Ranking the 10 Biggest NFL Draft Steals of the Past 5 Years
The 2021 NFL draft is less than a month away, yet we've already seen two blockbuster trades impact the first round.
Last week, the San Francisco 49ers acquired the No. 3 pick from the Miami Dolphins, who then traded back up to No. 6 via the Philadelphia Eagles. While the Dolphins may have a position in mind rather than a specific player, it feels like San Francisco is targeting a single prospect. It was an expensive maneuver to get to No. 3.
The 49ers traded the No. 12 pick, first- and third-round picks in next year's draft and a 2023 first-rounder.
San Francisco is undoubtedly hoping to land a franchise-altering player, but not all such players are this expensive. Many—in retrospect, at least—are major draft steals. Even if your favorite team isn't selecting highly this year, an All-Pro talent or two could be in its future.
To bolster that sense of hope, we're here to examine the 10 biggest draft steals of the last half-decade. We'll examine players whose value in the NFL has far outweighed their draft positioning and rank them based on factors such as proven production, positional importance, accolades and, of course, draft slot.
Not every draft-day steal can crack the top 10. However, the following players deserve mention. We'll examine why, and why they don't make the list proper, here.
WR Chris Godwin: 2017, Round 3 (84th Overall)
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't select wide receiver Chris Godwin until the third round of the 2017 draft. However, the former Penn State standout has since become an integral piece of Tampa's Super Bowl puzzle.
Godwin has caught at least seven touchdown passes in each of the last three seasons and had an outstanding 1,333 receiving yards in 2019. With just one spectacular season on his resume, though, Godwin falls just outside our top 10.
QB Lamar Jackson: 2018, Round 1 (32nd Overall)
The Baltimore Ravens traded back into the first round in 2018 to select Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. The fifth quarterback drafted that year, Jackson has already made one Pro Bowl and was named NFL MVP in 2019.
Compared to the quarterbacks drafted ahead of him, Jackson was a tremendous value pick. However, he was still a first-round pick—one Baltimore traded up to get—so it's hard to classify him as a top-10 steal.
LB Fred Warner: 2018, Round 3 (70th overall)
The San Francisco 49ers scooped up former Brigham Young linebacker Fred Warner in the third round of the 2018 draft. While linebackers who don't regularly rush the passer are often drafted on Day 2, Warner should still be considered a steal. He hasn't missed a start since being drafted and has amassed 367 tackles, 21 passes defended and three interceptions.
A first-team All-Pro in 2020, Warner deserves a mention—as does 2018 second-round pick and two-time All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts.
WR DK Metcalf: 2019, Round 2 (64th Overall)
Seattle Seahawks wideout DK Metcalf only gets an honorable mention because he only truly arrived as an elite receiver this past season. He was good as a rookie, producing 900 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. But he was a Pro Bowler in 2020—a season in which he racked up 1,303 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
The ninth receiver taken in the 2019 draft definitely warrants consideration, as does fellow second-round pick A.J. Brown of the Tennessee Titans.
CB L'Jarius Sneed: 2020, Round 4 (138th Overall)
The Kansas City Chiefs scooped up former Louisiana Tech cornerback L'Jarius Sneed in the fourth round of this past year's draft. Sneed immediately became an impact defender for the Chiefs, racking up seven passes defended, two sacks, three interceptions and an opposing quarterback rating of just 54.2 as a rookie.
Sneed was unquestionably one of the biggest steals of this past draft, but with only nine regular-season games on his resume, it's too early to place him inside the top 10.
10. RB Derrick Henry
2016 NFL Draft, Round 2 (45th Overall)
Titans running back Derrick Henry would probably rank higher on this list if he hadn't been a mid-second-round selection and just the second running back taken in 2016—after Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Henry must still be considered a steal in retrospect, though. While Elliott had the better start to his career, Henry has emerged as a dominant force over the past few seasons. He's reached the 1,000-yard mark in each of the past three years and has led the NFL in rushing in back-to-back seasons.
Between 2019 and 2020, Henry amassed 3,567 rushing yards and 35 total touchdowns.
No matter how you slice it, getting that sort of two-year production out of a mid-second-round pick is a steal.
9. S Eddie Jackson
2017 NFL Draft, Round 4 (112th Overall)
Chicago Bears safety Eddie Jackson lasted until the fourth round of the 2017 draft. However, the former Alabama defender has performed more like a first-rounder in the four seasons since.
Jackson has amassed 31 passes defended, 10 interceptions, six defensive touchdowns, 266 tackles and six fumble recoveries.
"He's a game-changer. He's a game-wrecker," new Bears cornerback Desmond Trufant said of Jackson.
The 27-year-old Jackson has also been named to the Pro Bowl twice and was a first-team All-Pro inclusion in 2018. Getting that sort of return on a fourth-round investment is huge and represents the sort of draft-day steal that teams dream of.
8. CB Xavien Howard
2016 NFL Draft, Round 2 (38th Overall)
Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard is the highest-drafted player to make our top 10. He was selected 38th overall in 2016, which keeps him from being even higher on our list.
While Howard was drafted relatively highly, he must be viewed as a steal in context. He was the sixth cornerback taken in his draft class and has arguably been the best. A case can be made for four-time Pro Bowler Jalen Ramsey, but Howard has been special.
Howard is both a two-time Pro Bowler and a two-time league interceptions leader. He has 22 career interceptions to go with 55 passes defended, two forced fumbles and a defensive touchdown.
In 2020, Howard allowed an opposing quarterback rating of just 48.3.
In retrospect, it's baffling to think that five other cornerbacks were selected ahead of Howard in 2016. Howard is the only cornerback from that group still with the team that drafted him.
7. RB Aaron Jones
2017 NFL Draft, Round 5 (182nd Overall)
Is running back Aaron Jones as valuable to the Green Bay Packers as Derrick Henry is to the Titans? No, but he's still a phenomenal running back and was drafted three rounds later than Henry was.
Green Bay didn't select the Texas El Paso product until the fifth round of the 2017 draft but has gotten elite production in return. Jones has topped 1,000 yards rushing in each of the past two seasons and co-led the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns in 2019.
In his four years as a pro, Jones has racked up 3,364 rushing yards, 37 rushing touchdowns and an impressive 5.2 yards per carry.
However, Jones' value doesn't just lie in his prowess as a runner. Jones is also a fantastic pass-catcher who has had 96 receptions, 829 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns over the past two seasons.
Jones is a legitimate RB1, and when a team finds that in the fifth round, it's a steal.
6. OT Orlando Brown Jr.
2018 NFL Draft, Round 3 (83rd Overall)
Offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. remains with the team that drafted him—for now, anyway. The Ravens have given him permission to seek a trade, and one could occur in the coming weeks.
"The Ravens maintain that there is no deadline for a decision on trading right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. However, a call on his status will presumably be made before next month's draft," The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec wrote a week ago.
If the Ravens only get three years out of the 24-year-old, his selection will still have been a steal. Brown has started 48 games in three seasons, played both tackle positions and made the Pro Bowl twice.
Brown's on-field production as a pro has more resembled that of a blue-chip first-round prospect than a third-rounder. If Baltimore does indeed move him, it seems likely that at least a first-round pick would be the expected return.
Brown plays one of the most important positions in football, and his next team isn't going to get a similar steal.
5. TE George Kittle
2017 NFL Draft, Round 5 (146th Overall)
Like Jones, 49ers tight end George Kittle lasted until the fifth round. However, the Iowa product has since emerged as one of the best tight ends in football—and one of the highest-paid too.
Last offseason, Kittle signed a new five-year, $75 million contract. That's a lofty sum for a former fifth-round pick, but Kittle has mostly been worth that price point.
He is a two-time Pro Bowler, was a first-team All-Pro in 2019 and has 3,579 receiving yards in four pro seasons. He's also a tremendous blocker who rarely comes off the field. He played at least 76 percent of the team's offensive snaps in both 2018 and 2019, per Pro Football Reference.
The only thing keeping Kittle from being in the top four is the fact that he does have just two 1,000-yard campaigns. He had a solid-not-spectacular 515 receiving yards as a rookie and was limited by injuries to eight games and 634 yards this past season.
4. WR Michael Thomas
2016 NFL Draft, Round 2 (47th Overall)
While New Orleans Saints wideout Michael Thomas was drafted higher than Kittle, his draft status deserves a little context. Yes, Thomas was a second-round pick, but he was also the sixth wide receiver taken in 2016. The Saints passed on the likes of Corey Coleman, Josh Doctson and Laquon Treadwell and drafted a wideout statistically on-pace to be one of the best ever.
Thomas was limited to seven games in 2020. He still has a whopping 510 receptions, 5,950 receiving yards and 32 touchdowns in just five seasons. He has twice led the league in receptions and has three Pro Bowls and two first-team All-Pro selections on his resume.
Had Thomas been drafted even a round later, he'd probably make the top three. However, another Saint has earned the next spot.
3. RB Alvin Kamara
2017 NFL Draft, Round 3 (67th Overall)
While Thomas has been valuable to the New Orleans offense, running back Alvin Kamara has been arguably more so. Drafted a round (and a year) later than Thomas, Kamara has helped redefine expectations for a modern NFL running back.
As much a wide receiver as he is a ball-carrier, Kamara has rightfully made the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons. He's also topped 1,000 scrimmage yards and caught at least 81 passes in each campaign—all while averaging 5.0 yards per carry.
In four seasons, Kamara has racked up 3,340 rushing yards, 326 receptions, 2,824 receiving yards and 58 total touchdowns.
It's impossible to consider Kamara just a running back, which is partly why he ranks higher than Henry and Jones. He's one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in football, and a significant steal in Round 3.
2. WR Tyreek Hill
2016 NFL Draft, Round 5 (165th Overall)
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill fell in the 2016 draft for obvious reasons. The West Alabama product had previously been dismissed from the Oklahoma State program after pleading guilty to domestic assault and battery charges. Off-field concerns have followed Hill to the NFL, as he was accused in 2019, by then-fiancee Crystal Espinal, of breaking their son's arm—Hill was neither criminally charged nor suspended by the league.
Judging Hill's on-field production, the Kansas City Chiefs got a massive steal by taking a chance on him in Round 5.
Hill has gone on to become arguably the most explosive pass-catcher in the NFL. He's a five-time Pro Bowler, a three-time first-team All-Pro and perhaps an even more dangerous game-changer than Kamara.
In five seasons, Hill has amassed 5,391 receiving yards, 623 rushing yards, 1,009 punt-return yards, 384 kick-return yards and 58 total touchdowns. He also helped Kansas City win the Super Bowl in 2019. Hill has proved his ability to impact games in a variety of ways, and that kind of impact coming from the fifth round is remarkable.
1. QB Dak Prescott
2016 NFL Draft, Round 4 (135th Overall)
One could argue that players like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Tyreek Hill have been better than Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. However, quarterback is the most important position in the game, and Prescott has proved himself to be a franchise signal-caller.
A two-time Pro Bowler, Prescott was leading the NFL in passing yards when he suffered a broken ankle last season. He's already amassed 17,634 passing yards, 1,314 rushing yards and 130 total touchdowns in fewer than five complete seasons.
What's incredible is that Dallas, in essence, stumbled into Prescott. The Cowboys initially targeted Paxton Lynch as their quarterback of the future. Unable to trade up for him, though, they fell back on Prescott in the fourth round.
Prescott went on to start every game or Dallas up until his injury. After signing a new four-year, $160 million deal this offseason, he'll continue starting for the Cowboys for the foreseeable future.
So, while the 49ers likely just traded a bevy of picks to get their quarterback of the future, the Cowboys got theirs in the fourth round. That's the definition of a draft steal.
*Contract information via Spotrac.