can bring, he still gets work because of the talent. 

    It's just never ended well wherever he's been. 

5. Terrell Davis, RB

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    Drafted: Sixth Round (196th Overall), Denver Broncos, 1995

    One of the workhorse backs whose career was derailed way too early by injuries, Davis was the backbone of the Broncos teams that won back-to-back Super Bowls in the twilight of John Elway's career.

    Davis had four straight seasons of 1,100 yards or more to start his career, including 1,750 yards in 1997 and breaking the 2,000-yard mark in 1998. He was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXII, and it's interesting to consider whether those Broncos teams would've won a Super Bowl if it wasn't for Davis. 

4. Shannon Sharpe, TE

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    Drafted: Seventh Round (192nd Overall), Denver Broncos, 1990

    Then there was another big part of the Broncos' Super Bowl teams, the man with the golden tongue. The man who was caught on film asking for the National Guard to race down to Foxborough because Denver was killing the Patriots. 

    Shannon Sharpe could talk with the best of them; he could play with the best of them, too. Perhaps one of the greatest pass-catching tight ends of all time, he got his due earlier this year when it was announced he'll be getting his rightful place in Canton.

3. Jason Taylor, DE/LB

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    Drafted: Third Round (72nd Overall), Miami Dolphins, 1997

    Simply said, one of the best pass-rushers of all time.

    He can beat you with his speed and just run right around you, or he can give you a couple of moves before he devours a quarterback.

    Either way, it's hard to argue with the results: 132.5 sacks and six Pro Bowls in a career that's still going strong as Taylor's moved to an outside linebacker spot in a 3-4 scheme.

2. Curtis Martin, RB

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    Drafted: Third Round (74th Overall), New England Patriots, 1995

    Good old Mr. Reliable.

    In his prime, there were three things we could always rely on: Death, taxes and Curtis "My Favorite" Martin (to use a Bermanism) rushing for 1,000 yards. He did it for 10 consecutive seasons and for 10 of his 11 seasons in the league.

    He's among the all-time leaders in rushing attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.

    Safe to say it won't be long before he gets the call to Canton.

1. Tom Brady, QB

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    Drafted: Sixth Round (199th Overall), New England Patriots, 2000

    Giovanni Carmazzi, Tee Martin and Chris Redmond. Those were three of the quarterbacks drafted before Tom Brady in the 2000 draft.

    To be fair, that sixth round also produced Marc Bulger. But Brady is a lock for No. 1 on this list. He just scooped up a MVP award for having one of his best seasons as a pro, and he's done it mostly with no-name skill players around him.

    Where once he was a roster-filler, Brady might soon enter himself into the discussion as one of the best of all time, if he hasn't already.