How exactly do you measure the best NFL draft picks ever or the best NFL draft class? Are the best picks top picks who live up to the hype or players selected in the late-round who blossom into stars? It’s not the easiest question to answer, which is why we wanted to take a crack at ranking the greatest NFL draft picks of all time.
Best NFL draft picks ever
Needless to say, some of the best players ever also ended up on our list of the best NFL draft picks ever. But it wasn’t always that straightforward, as we had to keep in mind when that player was drafted, not to mention some of the biggest NFL draft trades, which also played a role.
Admittedly, this list is up for debate, but here is our ranking of the 10 greatest NFL draft picks ever.
10. Terrell Davis
For a while, the Broncos specialized in taking overlooked running backs and making them stars. Terrell Davis was the first of that group after being picked 196th overall in the 1995 draft. He turned out to be the perfect fit for Denver’s zone-blocking scheme, becoming a huge part of the Broncos winning back-to-back Super Bowls, earning Super Bowl MVP honors in the first game.
While injuries limited his career to seven years, Davis won MVP honors in 1998 and became a Hall of Famer. He’s easily the biggest draft steal among running backs.
9. Russell Wilson
Even before his career is over, we know that Russell Wilson was an absolute steal with the 75th overall pick in 2012. He spent 10 years in Seattle, making the Pro Bowl nine times and helping the Seahawks win a Super Bowl.
Based on that alone, he’s miles ahead of almost every other quarterback selected in the third round. Plus, his accomplishments far surpass the three quarterbacks selected in the top-10 of his draft class, arguably making him the most valuable draft pick after the year 2000.
8. Antonio Brown
Things may have gone south late in Antonio Brown’s career, but as the 195th overall pick in 2010, he’s surely one of the best NFL draft picks ever.
The Steelers certainly got a lot of mileage out of their sixth-round pick with Brown going to seven Pro Bowls and leading the NFL in receiving yards twice. When things were good with Brown, they were really good, as he will surely go down as one of the best receivers of the 2010s and is the greatest receiver who was taken that late in the draft.
7. Shannon Sharpe
Back in the days when teams rarely made tight ends a big part of the passing game or took them early in the draft, Shannon Sharpe helped to prove that was a mistake. The Broncos found him out of Division II program Savannah State with the 192nd overall pick in the 1990 draft.
He became the best tight end of his generation, helping to open the door for Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and all of the modern tight ends who are impact players catching the ball. Sharpe racked up over 10,000 receiving yards and eight Pro Bowl selections during his Hall of Fame, making him a seventh-round steal.
6. Roger Staubach
While playing at Navy, Roger Staubach won the Heisman and just about every other award a college player can win. Of course, because he had a service commitment, the Cowboys had to wait for him to finish his service, which is why Staubach wasn’t selected until the 10th round and the 129th overall pick.
Nevertheless, that patience paid off for Dallas while also making Staubach one of the best NFL draft picks ever. After starting his career at age 27, Staubach played 11 seasons, making the Pro Bowl six times while leading the Cowboys to four Super Bowls, winning two of them. Needless to say, Staubach became a Hall of Famer in the process.
5. Bart Starr
Bart Starr is best known for being Green Bay’s quarterback in the first two Super Bowls. But if you include the pre-Super Bowl era, Starr helped the Packers to five NFL championships.
That’s almost as many championships as the player at the top of our list. The thing most people forget is that Starr wasn’t drafted until the 200th overall pick in 1956. In fairness, Starr rarely played during his final two seasons at Alabama. But Green Bay took a chance on him and Starr ended up winning the starting job a few years later. The rest, as they say, is history.
4. Jim Brown
Even as the sixth overall pick in the 1957 draft, it’s hard not to think that Jim Brown was an absolute steal. We’re talking about arguably the best non-quarterback in NFL history and one of the greatest athletes in American sports history.
Brown was a four-sport athlete in college at Syracuse and should have won the Heisman trophy. He also should have been the first overall pick, even over other Hall of Famers like Paul Hornung and Len Dawson.
After all, he went on to become the most dominant running back in NFL history, leading the league in rushing in eight of his nine seasons and rushing touchdowns in five of his nine seasons. Brown was also a three-time MVP and an All-Pro in all nine seasons.
3. Deacon Jones
Deacon Jones ended up being one of the best defensive players in NFL history, but nobody wanted him until the Rams took him with the 186th overall pick in the 1961 draft. The reason he was overlooked is that Jones only played two seasons in college with a hiatus year in between.
His second season was also spent at Mississippi Vocational School (now Mississippi Valley State). At the time, the Rams were more or less taking a flyer on him in the 14th round. Of course, by his fourth season, Jones led the league in sacks for the first of five times while earning his first of eight Pro Bowl selections in what became a Hall of Fame career.
2. Joe Montana
While Joe Montana didn’t have the most compelling stats in college or the best set of tools, he did help Notre Dame win a national championship, so NFL teams knew he was a winner. Yet, nobody thought enough of him to draft Montana before San Francisco did in the third round of the 1979 draft, 82nd overall.
He only ended up being a two-time MVP, four-time Super Bowl champion, and three-time Super Bowl MVP.
While he got some help from Jerry Rice and others, Montana was the centerpiece of San Francisco’s dynasty during the 1980s. While you might expect most third-round quarterbacks to have a decent career, you don’t expect them to become a Hall of Famer and one of the best to ever play the game.
1. Tom Brady
As if there could be anybody else who could sit at the top of a list of the best NFL draft picks ever.
Like it or not, Tom Brady is the GOAT, and the Patriots got him with the 199th overall pick in the 2000 Draft.
The likes of Chad Pennington, Tee Martin, Marc Bulger, and other quarterbacks whose names nobody would recognize were all selected in that draft before Brady. How every other team passed on him multiple times is still a bit of a mystery. But that’s how it happened, as the Patriots ended up with one of the biggest draft steals in any sport, and as a result, they put together a two-decade-long dynasty, winning championships and making every other team look like a failure for getting beat by a sixth-round pick.