There’s no day on the NFL calendar that is disected more than the NFL Draft. Every year, fans love to play scout and figure out who the best draft pick for their team would be. You can’t blame fans for getting crazy around draft time. After all, we always love to say Super Bowls aren’t won in free agency, but rather on draft day. That makes it so crucial for teams to hit home runs on draft day.
The Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII on the strength of their 2010 class that included picks like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Russell Okung and Kam Chancellor. Their home runs continued, taking Richard Sherman in the fifth round in 2011, then Russell Wilson in the third round in 2012. That right there shows you how quickly solid drafts can turn you into a Super Bowl contender.
When you have the first overall pick, it means you’re all the way at the bottom. Whoever you pick is expected to be the building block to that eventual Super Bowl, but it doesn’t always pan out that way. Sometimes there’s a reason you see the same team picking high over and over again. The Colts were regularly picking first in the late 80s and early 90s, while the Browns have hovered in the top five of the draft for much of the past decade.
The first overall pick is what we’ll be concentrating on today. First overall picks can make or break your franchise, so it’s crucial to get the pick right. As we know, that doesn’t always happen. This list will be all about selecting first overall picks with the benefit of hindsight. We’ll be going back to the draft years that had the worst first overall picks, and selecting the player that should have gone first overall. If the stars had aligned this way, Tom Brady would be a Cleveland Brown, Emmitt Smith would be a Colt and Michael Irvin would be a Falcon. Huh? That’s right, read on.
15. 2010 – Earl Thomas
Original Pick: Sam Bradford
As mentioned in the intro, the 2010 NFL Draft was what really got the ball rolling on Seattle’s recent Super Bowl win and why they remain a force in 2016. Their division rival Rams had the first overall pick and were trying to move on from the Marc Bulger era. With the first pick, they took Sam Bradford who was coming off a shoulder injury in college but was expected to be the Rams’ savior and resurrect the Greatest Show on Turf. Falling under the old CBA without a rookie wage scale, Bradford got a monstrous contract with $50 million guaranteed. As we all know, that didn’t quite work out for the Rams.
Earl Thomas would go 14th overall to the Seahawks, and has since gone on to be one of, if not the best free safety in the NFL. He has led the Legion of Boom the past five years. Just imagine if the Rams had him in their secondary to go with their ferocious front seven. While Ndamukong Suh would also make for a better first overall pick, his time in Miami has dwindled his stock slightly.
14. 1972 – Franco Harris
Original Pick: Walt Patulski
We’re taking a time machine back for this one, but in 1972, Walt Patulski was taken first overall by the Buffalo Bills. At 6’6 and 250 pounds, Patulski managed to run a 40-yard dash time in 4.9 seconds which was consdered fast in those days for a defensive end. Overall, his career was unsuccessful, as he never made the Pro Bowl and the Bills dwelled in the cellar for much of the 70s.
While the Bills already had O.J. Simpson, they could have taken Franco Harris first overall. They either could have paired Simpson with Harris to form a deadly backfield, or trade Simpson for a king’s ransom and build around Harris. Either way, it couldn’t have ended worse than having just three winning seasons in the 70s.
13. 1988 – Michael Irvin
Original Pick: Aundray Bruce
The Atlanta Falcons often found themselves drafting high in the late 80s, and in 1988 they took Aundray Bruce first overall. Bruce played 11 years in the NFL, but only started in 42 games, which is pretty disappointing for a first overall pick. Overall, 32 sacks for a first overall pick has to be considered a failure.
The Falcons instead could have built around an exciting young receiver named Michael Irvin, who went 11th overall to the Cowboys. Irvin of course, would go on to be one-third of the deadliest offensive trio of the 90s, teaming with Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith to lead the Cowboys to a 90s dynasty.
Considering the Falcons took Deion Sanders with their first round pick the following year, could you imagine a Falcons team with Primetime and The Playmaker? Now, that would have been The Greastest Show on Turf, at least for the 90s.
12. 1977 – Tony Dorsett
Original Pick: Ricky Bell
This one’s an easy re-do, as the top two players selected in the 1977 draft were both running backs. One ended up being a Hall of Famer while the other one turned out to be a big bust. This was a chance for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to dig themselves out of the league basement. They took Ricky Bell out of USC and signed him to a five-year, $1.2 million deal, the richest for an NFL rookie at the time. Bell would have an amazing 1979 season, rushing for 1,263 yards and led the Bucs to the NFC Championship game. Unfortunatley, that was all he could muster. He was traded to the Chargers in 1982 and was out of the NFL by 1983. Sadly, he died of heart failure in 1984.
Tony Dorsett went second overall to the Cowboys and would have a HOF career, rushing for 12,739 yards and 92 touchdowns. He was second all-time in career rushing yards by the time he retired, leaving quite a legacy behind. Definitely worthy of a first overall pick.
11. 1982 – Marcus Allen
Original Pick: Kenneth Sims
Kenneth Sims went first overall to the New England Patriots in 1982 and the pick and it proved to be a disappointment. He only played a full 16-game season once and played just 74 games in his career. He finished with just 17 sacks.
Marcus Allen went 10th overall to the Los Angeles Raiders and within a couple of years, woud lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl XVIII victory, taking home the game’s MVP award. Allen would go on to have a legendary career with the Raiders before tailing off in the early 90s. He would eventually sign with the Chiefs where he finished his career.
Mike Munchak was the best player from this draft class, but it’s hard to justify taking a guard first overall.
10. 1992 – Darren Woodson
Original Pick: Steve Emtman
Much of this list is re-drafting the worst picks of the Colts. The Colts actually had the first and second overall picks in the 1992 draft, but as that year proved, having high draft picks doesn’t guarantee anything. The Colts took Steve Emtman first overall and his career would be derailed by injuries. He finished all of his three seasons in Indianapolis on the injured reserve. He would play a couple more years in Miami and Washington before retiring.
The ’92 draft was fairly weak, producing no hall of famers, but Darren Woodson would have been a solid pick, as he went on to be a five-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro and won three Super Bowls with the Cowboys. Another option would have been Desmond Howard, who was one of the best kick returners of his time and even took home the Super Bowl XXXI MVP award.
9. 1971 – Jack Youngblood
Original Pick: Jim Plunkett
Okay, this one was probably the one I struggled with the most. I have the utmost respect for what Jim Plunkett was able to do in big games, as he took the Raiders to two Super Bowls and had an 8-2 playoff record. However, consistency is a major factor you look for in a first overall pick and Plunkett clearly didn’t have that. His career record was 72-72 and he threw 198 interceptions to just 164 touchdowns. I’m sure the Patriots weren’t very happy with what they got from Plunkett.
Jack Youngblood meanwhile, was a vital piece to the Rams defense that would lead them to a surprise appearance in Super Bowl XIV. He would reach seven Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro five times, making the NFL’s all-1970s team. He would start 188 games in his career, and recorded 151.5 career sacks.
8. 1994 – Marshall Faulk
Original Pick: Dan Wilkinson
After many misses in the early stages of various drafts, the Colts finally got their 1994 pick right, as they took Marshall Faulk with the second overall pick. Of course, they would go on to trade Faulk to the Rams to make room for Edgerrin James, but that’s another story.
The first overall pick in 1994, Dan Wilkinson, proved to be a dud of a first overall pick, one of several that would soon come for the Cincinnati Bengals. While he wasn’t a bad player, he just wasn’t what one would expect from a first overall pick. He made no Pro Bowls and recorded jst 54.5 sacks in 195 games.
Faulk would go on to be one of the best backs in the NFL for much of the 90s and the early 2000s. The eventual Hall of Famer finished his career with 12,280 rushing yards and 100 rushing touchdowns. He also proved to be a dominant receiving back, catching 767 passes for 7,865 yards and 36 touchdowns.
7. 1979 – Joe Montana
Original Pick: Tom Cousineau
Tom Cousineau or Joe Montana; who are you picking first overall? Cousineau went first overall to the Buffalo Bills and didn’t even end up playing for the team, electing to sign with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes who offered him double the money the Bills did (remember when the CFL was outbidding the NFL?). Cousineau became a star in the CFL, but it turned out to be a wasted pick for Buffalo.
Joe Montana went 82nd overall to San Francisco and we all know how that worked out for them. The 49ers built a dynasty with Montana while the Bills withered away through most of the 80s. The Bills eventually got Jim Kelly, but all things considered, it’s pretty safe to say Montana was definetly the one who should have gone first overall to Buffalo.
6. 1995 – Curtis Martin
Original Pick: Ki-Jana Carter
The Cincinnati Bengals needed a running back in the ’95 draft. There was an eventual Hall of Famer waiting for them, but that’s not the guy they picked. They went with Ki-Jana Carter, who would turn out to be very injury prone. Carter signed a seven-year $19.2 million rookie contract. On his third carry of his first preseason game, he tore a ligament in his knee and missed the entire 1995 season. He would end four of his five seasons in Cincinnati on injured reserve.
Curtis Martin was the back Cincy should have drafted, as Martin would enjoy a legendary career with the Patriots and Jets. Martin was a third round pick who turned out to be an amazing steal, finishing his career with 14,101 rushing yards and 90 touchdowns. He sits fourth on the all-time rushing list.
5. 2002 – Julius Peppers
Original Pick: David Carr
David Carr unforunately has to go down as one of the biggest busts in NFL history, but he was put in a position to fail from the moment he was drafted. Coming into an expansion team, Carr had next to no talent around him and certainly didn’t have the O-line to proect him. He was sacked 73 times his rookie season alone and that seemed to shake him up for the remainder of his career.
Julius Peppers was one of the most exciting pass-rushing prospects in NFL history, as no one had ever quite seen the raw talent he possessed and the incredible agility and athleticism he had for a defensive end. Peppers has gone on to be one of the best pass rushers of this generation and is still in the NFL 14 years after being drafted. He sits at 139.5 sacks and has even returned four interceptions for touchdowns.
He would have been able to thrive in Houston, as a simple plug and play player. A pass rusher jumping into an expansion team is far less risky than for a QB.
4. 1990 – Emmitt Smith
Original Pick: Jeff George
Here we come to the Colts again. In 1990, the Colts had the first overall pick who took Jeff George. George would go on to be known as a guy with plenty of raw talent and incredible arm strength, but he never quite put it together. He was incredibly frustrating for fans to watch and after an unsuccessful stint in Indianapolis, he bounced around the league.
The steal of the draft proved to be Emmitt Smith, who went 22nd overall to the Dallas Cowboys. Drafting Smith proved to be the trifecta of the Cowboys forming the most dominant QB/WR/RB trio of the 90s, with Aikman, Irvin and Smith leading the charge. Emmitt Smith would go on to become the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, finishing his career with 18,355 yards and 164 rushing touchdowns.
While Emmitt Smith wouldn’t have had the O-line he did in Dallas, he undoubtedly would have been a more worthy first overall pick than George.
3. 1999 – Champ Bailey
Original Pick: Tim Couch
The 1999 draft proved to have some elite talent and given that the Browns were looking for a franchise quarterback after returning to the league, many would argue that Donovan McNabb should have went first overall. However McNabb likely would have struggled in Cleveland, as they didn’t have the dominant defense Philly would have in the early 2000s and well, the Browns have been a quarterback cemetary since 1999.
Champ Bailey prived to be one of the greatest defensive players of the 2000s, first with the Redskins, then the Broncos. He was a leader his whole career and his presence would have helped stablize the Browns defense. Bailey is a future Hall of Famer and was definitely the best player of his draft class. Other honorable mentions could be McNabb, Torry Holt and Edgerrin James.
2. 2000 – Tom Brady
Original Pick: Courtney Brown
Somehow I don’t think anybody is going to debate this selection. A year after taking their supposed franchise QB in Tim Couch, the Browns elected to go defense and took Courtney Brown first overall. Brown proved to be a rather ineffective player and the Browns continued to finish near the bottom of the NFL through much of the decade.
Tom Brady went 199th overall and didn’t look like a top prospect, so the Browns can’t be blamed in not seeing Brady as a franchise savior. Obviously, with the benefit of hindsight though, Brady is the unquestioned top player of the 2000 draft class. If any Browns fan had a time machine, they would go back and warn the Browns to draft Brady, who is in the discussion of who the G.O.A.T is.
1. 2007 – Calvin Johnson
Original Pick: JaMarcus Russell
When deciding the no.1 entry for the list, it was easy. Just go to the biggest draft bust in NFL history and replace him with the player that went second. JaMarcus Russell was viewed as a physical specimen that would revolutionize the quarterback position. He received $30 million in guaranteed money from the Oakland Raiders after holding out in training camp. In turn, he gave the Raiders three horrible years, showing a lack of work ethic and mental strength required to be an NFL quarterback.
Calvin Johnson went second to the Lions and gave them nine incredible seasons, becoming the most electrifying wide receiver in the game. While he chose to retire at the young age of 30, Johnson set multiple NFL records, including 1,964 receiving yards in a season. He finished his career with 731 catches for 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns.
It’s too bad Johnson only got to play in two career playoff games and we’ll likely view him the same way we viewed Barry Sanders after Sanders retired following frustration with the Lions’ losing culture.
Other worthy first overall picks from 2007 would have been Joe Thomas and Darrelle Revis, but picturing Megatron in the Black Hole is too good a thought to pass up.
Who would you have selected first overall in these draft years?
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