If you look through all the great NFL teams in recent memory, you’ll find that all of them tend to do three things:
1. Find a franchise quarterback.
2. Hit on early draft picks.
3. Steal starters in the late rounds.
The Patriots did two of those with one pick when they selected Tom Brady in the 6th round of the 2000 draft. Many of the Seahawks core players were mid/late round selections, Russell Wilson, Kam Chancellor, and Richard Sherman for example. Even the Packers selecting Aaron Rodgers with the 24th overall pick in 2005 was a steal. While most people only think of late round pick steals, they can happen early on as well.
Getting draft steals is vital to building a great team. Late round picks are expected to be backups or rotational players. Landing a superstar or even just a starter means that there’s one less hole on the roster for opponents to exploit.
In addition, it means the team doesn’t have to overpay for a potential starter in free agency or invest a high draft pick the next draft. That in turn can allow teams to invest in secondary needs or lock up more of their core players.
Stealing players is not only important, but there’s additional satisfaction that comes from getting lucky and having a player blow away expectations. Here’s every team’s biggest draft steal in recent memory.
Arizona Cardinals – Tyrann Mathieu
Arizona has done incredibly well in the 3rd round the past several years. Last year, they selected David Johnson and in 2014 they got John Brown. However, their best 3rd round pick has been defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.
He was considered to be very talented coming out of LSU in 2013, but concerns over his character and size caused him to slip in the draft. The result was Arizona getting an elite player midway through the draft. He’s been a star ever since.
Atlanta Falcons – Grady Jarrett
Grady Jarrett was selected in the 5th round this past year. The undersized Clemson nose tackle was considered to be a steal immediately after the draft by many who felt his tape more than made up for his size. All of that appears to be true after one year of play.
He’s a player that can stay on top of his assignments as well as be a disruptive player in the backfield – a combination that will make him a favorite among both fans and coaches.
Baltimore Ravens – Joe Flacco
Joe Flacco has earned quite a bit of criticism over his contract, which pays him among the elite quarterbacks in the league. However, you can bet that there are many NFL teams who would love to be paying Joe Flacco’s contract. Especially after his 2012 playoff run where he put the Ravens on his back and carried them to a Super Bowl victory.
At first glance, it’s hard to consider an 18th overall pick to be a steal. When you consider that a redraft of the 2008 class would likely result in Flacco being the 1st overall selection, it’s hard to deny that the Ravens didn’t get an amazing deal there.
Buffalo Bills – Ronald Darby
Marcus Peters was the rookie CB who was named to the Pro Bowl. There are many people who felt that he only got in because of his interception numbers and that Ronald Darby was much more deserving. I don’t mean that as a slight to Peters, but rather as a shout out to just how good Darby was in his rookie year.
Buffalo has found their shutdown corner of the future and they stole him midway through the second round of the draft. It’s even more shocking when you consider that he was the seventh corner off the board.
Carolina Panthers – Josh Norman
2015 was the year that John Norman really made a name for himself. Prior to that, he was only well known by Panthers fans. That changed when he emerged as football’s best cornerback of 2015.
The 5th round selection in 2012 has demolished all expectations and solidified himself as an elite defender on an elite defense. He’s also a pretty huge trash talker.
Chicago Bears – Adrian Amos
The Bears have had serious secondary problems over the past few years (to be fair, the same can be said for many NFL teams). Snagging Adrian Amos in the 5th round was a wonderful surprise for Chicago and their fans.
Amos finished the year playing 99.7% of the Bears defensive snaps and was easily one of the biggest steals in the 2015 draft thus far.
Cincinnati Bengals – Geno Atkins
It didn’t take long since entering the league before 4th rounder Geno Atkins was considered one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL. He had a concerning knee injury in 2013 that likely contributed to his down 2014 season. However, he proved any doubters wrong when he bounced back in 2015, proving he’s still the same guy he was prior to going down.
In addition to four Pro Bowls, Atkins has earned 2 AP First Team All-Pro selections, as well as one Second Team selection.
Cleveland Browns – Tashaun Gipson
Tashaun Gipson was an undrafted free agent following the 2012 Draft, meaning he’s a tricky inclusion on this list, but the team still scouted him throughout the drafting process and decided to bring him in right after the draft. In the last four years, the defensive back has played incredibly well for Cleveland.
Gibson went to the Pro Bowl in 2014 and has managed 14 interceptions so far. He’s a reliable safety who’s capable of making plays.
Dallas Cowboys – Orlando Scandrick
The Dallas Cowboys defense has not been a unit that any other NFL franchise has been envious of lately. However, 2008 5th round pick Orlando Scandrick has quietly been a very good defensive back over that period.
He’s one year removed from being named to Pro Football Focus’ top 101 players, coming in at number 89. Scandrick has a very good case for being the NFL’s best slot corner.
Denver Broncos – Malik Jackson
Although drafted in 2012, Malik Jackson didn’t become a full time starter until the end of the 2014 season. Even still, very few people outside of Denver knew his name until the 2015 Playoffs. The 5th rounder was a vital part in Denver’s impressive Super Bowl run.
Some considered him to be the top free agent in this year’s class and Jacksonville inked the defensive lineman to a six-year contract that will average around $17 million per year.
Detroit Lions – DeAndre Levy
Outside linebackers in 4-3 schemes don’t get a lot of love. As a result, Detroit’s DeAndre Levy isn’t the household name he should be.
Levy was selected in the 3rd round of the 2009 draft. Ever since, he’s been a three down linebacker. He’s very strong in pass coverage, as well as stopping the run.
He took a big step forward in 2013 and then another in 2014. He’s been a very valuable piece for Detroit and it showed this past year when he went down with a hip injury.
Green Bay Packers – Corey Linsley
Corey Linsley was a center from Ohio St taken in the 5th round of the deep 2014 draft. Although he’s only played 29 games so far, he’s well on his way to being considered one of the best steals among active players.
Linsley is a key factor in a Green Bay offensive line that is much more talented that some of the ones the franchise has fielded in recent years.
Houston Texans – DeAndre Hopkins
DeAndre Hopkins has absolutely been one of the most underrated players in the NFL. The receiver was taken with the 27th overall pick in 2013 but has played like a guy taken in the top three.
Since 2013, Houston has started the following players at quarterback: Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Matt Schaub. Over that three year period, Hopkins has over 3,500 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns. He’s undoubtedly one of the NFL’s elite receivers, as nobody has done more with less.
Indianapolis Colts – T.Y. Hilton
There were a lot of confused Colts fans this past year when the team selected wide out Phillip Dorsett. Many felt the team would be trying to replace star T.Y. Hilton.
The idea of that is certainly a strange one. Hilton was selected in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft and has been an incredible talent ever since. His rookie season he notched 861 yards and he’s gone over 1,000 in every year after.
T.Y. Hilton takes the top off of defenses and has been an exciting player on a talented offense.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Allen Robinson
Allen Robinson was one of the most dominating receivers in the NFL last year. He racked up exactly 1,,400 receiving yards and hauled in 14 touchdowns.
He was taken in the late 2nd round, with a staggering 10 wide receivers being selected ahead of him. A re-draft would certainly have him skyrocketing towards the top. As it stands, Jacksonville has an integral offensive weapon that the young Blake Bortles can rely on moving forward.
Kansas City Chiefs – Justin Houston
In 2013, Justin Houston came exactly one sack shy of breaking Michael Strahan’s sack record (22.5). For as good as he is, Houston doesn’t get talked about nearly as much as he should. He’s certainly one of the best edge rushers in the NFL, a position that many consider to the most important on defense.
Kansas City locked up their 2011 third round pick last year when he got inked to a six-year contract worth just over $100 million.
Los Angeles Rams – Trumaine Johnson
The Rams added quite a bit of talent to their secondary through the draft in 2012, as Janoris Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, and Trumaine Johnson formed one of the most talented and under the radar defensive backfields in the NFL.
Some fans were surprised to see the team use its franchise tag on Trumaine Johnson over Jenkins this offseason. While his name hasn’t been out there as much as Jenkins’ has (which is typically a good thing for corners), he’s absolutely a player that the team needed to hang on to.
The 3rd round pick has surpassed all expectations and been a player that the team will be able to rely on moving forward.
Miami Dolphins – Olivier Vernon
A 3rd round pick in 2012, Olivier Vernon has racked up 29 sacks in 46 starts over four seasons. The high end pass rusher’s skill got him signed to a five-year deal worth $85 million ($52.5 million guaranteed) with the New York Giants this offseason.
Getting elite pass rushers in the NFL is hard. Stealing them is even more difficult. But somehow that’s something that the Miami Dolphins appear to be very good at.
Minnesota Vikings – Stefon Diggs
Stefon Diggs was selected in the 5th round of the 2015 draft. Despite being a late round selection, it didn’t take him long to break into the starting lineup andm in his rookie year, he finished with 720 yards in 13 games.
He was a breath of fresh air for a receiver group that was lacking. The wide out has a ton of talent and will only improve moving forward with the Vikings.
New England Patriots – Rob Gronkowski
When you draft a tight end early in the second round, you should typically expect them to be very good. However, Gronkowski plays unlike any tight end ever; to the point where it feels like he should have his own position. He’s an offensive weapon that’s so effective, he’s changed the way people think about offensive strategy.
While it’s still early, Rob Gronkowski is on pace to be the greatest tight end in NFL history.
New Orleans Saints – Jimmy Graham
Selected at the tail end of the 3rd round, Jimmy Graham was a very impactful player with the Saints and the numbers he’s put up look like high end receiver numbers.
In 2011, he had 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns, and then had 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013. Graham has an absolutely insane amount of talent and did a lot for New Orleans in his tenure there.
New York Giants – Victor Cruz
The Giants nailed it with undrafted rookie Victor Cruz several years back. In his first full season, he hauled in nine touchdowns and 1,536 receiving yards. He followed up the next year with 10 touchdowns and nearly 1,100 yards.
Unfortunately he wasn’t able to play last year and played less than half the games in 2014 due to injury issues. Hopefully Cruz will be able to get back on track in 2016, as he’s a talented player who deserves to be on the field.
New York Jets – Damon Harrison
Damon Harrison, or “Snacks” as many Jets fans refer to him, was an undrafted free agent pick up in 2012. After getting limited action in his rookie year, he managed to earn the starting gig in 2013 and has started every game since.
Harrison is a nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme. As a result, his stats aren’t overly impressive, with 105 tackles and 1.5 sacks over three seasons. But that’s to be expected, as nose tackles often aren’t supposed to be the ones making the big plays. That doesn’t mean they aren’t asked to do a lot though.
They need to be powerful enough to command double teams to allow other players to flourish. NT is one of the most vital positions in any 3-4 defense and Snacks did an excellent job with the Jets. His fine play earned him a large contract this season with the rival Giants, who will be paying him $46.25 million over five years.
Oakland Raiders – Derek Carr
Derek Carr was the 36th overall pick, making him an early second round selection. He was taken after Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, and Johnny Manziel. Everyone is aware of Johnny Football’s struggles and Bridgewater and Bortles have played well so far, but a very good case can be made for Derek Carr being the best quarterback in this draft.
Getting a starter at any other position in the second round isn’t uncommon. Getting a franchise quarterback in the second round absolutely is.
Philadelphia Eagles – Jason Kelce
The 2011 Draft was one of the worst drafts in Eagles history and selecting Danny Watkins was really the crown jewel on it all. He was apparently more committed to being a fire fighter than being an NFL player.
It’s hard for one player to make up for an entire draft class, but if anyone could, it’s Jason Kelce. The 6th round selection was ready to go from day one and helped turn a worrisome offensive line into a strength for Philadelphia.
He fell in the draft due to concerns over his size. While he remains one of the smaller NFL centers, he’s made up for it with his insane athleticism.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Antonio Brown
Going into the draft, Antonio Brown had that unique combination of size and speed… in the sense that he was slow and short. Players who are barely 5’10” and run a 4.57 don’t get a lot of attention from scouts.
In 2010, Brown was selected in the 6th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was a very good player through his first three years, but the last three have been on another level. Over the last three seasons, Brown has hauled in over 5,000 receiving yards and over 30 touchdowns. Many consider the 6th round pick to be the NFL’s best receiver and it’s hard to argue that.
San Diego Chargers – Keenan Allen
Keenan Allen fell to the 3rd round in the 2013 draft. Through his career so far, he’s shown that he’s a player that should be breaking the 1,000 yard mark every single year.
Injuries have slowed him down a bit, but he still remains one of the more dominating young receivers in the NFL and should only get better over the next few years.
San Francisco 49ers – NaVorro Bowman
Nearly every fan will remember the dominating 49ers defense from several years back. What set them apart was their unparalleled front seven talent. In the middle of that, the two pieces that made everything work the way it should was their middle linebackers.
11th overall pick Patrick Willis was the name that everyone knew when they first came into the national spotlight. But as everyone started pointing out later, 2010 3rd round pick NaVorro Bowman was just as good, if not better.
San Fran had the two best middle linebackers in the game. One was a high pick that paid off in spades and the other was an insane 3rd round steal.
Seattle Seahawks – Russell Wilson
Franchise quarterbacks are hard to find, especially if you’re drafting outside the top ten. Finding one in the 3rd round is almost unheard of.
Wilson was taken with the 75th overall pick, a selection that was heavily criticized after the team signed one-game-wonder Matt Flynn for $26 million. It took no time for Wilson to win the starting job and he hasn’t looked back since.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Lavonte David
Every since being drafted at the tail end of the second round in 2012, Lavonte David has been one of the NFL’s premier linebackers. He’s an aggressive playmaking outside linebacker who has potential to blow up any offensive play.
It’s worth noting that David had a very down year in 2015. There’s good reason to believe that his struggles were in large part due to Tampa Bay’s scheme, where they had the naturally aggressive player bottled up and playing passively. With a new staff in place, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if David has a bounce back season and plays like the star he is again.
Tennessee Titans – Jurrell Casey
Jurrell Casey is a do-it-all player. He can line up all along the defensive line and make plays no matter where the coaches decide to put him.
Casey is another victim of being a defensive lineman in a 3-4 scheme. While recently it’s been changing, it still remains hard to stand out and make a name for yourself while playing that position.
The 2011 third round pick has turned into a quiet star for Tennessee.
Washington Redskins – Bashaud Breeland
Bashaud Breeland is a defensive back who was taken in the 4th round of the 2014 draft. Ever since making it to the NFL, Breeland has been having way more success than anyone could reasonably expected from a 4th round pick.
The Redskins’ standout made it on to Pro Football Focus’ Pro Bowl roster this past season. Breeland saw his name alongside the likes of Josh Norman, Patrick Peterson and Darius Slay, among others. That’s certainly good company to be included with.
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