All-time greatest top 32 picks
1. Chuck Bednarik
, 1949, Philadelphia Eagles (Pennsylvania)
Who's the best of the 12 Hall of Famers to have gone first overall in the NFL draft? You probably thought you'd see a more famous player here, like John Elway or Terry Bradshaw or O.J. Simpson. But Bednarik gave the Eagles two players for the price of one: As the last of the 60-minute men, Bednarik was great at both center and linebacker. That makes him the greatest player ever chosen first overall, although if Peyton Manning is as great a quarterback for the next nine seasons as he was for his first nine seasons, he could supplant Bednarik here.
2. Lawrence Taylor
, 1981, New York Giants (North Carolina)
The most dominant defensive player of the modern era, L.T.'s incredible athleticism and mean streak made him nearly impossible to block one-on-one. Although there have been 11 Hall of Fame players chosen second overall (starting with the Bears drafting Sid Luckman in 1939 and going through the Rams drafting Eric Dickerson in 1983), none have changed the game the way Taylor did.
3. Barry Sanders
, 1989, Detroit Lions (Oklahoma State)
The best pure runner ever to play the game, Sanders was part of an incredible 1989 Top 5 that included the Cowboys taking UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman first, the Chiefs taking Alabama linebacker Derrick Thomas fourth and the Falcons taking Florida State cornerback Deion Sanders fifth. The second pick — Michigan State tackle Tony Mandarich to the Packers — was widely regarded as the best prospect of the bunch. The scouts don't get them all right.
4. Walter Payton
, 1975, Chicago Bears (Jackson State)
Trivia time: Who's Ken Huff? He's the guard the Baltimore Colts chose with the third pick in the draft when they could have taken Payton. Huff didn't have a bad career (he stayed in the league 11 years), but Baltimore fans must wonder what might have been if their team had chosen Payton. Some folks doubted Sweetness could compete in the NFL — he was small and hadn't faced top competition in college — but it didn't take long for Payton to show he could do much more than compete.
5. Mike Haynes
, 1976, New England Patriots (Arizona State)
Haynes was the defensive rookie of the year in 1976 and went on to play in nine Pro Bowls, both for the Patriots and the Raiders. He was both bigger and faster than most of the receivers he covered, and he was the best cornerback of his generation.
6. (tie) Sammy Baugh
, 1937, Washington Redskins (Texas Christian)
, 1957, Cleveland Browns (Syracuse)
I couldn't possibly choose between Baugh, widely regarded as the best player of the first half of the 20th Century, and Brown, widely regarded as the best player of the second half of the 20th Century. Both were taken with the sixth overall pick, 20 years apart, so we'll call this one a tie.
7. Clyde "Bulldog" Turner
, Chicago Bears, 1940 (Hardin-Simmons)
Turner, a center and middle linebacker, was the best defensive player of the 1940s, helping lead the Bears to four NFL titles. Pro scouts thought so highly of Turner when he came out of Hardin-Simmons (a small Baptist school in Abilene, Texas) that the NFL fined the Detroit Lions $5,000 for trying to convince Turner not to play for the Bears after Chicago drafted him.
8. Ronnie Lott
, San Francisco 49ers, 1981 (USC)
Lott and Taylor might have been the two best defensive players of the 1980s, and they were selected just an hour apart on draft day in 1981. As a rookie, Lott helped the 49ers win the first of their five Super Bowls, and he would go on to have 63 career interceptions and be chosen to 10 Pro Bowls.
9. Bruce Matthews
, Houston Oilers, 1983 (USC)
What an incredible first round the 1983 NFL draft had. It's best remembered for the six quarterbacks who were selected, including Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. But it also had a Hall of Fame running back in Eric Dickerson, a Hall of Fame cornerback in Darrell Green, and a Hall of Fame lineman in Matthews, who could play center, guard or tackle and was chosen for 12 Pro Bowls.
10. Marcus Allen
, Oakland Raiders, 1982 (USC)
The 1981 senior class had what looked like the best collection of running back talent ever assembled. Allen, the Heisman Trophy winner, was the best-known of the group but not necessarily the best-liked among NFL scouts. Two other Pac-10 running backs (Stanford's Darrin Nelson and Arizona State's Gerald Riggs) went ahead of Allen in the 1982 draft. With four more running backs (Baylor's Walter Abercrombie, Richmond's Barry Redden, Michigan's Butch Woolfork and San Jose State's Gerald Willhite) being chosen within 11 picks after Allen, fully one-third of the first 21 players selected in 1982 were running backs. But Allen was head and shoulders ahead of them all, winning the Super Bowl MVP in his second season and becoming the first player in NFL history to accumulate 10,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards.
11. Doug Atkins
, Cleveland Browns, 1953 (Tennessee)
Although Atkins played most of his career with the Chicago Bears, Cleveland owner and coach Paul Brown — who was far ahead of the rest of the league in his ability to evaluate talent — brought Atkins into the league by choosing him in the 1953 draft. This might sound hard to believe today, but half a century ago, many coaches thought players like the 6-foot-8, 275-pound Atkins were too big to be effective linemen. Brown knew that was foolish, and by drafting Atkins he helped pave the way for the huge linemen of the modern game.
12. Herb Adderly
, Green Bay Packers, 1961 (Michigan State)
The genius of Packers coach Vince Lombardi was his ability to put his players into the perfect position to take advantage of their talents. There's no better example than Adderly, who was one of the best offensive players in the Big Ten at Michigan State but switched to cornerback when Lombardi drafted him. The result? A 12-year NFL career that got him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
13. Bob Lilly
, Dallas Cowboys, 1961 (Texas Christian)
The 1961 draft was loaded: One pick after the Packers took Adderly, Dallas selected Lilly. The first pick in Cowboys team history, Lilly played his entire 14-year career in Dallas and was selected to 11 Pro Bowls.
14. Gino Marchetti
, New York Yanks, 1952 (University of San Francisco)
Marchetti was one of two Pro Football Hall of Famers from the University of San Francisco to go in the first round of the 1952 draft. (Ollie Matson was the other.) The New York Yanks drafted Marchetti, but that franchise went belly-up and spent a year playing as the Dallas Texans before finally settling in as the Baltimore Colts. Marchetti was the defensive cornerstone of the Colts team that won two NFL titles.
15. Jim Taylor
, Green Bay Packers, 1958 (LSU)
It's no surprise the Packers dominated the 1960s after making such wise draft choices as Adderly and Taylor. Taylor led the league in rushing in 1962 and finished second to Jim Brown in 1960, 1961, 1963 and 1964.
16. Jerry Rice
, San Francisco 49ers, 1985 (Mississippi Valley State)
There was widespread debate in 1985 about the draft's best wide receiver. Some liked Wisconsin's Al Toon, who went 10th to the Jets. Others preferred Miami's Eddie Brown, who went 13th to the Bengals. The defending champion 49ers traded up to the 16th pick and drafted the other highly regarded wide receiver, Rice. Although Rice played in Division I-AA and had a mediocre 40-yard dash time, 49ers coach Bill Walsh knew what he was doing. Never before or since has a reigning Super Bowl champ added such a great player.
17. Emmitt Smith
, Dallas Cowboys, 1990 (Florida)
There was no debate in 1990 about the draft's best running back. Everyone agreed that it was Penn State's Blair Thomas, who went second to the Jets. Then-Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson has admitted he had Thomas ranked ahead of Smith on his draft board, and that he got very lucky when Smith was still around at pick 17.
18. Paul Krause
, Washington Redskins, 1964 (Iowa)
As a rookie Krause led the league in interceptions with 12. By the time he retired he was the NFL's all-time leader in interceptions with 81. Krause played in eight Pro Bowls in his 16-year career.
19. John Mackey
, Baltimore Colts, 1963 (Syracuse)
Mackey became Johnny Unitas's favorite receiver during his rookie year, leading the Colts in receiving yards (726), yards per catch (20.7) and touchdowns (seven). With his deep speed and blocking ability, Mackey would revolutionize the tight end position. The award for the best tight end in college football is named for Mackey.
20. Forrest Gregg
, Green Bay Packers, 1956 (Southern Methodist)
The Green Bay roster was packed with Hall of Famers during Lombardi's tenure, but Lombardi called Gregg the finest player he ever coached. As the best player ever for the best coach ever, Gregg was a great draft pick.
21. Randy Moss
, Minnesota Vikings, 1998 (Marshall)
The 1998 draft featured four players who looked like can't-miss prospects and one guy who had the talent to match any of them but serious character issues. The four can't-miss prospects were Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf, Andre Wadsworth and Charles Woodson, which shows that can't-miss prospects often do miss. And the guy with the talent but the character issues was Moss, who slipped all the way down to the 21st pick, where the Vikings jumped on him. And although some of those character issues have become apparent during Moss's career, no one can dispute what an impact he had on the Vikings.
22. Ernie Stautner
, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1950 (Boston College)
If you've never heard of Stautner, you can be forgiven: The Steelers weren't very good in the 1950s and 1960s, when Stautner played. But Stautner was one of the great defensive linemen of his era, and his number 70 jersey is still the only number the Steelers have ever retired.
23. Ozzie Newsome
, Cleveland Browns, 1978 (Alabama)
Newsome was the best player on the Cleveland Browns of the 1980s, who were one of the best teams never to play in the Super Bowl. Now the Ravens' general manager, Newsome also drafted two of the next three players on this list.
24. Ed Reed
, Baltimore Ravens, 2002 (Miami)
Is it too early to put Reed in this company? I don't think so. A three-time Pro Bowler, Reed is the best safety of this decade, and with a few more good years he'll be in the Hall of Fame some day.
25. Stanley Morgan
, New England Patriots, 1977 (Tennessee)
The 25th spot was probably the hardest to fill, and Morgan is probably the worst player on this list. Still, Morgan was a big-play receiver who averaged better than 19 yards a catch over his career, finished among the top 10 in the league in receiving yards three times, and did it all without having any great quarterbacks throwing him the ball.
26. Ray Lewis
, Baltimore Ravens, 1996 (Miami)
A Super Bowl MVP and a two-time defensive player of the year, Lewis will definitely end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With his incredible blend of strength and speed and his great play as a three-year starter at Miami, it's hard to understand how he lasted this late into the first round.
27. Dan Marino
, Miami Dolphins, 1983 (Pittsburgh)
Yes, we've got another guy from the 1983 first round (and we're not done yet). Maybe the best pure passer ever to play the game, Marino lasted until the 27th pick, making it Christmas in April for Dolphins coach Don Shula.
28. Darrell Green
, Washington Redskins, 1983 (Texas A&I)
For all the people who think NFL scouts pay too much attention to a player's 40-yard dash time, here's an example of the opposite: Green is one of the best defensive backs ever to play the game, and if scouts had paid more attention to his 40 time, there's no way he would have lasted until the 28th pick. Green's legendary sub-4.3-second 40 time is what made the Redskins fall in love with him.
29. Fran Tarkenton
, Minnesota Vikings, 1961 (Georgia)
Tarkenton was an All-American at Georgia and one of the few college quarterbacks of the time who was effective both as a runner and a passer. When he retired, Tarkenton owned the NFL records for passes, completions, yards and touchdowns, records he held until Marino broke them two decades later.
30. Sam Huff
, New York Giants, 1956 (West Virginia)
Anyone who loves NFL Films knows all about Sam Huff, who was one of the first players to wear a microphone on the field, which allowed fans to both see and hear the crunching hits he delivered. Huff played eight years for the Giants and five for the Redskins, playing in five NFL title games.
31. Tommy McDonald
, Philadelphia Eagles, 1957 (Oklahoma)
McDonald was an outstanding college player, spending three seasons at Oklahoma without ever losing a game and winning the Maxwell Award in his senior season. He lasted to the 31st pick mostly because of his small stature, but he developed into an excellent NFL receiver, making six Pro Bowls and finishing his career second only to Don Hutson in touchdown catches.
32. Bob St. Clair
, San Francisco 49ers, 1953 (Tulsa)
Let's end on a fun note with four facts you might not know about St. Clair, a 6-foot-9 tackle who was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990: 1) He liked to eat raw meat. 2) His teammates gave him the nickname "The Geek." 3) He blocked 10 field goals in 1956. Maybe because of (or maybe despite) his colorful NFL career, after he retired he became mayor of Daly City, Calif.