25 Biggest Steals in NFL Draft History
To build a championship-caliber roster in the National Football League, teams have to find impact players in more than just the first and second rounds of the NFL draft. While landing a perennial All-Pro player in the first round is nice, it doesn’t always equate to success in the win/loss column. On the other hand, consistently hitting on middle- and late-round picks virtually ensures that a franchise will win a lot of games.
In today’s NFL landscape — where the league’s hard salary cap makes it nearly impossible to build a team through free agency — finding game-changing talent in rounds three through seven is pretty much a requirement for most franchises.
If these picks turn out to be players like Dak Prescott — a fourth-round pick in 2016 for the Dallas Cowboys — it gives teams a great deal of financial flexibility, at least until they have to sign the player to a big-money contract extension. Plus, if a middle- or late-round pick flops, the team can easily cut ties with him without taking on a huge dead-money salary cap hit. These are the 25 biggest draft steals in NFL history.
Next: Read on to discover the biggest draft steals in the history of the NFL.
1. Shannon Sharpe, tight end
- 1990 NFL Draft
Shannon Sharpe helped revolutionize the tight end position in the NFL. He was one of the first tight ends in league history who was a legitimate game-changing threat as a receiver and as a blocker.
The Denver Broncos selected the former Savannah State standout in the seventh round, No. 192 overall, in the 1990 NFL Draft. In total, Sharpe caught 815 passes for 10,060 yards and 62 touchdowns over the course of his Hall of Fame career. On top of that, the outspoken 6-foot-2, 228-pounder also won three Super Bowls. And he holds multiple tight end records.
Next: This legendary quarterback was the 200th pick.
2. Bart Starr, quarterback
- 1956 NFL Draft
The Green Bay Packers selected Bart Starr in the 17th round of the 1956 NFL Draft. As the 200th overall pick, he was a flat-out steal. Starr’s statistical resume isn’t all that impressive. But the fact that he led the Packers to seven championships — two Super Bowls and five pre-merger NFL titles — makes him a bona fide legend.
Next: This quarterback won four Super Bowls.
3. Joe Montana, quarterback
- 1979 NFL Draft
Joe Montana is the poster boy for not making draft day decisions based solely on players’ physical attributes. In large part due to his physical stature and less-than-dazzling arm strength, Montana fell all the way to the third-round (No. 82 overall) in the 1979 draft. But many people now view him as the as the best NFL quarterback of all time. He led the franchise that selected him — the San Francisco 49ers — to four Super Bowl championships, winning two NFL MVP awards along the way.
Next: This quarterback won five NFC championships and two Super Bowl titles.
4. Roger Staubach, quarterback
- 1964 NFL Draft
To this day, Roger Staubach is, in our opinion, the greatest player in Dallas Cowboys history. He was a 10th-round pick in 1964 (No. 129 overall). Subsequently, he led America’s Team to a total of five NFC championships and two Super Bowl titles. Staubach’s numbers aren’t what make him such a steal; it was his ability to single-handedly lead his team to improbable wins that make him such a standout.
Next: This quarterback led his team to four world championships.
5. Johnny Unitas, quarterback
- 1955 NFL Draft
Johnny Unitas was one of the most dominant players of his era. The Pittsburgh Steelers selected the former Louisville quarterback in the ninth round of the 1955 NFL Draft (No. 155 overall). However, they released him during training camp. Unitas quickly landed on his feet with the Baltimore Colts, where he ultimately played for 17 seasons.
In total, Unitas led the Colts to four world championships (three pre-merger NFL titles and one Super Bowl). He also won four NFL MVP awards, made 10 Pro Bowl rosters and seven All-Pro teams, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
Next: This quarterback is the greatest player in NFL history.
6. Tom Brady, quarterback
- 2000 NFL draft
In our eyes, Tom Brady is the biggest NFL draft steal of all time. The New England Patriots selected the former Michigan Wolverine in the sixth round (No. 199 overall). Brady went on to become the greatest player in NFL history.
Brady has led the Patriots to five Super Bowl titles and eight AFC titles. He has made 13 Pro Bowl rosters and three All-Pro teams. Brady has also won four Super Bowl MVP and three NFL MVP awards, and he will likely break every major NFL passing record by the time he retires.
Next: This defensive end set records with a stat that was unofficial at the time.
7. Deacon Jones, defensive end
- 1961 NFL Draft
The Los Angeles Rams selected Deacon Jones in the 14th round of the 1961 NFL Draft. Jones played 11 of his 14 NFL seasons in Los Angeles. And he made the Hall of Fame in 1980 despite playing in an era where quarterback sacks weren’t considered an official stat.
Fortunately, 101sports.com did the breakdown and came up with an unofficial number of 159.5 sacks with the Rams and 173.5 over his entire 14 years in the league. That’s the third-highest career sack total in NFL history.
Next: This quarterback is one of the best signal callers in the NFL.
8. Russell Wilson, quarterback
- 2012 NFL Draft
At 5-foot-11 and 203 pounds, Russell Wilson looked too small to be a full-time starting quarterback in the NFL to most scouts and coaches. But the Seattle Seahawks saw enough in Wilson to select him in the third round (No. 75 overall) of the 2012 NFL Draft. That decision paid off in a major way.
Wilson quarterbacked the Seahawks to a victory in Super Bowl XLVIII in 2013 and another NFC title in 2014. He is currently one of the best signal callers in the NFL, and we wouldn’t be surprised if he leads the Seahawks to at least one more Super Bowl title before his career comes to an end.
Next: This running back was the best player in the NFL before an injury ended his career.
9. Terrell Davis, running back
- 1995 NFL Draft
During the four full seasons he played, Terrell Davis was, hands-down, the best player in the NFL. His career was cut short far too soon thanks to a devastating knee injury. But when it comes down to it, the Denver Broncos would not have won their first two Super Bowl titles in 1997 and 1998 without his services.
Denver selected Davis in the sixth round (No. 196 overall) of the 1995 NFL Draft. The former Georgia Bulldog went on to rush for 6,413 yards and 56 touchdowns, win an NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP award, and join three Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams in his first four NFL seasons.
Next: This wide receiver played in four straight AFC championships.
10. Andre Reed, wide receiver
- 1985 NFL Draft
Andre Reed was an integral member of the Buffalo Bills’ run to four straight AFC championships. The Bills selected Reed in the fourth round (No. 86 overall) of the 1985 NFL Draft out of Kutztown University. Then the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder went on to have a Hall of Fame career. In total, Reed caught 951 passes for 13,198 yards and scored 87 touchdowns.
Next: This defensive end became one of the best players in his franchise.
11. Richard Dent, defensive end
- 1983 NFL Draft
The Chicago Bears selected Richard Dent in the eighth round (No. 203 overall) of the 1983 NFL Draft out of Tennessee State. And the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder became one of the best players in franchise history.
Over the course of his 15-year NFL career (12 of those seasons occurred in Chicago), Dent accumulated 137.5 sacks, eight interceptions, and 37 forced fumbles. We’ll forever remember the four-time All-Pro for his role on the Bears’ 1985 defense, which arguably remains the greatest defensive unit in league history.
Next: This center played in two Super Bowl championships.
12. Tom Nalen, center
- 1994 NFL Draft
Tom Nalen played at an extremely high level for the Denver Broncos for most of 14 seasons after the team selected him in the seventh round (No. 218 overall) of the 1994 NFL Draft.
The former Boston College standout was an integral part of the Denver offense that produced 11 1,000-yard rushers in a 12-year span from 1995 to 2006. Nalen made five Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams, and he participated in two Super Bowl championships.
Next: This linebacker earned Pro Bowl honors six times during his career.
13. Karl Mecklenburg, linebacker
- 1983 NFL Draft
Karl Mecklenburg was a force for the Denver Broncos from 1983 to 1994. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher accumulated 79 sacks, five interceptions, and 16 forced fumbles. He also earned All-Pro honors four times, and Pro Bowl honors six times over the course of his NFL career.
With a resume like that, it’s hard to believe that Mecklenburg was a 12th round pick (No. 310 overall) in the 1983 NFL Draft.
Next: This defensive end led the league in sacks twice.
14. Jared Allen, defensive end
- 2004 NFL Draft
Jared Allen retired from the NFL following the 2015 season. And we can safely say that the former Idaho State Bengal has a spot waiting for him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Allen totaled 136 sacks, six interceptions, and 36 forced fumbles. He also made five Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams. Plus, he led the league in sacks twice, and he won the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. The Kansas City Chiefs selected him in the fourth round (No. 126 overall) of the 2004 NFL Draft.
Next: This linebacker became a dominant pass rusher.
15. Kevin Greene, linebacker
- 1985 NFL Draft
Kevin Green was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016. The former Auburn Tiger played 15 NFL seasons for the Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers, and San Francisco 49ers.
He totaled 160 sacks, five interceptions, and 23 forced fumbles. Considering those numbers, it’s shocking that he was a fifth-round pick (No. 113 overall) in the 1985 NFL Draft.
Next: This cornerback has made four Pro Bowl rosters.
16. Richard Sherman, cornerback
- 2011 NFL Draft
Some may not like him because of his brash personality. But there’s no denying that Richard Sherman is, hands-down, one of the best defensive backs in the NFL today. He’s made four Pro Bowl rosters and four All-Pro teams and is one of the main reasons the Seattle Seahawks had one of the most dominant defenses the league had ever seen before he joined the 49ers.
The former Stanford Cardinal standout did not join a team until the fifth round (No. 154 overall) in the 2011 NFL Draft. The only plausible reason: Sherman began his college career as a wide receiver before making the move to cornerback for his final season in Palo Alto, Calif. If you ask him, though, his college head coach (Jim Harbaugh) played a major role in his draft day slide.
Next: This linebacker was picked no. 207 thanks to an injury.
18. Jesse Armstead, linebacker
- 1993 NFL Draft
If not for a torn ACL during his college days at the University of Miami, Jessie Armstead likely wouldn’t qualify for this list. The 6-foot-1, 237-pounder would probably have been a first-round pick without the injury. Instead, he fell to the New York Giants in the eighth round (No. 207 overall) of the 1993 NFL Draft.
Armstead participated in five Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams. And he still has an outside shot at joining the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Next: This defensive line is one of the most underrated players in NFL history.
19. Joe Klecko, defensive line
- 1977 NFL Draft
Joe Klecko was a sixth-round pick (No. 144 overall) in the 1977 NFL Draft by the New York Jets. The former Temple Owl won the 1981 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award and earned All-Pro honors twice and Pro Bowl honors four times.
Klecko remains a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he’s still one of the most underrated players in NFL history.
Next: This linebacker earned Pro Bowl honors nine times.
20. Chris Hanburger, linebacker
- 1965 NFL Draft
The Washington Redskins selected Chris Hanburger in the 18th round (No. 245 overall) of the 1965 NFL Draft after he had a standout college career for the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Hanburger played his entire 14-year NFL career for the Redskins. He earned Pro Bowl honors nine times and All-Pro honors six times. The 1972 NFL Defensive Player of the Year was one of the most dominant defensive players of his generation. And he earned induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
Next: This wide receiver is one of the best in the game.
21. Antonio Brown, wide receiver
- 2010 NFL Draft
Antonio Brown may be the biggest draft day steal playing in the NFL today. The 5-foot-10, 181-pounder was selected in the sixth round (No. 195 overall) of the 2010 NFL Draft. Since then, he has developed into the best wide receiver in the game.
Many scouts and executives credit Brown’s draft slide to his decision to leave Central Michigan University a year too early. But in the end, Brown got the last laugh. He’s proven his reliability and his big-play potential, and he’s the league’s most precise route runner. Brown is also consistent, with five straight seasons of 100-plus receptions and 1,000-plus yards, and 52 touchdown grabs over those seasons. At his current pace, Brown is a lock for eventual induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Next: This defensive end retired with five Super Bowl rings.
22. Charles Haley, defensive end
- 1986 NFL Draft
The San Francisco 49ers selected Charles Haley in the fourth round (No. 96 overall) in the 1986 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound outside linebacker out of James Madison University finished his NFL career with 100.5 sacks, two interceptions, and 26 forced fumbles.
While his statistics were impressive, what separates Haley from other great defenders is the fact that he retired with an NFL record of five Super Bowl rings.
Next: This quarterback was inducted into the Hall of Fame in the 1970s.
23. Norm Van Brocklin, quarterback
- 1949 NFL Draft
The Los Angeles Rams selected Norm Van Brocklin out of the University of Oregon in the fourth round (No. 37 overall) of the 1949 NFL Draft.
“The Dutchman” led the Rams to an NFL title in 1951 and the Philadelphia Eagles to an NFL title in 1960. One of the first true gunslingers in NFL history, Van Brocklin was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
Next: This safety earned All-Pro honors four times.
24. Rodney Harrison, safety
- 1994 NFL Draft
The San Diego Chargers selected Rodney Harrison in the fifth round of the 1994 NFL Draft out of Western Illinois University.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound safety played in the NFL for 15 years and earned All-Pro honors four times. Harrison spent the final six years of his career with the New England Patriots, where he was part of two Super Bowl championship teams.
Next: This wide receiver’s behavior off the field distracted from his talent.
25. Terrell Owens, wide receiver
- 1996 NFL Draft
Whether you love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Terrell Owens is one of the best wide receivers in NFL history. His distracting behavior off the field often overshadowed his dominance on the field. But Owens’s production over the course of his 15-year NFL career was simply amazing.
The San Francisco 49ers selected Owens in the third round (No. 89 overall) of the 1996 NFL Draft. He played eight seasons with the Niners and then had stints with the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, and Cincinnati Bengals. The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder earned Pro Bowl honors six times and All-Pro honors five times. He retired with 1,078 receptions for 15,934 receiving yards (second-most in NFL history) and 153 touchdown receptions (third-most in NFL history).
Read more: The NFL’s 10 Greatest Players of All Time
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