Re-Imagining History for the Last 10 No. 1 Overall Picks

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterApril 16, 2020

Re-Imagining History for the Last 10 No. 1 Overall Picks

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Change a few draft picks, and you can change an entire decade of NFL history.

    That's precisely what happened when Bleacher Report decided to redraft the No. 1 overall pick for every NFL draft from 2010 through 2019. Give the teams at the top of the board the ability to see the future and select a different player, and you suddenly find yourself in a series of Black Mirror episodes in which:

    • The Browns are the team to beat in the AFC;
    • Alex Smith is a candidate for the 2010s All-Decade team;
    • Tom Brady never meets Rob Gronkowski;
    • Bill O'Brien is considered a personnel genius;
    • The Legion of Boom looks very, very different;

    and much more!

    The rules of this redraft are simple: We replace the actual No. 1 pick from each season with a different choice by the same team. Sometimes, we're correcting a huge mistake. Other times, we are simply offering an alternative to an excellent choice. Then we let the new reality play out. Each segment is self-contained (with one two-parter near the end), so don't nitpick if two different teams win the same Super Bowl in separate scenarios. We don't want to get too carried away with the butterfly effect, after all.

    So let's enter a realm where laughingstocks are juggernauts, unstoppable offenses and devastating defenses arise in unexpected places, and trends that began shaping the league last year emerged much, much earlier. 

    It's the dimension of imagination. It's the Bleacher Report Redraft Zone!


    Tune in to our 2020 NFL Draft Show for live, in-depth analysis on what each pick means for your team, with hosts Adam Lefkoe, Matt Miller and Connor Rogers. No fluff, no B.S. Download the B/R app and watch starting Thursday, April 23, at 8 p.m. ET.

2010: St. Louis Rams Select Rob Gronkowski, TE, Arizona

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    The Choice

    The Greatest Show on Turf days were far behind them, and the Rams needed a quarterback. Yet they were worried that Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, the top choice on most draft boards, would spend his career bouncing from team to team and collecting massive contracts while battling injuries. (It was a very specific worry.)

    When they heard a rumor that Bill Belichick and the Patriots had their eye on Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski, Rams brass stunned the NFL world by reaching for him with the first overall pick.

                        

    The Result

    Gronk and Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens became an exciting pitch-and-catch combination, and Gronk became both an All-Pro and the one Rams player you would want on your fantasy team. But defense-oriented coaches Steve Spagnuolo and Jeff Fisher never put together a supporting cast to suit Gronk's talents, and Gronk took hit after hit while hauling in errant passes from quarterbacks like Clemens, Shaun Hill and Austin Davis.

    Worn down by all the hits and injuries, Gronk retired the moment the Rams left St. Louis for L.A. in 2016. After a brief WWE stint, Gronk caught the acting bug, joining the Fast & Furious crew as fun-loving munitions expert Gustav "Gunner" Grabowski and earned critical acclaim for his brief appearance in Manchester by the Sea. He then moved on to daytime television. Kelly & Gronk debuted in the autumn of 2019, and you can catch new episodes every morning at 10 a.m.

    As for the Patriots, they went on to win three Super Bowls in the late 2010s with Tom Brady throwing to Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham.   

2011: Carolina Panthers Select Richard Sherman, CB, Stanford

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    The Choice

    The Panthers brain trust got cold feet about Cam Newton. New head coach Ron Rivera was reluctant to trust his program to the Auburn quarterback who aspired to be an "entertainer and icon," and he bought into the nasty predraft whispers about Newton's personality. 

    What's more, Rivera wanted to rebuild through the defense. Having coached Brian Dawkins, Peanut Tillman and Eric Weddle in previous stops, he planned to start that rebuild in the secondary. Still, no one could imagine he would select a converted Stanford wide receiver named Richard Sherman with the first overall pick. Even the most innovative scouts only gave Sherman a sixth-round grade, and at 6'3", Sherman was too tall to match up against shifty receivers. But no one could change Rivera's mind.

                  

    The Result

    Sherman's hard-nosed, ultra-competitive personality rubbed off on Rivera's Panthers. He and receiver Steve Smith became practice-field archrivals and locker room blood brothers. In time, Rivera added Josh Norman to the secondary, and Luke Kuechly joined Thomas Davis to lead the NFL's best linebacker corps. The defense was nicknamed The Legion of Boom, and the Panthers were contenders every single year in the mid-2010s.

    It all culminated with a 15-1 season and a Super Bowl run in 2015. Alas, Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen was no match for the Broncos defense, and Peyton Manning manufactured just enough offense to beat the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

    Over time, the Panthers' Legion of Boom was whittled away by injuries and the salary cap. But Sherman remains a Pro Bowl-caliber defender and future Hall of Famer, and Panthers fans will never forget the years when they rooted for the league's toughest, grittiest team.

    As for Newton, he turned out to be the best player in the 2011 draft class after all. But the story of how he led the Bengals to a Super Bowl is a tale for another time. 

2012: Indianapolis Colts Select Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Choice

    In the weeks leading up to the 2012 draft, the football world wondered whether Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III would be the quarterback chosen to replace Manning in Indianapolis. But the Colts brain trust had other ideas. They fell in love with a pesky, undersized, unheralded North Carolina State-to-Wisconsin transfer named Russell Wilson and then shocked the sports world by selecting him ahead of two "can't miss" franchise quarterback prospects.

               

    The Result

    Wilson proved to be everything the Colts hoped he could be: accurate, mobile, decisive and fiercely competitive. Best of all, he was durable, able to avoid the chronic, lingering injuries that might interrupt or cut short the careers of other quarterbacks.

    Wilson led the Colts to the Super Bowl in 2015, trouncing Manning and the Broncos 43-8 in the AFC Championship Game and then winning a defensive duel against the Panthers in the Super Bowl. He nearly led them to a repeat in 2016, but the Colts coaching staff decided to call a passing play instead of handing off to Frank Gore at the 1-yard line while trailing the Patriots in the waning moments of the AFC Championship Game, and Wilson threw a tip-drill interception.

    Thanks to Wilson, the Colts remain a perennial contender to this day. And while fans and experts still question that goal-line decision, no one questions the overall tactical brilliance and leadership of one of the NFL's most respected, successful coaches: the great Chuck Pagano. 

2013: Kansas City Chiefs Select DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The Choice

    Andy Reid took over the 2-14 Chiefs just before one of the weakest draft classes in decades entered the NFL. Who was he supposed to select with the first overall pick: Eric Fisher, an offensive lineman from a directional Michigan school? Ludicrous! Reid had already traded for Alex Smith, and Smith needed weapons. So Reid targeted the best receiving prospect in the 2013 class: DeAndre Hopkins, who caught 85 passes and 18 touchdowns in his final season at Clemson, despite splitting touches with future top prospect Sammy Watkins.

                   

    The Result

    Who can forget Smith's period of dominance in the mid-2010s: the MVP award, the 45-touchdown season, the annual playoff gunfights with Brady? Smith became the standard-bearer for a new type of quarterback, capable of mixing read-option spread concepts with West Coast principles. Every year, teams now comb draft classes searching for the Next Alex Smith. Only a few tape-grinding know-it-alls dare to suggest that Smith would merely be above average without Hopkins catching 120 passes per year and often adjusting on the fly to turn a few underthrown Smith bombs into touchdowns.

    Alas, Reid's Smith-Hopkins Chiefs always fell just short in the playoffs. So Reid drafted Patrick Mahomes in 2017. The result: back-to-back Super Bowl victories by 56-24 final scores against the Rams and 49ers, with Mahomes and Hopkins connecting for more than 150 yards in both games.

    Who knows what Mahomes and Hopkins will accomplish in 2020 and beyond? One thing is certain: They will be together for a long time, because only a fool would trade a player as good as Hopkins. 

2014: Houston Texans Select Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Choice

    Aaron Donald wouldn't be denied. Jadeveon Clowney may have been the biggest name and had the flashier measurables, but Donald won the Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski awards as the nation's best defensive player in 2013, then spent Senior Bowl week obliterating every offensive lineman in his path, proving his relatively short stature was more of a leverage advantage than a problem.

    Texans head coach Bill O'Brien and general manager Rick Smith bickered right up until it was time to turn in the draft card, but they ultimately decided to add Donald to a defensive line that already included 2012 Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.

                    

    The Result

    Watt and Donald turned the Texans defense into one that was mentioned in the same breath as the 1985 Bears almost immediately. They traded the Defensive Player of the Year award back and forth every year. The Texans recorded between 50 and 60 sacks each season and reached the AFC Championship Game each year, despite a succession of journeyman quarterbacks.

    Donald and Watt combined to sack Brady eight times in a 2016 playoff game, chasing him out of the contest so Brock Osweiler could game-manage a 17-16 victory. A few weeks later, the Falcons took a 28-3 lead over the Texans thanks to three Osweiler turnovers, but Donald and Watt forced four second-half turnovers to help the Texans win their first Super Bowl. 

    The Texans eventually moved up in the 2017 draft to select Deshaun Watson, and Donald and Watt make them a powerhouse to this day. As for O'Brien, he learned an important lesson about collaboration on the day the Texans drafted Donald, which led to his becoming renowned for making careful personnel decisions with the help of an experienced, empowered front office.  

2015: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Select Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

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    Eugene Tanner/Associated Press

    The Choice

    Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht was ready to select Jameis Winston with the first overall pick when he reached for the crab legs during the team's lunch buffet and discovered that the tray was empty. Interpreting this as a bad omen, he opted at the last moment to select Marcus Mariota, knowing that his decision would alter the course of Buccaneers history.

                    

    The Result

    • 2015: Mariota plays well as a rookie, but the Buccaneers finish 6-10 and decide to replace defense-oriented head coach Lovie Smith with quarterback-friendly Dirk Koetter.
    • 2016: The Buccaneers creep up to 9-7. Mariota is lauded for his ability to avoid interceptions, but his lack of ability to make deep downfield throws remains a concern.
    • 2017: The Buccaneers fall to 5-11. Mariota is briefly benched for Ryan Fitzpatrick due to injury. 
    • 2018: A frustrated Koetter juggles Fitzpatrick and Mariota to no avail. The Buccaneers finish 5-11 again. Licht replaces Koetter with the best quarterback guru he can find: Bruce Arians.
    • 2019: Mariota proves to be a poor fit in Arians' vertical offense. He throws 30 interceptions, most of them 25-yard passes to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin 30 yards downfield. Licht sadly pulls the plug on the experiment, ships Mariota to Las Vegas and signs Brady.

    Wow, Buccaneers history really does turn out totally different! We're through the looking glass, people. 

2016: Los Angeles Rams Select Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    The Choice

    Fisher's Rams had gone 7-8-1, 7-9, 6-10 and 7-9 in the last four seasons. He couldn't let it happen again, especially with the franchise's 2016 move to Tinseltown, which is why the Rams traded a bushel of draft picks to move up to No. 1. Yet waiting on a quarterback prospect like Jared Goff to develop was simply out of the question. Fisher had a strong defense and a sturdy quarterback in Nick Foles. He just needed to provide Foles with the proper weapons.

    Michael Thomas got a little bit lost in a talented crowd at Ohio State. But Fisher could see his quickness off the line, route precision, determination and hands. Thomas could make any quarterback better, Fisher thought, and would finally turn the Rams offense around.

                 

    The Result

    Foles and Thomas connected for 75-80 receptions per year for a few seasons. Thomas reached a few Pro Bowls and became a favorite of the internet tape junkies. But it always felt as though something was missing. Foles belonged elsewhere, perhaps as a folk hero on the other side of the continent. And fans wondered how many passes Thomas might catch from a quarterback like Drew Brees: 125? A league-record 149?

    The Rams finished 7-9 in 2016, 7-8-1 in 2017 and 6-7-3 somehow in 2018. Finally, management grew frustrated with finishing behind Sean McVay's 49ers every year. Foles was shipped to the Jaguars, and the Rams are now in rebuilding mode.

    Thomas may spend his entire career as an underrated receiver who is always paired with mediocre quarterbacks. In other words, he's the alternate-universe version of Allen Robinson. 

2017: Cleveland Browns Select Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech

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    B/R Gridiron

    The Choice

    The analytics wizards who ran the Browns crunched the numbers and came to a not-so-startling conclusion: Quarterback is the most important position on the football field! (Genius!) And using methods similar to those used by Football Outsiders in 2017, they realized that Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes, while a risky selection, had the highest upside of any quarterback in the class. So they chose Mahomes over Texas A&M edge-rusher Myles Garrett, entrusting quarterback guru Hue Jackson with the task of developing the brilliant-but-erratic young passer.

                

    The Result

    Jackson refused to play Mahomes for his entire rookie season, opting for Cody Kessler instead and threatening to fire any assistant coach who dared to question his reasoning. Browns management hired offensive coordinator Todd Haley to pressure Jackson and accelerate Mahomes' development, but after the Browns started the 2018 season 0-4, Jackson and Haley got into a wrestling match and tumbled off a cliff into the Cuyahoga River with their hands clenched around each other's throats.

    Interim head coach Gregg Williams, a lifelong defensive coordinator, entrusted Mahomes' future to Ken Zampese, an old-school assistant with a creative streak. Zampese installed an unpredictable offense with the help of Freddie Kitchens, a rising star in the coaching ranks whom everyone agreed was far too inexperienced to be given too much authority or responsibility. Mahomes quickly blossomed once given a system that suited his talents.

    The Browns now have the most dangerous offense in the NFL, with Mahomes throwing to Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and David Njoku. Cleveland reached the playoffs in 2019 and is expected to be a Super Bowl contender this season.

    But thanks to Jackson's refusal to play Mahomes as a rookie, the Browns were able to add another No. 1 overall pick to their Super Bowl puzzle.

2018: Cleveland Browns Select Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

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    Jeff Lewis/Associated Press

    The Choice

    The Moneyball gurus who ran the Browns were overjoyed: Not only had they selected a franchise quarterback in Mahomes in 2017, but they still finished in last place (see previous segment), allowing them to pick at the top of the first round again. It was time to celebrate!

    Unfortunately, analytics experts are notorious lightweights. They drank two wine coolers each and awoke the morning after the first round with scribbled pages of logarithms strewn all over the floor and their shoes missing.

    "Oh, no," Paul DePodesta said, checking the hundreds of panicky messages on his phone. "We've done something unthinkable. We've drafted a running back."

    It was the worst thing any Moneyballer could do, because "Running Backs Don't Matter" is their credo. So they took a solemn oath that morning never to drink again and to blame the Saquon Barkley selection on John Dorsey.

             

    The Result

    Maybe running backs really don't matter like they did in the old days. But Mahomes, Barkley and Beckham are already being talked about as Triplets likely to have far more success than Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin had for the 1990s Cowboys. Barkley isn't overused in an offense with so many weapons, and he has plenty of room to run, both after handoffs and receptions.

    Yep, these are great times in Cleveland. The Sunday Night Football matchups between the Mahomes-Barkley Browns and Lamar Jackson's Ravens drew television ratings comparable to Super Bowls last year. And when Beckham was traded to Cleveland, some Giants fans switched loyalties. It was an easy decision for them to make after a year of back-page headlines about the feud between Eli Manning and his rookie heir apparent, Baker Mayfield.

2019: Arizona Cardinals Select Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The Choice

    It's a little early to rewrite last year's history, don't you think?

    According to Pro Football Reference, Kyler Murray was the most valuable player drafted last year, and he won the Offensive Rookie of the Year award to boot. Nick Bosa might have helped the 49ers reach the Super Bowl, but there probably aren't many Cardinals fans who would trade Murray for Bosa or anyone else in that draft.

    In a way, the Cardinals did last year what we made other teams do in this redraft: They made a bold, singular decision. They picked an undersized, inexperienced quarterback despite the fact that they selected Josh Rosen a year earlier, then proceeded to build their entire roster and playbook around Murray. It's the kind of move few organizations have the courage to attempt. The Murray gamble hasn't paid dividends in the standings yet, but all signs are pointing up.

               

    The Result

    Murray will soon be throwing to Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald while handing off to Kenyan Drake in a Kliff Kingsbury offense that has the potential to be just as innovative and explosive as anything the Chiefs or Ravens can cook up. Murray may soon take his place beside Mahomes and Jackson at the vanguard of the next generation of great NFL quarterbacks.

    All of that is in the future, of course. For now, all we can do is look back at how different the 2010s would be if NFL teams could predict the future, and look forward to a decade of outstanding players and draft picks, even if those two subsets don't always overlap.