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Top 10 Best NFL Draft Picks of All Time

Jesse is a lifelong sports fan with a passion for finding the facts. His writing has been recognized and published by Sports Illustrated.

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Who Is the Greatest NFL Draft Pick of All Time?

The NFL Draft is where the stories of the greatest football players of all time begin. We've seen some of the most hyped players fall, and the unknown players become legends. Every year the NFL allows young college players to enter the draft to be selected by any team that wants them, and their lives are changed forever.

The busts of the world are typically easy to identify. They're selected early and often, and after a few years, they are no longer in the league. However, it's the diamonds in the rough that this article will cover.

Instead of trying to determine the greatest pick overall, I decided to identify who I believe is the best pick by each of the top 10 draft rounds. For instance, I believe Jim Brown is a better overall player than Jerry Rice, but due to him being selected 13 spots ahead of Rice, I don't believe he's the best first-round pick ever.

The selection of these players is determined by their overall skill, accolades, and where they were selected overall.

Jerry Rice strikes a pose during the game.

Jerry Rice strikes a pose during the game.

Best First Round Pick in NFL Draft History

The first round of the NFL draft is where the greatest of the great tend to start their careers. With nearly half of the Hall of Fame being made up for first-round selections, it’s safe to say that selecting players early is the best way to go about acquiring franchise-changing talent. Some of the greatest talents we’ve ever seen have been taken in the first round, but ultimately I believe three of the best four players in NFL history all came in this round. However, this article is about the best picks, not necessarily the best player overall, so with that, I must say the greatest first-round pick ever made is none other than the greatest wide receiver of all-time Jerry Rice.

Jerry Rice was selected 16th overall by the San Francisco 49ers in the 1985 NFL Draft. He would go on to play with the team for 16 seasons, shattering every major receiving record in history. Rice led the league in receiving yardage 6 times, receiving touchdowns 6 times, and receptions twice. The vast majority of his records are still untouched today and will likely remain that way for years to come. His combination of route-running, sure-handedness, health and longevity, and leadership made him one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Coupling that with the fact that half the league passed on him before he was selected and he is easily the greatest pick ever made in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Jerry Rice Career Accolades

  • 13x Pro Bowler
  • 10x 1st-Team All-Pro
  • 3x Super Bowl Champion
  • Super Bowl XXIII MVP
  • 2x Offensive Player of the Year
  • Hall of Fame All-1980’s Team
  • Hall of Fame All-1990’s Team
  • Hall of Famer (2010)

    Honorable Mentions

    • Jim Brown (6th overall to the Cleveland Browns)
    • Lawrence Taylor (2nd overall to the New York Giants)
Brett Favre celebrates in the snow.

Brett Favre celebrates in the snow.

Best Second Round Pick in NFL Draft History

Day two of the NFL Draft is where the diamonds in the rough begin to surface. Every year a player who is graded as a top talent begins to slip, whether it’s the importance of the position, character issues, injury history, or simply bad luck, there is always a great player who lasts until round two. That being said, there are many Hall of Famers who was picked for these very reasons. In fact, the second most populated group of Hall of Fame players unsurprisingly are players selected in the second round. With that being said, Brett Favre takes the honor of the greatest second-round pick in the NFL Draft.

Brett Favre was the fourth quarterback selected in the 1991 NFL Draft. He was taken by the Atlanta Falcons, but only after plenty of health-related controversies flooded the media about Favre. Prior to his senior year, he was in a car accident that led to him having 30 inches of his intestines removed, and then an injury in the East-West Shrine game he suffered a hip injury that was deemed similar to the injury that ended Bo Jackson’s career. Atlanta took a chance on Favre and in his first season he threw only four passes…two of which were intercepted. The following year the Packers traded for Favre and the rest is history.

Favre went on to have a very long career in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl and becoming the only player in NFL history to win the MVP award three years in a row. He led the league in passing yards twice and passing touchdowns four times. Favre had some concerns heading into the draft, but sometimes taking a risk can be the thing that saves a franchise. Atlanta learned the hard way that they should’ve stuck with their gut, and Green Bay capitalized by getting one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

Brett Favre Career Accolades

  • 11x Pro Bowler
  • 3x First-Team All-Pro
  • 3x NFL Most Valuable Player Award recipient
  • 1x Super Bowl champion
  • 1x Offensive Player of the Year
  • Hall of Fame All-1990s Team
  • Hall of Famer (2016)

    Honorable Mentions

    • Jack Lambert (46th overall to the Steelers)
    • Mike Singletary (38th overall to the Bears)
    • Drew Brees (32nd overall to the Chargers)
Joe Montana celebrates mid-game.

Joe Montana celebrates mid-game.

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Best Third Round Pick in NFL Draft History

The third round of the NFL Draft is where most of your starters are going to begin to disappear, and your depth players will begin to emerge. Occasionally you’ll find some quality starters are lower impact positions, such as tight end or your midsection of the offensive line, but ultimately the drop-off of Hall of Fame talent begins to significantly become apparent in the third round. That being said, there are still many Hall of Fame prospects who were selected in the third round and went on to become superstars in the NFL, but none other than the great Joe Montana has ever shown more from the third round of the draft.

Montana was selected 82nd overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 1979. After 13 seasons with the team, Montana would be known as the first GOAT (Greatest of All Time) to be universally accepted nationally for the title. He would lead the 49ers into the history books as a dynasty that won four Super Bowls. He also won two MVPs and a slew of other awards while dominating with the likes of the formerly mentioned Jerry Rice. To this day a better quarterback/wide receiver duo has never existed.

Montana also was the first QB to implement the now household name West Coast Offense, created by coach Bill Walsh. The two were a match made in heaven and “the long handoff” became an unstoppable offensive force. With Montana’s elite accuracy and the quick short routes run by his receivers, the 49ers put together a passing game that had never been seen before. Montana would lead the league in accuracy five times as the maestro conducted the team. That dynasty team was riddled with Hall of Fame talent, but their winning ways started with Joe Montana.

Joe Montana Career Accolades

  • 8x Pro Bowler
  • 3x First-Team All-Pro
  • 2x Most Valuable Player Award recipient
  • 4x Super Bowl champion
  • 3x Super Bowl MVP
  • 1x Offensive Player of the Year
  • Hall of Fame All-1980s Team
  • Hall of Famer (2000)

    Honorable Mentions

    • Mel Blount (53rd overall to the Steelers)
    • Ray Nitschke (36th overall to the Packers)
Norm Van Brocklin's throwback football card.

Norm Van Brocklin's throwback football card.

Best Fourth Round Pick in NFL Draft History

From this round onward, the amount of Hall of Fame talent drops off exponentially. There are less than a dozen Hall of Famers that were taken in the fourth round in the NFL Draft, and even less moving further down the round list. That being said, there are still some franchise-changing talents to be found on the third day of drafting and onward.

One of the league’s earliest superstars was selected in the fourth round in 1949. Norm Van Brocklin was selected 37th overall by the Los Angeles Rams. During his time in the NFL, he won two championships, and he led the league in multiple passing categories in a time where running the ball was the offensive focus. Van Brocklin was one of the first premier passers in football, playing against the likes of other Hall of Fame stars like Otto Graham and Bobby Layne. Van Brocklin was one of the first players to show the world of football that passing the ball could be a way to win the game.

Norm Van Brocklin Career Accolades

  • 9x Pro Bowler
  • 1x First-Team All-Pro
  • 2x NFL Champion
  • Hall of Fame All-1950s Team
  • Hall of Fame (1971)

    Honorable Mentions

    • Andrew Reed (86th overall to the Bills)
    • Cris Carter* (3rd overall in the supplemental draft)
Dick LeBeau poses in his Cleveland Browns uniform.

Dick LeBeau poses in his Cleveland Browns uniform.

Best Fifth Round Pick in NFL Draft History

The greatest fifth-round selection in NFL history is someone who played great on the field, as well as coached his way to greatness later in life. Dick LeBeau was drafted by the Cleveland Browns 58th overall in the 1959 NFL Draft. Although LeBeau would go on to spend his career playing for the Detroit Lions, his draft value was an absolute steal despite the Browns letting LeBeau go. During his time in the NFL LeBeau was selected to three Pro Bowls, playing alongside other NFL greats such as Dick “Night Train” Lane. In his career, he set the Lions’ team record for interceptions with 62, which is also 10th overall in NFL history. His career held a 12-year streak of at least 3 interceptions, having returned 4 in his career for touchdowns.

LeBeau was part of a dynasty of defensive backs in Detroit that changed the way the game is played. He later went on to continue a long career of coaching in the NFL, becoming one of the greatest defensive minds in the history of the game. His devising of the zone scheme defense helped the Cincinnatti Bengals reach the Super Bowl twice. When his career led him to Pittsburgh, he led one of the greatest stretches of defensive superiority in NFL history. In his two stints with the Steelers, LeBeau’s defenses averaged a rank of 4.8 overall. It’s safe to say that the future Hall of Fame 5th round pick was well worth an earlier selection.

Dick LeBeau Career Accolades

    • 3x Pro Bowler
    • 10th All-Time in Career Interceptions
    • Lions’ Team Interception Record Holder (62)
    • Hall of Fame (2010)

      Honorable Mentions

      • Mike Webster 125th Steelers
      • Kevin Greene 113 Rams
Tom Brady celebrates his seventh Super Bowl victory.

Tom Brady celebrates his seventh Super Bowl victory.

Best Sixth Round Pick in NFL Draft History

If there was any round and player combination on this list that could be easily guessed without question, this would be the one. Every single NFL fan knows that the greatest quarterback, and arguably player overall, was selected 199th overall in the 2000 NFL Draft. His name is Tom Brady.

Brady was nothing special. In fact, his career would likely have never started if not for the injury to the Patriots’ starting quarterback in 2001, which led to Brady starting 14 games and leading the team to an 11–3 record under his leadership. The rest, they say, is history. Most fans are familiar with the accomplishments of Tom Brady. He has more Super Bowl rings than any franchise in league history, he holds nearly every major passing record, his workout regiment has gained a national following and helped him to have one of the most consistent careers in NFL history, and he doesn’t seem to age. Brady has a string of awards that I could write an entire article about on their own, but instead, I’ll simply list them below and leave it up to anyone who wants to argue that any other sixth-round pick might be a better choice for this spot.

Tom Brady Career Accolades

    • 15x Pro Bowler
    • 3x First-Team All-Pro
    • 7x Super Bowl Champion
    • 5x Super Bowl MVP
    • 3x NFL MVP
    • 2x Offensive Player of the Year
    • Hall of Fame All-2000s Team
    • Hall of Fame All-2010s Team
    • NFL Career Leader in Passing Yards
    • NFL Career Leader in Passing Touchdowns
    • Far more than I could ever list…

      Honorable Mentions

      • Jack Christiansen 69th Lions
      • Terrell Davis 196th Broncos
Bobby Bell with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Bobby Bell with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Best Seventh Round Pick in NFL Draft History

Bobby Bell was selected 56th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1963 AFL Draft. He was originally selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the 2nd round of the NFL Draft, but he elected to join the AFL instead, stunning the football world. After starting his career at defensive end for two seasons, Bell was moved to outside linebacker where he excelled and became one of the greatest Cheifs players of all time. Bell was a player who could absolutely do everything on the field. He finished his career with 40 sacks, as well as 26 interceptions. He holds the Chiefs’ franchise record for interceptions returned for a touchdown with 6. As a linebacker, he was named All-AFL or All-NFL every year from 1965-1971. Even more significantly for the Chiefs, Bell would later become the very first player for their franchise to be honored in the Hall of Fame. He also helped to lead the Chiefs to two AFL Championships and was a part of the first-ever Super Bowl-winning roster.

Bobby Bell Career Accolades

    • 9x Pro Bowler
    • 6x First-Team All-Pro
    • 2x AFL Champion
    • 1x Super Bowl Champion
    • Hall of Fame All-1970s Team
    • Hall of Fame (1983)

      Honorable Mentions

      • Shannon Sharpe 192nd Broncos
      • Bobby Mitchell 84th Browns
Leroy Kelly runs past defenders for the Cleveland Browns.

Leroy Kelly runs past defenders for the Cleveland Browns.

Best Eighth Round Pick in NFL Draft History

Leroy Kelly was selected 110th overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 1964 NFL Draft. Kelly’s career would end in the Hall of Fame, but you wouldn’t know it if you watched him his first few years. Unfortunately for Kelly, the great Jim Brown was still around when he was drafted, making him an understudy backup for his first two seasons in the NFL. In his first 27 games, Kelly only touched the ball 51 total times. However, he didn’t let his time on the bench discourage him and his studying soon turned into application.

Kelly finally got his start in 1966 when he led the league in yards per attempt and rushing touchdowns. He would lead the league in touchdowns for three straight years and lead in rushing attempts and yards for two years. He was selected to six straight Pro Bowls, with his first three years also being a First-Team All-Pro.

Kelly may have never been able to amount to the greatness of Jim Brown, but he holds strong just behind him in nearly every major rushing category for the Cleveland Browns. Kelly played a long 10-year career with Cleveland and ultimately ended up in the Hall of Fame.

Leroy Kelly Career Accolades

  • 6x Pro Bowler
  • 3x First-Team All-Pro
  • 1x NFL Champion
  • Hall of Fame All-1960s Team
  • 1968 Bert Bell Award
  • Hall of Fame (1994)

    Honorable Mentions

    • Wayne Millner 65th Redskins
    • Richard Dent 203rd Bears
Johnny Unitas poses in his Baltimore Colts uniform.

Johnny Unitas poses in his Baltimore Colts uniform.

Best Ninth Round Pick in NFL Draft History

You can’t tell the story of the NFL without the great Johnny Unitas. He was selected 102nd overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955 but was cut before he ever attempted a single pass. He went on to play semi-pro football until the Baltimore Colts signed him later as a backup. When Unitas got his shot, he never looked back, playing for 18 total years. He led the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns four times in his career. His career is riddled with awards, championships, and incredible plays and memories.

In 1958, Unitas played in the NFL title game, now known famously as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” In front of a nationally televised audience, Unitas completed seven straight passes to set up a game-tying field goal with less than two minutes left to play against the New York Giants. Upon entering overtime, he led an 80-yard drive to win the game. He was an all-around great team player who worked hard and knew what it took to win. In his career, he was selected as the league MVP three times, won four total championships, and eventually found himself in the Hall of Fame.

Johnny Unitas Career Accolades

  • 10x Pro Bowler
  • 5x First-Team All-Pro
  • 3x NFL Champion
  • 1x Super Bowl Champion
  • 3x NFL MVP
  • Hall of Fame All-1960s Team
  • Hall of Fame (1979)

    Honorable Mentions

    • Ken Houston 214th Oilers
    • Don Maynard 109th Giants
Roger Staubach attempts a jumping pass during a game.

Roger Staubach attempts a jumping pass during a game.

Best Tenth Round Pick in NFL Draft History

Only two Hall of Fame players in NFL history were selected in the tenth round of the NFL Draft, and ironically they were both selected 129th overall, so choosing my selection for this last spot was 50/50. However, Roger Staubach had a much more accomplished career than Jackie Smith, so Staubach gets the crown!

Staubach was selected 129th overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1964 NFL Draft. After winning the Heisman in the Naval Academy, Staubach spent four years in active duty and served some time in Vietnam. When he returned home, his professional football aspirations began. Staubach didn’t really get a chance to take over the Cowboys until his 30s, but when he finally did he was excellent. After his first year as a starter, he separated his shoulder and was replaced by Craig Morton. In the divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers, Staubach relieved Morton of his spot and threw two clutch touchdowns in the last 90 seconds of the game to clinch the win 30–28. He never gave up his starting spot again until he retired. Staubach was one of the first dual-threat QBs, ending his career with a 5.5 yards per carry average and over 2,000 yards rushing. He led the league in passing touchdowns once and won two Super Bowls for the Cowboys in his career.

Roger Staubach Career Accolades

  • 6x Pro Bowler
  • 2x Super Bowl Champion
  • 1x Super Bowl MVP
  • 1971 Bert Bell Award
  • Hall of Fame All-1970s Team
  • Hall of Fame (1985)

Honorable Mentions

  • Jackie Smith 129th Cardinals

© 2022 Jesse Unk

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