The Best 1st Overall NFL Draft Pick from Every Decade
Although holding the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft is usually the product of a terrible season, that selection is a beacon of hope.
Sure, the previous year stunk. The right prospect, however, could be a franchise-changing piece. That's happened at various points through NFL history, considering dozens of first overall selections have become Pro Bowlers or All-Pro players.
Most notably, 15 of them developed into Hall of Famers—and at least a couple more players are on the path.
While the list is subjective, key factors are longevity, total production and impact on team accomplishments. The current decade, because of its minimal sample, is not included.
1930s: Ki Aldrich
Ki Aldrich is soundly the best of a four-man bunch.
Jay Berwanger (1936), the first-ever No. 1 pick, never signed a professional contract. Sam Francis (1937) rushed for 837 yards and five touchdowns in a four-year career, while Corby Davis (1938) tallied 382 rushing yards and four scores.
Aldrich, on the other hand, earned two Pro Bowl honors as part of his NFL career. He played 73 games across two franchises, notching eight interceptions and winning a championship in 1942.
1940s: Chuck Bednarik
The first full decade of the NFL draft featured three No. 1 selections who assembled Hall of Fame careers: Bill Dudley (1942), Charley Trippi (1945) and Chuck Bednarik (1949).
And it's no surprise Bednarik is the choice here.
During his 14-year career with the Philadelphia Eagles, the feared two-way player garnered All-Pro recognition in nine seasons. Although stats are limited from his era, Bednarik collected 20 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries as a linebacker while also starting on the offensive line.
Bednarik won a title in 1949 and made the decisive tackle in the 1960 championship game against the Green Bay Packers.
1950s: Paul Hornung
The undisputed option for the 1950s is Paul Hornung (1957), who's also the lone Hall of Famer in this decade of top picks.
As a member of the Green Bay Packers until 1966, he played a key role in four NFL championship seasons. Most notably, the running back/placekicker paced the league in total scoring three times—including the single-season mark of 176 in 1960 in 12 games, which still ranks second all-time—and won league MVP honors in 1961.
Vince Lombardi, the engineer of that Green Bay dynasty, called Hornung "the greatest player I've ever coached."
1960s: O.J. Simpson
The competition is strong in the 1960s, a decade littered with All-Pro selections even beyond three Hall of Famers.
Naturally, though, the latter group—Buck Buchanan (1963), Ron Yary (1968) and O.J. Simpson (1969) contains the decision. Simpson stands out highest among the HOF-inducted trio.
After winning the Heisman Trophy at USC, he joined the Buffalo Bills. Simpson played nine seasons in Buffalo, leading the NFL in rushing four times. He peaked at 2,003 in 1973, becoming the first player in NFL history to crest the 2,000-yard mark.
Simpson played his final two seasons on the San Francisco 49ers. He retired with 11,236 career rushing yards, the second-highest total at the time—and still the 21st-most in NFL history.
1970s: Terry Bradshaw
This debate is much, much tougher.
Do you prefer Terry Bradshaw (1970) and his four Super Bowl victories? Would you choose Lee Roy Selmon (1976), a five-time All-Pro and 1979 Defensive Player of the Year? Or does Earl Campbell (1978), a three-time Offensive Player of the Year, win out?
There is hardly a wrong answer here, considering Selmon and Campbell had higher peaks. Bradshaw lands the distinction as a product of his overall accomplishments.
Bradshaw led the Pittsburgh Steelers to championships during the 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979 seasons, winning league MVP in 1978. He threw for 27,989 yards and 212 touchdowns in his 168-game career, also rushing for 2,257 yards and 32 scores.
1980s: John Elway
Iconic quarterback or all-time sack leader? Two-time Super Bowl champion or two-time Defensive Player of the Year?
Those are the major pieces of the discussion between John Elway (1983) and Bruce Smith (1985), two of the greatest players in NFL history. And they're on a tier above Troy Aikman (1989), who also holds a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Ever so narrowly, Elway receives the glory here because of his positional value and pair of Super Bowls. He won league MVP in 1987 and claimed All-Pro recognition three times, too.
Smith's 200 career sacks and 11 All-Pro honors are undeniably worthy of appreciation, though.
1990s: Peyton Manning
Orlando Pace (1997) was a stellar player. Drew Bledsoe (1993) threw for 44,611 yards and 251 touchdowns. Keyshawn Johnson (1996) topped 10,000 receiving yards. Several others had long careers.
But the only correct option is Peyton Manning (1998).
The lone player to secure five AP MVP awards in NFL history, he set a bunch of single-season and career passing records. Manning remains atop the list in single-season yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55). He celebrated Super Bowl victories on both the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos.
Manning, a 10-time All-Pro, headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the 2021 class.
2000s: Eli Manning
While the 1980s probably holds the most interesting argument, the 2010s is another fascinating conversation.
Michael Vick (2001) boasted the greatest peak but lacked the longevity of other options. Alex Smith (2005), Mario Williams (2006) and Jake Long (2008) aren't leading candidates but at least deserve a brief mention in a not-so-simple deliberation.
The prime contenders are Carson Palmer (2003), Eli Manning (2004) and Matthew Stafford (2009). Palmer can be eliminated first because of lesser production—which, admittedly, is a harsh flyover statement for someone with top-15 career marks in both passing yards (46,247) and touchdowns (294).
Palmer also didn't win a Super Bowl. Manning's two rings created a clear separation between him and the others, but Stafford brought home a title in the 2021 season.
If he plays two more healthy years, Stafford will likely surpass Manning's career production with far greater efficiency. There's a legitimate path for Stafford to leap the New York Giants icon, but Manning is clinging to the position right now.
2010s: Cam Newton
Myles Garrett (2017) and Kyler Murray (2019) shouldn't be ruled out as long-term possibilities. However, they don't have the sample size of production necessary to contend with Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP and one of the greatest dual-threat QBs ever.
Through the 2021 season, Newton has passed for 32,282 yards and 194 touchdowns with a 2.7 interception rate. On the ground, his 5,628 rushing yards trail only Michael Vick (6,109). Newton has already smashed the career rushing touchdown record for QBs—previously 43, held by Steve Young—with 75 scores.
Newton's claim to No. 1 may change, but "Superman" is safely atop the list entering the 2022 campaign.