2014 NFL Draft: Best 1st-Round Draft Pick in Every Team's History
The NFL draft is designed to help provide some degree of equality in the National Football League and to make it easier for struggling teams to acquire future Hall of Famers.
With 32 first-round picks in each draft, however, every team has the opportunity to find a great player every year if it knows where to look. As a result, nearly every team has drafted a legend early at least once in its franchise history.
The best first-round draft picks in every team's history encompass playmakers on both offense and defense and showcase some of the greatest players in the modern era and those who have stood the test of time.
Those who were selected in the supplemental draft, even if a first-round selection was used, are not included.
Buffalo Bills: Bruce Smith
The reason the Bills made it to four straight Super Bowls was due to leaders on both offense and defense. Fellow first-round pick Jim Kelly led the offense, while the great Bruce Smith led the defense.
Smith, the first overall selection in 1985, made an immediate impact on the Bills. He led the team with 6.5 sacks his rookie year and then went on to have five straight double-digit sack seasons, including 19 in 1990.
He was a Pro Bowl selection 11 straight times (excluding an injury-shortened 1991) and an All-Pro selection nine times and retired with 200 sacks, which only fellow great Reggie White has come close to.
His 171 sacks for the Bills will not be broken for a long time, if ever. He became a Hall of Famer in 2009 in his first year of eligibility. It's safe to say that he's the Bills' best defensive player ever and right in the discussion of the best in NFL history, let alone just among first-rounders.
Miami Dolphins: Dan Marino
Hall of Famers Bob Griese and Larry Csonka have an undefeated season and Super Bowl rings to show for their time with Miami, but it is impossible to overlook the massive numbers Dan Marino put up as quarterback for the Dolphins.
The fact that he fell to the Dolphins in the 1983 draft is a story in and of itself, since they had a good team and a decent quarterback already, plus Marino had a higher draft grade than his late first-round selection would indicate. Once he took over as the starter in Miami, he began quickly setting records.
In his second season, he had more than 5,084 yards and 48 touchdown passes—both records were only broken recently. He went on to throw for more than 60,000 yards and 420 touchdowns. Both were records when he retired, and he remains in the top three for both stats.
He made it to nine Pro Bowls and was a Hall of Fame inductee in 2005. Even with passing numbers growing every year, he still holds many active records, and his Monday Night Football numbers (9,654 yards and 74 touchdowns) will not be broken anytime soon.
New England Patriots: John Hannah
The selection for Patriots' best draft steal is one of the easiest questions in football to answer: Tom Brady. The selection for best first-round selection, however, is not as easy to make.
Mike Haynes makes a good argument with 46 interceptions and nine Pro Bowl bids in a split career with the Patriots and Raiders, but the honor for overall best first-round pick goes to guard John Hannah.
The early first-round pick in 1973 was an asset to the Patriots offensive line for more than a decade, getting recognition at a position where you usually don't hear much about players.
He was an All-Pro player 10 times and a Hall of Famer in 1991, and he is near the top of the best offensive linemen ever. He was not only great on his own, but he made the rest of the O-line in New England better. That's what separates the good from the elite at that position.
New York Jets: Joe Namath
This is a harder selection than it might seem at first glance, given the careers of John Abraham and John Riggins. Both are underrated greats but only spent part of their careers with the Jets.
Joe Namath, meanwhile, was a 12-season great who came to the Jets as the first overall pick in the 1965 AFL draft. His numbers don't look that good compared to what quarterbacks put up nowadays, but in his peak in the late 1960s, he was among the best on the field.
What make him the best first-round pick in Jets history are not just his 27,000-plus yards and five Pro Bowls, but what he meant to New York and football. His win in Super Bowl III made him a star, and that game showed that the talent in the AFL could match up to that in the NFL.
He was the type of player who elevated the teammates around him, and that's a rare gift for any player to have, especially a quarterback.
Baltimore Ravens: Ray Lewis
The Baltimore Ravens have been around for less than 20 years yet already have multiple players who could qualify as the best first-round pick in team history.
First-ever pick Jonathan Ogden is a Hall of Famer, and Ed Reed is a shoo-in once he retires. Even Terrell Suggs looks like he is on that path. That being said, no one compares to Ray Lewis.
He had a lengthy 17-year career, was a 13-time Pro Bowler and solidified himself as perhaps the best middle linebacker of all time. He was the unquestioned leader of Baltimore's defense, and his presence made the rest of the defense that much easier to build.
He was a huge steal for Baltimore with the 26th overall pick, and he will likely be elected to the Hall of Fame the first year he is eligible. He was that dominant.
Cincinnati Bengals: Anthony Munoz
Due to a combination of the Bengals' lack of success early in the draft and the utter dominance of one player, the Bengals might have the easiest selection on this list.
Anthony Munoz was the third overall pick for the Bengals in 1980 and immediately established himself as a force. He went on to play 13 seasons, made the Pro Bowl 11 times and was an All-Pro selection nine times.
He is not only the best first-round draft pick in Bengals history, but he has been named the best offensive lineman in history by NFL.com. The only two Super Bowls that the Bengals made it to were thanks to the efforts of Munoz protecting the blind sides of Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason.
Cleveland Browns: Jim Brown
The Cleveland Browns may not have been named for Jim Brown, but it is only fitting that he was their best player ever, let alone best first-round selection.
The sixth overall pick in 1957 made an immediate impact on the NFL and put up staggering numbers. When he retired, he had 12,312 yards and 106 rushing touchdowns, both all-time records at the time.
What makes his career numbers so amazing is that he not only retired with gas left in the tank to pursue an acting career, but he played when seasons were 12 and 14 games long.
He led the league in rushing every year but one, was a Pro Bowler every year and has to be in the discussion of greatest NFL player in history.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Rod Woodson
This is one where I might break from the opinion of others. After all, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene and Franco Harris were not only first-round selections and Hall of Famers but key components in the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s.
Despite the storied history of those players and others, Rod Woodson stands above them. The 10th overall pick in 1987 was immediately a force on special teams and then turned into a star at cornerback once he became a starter.
He made 11 Pro Bowl appearances, was an All-Pro selection six times and retired from the NFL with 71 interceptions, returning a record 12 of them for touchdowns.
Unlike the dynasty of the 1970s, Woodson didn't have the talent surrounding him to make himself seem even better. He was simply dominant on his own terms.
Houston Texans: Andre Johnson
The Texans have a short history, so their greatest player being an active one makes sense. J.J. Watt could be the guy here 10 years from now, but for now Andre Johnson is easily the man to beat.
He was the third overall pick in 2003 and made his presence known immediately, nearly having a 1,000-yard season. Eleven seasons later, he has 12,661 yards and 61 touchdowns.
He has led the league in yards twice as well as receptions twice, and even with a giant question mark at quarterback this past season, he still managed more than 1,400 yards. Whoever ends up starting at QB in Week 1 in 2014 at least will have a sure target.
Indianapolis Colts: Peyton Manning
The Colts hit many home runs with their first-round draft picks from the mid-1990s onward. Marshall Faulk, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Edgerrin James all had great careers.
With the exception of Faulk, none of them would have had the numbers they put up without Peyton Manning. The first overall pick in 1998 has become one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
He has never had a full season without at least 3,700 passing yards or 26 touchdowns. He has nearly 65,000 yards and 500 touchdowns, and he could break Brett Favre's records in both this coming season.
His 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in 2013, even though the numbers were not with the Colts, show that he remains as dominant as ever. He will go down as the best Colts player in history, let alone best first-round draft pick.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Fred Taylor
The Jaguars provide one of the toughest selections on this list. Tony Boselli, the team's first-ever draft pick, had an elite yet short career as a left tackle, while Fred Taylor had a lengthy, underrated career as a running back.
In the end, I have to go with the more sustained career, despite Boselli's five Pro Bowls in seven seasons with Jacksonville. Taylor was selected in the 1998 NFL draft and quickly made his presence known, hitting 1,000 yards twice in three seasons, including 1,399 in 13 games in 2000.
Injuries early in his career slowed him down a bit, but he still managed seven years of 1,000 rushing yards, including more than 1,500 in 2003 and two years where he got to that mark despite splitting carries with Maurice Jones-Drew.
He retired with more than 11,000 rushing yards in a Jacksonville uniform and 11,695 overall, which puts him 15th all time.
Tennessee Titans: Bruce Matthews
This was another tough decision that pitted great, consistent longevity against an elite yet short career. Both Bruce Matthews and Earl Campbell are deserving of the honor of best first-round pick for the Titans, originally the Oilers, but only one can receive it.
In the end, as elite as Campbell was, I have to go with the player who was great for two decades and whose blocking ability helped Campbell perform as well as he did.
Matthews was the ninth pick in the 1983 draft, and throughout his career, he spent time everywhere on the offensive line, though he played primarily at guard. He made it to 14 Pro Bowls, and his 293 games started are second only to Brett Favre all time.
His durability and blocking ability helped the Oilers produce high-production offenses through the 1980s and 1990s. When the team moved to Tennessee, he remained a force and was an All-Pro selection even in his late 30s.
Denver Broncos: Randy Gradishar
If I had to pick the best player the Broncos drafted without looking at who they played for, the honor would easily go to Merlin Olsen. Both the Broncos and Los Angeles Rams drafted him in 1962. He signed with the Rams and never played for Denver.
I can't select a player who never played for that team, but after Olsen there are several possibilities. Floyd Little had a Hall of Fame career as a running back, while Steve Atwater was one of the hardest-hitting defensive backs in the 1990s.
All that being said, I'm picking arguably the least well-known player on this list in linebacker Randy Gradishar. As the key part of the Orange Crush defense in the 1970s and 1980s, he made seven Pro Bowl appearances in a decade with Denver.
While he is not in the Hall of Fame unlike many on this list, he has been considered a snub who should be in the Hall by wide receiver Steve Largent, ESPN's Chris Berman and others. He was the leader of the team in the pre-John Elway years, and the Broncos' success in the late 1970s was thanks in large part to him.
Kansas City Chiefs: Tony Gonzalez
Derrick Thomas was one of my favorite players to watch growing up, and you cannot look past seven sacks in a game and a Hall of Fame enshrinement. It takes being the best at your position to top that.
That's precisely what Tony Gonzalez brings to the table. He was the 13th overall selection in 1997, and after a couple of unimpressive seasons, he broke open with 11 touchdowns in 1999 and 1,203 yards in 2000.
After 17 seasons, he had more 15,000 yards and 111 touchdowns. His 14 Pro Bowl appearances are tied for the record, and he holds virtually every career record for a tight end.
His impact on the tight end position was huge. We now see many at that position with college basketball backgrounds. They are now athletic enough to act like wide receivers yet remain tough enough to run plays up the middle. Gonzalez was the best at that, and his career will be tough to duplicate.
Oakland Raiders: Gene Upshaw
The Raiders have had great success in drafting in the first round. Tim Brown and Charles Woodson should be in the Hall of Fame someday, Marcus Allen is already there, and Roman Gabriel may be one of the all-time most underrated quarterbacks.
None of these players quite match up, however, to Gene Upshaw. The 17th pick in the 1967 draft anchored a strong offensive line that guided the Raiders to reach the Super Bowl in three separate decades; he was the first player to accomplish that feat.
Upshaw was a seven-time Pro Bowler in a 15-year career, and as great as he was as a player, he became just as significant as executive director of the NFLPA from 1983 until his death in 2008.
Most notable was his durability. He started 207 straight regular-season games (231 overall) at the left guard position, which remains a record to this day.
San Diego Chargers: Junior Seau
LaDainian Tomlinson set an NFL record with 28 rushing touchdowns in 2006 and retired with a near-record 145 to go with 13,684 yards. To beat those numbers, a player has to be not only elite but an inspiration for a team.
Junior Seau fits the bill on both counts. The fifth overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft became the face of the Chargers almost immediately. He went on to play football for two decades, including 13 years with the Chargers, where he was the key piece of their lone Super Bowl appearance.
In his career, he made 12 Pro Bowl appearances and was an All-Pro selection eight times. He was a leader for the team both on the field and off, and his passion for the game rubbed off on others.
As great as Tomlinson was, Seau was the kind of player whom a team could rally around, and that kind of energy is rare to find even among other NFL greats.
Dallas Cowboys: Emmitt Smith
The Dallas Cowboys had a slew of elite first-round picks in their history. Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Randy White, Bob Lilly and Tony Dorsett are all in this group. Beating all of them, however, is running back Emmitt Smith.
Smith was a workhorse for the Cowboys from the moment he was selected with the 17th pick in the 1990 NFL draft. He quickly became dominant and led the Cowboys to multiple Super Bowls.
He led the league in rushing yards four times and rushing attempts three times. He retired after 15 years with 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns. He holds the record for attempts, yards and touchdowns in a career.
Few running backs were as great at running through defenses as Smith was. He was a no-nonsense rusher who was utilized both his skills and the offensive line, and the end result was a back who holds many all-time records.
New York Giants: Lawrence Taylor
There are few defensive players who were downright feared in the NFL—players whom opposing offenses strove to avoid. Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor was one of these players.
The second overall pick in the 1981 NFL draft made his presence known as an immediate starter for the Giants. He led them to two Super Bowls, and in his career he had 132.5 sacks and more than 1,000 tackles.
He was a 10-time Pro Bowler and eight-time All-Pro selection, and he made such an impact on defense that John Madden had this to say about him, per ESPN Classic: "He changed the way defense is played, the way pass-rushing is played, the way linebackers play and the way offenses block linebackers."
Philadelphia Eagles: Chuck Bednarik
Hall of Famer Bob Brown was a great tackle for several years, and Donovan McNabb had a great career as well with the Eagles. However, the best first-round pick is someone who played both sides of the ball and remains one of the all-time greats even nowadays.
Chuck Bednarik was the first overall pick in 1949. With the Eagles, he was both the star center and star linebacker. In fact, he was one of the last players to play both sides of the ball and has criticized the fact that players no longer have to do that.
Bednarik's 10 All-Pro selections speak for themselves, and his reputation as a hard hitter was matched only by his toughness, as evident by playing nearly the full 60 minutes every game for most of his career.
Now more than ever, we're not going to see his style of play much in the NFL. During his time, however, he was among the best players in the game.
Washington Redskins: Darrell Green
Champ Bailey has more hardware and better numbers than any first-round pick that Washington has made, but he spent most of his career with Denver, so he was not the best pick for the Redskins. Other honorable mentions include Art Monk and Hall of Famers Charley Taylor and Sammy Baugh.
Darrell Green, however, tops them all. He was the last pick of the first round in 1983 and is proof that even great teams can find talent if they know where to look. He went on to play in a Redskins uniform for two decades.
In those two decades, he notched 54 interceptions and seven Pro Bowl appearances. His production varied from good to elite depending on the year, but he was always able to make a play for the Redskins when it was needed.
He was a major part of two Super Bowl wins for the Redskins, and one of those wins came during his career year of 1991, thanks in part to his leadership.
Chicago Bears: Walter Payton
The first-round draft picks of the Bears is a who's who of greats. Dick Butkus was one of the best linebackers in history, and Dan Hampton and Brian Urlacher both had excellent careers. While all three were excellent on defense, the all-time best player was on offense.
Walter Payton was the fourth pick in the 1975 NFL draft, and by his third season, he established himself as the best running back in the game, leading the league with more than 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns.
By the end of his 13-year career, he made nine Pro Bowls and had 110 touchdowns and 16,726 rushing yards—a record that has only been broken by Emmitt Smith.
Payton was an inspiration to running backs who followed him and remains one to this day. The fact that the NFL's award for charitable work is named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award says all that needs to be said about what he meant to the community.
Detroit Lions: Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders is the type of player that comes once in a generation, and his dominance from start to finish makes him an obvious choice as the Lions' best player on top of being the best first-round pick.
The third overall pick in the 1989 NFL draft, he put defenses on notice by rushing for 1,470 yards in his rookie year, missing the league lead by 10 yards. He led the league in rushing yards the following year and seemed to get better and better.
By the time he retired after the 1998 season, he had made the Pro Bowl every year and had 99 career touchdowns and 15,269 yards. He was still a top rusher when he retired, and had he played even two or three more seasons, he would have had the all-time rushing record.
Even with how great a selection Calvin Johnson has been for the Lions in recent years, he still doesn't compare to Sanders, who was simply playing on another level. Defenders could not catch or tackle him; he was just that elusive on the field.
Green Bay Packers: Herb Adderley
Ten years from now, we could easily see Aaron Rodgers take this place on the list, as he is one of the best players in the game today. For those who are retired, James Lofton and Dave Robinson both had great Hall of Fame careers primarily with the Packers.
The title of best player, however, belongs to Herb Adderley. The 12th overall pick in the 1961 draft, he was one of the most unlikely players on this list. He was a running back, but due to the depth the Packers had there, he was moved to defensive back during his rookie year.
After 12 seasons and nine with the Packers, he retired with 48 interceptions, five Pro Bowl selections and three Super Bowl wins. He was great through the end of his career, notching six interceptions during the Cowboys' Super Bowl win in 1971.
Minnesota Vikings: Alan Page
Of the 32 teams, the Vikings might have the best track record when it comes to drafting in the first round. You could make a team out of just those picks, which include Hall of Famers Carl Eller, Chris Doleman, Ron Yary, Randall McDaniel and Alan Page, as well as recent greats Randy Moss and Adrian Peterson.
But which one is the best? I gave a lot of thought to this one, and in the end I went with Page, the main member of the Purple People Eaters, the Vikings' elite defensive line of the late 1960s and 1970s.
The 17th pick in the 1967 draft became the leader on defense for the perennial playoff teams of the Vikings during the second Fran Tarkenton era. He was named to nine Pro Bowls in 12 seasons with the team.
Sacks were not an official statistic during Page's playing career, but he unofficially had 148.5, which would put him among the all-time greats.
Atlanta Falcons: Deion Sanders
Selecting a player for the Falcons was not easy. Perhaps the overall best player Deion Sanders only played a handful of seasons, while Michael Vick, Roddy White and Claude Humphrey all have had great careers and spent many more seasons with the Falcons.
Despite the relatively short career with Atlanta, Sanders was great enough while there to deserve a spot here. He was elite both on special teams and as a defensive back and lived up to his "Prime Time" nickname.
The fifth overall pick in 1989 had eight All-Pro selections and 53 interceptions, 24 of them with Atlanta, and he had nine touchdowns on kick and punt returns as well.
Sanders was one of the best ball hawks of the era, and his 22 career touchdowns are even more impressive given the fact that he got them on offense, defense and special teams.
Carolina Panthers: Julius Peppers
The Carolina Panthers have not had many first-round selections, and the recent picks (Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly) could end up on this list 10 years from now. As of right now, however, this choice is a no-brainer.
Julius Peppers was the second overall selection in 2002 and collected 12 sacks in his rookie season. Over the next eight years with Carolina, he notched 81 sacks and made five Pro Bowl appearances.
Now with the Chicago Bears, he has continued to put up great numbers. Peppers is someone who can be counted on to contribute in all areas of the game. He even has nine career interceptions to his credit, which is impressive for a defensive end.
New Orleans Saints: Willie Roaf
When looking at many of the great Saints over the years, virtually none were first-round draft picks, and some were drafted late or not at all, such as Sam Mills. However, one great who was selected in the first round stands out.
Willie Roaf was the eighth overall pick in the 1993 NFL draft, and he spent the next nine seasons as the team's starting left tackle. No matter who the quarterback was, Roaf was able to remain an elite tackle and protect him.
In a 13-year career, Roaf was a Pro Bowl selection 11 times and was named to the Hall of Fame in 2012. Despite the Saints having to break up their great linebacker group by trading Pat Swilling in order to move up in the draft, it worked out well due to Roaf's great talent.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Derrick Brooks
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' picks in the 1995 NFL draft were not only perfect in and of themselves, but they gave the Bucs two of their best players. The first was Warren Sapp, who was one of the most feared defensive tackles in the game.
Picked near the end of the first round was Derrick Brooks, whose career was even better. He played in 14 seasons for the Buccaneers, started all but three games in his career and was named to the Pro Bowl 11 times.
He became the leader of the defense and showcased his ability to do it all. He had 25 interceptions and some sacks as well, despite his focus being on shutting down plays rather than trying to get to the quarterback.
He was deservedly elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014 and will be inducted later this year.
Arizona Cardinals: Roger Wehrli
It was tempting to place Larry Fitzgerald here, since he has put up elite numbers for a decade despite having a new quarterback seemingly every season. However, he is beaten out by one of the best defensive backs to play the game.
Roger Wehrli was the 19th pick in the 1969 draft and quickly became a star for the Cardinals. He was a ball hawk who easily picked off passes, and as a result he had 40 in his career to go with seven Pro Bowl selections.
However, it was his ability to shut down wide receivers that won him praise throughout the NFL. In fact, the term "shutdown corner" was created for Wehrli because he was that dominant on defense.
St. Louis Rams: Merlin Olsen
Merlin Olsen could have been the best Broncos first-round draft pick ever. Instead, he signed with the Los Angeles Rams after being drafted by them third overall in 1962. He then went on to become the best Rams first-round pick.
He became a key part of the dominant defensive line, the Fearsome Foursome, and he only missed a handful of games while anchoring the line. He played 15 seasons and earned a Pro Bowl selection for 14 of them.
He spent the later part of his career teaming up with Jack Youngblood, who was a first-round pick and Hall of Famer as well. The Rams were a perennial playoff team in the 1970s thanks to these two players, especially Olsen.
San Francisco 49ers: Jerry Rice
Ronnie Lott was one of the best defensive backs of the 1980s. He had 10 Pro Bowl bids and was elected to the Hall of Fame. As dominant as he was on defense, Jerry Rice did even more on offense for the 49ers.
The 16th overall pick in 1985 developed a perfect connection with quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young, and the end result is a player who shattered wide receiver records.
In his career, Rice has 13 Pro Bowl bids and more than 22,000 yards and 197 touchdowns, and he led the league in both categories six times. His 22,895 yards is the NFL record by a huge margin; no one else is within 5,000.
Even in an offensive-minded era, his career records could be unbreakable, and he is one of a handful of players who could be the greatest ever.
Seattle Seahawks: Walter Jones
Cortez Kennedy is deserving of an honorable mention as one of the premier defensive tackles of the 1990s. While he was a force in the middle, Walter Jones was someone the Seahawks could rely on for more than a decade.
Jones was the sixth overall pick in the 1997 draft, and he went on to play 12 seasons as Seattle's left tackle. He missed only a handful of games in his career and made nine Pro Bowl appearances. He retired after the 2008 season after being named to an eighth straight Pro Bowl.
He was a Hall of Fame selection on his first attempt this year, which is a much deserved honor.
Note: Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.