There is a lot of pressure that comes along with being a number one overall draft pick. We have seen a majority of these picks go to the quarterback position, which is expected to be the cornerstone of the organization for the next 15+ years. That likely ends up not being the case. However, for some of the worst picks, we have seen, there have also been some that really paid off. Time will tell on recent picks like Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray, and Baker Mayfield. We also have Trevor Lawrence who will be added to the list in a few weeks.
Peyton Manning – 1998
Luckily this isn’t the best rookie season article, as Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions in his rookie year. Instead, he bounced back to become a Pro Bowler in Year 2 and went led them to a playoff appearance. After that, the story was written for one of the best quarterbacks to play the game. Manning won five MVP awards, two Super Bowl rings, and was the face of some of the best offenses we can remember.
Bruce Smith – 1985
Bruce Smith was not a popular number one overall pick for Buffalo when that day occurred. It drew a lot of pushback, but Buffalo certainly knew what they were doing at the time. He was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year award winner and was an All-Pro eight times. Oh, he also had 200 sacks to his name. Smith easily goes down as the best defensive first overall pick.
Terry Bradshaw – 1970
While we can sit back and argue about how the era plays into how we view quarterbacks and simply just how we view players, Terry Bradshaw was the first player to win four Super Bowl titles. He struggled greatly early on, but the Steelers stuck by him. Most quarterbacks were essentially game-managers, and while the stats are not going to make him one of the best picks of all-time, his success will. Having some of the best defenses of all time certainly helped that.
Earl Campbell – 1978
Taking a running back first overall would be considered a felony in this day and age, but back in 1978, the Houston Oilers drafted one of the best to ever play the position. He had nearly 1,500 yards as a rookie and nearly hit the 2,000 mark in Year 2. Campbell played in Huston from 1978-1084 before being traded to the Saints. His best years were by far in Houston, where he had multiple awards, including MVP.
Orlando Pace – 1997
Orlando Pace is one of the best offensive linemen to play the game. He was drafted by the Rams in 1997 and would go onto have a Hall of Fame career. Pace won a Super Bowl with that Rams team against Tennessee, and would essentially play his entire career with the Rams. Pace was named an All-Pro three times and went to seven Pro Bowls. He also played 169 games and started 165 of them.
Troy Aikman – 1989
Like many of the early quarterbacks, we know many more had better numbers later on. But the impact Troy Aikman can’t be knocked down. Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones rang in their legacy with Aikman under center. He went onto win three Super Bowls and played his entire career for the Cowboys.
John Elway – 1983
This is a weird one because John Elway was originally drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1983. However, he refused to play for Baltimore and was traded to Denver. Elway is certainly the most notable name in Broncos history, leading them to five Super Bowls and winning two of them. Elway would also win the MVP award in his fifth season.
Ron Yary – 1968
Using a first overall pick on a lineman can be a big risk. Minnesota struck gold with Ron Yary, who played In Minnesota for 14 seasons. Yary was one of the most consistent players and was named All-Pro six times. He also won an NFL Championship. While the Vikings failed to capitalize on their four Super Bowl runs during Yary’s time, he was a big part of the consistent success.
Honorable Mentions: OJ Simpson, Lee Roy Selmon, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Ed Jones