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Bernie rates the all-time No. 1 NFL draft picks from best to worst
By Bernie Miklasz
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
In a few days the Rams will officially go on the clock with the first overall selection in the NFL draft.
A team that has lost 42 of its last 48 games will command the spotlight for a brief, shining moment. And it's an exciting but nervous time for all involved.
This will be an incredibly high-stakes pick that could transform a chronic loser into a upward-bound winner. But if the Rams screw up, the franchise will slide deeper into the void.
Can the Rams find the next John Elway?
That's asking for a lot.
In my study of every player picked No. 1 overall in 74 years of drafting, Elway came out on top. The Denver Broncos' Hall of Fame quarterback is my choice as the best No. 1 overall pick in NFL history. The reasons should be obvious. In 1982, the Broncos went 2-7 and averaged 16 points per game. Elway took over as a rookie starter in 1983, and over the next 16 seasons he led the high-scoring Broncos to a regular-season record of 148-82-1, five AFC championships and two Super Bowl titles.
A key figure in the NFL's evolution into a passing league, Elway threw for 51,475 yards and 300 touchdowns and also rushed for 3,407 yards and 33 TDs. As soon as Elway began ripping defenses apart, NFL coaches and GMs knew they had to upgrade at the quarterback position.
Elway was a master of the dramatic rally, leading the Broncos to 47 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter.
At the time of Elway's retirement in early 1999, he had the most wins by a quarterback in NFL history, had the most comeback wins by a QB in league history, had the most career passing yards and was the only quarterback to take his team to five Super Bowls.
In terms of physical profile and ability, Elway was the model quarterback: big, athletic and equipped with the strongest arm of any quarterback to stand and deliver a football.
"When you played against John, the game was never over," said Ronnie Lott, the Hall of Fame defensive back. "He could make plays with his arm. He could beat you by escaping pressure, buying time for his receivers to get open, and firing the ball downfield. He was creative and confident and never backed off. You never felt that you had him down for the count. He'd get back up and come at you again."
Elway also represents what can go wrong in a draft.
The Baltimore Colts made him the No. 1 overall pick in '83. When Elway balked at signing, Colts owner Bob Irsay overreacted, lost his temper and traded Elway's rights to Denver. The Broncos began going to Super Bowls; the increasingly unpopular Irsay took the Colts and bolted to Indianapolis in 1984.
And what about our selection for the worst No. 1 overall pick of all time? That would be halfback Jay Berwanger, the first player chosen in the first NFL draft in 1936.
Berwanger, the 1935 Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Chicago, was chosen by the Philadelphia Eagles, who traded his negotiating rights to the Chicago Bears. Berwanger asked Bears coach George Halas for a two-year contract worth $25,000. When the gruff Papa Bear refused, Berwanger opted to become a sportswriter for the Chicago Daily News and never played a down in the NFL.
Drafted first overall?
My gosh. That makes Berwanger an easy call for the all-time worst No. 1.
Here are a few notes on the selection process:
— I took into account a player's individual career achievements, with extra value added if he played a major role in shaping his team's success.
— Of the many players chosen No. 1 overall, only 14 are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At least one active player on this list, Peyton Manning, is destined for the Hall.
— The AFL had a sketchy draft history and is included here on a very limited basis.
— As you will see, Joe Namath is high on this list. But was he really a No. 1 overall pick? Perhaps not in the traditional sense. The AFL wisely wanted to place Namath in New York to maximize his star power and give a boost to the upstart league. So Namath was basically assigned to the Jets as a de facto No. 1 overall choice. That's good enough for me; I didn't need to seek a Supreme Court ruling on this.
— I did not include Ernie Davis on the list. The Syracuse running back and 1961 Heisman Trophy winner was drafted No. 1 overall in 1962 by the Washington Redskins, who traded his rights to the Cleveland Browns. Sadly, Davis would never play in the NFL. No one, including Davis, knew that he was stricken with leukemia at the time of the draft. The disease quickly consumed him, and Davis died on May 18, 1963, at age 23.
Without further delay, here are our rankings of the 75 players drafted No. 1 overall, from best to worst:
1. John Elway
QB — Stanford — 1983 — Baltimore
In addition to the achievements previously cited, he went to nine Pro Bowls and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
2. Peyton Manning
QB — Tennessee — 1998 — Indianapolis
A four-time league MVP for the Colts; likely will own every meaningful NFL passing record when he retires.
3. Terry Bradshaw
QB — La. Tech — 1970 — Pittsburgh
In the six seasons before Bradshaw arrived the Steelers went 19-62; the Hall of Famer became an important piece of a dynasty that won four Super Bowls in the 1970s.
4. Joe Namath
QB — Alabama — 1965 — NY Jets (AFL)
As a QB Namath was overrated, with more career interceptions than touchdowns, but he made a powerful historical impact by accelerating the AFL into parity with the established NFL.
5. Bruce Smith
DE — Virginia Tech — 1985 — Buffalo
Buffalo's Hall of Famer became one of the dominant pass rushers in league history, with 200 sacks and 11 Pro Bowls for a four-time AFC champion.
6. Chuck Bednarik
LB-C — Penn — 1949 — Philadelphia
One of the toughest men in NFL history and a star on both sides of the ball, Bednarik was a nine-time All-Pro and Hall of Famer for the Eagles.
7. Troy Aikman
QB — UCLA — 1989 — Dallas
A six-time Pro Bowl choice who teamed with fellow Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin to lead the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles.
8. Orlando Pace
OT — Ohio State — 1997 — St. Louis Rams
The ideal left offensive tackle who protected Kurt Warner's blind side for the "Greatest Show on Turf" attack as the Rams became the only team in NFL history to score 500-plus points in three consecutive seasons.
9. "Bullet" Bill Dudley
RB-DB — Virginia — 1942 — Pittsburgh
In starring for the Steelers and two other teams over nine seasons, the Hall of Famer played halfback and DB and was a kicking specialist who rushed for 3,057 yards, caught 123 passes, scored 484 points and intercepted 23 passes.
10. O.J. Simpson
RB — USC — 1969 — Buffalo
The Hall of Famer became the first player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season and ended his career with 11,236 yards.
11. Earl Campbell
RB — Texas — 1978 — Houston Oilers
At his peak, the Hall of Famer was as imposing as any runner in NFL history; he finished with 9,407 yards and 74 TDs before fading due to his punishing style.
12. Buck Buchanan
DT — Grambling — 1963 — Kan. City (AFL)
The first overall pick of the AFL in '63, Buchanan became a dominant, Hall of Fame defensive tackle for the KC Chiefs.
13. Paul Hornung
RB — Notre Dame — 1957 — Green Bay
The "Golden Boy" had a knack for finding the end zone for Vince Lombardi's dynasty in Green Bay, scoring 760 points in a Hall of Fame career.
14. Lee Roy Selmon
DE — Oklahoma — 1976 — Tampa Bay
The Tampa Bay defensive end was named to six consecutive Pro Bowls and was a member of the All-Decade Team of the 1980s.
15. Ron Yary
OT — USC — 1968 — Minnesota
During a 15-season Hall of Fame career for Minnesota, he was an O-line fixture on four NFC champions.
16. Charley Trippi
RB-QB — Georgia — 1945 — Chi. Cardinals
The Hall of Famer was a runner, passer, punter and breakaway talent who piled up 206 all-purpose yards and two long TDs for the victorious Chicago Cardinals in the 1947 NFL Championship.
17. Billy Sims
RB — Oklahoma — 1980 — Detroit
Had 5,106 yards rushing in only five seasons; potential Hall of Fame career was cut short by a devastating knee injury.
18. Tommy Nobis
MLB — Texas — 1966 — Atlanta
Among the most underrated players of the modern era, Nobis made five Pro Bowls in 11 seasons for the mediocre Falcons.
19. Frank Sinkwich
QB-RB — Georgia — 1943 — Detroit
The league MVP in 1944 and two-time All-Pro.
20. Jim Plunkett
QB — Stanford — 1971 — New England
He absorbed frequent beatings as a young QB for a poor New England team but recovered to lead the Raiders to two Super Bowl championships.
21. Irving Fryar
WR — Nebraska — 1984 — New England
An underrated producer who had 12,785 receiving yards, 84 TDs and five Pro Bowl honors in a 17-season career for the Patriots and others.
22. Kyle Rote
RB — SMU — 1951 — NY Giants
An outstanding back and flanker for the 1956 NFL champion Giants, the four-time Pro Bowler caught 300 passes, rushed for nearly 5,000 yards and scored 51 TDs in 11 seasons.
23. Ki Aldrich
C-LB — TCU — 1939 — Chicago Cardinals
A tenacious two-way player who made two Pro Bowls in seven seasons with the Cardinals and Redskins; career interrupted by World War II.
24. Drew Bledsoe
QB — Wash. St. — 1993 — New England
No, he never won a Super Bowl — but what a fine career, with 44,611 yards, 251 TDs, four Pro Bowls and multiple division titles for the Patriots and others.
25. Ed "Too Tall" Jones
DE — Tennessee State — 1974 — Dallas
The towering 6-9 Jones played 16 seasons and was a three-time Pro Bowl selection for multiple Dallas Super Bowl teams.
26. Mario Williams
DE — N.C. State — 2006 — Houston Texans
A controversial pick (over Reggie Bush), Williams already is a two-time All-Pro selection, with 40 sacks and many outstanding seasons in front of him.
27. Eli Manning
QB — Mississippi — 2004 — San Diego
He's been somewhat disappointing but lived up to the hype in 2007, leading the Giants to four postseason wins including the stunning upset of the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
28. Vinny Testaverde
QB — Miami — 1987 — Tampa Bay
Though never a transcendent performer, he had a good 21-season career that ended with 46,223 passing yards and 275 TDs.
29. Carson Palmer
QB — USC — 2003 — Cincinnati
Injuries have been a problem, but he has two Pro Bowls and two division titles for Cincinnati in five full seasons.
30. Jake Long
OT — Michigan — 2008 — Miami
Two seasons, two Pro Bowls for the Dolphins and is on track for a special career.
31. Dave Parks
WR — Texas Tech — 1964 — San Francisco
His 10-year career as a hybrid tight end-wideout for the ***** and Saints offered a glimpse of the future; averaged 15.6 yards a catch with 44 TDs.
32. Steve Bartkowski
QB — Cal — 1975 — Atlanta
It wasn't his fault that the Falcons drafted him instead of Randy White or Walter Payton; he rolled up 24,124 yards and 156 TDs in 11 seasons.
33. Bubba Smith
DE — Michigan State — 1967 — Baltimore
A huge, intimidating figure on a Colts team that went 53-13 and played in two Super Bowls (winning one) from 1967-71.
34. Keyshawn Johnson
WR — USC — 1996 — NY Jets
Three Pro Bowls, 10,571 receiving yards and 64 TDs as a physical target for the Jets and others in 11 seasons.
35. Billy Wade
QB — Vanderbilt — 1952 — LA Rams
Traded by the Rams to Chicago and starred for a 1963 Bears team that went 11-1-2 and won the NFL championship.
36. George Rogers
RB — So. Carolina — 1981 — New Orleans
Two Pro Bowls and four 1,000-yard rushing seasons for the Saints and Redskins, but was overshadowed by No. 2 overall pick Lawrence Taylor.
37. Corby Davis
FB — Indiana — 1938 — Cleveland Rams
A respected fullback for five seasons with the Cleveland Rams; his career ended because of wounds sustained in World War II.
38. Billy Cannon
RB — LSU — 1960 — LA Rams
An early star for Houston of the AFL after spurning the Rams, he played RB and TE, rushing for 2,455 yards, catching 236 passes as a two-time All-Pro choice.
39. Leon Hart
TE — Notre Dame — 1950 — Detroit
A versatile performer at tight end, fullback and defensive end; he had 2,499 yards receiving, 612 yards rushing, two interceptions and some sacks in eight seasons with the Lions.
40. Tommy Mason
RB — Tulane — 1961 — Minnesota
An effective runner and a third-down back for the Vikings; in his first six seasons accumulated 6,527 yards from scrimmage, with 45 TDs.
41. Russell Maryland
DT — Miami — 1991 — Dallas
A solid, steady DT for nine seasons who played at his best in 1992-93 when the Cowboys won consecutive Super Bowls.
42. Sam Francis
FB — Nebraska — 1937 — Philadelphia
Finished fourth in the shot put in the 1936 Olympics; played four seasons (Eagles) as a hard-nosed FB; career ended by World War II.
43. Michael Vick
QB — Virginia Tech — 2001 — Atlanta
His career was detoured by scandal, but was a three-time Pro Bowl pick in six seasons with Atlanta, and no QB could run the ball like Vick.
44. John Matuszak
DL — Tampa — 1973 — Houston Oilers
His personal life was a mess, but the hard-partying 'Tooz helped the Raiders win two Super Bowls.
45. Ricky Bell
RB — USC — 1977 — Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay passed up Tony Dorsett, but Bell rushed for 1,263 yards in 1979 to help win a division title; tragic figure who died of a rare heart disease in 1984.
46. Harry Gilmer
QB-RB — Alabama — 1948 — Washington
In eight seasons for the Redskins and Lions he made the Pro Bowl at two positions, QB and RB, but 'Skins should have drafted Bobby Layne.
47. Tom Cousineau
LB — Ohio State — 1979 — Buffalo
He shunned Buffalo and wasted three years in Canada but was an All-AFC selection in 1983 and '84 with Cleveland.
48. Dan Wilkinson
DT — Ohio State — 1994 — Cincinnati
Never emerged as a game-changer for the Bengals, but let's not overlook that he was a solid DT for 12 seasons.
49. Jeff George
QB — Illinois — 1990 — Indianapolis
A disappointment, but he did have 12,602 passing yards and 154 TDs in 124 starts with the Colts and others.
50. Bo Jackson
RB — Auburn — 1986 — Tampa Bay
I'm overrating him; played in only 38 games because of baseball and a career-ending hip injury — but what a dynamic talent.
51. Aundray Bruce
LB — Auburn — 1988 — Atlanta
Never reached his vast potential with the Falcons and Raiders but did play 11 seasons.
52. Matthew Stafford
QB — Georgia — 2009 — Detroit
Consider this a vote of confidence; he had a promising rookie season with the Lions in '09.
53. Tucker Frederickson
RB — Auburn — 1965 — NY Giants
One Pro Bowl in six seasons with the Giants but was drafted ahead of Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers (yikes.)
54. George Cafego
HB — Tenn. — 1940 — Chicago Cardinals
Career was interrupted by World War II; played QB, HB, FB, DB and was a punter and return man for five seasons with Brooklyn and two others.
55. Kenneth Sims
DE — Texas — 1982 — New England
A disappointment; injuries were a factor; did start for seven seasons in New England.
56. Alex Smith
QB — Utah — 2005 — San Francisco
Still finding his way with the *****; sidetracked by injuries but showing progress.
57. King Hill
QB — Rice — 1958 — Chicago Cardinals
Not a star but had a 12-year career as a backup and occasional starter with the Cardinals and Eagles.
58. David Carr
QB — Fresno St. — 2002 — Houston Texans
Was pummeled unmercifully as the starter on Houston's expansion team, but still coveted as a backup.
59. Courtney Brown
DE — Penn State — 2000 — Cleveland
Never put it together for the Browns, but did start 60 games with 19 sacks in six seasons.
60. Tim Couch
QB — Kentucky — 1999 — Cleveland
Passed for 3,040 yards and 17 TDs for the 2001 Browns, but a shoulder injury wrecked his career after five seasons.
61. Steve Emtman
DL — Washington — 1992 — Indianapolis
Injuries destroyed his tremendous potential for the Colts; lasted five seasons.
62. Ki-Jana Carter
RB — Penn State — 1995 — Cincinnati
Never the same after a knee injury as rookie in Cincinnati; 747 yards and 16 TDs in five seasons.
63. George Shaw
QB — Oregon — 1955 — Baltimore
In Baltimore his season-ending knee injury gave an opening to a backup named Unitas.
64. Gary Glick
DB — Colorado State — 1956 — Pittsburgh
Started only nine games at safety in seven seasons with the Steelers and others, but had 14 interceptions in 71 games.
65. Walt Patulski
DT — Notre Dame — 1972 — Buffalo
Played 70 games for Buffalo; didn't do much.
66. JaMarcus Russell
QB — LSU — 2007 — Oakland
After three shaky seasons and poor work habits, it isn't looking good.
67. Tom Harmon
RB — Michigan — 1941 — Chicago Bears
Drafted by the Bears, he opted to sign with a rival league but had two ordinary seasons (1946-47) for the Rams.
68. Boley Dancewicz
QB — Notre Dame — 1946 — Boston
Three seasons with the Boston Yanks.
69. Angelo Bertelli
QB — Notre Dame — 1944 — Boston
The Yanks drafted him instead of Otto Graham (ouch); but hey, his son played in the seminal rock band Sonic Youth.
70. Rob Fenimore
RB — Oklahoma A&M — 1947 — Chicago
The Bears ignored his injury-plagued 1946 senior year, and he lasted only one season.
71. Harry Babcock
E-DE — Georgia — 1953 — San Francisco
Had 16 catches and one forced fumble in three seasons with the *****.
72. Bobby Garrett
QB — Stanford — 1954 — Cleveland
The Browns drafted him and discovered he had a stuttering problem and couldn't call plays in the huddle. One season.
73. Randy Duncan
QB — Iowa — 1959 — Green Bay
Drafted by Green Bay; played in Canada; one season in the AFL.
74. Terry Baker
QB — Oregon State — 1963 — LA Rams
Total bust; the LA Rams moved him to halfback in '64. An all-time bust.
75. Jay Berwanger
RB — U. of Chicago — 1936 — Philadelphia
After sportswriting, he went into the foam-rubber manufacturing business and did well financially.
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Re: Bernie rates the all-time No. 1 NFL draft picks from best to worst
Elway better than Manning? Ok I think I won't bother with the rest of the list.
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