Best first overall picks in NFL Draft history

Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith is one of the best draft picks in NFL history. Photo from USA Today.

As the 2021 NFL Draft approaches, with the first selection all-but made already by the Jacksonville Jaguars, the excitement is growing.

Trevor Lawrence, Clemson’s superstar quarterback, is going to be taken with the prestigious pick.

Best NFL Draft first overall picks

Let’s take a look back at the shoes he will hope to fill.

Here are the five best first overall picks in NFL Draft history.

5. Troy Aikman, QB, Cowboys – 1989

In the Super Bowl era, there have been 54 NFL Drafts.

In that half-century, 25 of the first overall picks have been used on the Quarterback position. It’s the premium position in football, and if a team has the first overall pick, there’s a pretty good chance that they need one. Troy Aikman starts our list off here, the first overall pick in 1989. This was the first selection made by Jerry Jones as the owner of the Dallas Cowboys – and what a pick it was.

When Aikman was drafted, out of UCLA, he was walking into a team who drafted Michael Irvin one year prior in the first round. Then, one year after that, they drafted Emmitt Smith. They drafted a Hall of Famer at WR, QB and RB in three back-to-back first-round picks.

It was with this trio that the Cowboys rose to the top of the NFL and dominated the ‘90s. Troy Aikman won 3 Super Bowls and made 6 Pro Bowls in his 12-year career. In that time, he completed 2,898 passes for 32,942 yards and 165 touchdowns. He is widely considered to be one of the most successful quarterbacks ever and is undoubtedly one of the best first overall picks in NFL Draft history.


4. John Elway, QB, Colts [Traded to the Broncos] – 1983

Of the few infamous players who were drafted and then traded to a different team, there’s one person on top of the pile.

Eli Manning deserves a shoutout, but he just can’t compete with the best first overall pick to never pay for the team that picked him, John Elway.

The Baltimore Colts ‘earned’ the first selection of the 1983 draft and took the strong-armed Stanford QB. However, Elway didn’t want to play for Baltimore. His father declared publicly that he would “never” play for them and just six days later he was traded to the Denver Broncos.

The trade sent a 1984 first-rounder, QB Mark Hermann and OT Chris Hinton to the Colts and Elway became a star for Denver.

Another Hall of Famer, John Elway won 2 Super Bowls, an MVP and went to 9 Pro Bowls. In his 16-season career, spent entirely with Denver, he started 231 games and won 148 of them. He threw 300 touchdowns (still 12th all-time) and 51,475 yards (10th all-time). In only 2 of his 16 seasons – and one was his first – did he have a losing record in his starts. Elway is one of the best QB’s of all time and the fact he did it from age 23 to age 38 all with one team just makes it even more impressive.

3. Terry Bradshaw, QB, Steelers – 1970

The first Super Bowl was in 1967. In 1970, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Terry Bradshaw to be their quarterback.

In January 1980, Bradshaw and the Steelers celebrated their fourth Super Bowl title. This is more than just making a good pick in the draft; this was the beginning of the Super Bowl era being absolutely dominated by one team and one player.

In his four Super Bowl wins, he earned two SB MVP’s and is one of the most successful players in NFL history.

Bradshaw played for 14 seasons with Pittsburgh, throwing 212 touchdowns and 27,989 yards in an era where passing was far less potent than it is now. He had a fantastic defense behind him and every good QB needs weapons, but Terry Bradshaw is the face of the early Super Bowl era and he is 100% one of the best first overall picks ever.

2. Bruce Smith, DE, Bills – 1985

Someone who isn’t a quarterback! As you can imagine, for someone to sneak into this list playing any other position is quite the challenge. And a defensive end? Bruce Smith was that good at what he did. And, what did he do? He sacked the quarterback, a lot.

There have been some unbelievable edge rushers over the years, no doubt, and you can debate who the best ever is. I will not hear any arguments, though – he is the best non-QB to ever be taken first overall in the NFL Draft.

The Buffalo Bills drafted him out of Virginia Tech in 1985 and he spent 19 years in the league, with 15 seasons on the team who selected him.

To this day, Bruce Smith remains the all-time leader in sacks, with 200 career sacks recorded. Behind him sit some unbelievable names, with Reggie White on 198 and the next best all the way back at 160 for Kevin Greene.

The two closest players who are still currently signed to NFL teams are Von Miller (106) and J.J. Watt (101), so his record looks safe for a long while, to say the least.

Bruce Smith is one of the best NFL players ever, and a top 5 defensive end, no question. And, for my money, he is just one shy of the best NFL first overall pick in history.

1. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts – 1998

This one doesn’t come as a surprise, I’m sure. One of the best QB’s to ever play the game and the best first overall pick in NFL Draft history, without a doubt – Peyton Manning.

When the Indianapolis Colts drafted the HOF QB out of Tennessee, they had no idea how good it would be. He would go on to win 2 Super Bowls, 5 MVP’s and went to the Pro Bowl 14 times in a 17-season career. Manning sits near the top of near every single stat.

He is third all-time in Touchdown passes with 539, behind just Tom Brady and Drew Brees. His 71,940 passing yards are also third.

In his rookie season, he went 3-13 with the struggling team, and then he proceeded to have just one more losing season in his career.

He has a career record of 186-79 and is one of the greatest players we have ever seen. The first of his Super Bowl wins came in SB XLI and then the second came when he won with the Denver Broncos in SB 50. The fiftieth Super Bowl was Manning’s final NFL game and he retired a champion, at age 39. He won 200 games (both regular and postseason) and retired on top.

Peyton Manning is one of the best and most successful players ever and the best player to ever get selected first overall.

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About Tyler Arthur 36 Articles
Tyler is an NFL writer who has had a love for American Football since he discovered the sport when he attended De Montfort University, where he studied Journalism, and played wide receiver and eventually quarterback. While at QB, he led the DMU Falcons to a division title in his final year before graduating. His passion for the game, and enjoyment of learning and understanding the nuances and details of the sport led him to start writing about it. Years later he has taken advantage of numerous opportunities involving writing, attending games and events and co-hosting a podcast. More of his work can be found on The Touchdown, Gridiron Hub and Read American Football. Tyler is a Las Vegas Raiders fan and he also enjoys baseball, in which he is a Chicago Cubs fan. He loves fantasy football and his other hobbies include video games and chess.

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