Best NFL Draft Picks of All Time
The NFL draft is where consistently great teams, year in and year out, build the majority of their rosters. It goes seven round deep, and while you’re much more likely to find a great player in the first round, it can often happen in the later rounds, too. In the same way, sometimes the players taken at the top don’t work out so well, either.
But every NFL franchise has hit on at least one excellent player, whether he leads them to multiple Super Bowls or just produces on the field for multiple years. We found the best player drafted by each NFL team.
Arizona Cardinals – Larry Fitzgerald
Drafted by the Arizona Cardinals No. 3 overall back in 2004, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has spent his entire career in just one uniform. During his 13 years in the NFL, Fitzgerald has been in the upper echelon of players at his position. He’s led the league in both touchdowns and receptions twice, including at the age of 33 in 2016 when he had 107 receptions.
Fitzgerald helped lead the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2009, where they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers. There’s no doubt that the 10-time Pro Bowler is the best draft pick in franchise history.
Atlanta Falcons – Matt Ryan
The Atlanta Falcons were a completely lost franchise back in 2008, when they held the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. Their previous franchise quarterback, Michael Vick, was in prison and their head coach had walked out on the team. So, the Falcons drafted quarterback Matt Ryan to be the new leader of the team.
Nine years, four Pro Bowls, and one MVP award later and he’s the franchise leader in a ton of categories. Ryan helped take the Falcons to Super Bowl 51 against the New England Patriots, and while that didn’t work out the way he wanted, it was still a tremendous feat.
Baltimore Ravens – Ray Lewis
In 1995, the Cleveland Browns went 5-11 and ended up with the fourth pick in the draft, along with the 26th pick, which was acquired in a trade. Why does this matter to the Baltimore Ravens? Because the Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens that winter, and the team drafted future Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden with the fourth pick and then Ray Lewis (likely a Hall of Famer) with the 26th pick.
Lewis is the main focus here, but that draft featured two players who brought the franchise a Super Bowl in 2000, and Lewis repeated the feat with Baltimore again in 2012. Despite his troubled past, Lewis is the signature draft pick of the Ravens.
Buffalo Bills – Jim Kelly
There was a bit of controversy surrounding the Buffalo Bills drafting quarterback Jim Kelly in 1983, as the QB instead opted to play two seasons in the USFL. But he finally played for the Bills in 1986 and launched a career that eventually saw him enter the Hall of Fame.
Kelly played in five Pro Bowls and led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances, although they never won one. He’s the franchise’s all-time passing leader and one of just two players to have his jersey number retired, along with Bruce Smith, a Hall of Fame defensive end who is also worthy of consideration.
Carolina Panthers – Steve Smith
In 2001, the Carolina Panthers drafted wide receiver Steve Smith in the third round. It wasn’t immediately clear what they had in Smith, who was one of the smallest receivers in the league at the time, standing just 5-foot–9. Smith immediately got playing time as a return specialist, and eventually evolved into one of the best wide receivers in the NFL.
In 2005, Smith led the league in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, helping lead the Panthers to the NFC Championship against the Seattle Seahawks. He played 13 seasons in Carolina before moving on to play for the Baltimore Ravens.
Chicago Bears – Walter Payton
The Chicago Bears drafted running back Walter Payton No. 4 overall in 1975, and “Sweetness” really made Chicago his home. By his third season in the NFL, Payton led the league in rushing attempts, yards, touchdowns, and yards per carry. Payton rushed for 1,000 or more yards 10 times in his career, and for 1,551 yards in 1985 when he and the Bears won the Super Bowl over the New England Patriots. Payton was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993 and is well remembered as one of the best to ever play the position.
Cincinnati Bengals – Boomer Esiason
The Cincinnati Bengals drafted quarterback Boomer Esiason in the second round back in 1984, and it ended up being the best pick in franchise history. Esiason played in three Pro Bowls in his 10 years in Cincinnati and won the MVP award in 1988 with a league-best 97.4 passer rating. He led the Bengals to a 12-4 record and took them all the way to the Super Bowl that year, but they lost a close one to the San Francisco 49ers. Esiason is one of the best players in Bengals history.
Cleveland Browns – Jim Brown
It’s kind of sad that we couldn’t come up with anything better — or at least more recent — than this for the Cleveland Browns. Running back Jim Brown was drafted with the sixth pick in the 1957 draft and went on to lead the NFL in rushing yards in all but one of the seasons in which he played. He led the NFL in rushing touchdowns five times, and led the Browns to a championship in 1964. He retired from football at the age of 29, but his legacy in the NFL lives on forever.
Dallas Cowboys – Emmitt Smith
Running back Emmitt Smith was the No. 17 overall pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 1990, and he ended up playing 13 years with the team and winning three Super Bowls. Smith led the NFL in rushing yards four times, including three times in a row, and he led the league in touchdowns three times. Smith made the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons in the NFL, and eight times in total with the Cowboys. He won his only MVP award in 1993, and he was deserving of another in 1995.
Denver Broncos – Terrell Davis
Terrell Davis had a short but great career with the Denver Broncos. The running back was taken in the sixth round of the 1995 draft, No. 196 overall. Davis had a great first four years in the league, rushing for over 1,000 yards in each of the four years and topping out at 2,008 yards with 21 touchdowns in 1998 — helping lead the Broncos to the second of back-to-back Super Bowls. Injuries from the wear and tear robbed him of a long career, and he was out of the NFL by the age of 29. But drafting Davis translated to two Super Bowls, which makes it a great pick.
Detroit Lions – Barry Sanders
Running back Barry Sanders was drafted No. 3 overall by the Detroit Lions in 1989. He rushed for at least 1,000 yards in every single season he played in the NFL, leading the league in that category four times, including rushing for 2,053 yards on 6.1 yards per carry in 1997. He only played 10 seasons in the NFL before just walking away at the age of 30. But he was a Pro Bowler every year that he played, he won the MVP in 1997, and he’s now in the Hall of Fame.
Green Bay Packers – Aaron Rodgers
In 2005, the Green Bay Packers got really lucky when quarterback Aaron Rodgers fell all the way down to No. 24. They drafted him with the intention of replacing Brett Favre, who just kept on playing. Rodgers sat behind Favre for three years before finally getting his chance, and he’s made it count. Rodgers is a six-time Pro Bowler, has a 104.1 passer rating for his career, and has two MVP awards and one Super Bowl victory. He’s the most accomplished player the Packers have ever drafted.
Houston Texans – J.J. Watt
With the number 11 overall pick in 2011, the Houston Texans selected defensive end J.J. Watt. A large man at 6’6” and 290 pounds, Watt eased in his rookie year with 5.5 sacks and really took off in his second year in the league. In 2012, he led the NFL with 20.5 sacks and made his first Pro Bowl. Over a four year period, Watt absolutely dominated offensive lines for the Texans, collecting a total of 69 sacks. Back problems limited Watt to just three games in 2016, but on top of his game he’s one of the best in the NFL.
Indianapolis Colts – Peyton Manning
As if there were any doubt, Peyton Manning is the greatest player ever drafted by the Indianapolis Colts. And in reality, they might’ve taken Ryan Leaf with the first overall pick in 1998 had they not gotten the sense that Leaf wanted to be drafted by San Diego. The Colts took Manning, and it was a franchise-altering pick. He won four MVP’s and a Super Bowl with the Colts, and retired in 2015 as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Fred Taylor
With the ninth overall pick in 1998, the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted running back Fred Taylor. While Taylor was a very good player, his selection for this list tells you a lot about the Jaguars as a franchise. In 11 years with the Jags, Taylor made one Pro Bowl and averaged 4.6 yards per carry with 62 touchdowns. He rushed for 1,000 or more yards seven times with Jacksonville, and during his career the team made the playoffs four times—in large part because of his contributions.
Kansas City Chiefs – Tony Gonzalez
Tight end Tony Gonzalez is one of the very best to ever play the position in the NFL, and he was drafted number 13 overall by the Kansas City Chiefs back in 1997. Gonzalez stuck it out 12 years in Kansas City, minus a brief attempt to play for the Miami Heat back in 2002. It seems fitting, as his trademark touchdown celebration was to jump up and dunk the football over the goalpost. Gonzalez had four seasons of 1,000 receiving yards or more in KC, led the league in receptions with 102 in 2004, and had 76 touchdowns during his time with the franchise.
Los Angeles Rams – Eric Dickerson
It was a really short career in Los Angeles, but Eric Dickerson had some great years for the Rams. The Rams drafted him number two overall in 1983, and he was an absolute beast for them. Dickerson led the NFL in rushing yards in three of his first four years in the NFL, and he was a part of a solid Rams team that was able to go to the NFC Championship game in 1985. The Rams moved Dickerson in the middle of his fifth NFL season to the Indianapolis Colts, and after seven more years in the league he retired and went to the Hall of Fame. A special shout out to wide receiver Isaac Bruce, who was also drafted by the Rams and had a great career with the team.
Miami Dolphins – Dan Marino
When Dan Marino fell to the Miami Dolphins with the 27th pick in the 1983 draft, they landed a surprise franchise quarterback. Marino was absolutely excellent in Miami, leading the team to the Super Bowl in his second season as a 23-year-old. That year, Marino led the NFL in completions, attempted passes, passing yards, passer rating, and touchdowns—he threw 48. Marino played 17 years for the Dolphins, making nine Pro Bowls and winning an MVP in 1984. He entered the Hall of Fame in 2005.
Minnesota Vikings – Adrian Peterson
The Minnesota Vikings were very happy when running back Adrian Peterson fell to them with the number seven overall pick in 2007. Peterson quickly became one of the best running backs in the game, rushing for over 1,000 yards in seven seasons. He rushed for 2,097 yards in 2012, an average of 131.1 yards per game and 6.0 yards per attempt, winning the MVP award. Injuries have taken two of the last three seasons from him with the Vikings, and the team just recently cut him and made him a free agent. But Peterson absolutely was the Minnesota Vikings for the last decade.
New England Patriots – Tom Brady
Another no-brainer on this list is the New England Patriots drafting Tom Brady. He was taken in the sixth round in 2000, number 199 overall. It’s hard to imagine that 198 players were considered to be better than Brady at the time. Since becoming a starter in 2001, Brady has led the Patriots to seven Super Bowls, winning five of them. He’s a two-time MVP and a 12-time Pro Bowler. There are many who consider Brady to be the best quarterback to ever play, and the Michael Jordan of the NFL.
New Orleans Saints – Marques Colston
It was tough to pick a player for the New Orleans Saints, and that’s not a good thing. They’ve had some quality players, both drafted and undrafted by the organization, and others that got consideration were Archie Manning and Deuce McAllister. But Marques Colston comes away as the greatest draft pick in Saints history after being taken in the seventh round, 252nd overall, in 2006. Colston has played 10 years with the Saints to date, catching 70 or more passes and collecting 1,000 or more receiving yards in seven of those 10 years. He was also a major part of the team that won Super Bowl XLIV.
New York Giants – Lawrence Taylor
Another slam dunk for the list is Lawrence Taylor, who is a New York Giants legend. He was the second overall pick in the 1981 draft and he quickly developed into one of the best outside linebackers in the history of the game. In a seven-year span in the middle of his career, “LT” collected a total of 98 sacks. He played 13 years in his career—all with the Giants—and won two Super Bowls before retiring in 1993. Taylor won an MVP in 1986 and is a 10-time Pro Bowler.
New York Jets – Joe Namath
Before he was known for attempting to kiss Suzy Kolber, Joe Namath was one of the most iconic players in New York Jets franchise history. He was drafted by the Jets number one overall in 1965—and again number 12 by the St. Louis Cardinals, for a fun fact. Namath led the Jets to a Super Bowl victory in 1968, made five Pro Bowl teams during his 12 years with the team, and led the NFL in passing yards three times and touchdown passes once. He doesn’t have the prettiest stats overall, but nevertheless he’s in the Hall of Fame.
Oakland Raiders – Ken Stabler
A second round pick of the Oakland Raiders in 1968, quarterback Ken Stabler represented much of what it meant to be a Raider back in the 1970s. He worked hard to earn his way to the starting job in 1973, when he led the Raiders to an 8-2-1 record in his 11 starts. Stabler made four Pro Bowl teams in his 10 years in Oakland, won the MVP award in 1974, and a Super Bowl in 1976. He retired after a 15-year career in 1984 and went into the Hall of Fame in 2016.
Philadelphia Eagles – Donovan McNabb
People were critical of the Philadelphia Eagles for selecting Donovan McNabb number two overall back in 1999. He wasn’t the most accurate passer, instead creating offense with his ability to scramble away from defenders and run down field. But McNabb turned out to be an excellent QB for Philadelphia, making six Pro Bowl teams and leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots in 2004. An extra note for Reggie White, who was also drafted by the Eagles and was seriously considered in this spot, as well.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Terry Bradshaw
Just by looking at straight numbers, Ben Roethlisberger has a strong case over Terry Bradshaw for being the best draft pick in Pittsburgh Steelers history. But there’s one reason to go with Bradshaw here: Four Super Bowl victories and an MVP award. Bradshaw has those things, while Roethlisberger has two rings and no MVP’s in his career. Bradshaw played for the Steelers from 1970-1983, making three Pro Bowls and going into the Hall of Fame in 1989.
San Diego Chargers – LaDainian Tomlinson
With the number five overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft, the San Diego Chargers selected running back LaDainian Tomlinson. In nine years with the Chargers, Tomlinson crossed the 1,000 rushing yards mark eight times and scored 10 or more rushing touchdowns in every single season—including an NFL-record 28 rushing touchdowns in 2006. He won the MVP that year, also leading the league in rushing yards. Tomlinson played two seasons with the New York Jets before retiring in 2011 and going into the Hall of Fame in 2017.
San Francisco 49ers – Joe Montana
Believe it or not, quarterback Joe Montana was a third round pick for the San Francisco 49ers back in 1979. Even though he was passed on by every team in the league, the 49ers knew they had found something with Montana. He was starting by his third season in the league, making the Pro Bowl that season and leading the NFL in completion percentage. In 13 years in San Francisco, “Joe Cool” had eight Pro Bowl appearances, four Super Bowl victories, and two MVP awards. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000.
Seattle Seahawks – Shaun Alexander
The Seattle Seahawks’ best draft pick in franchise history is running back Shaun Alexander, who they took with the 19th pick in 2000. Alexander was the starter on the offense by his second year in the league and the focal point for the Seahawks, rushing for 1,000 or more yards in five consecutive seasons and leading the NFL in rushing TDs twice. Alexander’s best year came in 2005, when he set what would then be a record for most rushing touchdowns in a season with 27—Tomlinson broke that record the next season. Alexander played nine NFL seasons in total—eight with Seattle—and he retired after injuries took away his effectiveness in 2008.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Warren Sapp
The number 12 overall pick in the 1995 NFL draft was defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who was taken by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He became a regular starter on the defense in his second year in the NFL, and from that year through year six he had 55.5 sacks in total. Sapp was a monster on the line, making seven Pro Bowl appearances and winning a Super Bowl with the team in 2002. After nine years in Tampa Bay, Sapp finished out his career with the Oakland Raiders for four years before being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Tennessee Titans – Bruce Matthews
The fact that an offensive lineman makes the list should tell you a lot about the Tennessee Titans franchise, but in reality Bruce Matthews had an exceptional career. He was drafted number nine overall in 1983 by the Houston Oilers and made his first Pro Bowl in 1988. That would start a string of 14 consecutive Pro Bowl selections for Matthews, who stayed with the team through their move to Tennessee and finally retired in 2001 at the age of 40. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007.
Washington Redskins – Darrell Green
We’d love to put John Riggins in this spot for the Washington Redskins, but in reality he was drafted by the New York Jets. But Darrell Green, a defensive back, was not. He was taken by the Redskins number 28 overall in 1983 and he played his entire 20-year career with the team before retiring at the age of 42 in 2002. Green made seven Pro Bowls in Washington and won two Super Bowls, one in 1987 and one in 1991. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008.