NFL DRAFT History Class

By George Somerville

Around this time of year I turn my attention to the NFL Draft. But unlike the vast majority of interested parties, I’m not looking forward – I’m looking back. Why? Because NFL Draft history is not only fascinating, it could also be a guide to what happens in the future! 

Which means here we are with another series of History class – the final class this year to be precise. So, for one last time, class is in session!

This year I have focused on those #1 draft picks – and I will let you make your mind up if your team has received the best value for those most sought after selections.

However after pouring over list after list of those premier picks, I did wonder who might be considered the greatest #1 pick of all time? Because that’s what we do, right? We want to know who is the best of the best.

So to help out I asked my fellow writers at The Touchdown to vote for who they thought were the greatest #1 picks of all time.

So, here is the Top 10, as voted for by the Touchdown writers:

Ten Through Eight

Earl Campbell

There is a danger during this kind of exercise to think more fondly of the players that we can readily recall as NFL greats. So some of the names which are about to appear will not be new or a surprise to any of you.

But as this is ‘History Class’ it would be remiss of me to ignore, well, the history!

#10 Tom Harmon, Michigan – Chicago Bears

So at #10 we go back to the beginning. 1941 and to the Michigan Wolverines to be exact.

In the first instalment of this year’s Draft History Class I covered the Bears and their tempestuous relationship with the #1 pick. 

The Bears had one one of my favourite stories when we found out about Tom Harmon’s journey from Michigan to World War II, the NFL, becoming a movie star and then a broadcaster. That’s the very definition of a life well lived!

#9 chuck bednarik, penn – Philadelphia Eagles

When compiling a list of the greatest NFL players of all time there is no doubt that Chuck Bednarik should be on that list. 

Bednarik, or “Concrete Charlie” as he became better known, completed his military service prior to going to college at Pennsylvania University. At both the college and professional level, Bednarik played Center, Linebacker and Punter – meaning he typically played the full 60 minutes of a game. Imagine that in today’s game!

Bednarik missed only 3 games in 14 seasons in the NFL with the Eagles, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967. Bednarik had his jersey retired by the Eagles  -but is probably best known across college football for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given each year to the best defensive player in college ball. What a legacy!

#8 Earl Campbell, texas – Houston Oilers

When you watch where Texas running back Bijan Robinson lands in this years draft, spare a thought for the legendary Earl Campbell. Aside from missing out on a Super Bowl ring, Campbell won just about every honour in the college and NFL game – breaking numerous records along the way. Campbell is rightly remembered as one of the most explosive, aggressive running backs the game has ever seen, and set the bar for this current generation of backs which we enjoy today.

Campbell was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1990, and had his Texas Longhorns jersey retired in 1979. In 1991 he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and had his Houston Oilers jersey retired in 1987. 

Earl Campbell finished his career having carried 2,187 times for 9,407 yards and 74 touchdowns in the regular season.

Seven Through Five

Terry Bradshaw

This was a much harder exercise than I thought. How do you separate the best players to have played the game and who all played in different era’s and styles of football? It’s almost impossible. Well, almost.

#7 Orlando Pace, Ohio State University – St Louis Rams

The Rams are another team that have featured heavily in this series, tying with the Colts for the most #1 picks in draft history. While I read through the successes and occasional failures of the Rams, it was the name of Orlando Pace that jumped off the page at me.

A true mountain of a man, I recall Neil Reynolds interviewing him in London at one point and being dwarfed by Pace. He is a giant in many ways.

In his 12 years as a Ram, the offensive line that Pace protected accumulated over 3,000 yards in each of these seasons. Even more remarkable is that Pace worked with 7 different quarterbacks during this period. Pace was voted to seven successive Pro Bowls during this time and was a cornerstone of the Super Bowl XXXIV winning team. 

Orlando Pace was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016. Arguably the greatest Draft selection by the Rams of all time.

#6 Terry Bradshaw, LA Tech – Pittsburgh Steelers

Ok, spoiler alert. Everyone from here on in has been inducted into the Pro Football hall of Fame. And with one exception, are all Quarterbacks. But that’s ok. Quarterbacks in the modern game are the most influential players on the team and – given the premium paid for these leaders of the team – are by and large are picked first.

Terry Bradshaw is most certainly a leader of men. In a 14 year NFL career solely with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bradshaw threw for an incredible 27,989 yards and 212 touchdowns – in the regular season alone. Bradshaw was at the controls during the Steelers’ most dominant period in their history. During this period the Pittsburgh won Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV, with Bradshaw named MVP in two of his four appearances. 

Terry Bradshaw was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989. While his Steelers jersey has not been officially retired, it is widely understood that no other Steelers player will wear the #12 jersey.

#5 Troy Aikman, UCLA – Dallas Cowboys

Much like Bradshaw in Pittsburgh, Troy Aikman was also under center during the Cowboys’ dominant period in their history. The latest article published about the Cowboys’ adventures with the #1 pick gave us an insight into just how close Dallas came to not having Troy Aikman as their Super Bowl winning quarterback. 

Nevertheless, Aikman wore the star on his helmet for twelve seasons, winning three Super Bowls with the Cowboys. He ended his career with 32,942 passing yards and 165 touchdowns. Aikman was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008.

Both Bradshaw and Aikman have gone on to have very successful broadcasting careers, showcasing their deep understanding and intelligence about the game.

The Final Four

Paul Hornung & Bart Starr for the Green Bay Packers/ Image Credit: Sports Illustrated
#4 Bruce Smith, Virginia Tech – Buffalo Bills

As we move into the final four, two things separate Bruce Smith from his peers. Firstly, Smith played on the defensive side of the ball – a rarity in this top ten. But also, while he appeared in four Super Bowl games, he did not win a ring. Neither of which diminishes Bruce Smith’s stature as certainly the greatest defensive end of all time, but arguably the greatest defensive PLAYER of all time?

This is indeed high praise, however the stats speak for themselves. His 200 career sacks in the NFL continues to be unbeaten. Smith was selected to 11 Pro-Bowls during his astonishing 19 year NFL career as well as gathering eight All-Pro awards.

Smith was a first-ballot inductee to the NFL Hall of Fame. In his 19 NFL seasons, Smith played in 279 games, amassing a record 200 sacks, two interceptions, 46 forced fumbles, and 15 fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for a 33-yard touchdown. Of his 19 seasons in the NFL, 13 of them were seasons where he had at least ten sacks – which is a remarkable achievement given the scheme he played in with the Bills. 

#3 Paul Hornung, Notre Dame – Green Bay Packers

I have written about Paul Hornung many times across the Draft history articles that I churn out each year. And rightly so – Hornung was a trail blazer. He was the first Heisman trophy winner to be selected with the first overall pick. He was also the first player to be selected first, win MVP and to go on to be inducted into both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. If that wasn’t enough, Packers Head coach Vince Lombardi described him as “the best player I ever coached”.

Not sure I need to write any more… except that he was an exceptionally gifted athlete. While he is remembered as a half/running back he also played as quarterback and place kicker. He could also have pursued a basketball career coming through school at Notre Dame. They sure did break the mould with Hornung.

#2 John Elway, Stanford – Baltimore Colts

It is seldom – if ever – that The Touchdown writers agree on anything. But occasionally the stars align and they sure did when they agreed on our top two picks.

I do hope that you read my piece on the Denver Broncos, one of only three teams to never have secured the very first pick of the draft. If you missed that part of the tale you will be confused as to why the Broncos greatest ever player is named as the #1 pick for Baltimore. Well friends, that’s because Elway refused to play for Baltimore and the rest, they say, is history.

Ok, so it’s kinda cheating that John Elway slips into this list at #2. But there is no doubting that (1) he certainly was the #1 pick in the 1983 draft and, (2) he is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game. So, complain all you want but Elway is #2 on our list.

John Elway played in five Super Bowls, winning two Super Bowl rings with the Broncos. He was named Super Bowl and League MVP.  He went to nine Pro Bowls in a sixteen year NFL career. In those sixteen years Elway threw for 51,475 yards and 300 touchdowns, as well as rushing for 3,407 yards and 33 touchdowns.  He is a legend.

#1 Peyton Manning, Tennessee – Indianapolis Colts

What’s left to say about Peyton Manning that hasn’t already been said? Outside of Tom Brady, there is no doubting that Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback ever to play the game. He was drafted first by the Indianapolis Colts in 1998 and sparked the greatest chapter in Colts NFL History.

Manning won two Super Bowls, one with the Colts and the other with the Broncos. In his 18 seasons in the NFL – 14 in Indianapolis and 4 in Denver, Manning’s statistics are nothing short of remarkable. Manning threw for 71,940 yards and 539 touchdowns, in the regular season alone. Not a player known for his electric pace, he rushed for 667 yards and 18 touchdowns. Definitely not electric pace!

But in the postseason Manning came alive. He threw for 7,339 yards and 40 touchdowns, culminating in 1,001 yards and 3 touchdowns in four Super Bowl appearances.

Peyton Manning was a lock for a first ballot Hall of Famer, being inducted in 2021. The list of NFL and College records that Manning set and holds is genuinely as long as your arm. He received 14 Pro Bowl invites as well as seven time first team All-Pro recognitions. As well as being a five time MVP, Peyton Manning also had his jersey numbers retired by the Colts, the Broncos and his alma mater Tennessee Volunteers!

There is no doubting that Peyton Manning deserves to be #1 on our #1 board!

Near Misses

Cam Newton & Eli Manning/ Image Credit: AP Photo/Bob Leverone

This brings us to the end of this year’s Draft History Class. It has been fascinating to see how the #1 pick has been used by so many teams – good and bad!

However before we sign off, there are a couple of honourable mentions of players who sat just outside our top ten as voted by our fantastic writing staff. Both of these players are of the more recent generation, and had divergent NFL careers – albeit both of them split opinion. The first is Peyton’s little brother Eli, who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. Debate continues to surround Manning Jr as to whether he is voted into the Hall of Fame, however the twin Lombardi’s should take care of that.

The other player is Cam Newton. Newton was drafted by the Carolina Panthers and was a transcendent player in the NFL. The closest Cam got to a ring was a defeat to Peyton Manning’s Broncos in Super Bowl 50, but that doesn’t diminish the effect he had on the league.

So there you have it. The twelve best players to have played in the NFL after being picked first overall in the Draft. What an incredible group of players to have showcased.

I hope you have enjoyed this series of NFL Draft History, and that you might have a little more interest in the first pick later today!

Happy Draft Day y’all!

Mock Draft

george somerville

College football writer