To effectively build a championship-caliber roster in the National Football League, it’s a necessity for teams to find impact players in more than just the first and second rounds of the NFL draft. While hitting a home run and 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 the long-term success of most franchises. Players who fall into this category typically carry salary cap hits that are slightly above league-minimum salaries.
If they turn out to be the type of player who Dak Prescott, a fourth-round pick in 2016, is for the Dallas Cowboys, it gives teams a great deal of financial flexibility — at least until they must sign the player to a big-money contract extension. Additionally, if a middle- or late-round pick flops, teams can easily cut ties with him without taking on a huge dead-money salary cap hit. With that being said, these are the 25 biggest draft steals in NFL history.
1. Shannon Sharpe, tight end
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 holds multiple tight end records.
2. Bart Starr, quarterback
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. While Starr’s statistical resume isn’t all that impressive, 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.
3. Joe Montana, quarterback
Joe Montana is the poster boy for not making draft day decisions based solely on physical attributes. In large part due to his physical stature and less than dazzling arm strength, Montana, who many people view as the best NFL quarterback of all time, fell all the way to the third-round (No. 82 overall) in the 1979 draft. He led the franchise that selected him — the San Francisco 49ers — to four Super Bowl championships, winning two NFL MVP awards along the way.
4. Roger Staubach, quarterback
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) and led America’s Team to a total of five NFC championships and two Super Bowl titles. Staubauch’s numbers aren’t what make him such a steal; it was his ability to singlehandedly lead his team to improbable wins.
5. Johnny Unitas, quarterback
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 won four NFL MVP awards; he made 10 Pro Bowl rosters and seven All-Pro teams; and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
6. Tom Brady, quarterback
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). He 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 been selected to 13 Pro Bowl rosters and three All-Pro teams; he was 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.
7. Deacon Jones, defensive end
The Los Angeles Rams selected Deacon Jones in the 14th round of the 1961 NFL Draft. He played 11 of his 14 NFL seasons in Los Angeles and 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, which is the third-highest career sack total in NFL history.
8. Russell Wilson, quarterback
At 5-foot-11, 203 pounds, most scouts and coaches believed Russell Wilson was too small to be a full-time starting quarterback in the NFL. The Seattle Seahawks saw enough in Wilson to select him in the third round (No. 75 overall) of the 2012 NFL Draft, and their 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.
9. Terrell Davis, running back
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.
10. Andre Reed, wide receiver
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, and 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 87 touchdowns.
11. Richard Dent, defensive end
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 remains arguably the greatest defensive unit in league history to this day.
12. Tom Nalen, center
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 1995–2006. Nalen was selected to five Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams, and he participated a part of two Super Bowl championships.
13. Karl Mecklenburg, linebacker
Karl Mecklenburg was a force for the Denver Broncos from 1983–94. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher accumulated 79 sacks, five interceptions, and 16 forced fumbles en route to earning 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.
14. Jared Allen, defensive end
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 was selected to five Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams; 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.
15. Kevin Greene, linebacker
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 and totaled 160 sacks, five interceptions, and 23 forced fumbles. All things considered, it’s shocking that he was a fifth-round pick (No. 113 overall) in the 1985 NFL Draft.
16. Richard Sherman, cornerback
Some may not like him because of his brash personality, but there is 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 have had one of the most dominant defenses the league has ever seen over the last six seasons. He recently 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.
18. Jesse Armstead, linebacker
If not for a torn ACL during his college days at the University of Miami, Jessie Armstead likely would not qualify for this list. The 6-foot-1, 237-pounder would likely 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 still has an outside shot at joining the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
19. Joe Klecko, defensive line
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. He remains a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is still one of the most underrated players in NFL history.
20. Chris Hanburger, linebacker
The Washington Redskins selected Chris Hanburger in the 18th round (No. 245 overall) of the 1965 NFL Draft after a standout college career for the North Carolina Tar Heels. Hanburger played his entire 14-year NFL career for the Redskins earning 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 earned induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
21. Antonio Brown, wide receiver
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, and has since developed into the best wide receiver in the game.
Many scouts and executives credit Brown’s draft slide on his decision to leave Central Michigan University a year too early. But in the end, Brown got the last laugh. Over his last four seasons, the three-time All-Pro has caught a total of 481 passes for 6,315 yards and 43 touchdowns. He’s about to become the highest-paid wide receiver in NFL history. At his current pace, Brown is a lock for eventual induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
22. Charles Haley, defensive end
The San Francisco 49ers selected Charles Haley was selected in the fourth round (No. 96 overall) in the 1986 NFL Draft by . 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 five Super Bowl rings.
23. Norm Van Brocklin, quarterback
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.
24. Rodney Harrison, safety
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.
25. Terrell Owens, wide receiver
Whether you love him or hate him, there is simply 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 season 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).