The NFL draft was first held in 1936, when the University of Chicago’s Jay Berwanger – who was the first winner of the Heisman Trophy – was the first overall selection of the Philadelphia Eagles. Bill Shakespeare, a back from Notre Dame, was taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the third spot.
If we’ve learned anything over the past eight decades, it’s that great talent can be selected with any pick [L.C. Greenwood at 238, Antonio Brown at 195, Tom Brady at 199, Deacon Jones at 186]. One thing is constant: evaluating and selecting players is an art, not a science. For every JaMarcus Russell [#1 overall, 2007] there is a Bart Starr [200th overall, 1956]. Here are the NFL Draft’s all-time best players by pick numbers 1 – 10.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Tennessee. [edges Bruce Smith and John Elway]. The only player to win a Super Bowl as the starting quarterback with two different teams, Manning was named NFL MVP a record five times. He retired as the all-time career leader in passing yards [71,940] and touchdown passes . Only 14 players have gone from being the first overall pick of the NFL draft to earning selection into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Manning is certain to be number 15.
2. Lawrence Taylor, LB, North Carolina. Considered the most disruptive defensive player of all time, Taylor changed football. A nine-time First Team All-Pro, Taylor is one of only two defensive players [Alan Page] to be named NFL MVP. LT won two Super Bowls and is a member of the NFL All-Time Team.
3. Dick Butkus, LB, Illinois. The most feared tackler in NFL history made middle linebacker football’s most macho position. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year was named to the NFL All-Decade Teams of both the 1960s and 70s.
4. Walter Payton, RB, Jackson State. Quite possibly the greatest all-around football player ever to put on a pair of shoulder pads, Sweetness retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yards, touchdowns and all-purpose yards. He also had the most catches by a non-receiver and threw eight touchdown passes.
5. Deion Sanders, CB/KR, Florida State. One of the best shutdown corners was also one of the most dangerous return men the league has ever seen. A back-to-back Super Bowl winner, Sanders also had a part-time gig as a major league outfielder for nine seasons.
6. Jim Brown, RB, Syracuse. The best running back ever to tote the rock led the league in rushing yards in eight of his nine NFL seasons. Brown is the only player to average more than five yards per carry, and is the only back to average more than 100 rushing years per game for an entire career.
7. Champ Bailey, CB/KR, Georgia. A superb cover corner, Bailey was selected to a dozen Pro Bowls, more than any defensive back in history. A first-ballot Hall of Famer, Bailey is the all-time league leader in passes defended .
8. Ronnie Lott, S, USC. One of the hardest-hitting defensive backs ever to play the game, Lott played safety like a linebacker. The leader of a defense that helped the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl titles, Lott is the best safety in NFL history.
9. Bruce Matthews, G, USC. In his 19-year career, Matthews started at all five offensive line positions. He was selected to 14 Pro Bowls, tying Merlin Olsen’s record. The best player from a family that has produced seven NFL players, Bruce is the only member of the Matthews family to land in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
10. Rod Woodson, CB/KR, Purdue. An 11- time Pro Bowler, Woodson returned 12 interceptions for touchdowns over his 17-year career. A Super Bowl champion and 1993 Defensive Player of the Year, Woodson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.