There’s no definitive way to predict a perfect draft. All the experts and all the scouts in the world can do an outstanding job identifying talent but there will always be booms and busts. Sports are just funny that way. In the NFL, an entire weekend is dedicated to the draft. It’s that big of a deal. For the young athletes, it’s obviously a dream come true. For the teams selecting, it becomes the building block of their organizations. The team with the first overall pick has the toughest decision of them all.
A player selected number one overall is not expected to be a good player. Good players can be found in the later rounds. Those selected number one overall are expected to be great. Game changers. Perennial Pro Bowlers. Most of all, they’re supposed to win games. With still no lottery in place for the NFL (seriously NFL, what’s the holdup?), the team selecting first had the worst season of the league in the prior year and is in need of a desperate turnaround.
Truth is, not every number one pick has lived up to the hype. Few have. Others have turned out to be good players and contributors (*cough* *cough*, Alex Smith) but clearly not worth the hype. Then there are the few that have been complete failures (please see: JaMarcus Russell). With over 250+ players drafted and a large amount that go undrafted each season, we don’t have to go far to find players that, looking back now, would be considered more worthy of the first overall selection than those who actually were.
In this countdown, we’re going to explore some “What if?” scenarios for those players that should have been selected number one overall. Some even involved in trade scenarios. Order is based on year in a descending timeline and not necessarily in order of who’s most deserving.
15. Odell Beckham Jr. – 2014
Original Pick – Jadeveon Clowney
It’s hard to imagine at this point OBJ playing in anything other than Giant blue. However, in 2014 another blue team should’ve drafted him with the first pick. Houston was first on the clock and it was weird to see them sitting there, as they had been playoff contenders for a few years now but there they were. The Texans chose pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick. It’s more rare to see a receiver selected with the first pick these days but the Texans should have made an exception here. Sure, they already have an elite receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, but that actually leads to my point.
Just imagine Hopkins and Beckham together. Houston has had some trouble in finding a quarterback to run their offense for quite a while now. Selecting a player like Beckham with Hopkins already on the roster means you could put anyone under center and have success.
Clowney has been a bit of a bust thus far for the Texans. He tore his meniscus in his first regular season game, ending his rookie season, and did not record his first sack until October this year. Had the Texans selected OBJ with the first pick and possibly Derek Carr in the second round, I believe that they would be on top of the AFC right now with a clear path to the playoffs.
14. Ezekiel Ansah – 2013 (Trade to Cleveland Browns)
Original Pick – Eric Fisher
The 2013 draft class was less than stellar to say the least. The Chiefs selected first but after having six players named to the Pro Bowl the year prior, they should’ve never been there. After making a trade with the 49ers for quarterback Alex Smith, it would’ve been wise for the Chiefs to trade their top pick to move back and regain some picks they lost in the Smith trade.
What better team to make a trade with on draft day than the Cleveland Browns? Seriously, have you seen “Draft Day?” It’s not a movie of total fiction when you really stop and think about it.
The Browns would go on to select pass rusher Barkevious Mingo after the Lions selected Ezekiel Ansah with the pick before them. Mingo has been a disappointment for the Browns, while Ansah has been an animal for the Lions defense. Ansah has 27 total sacks in less than three seasons.
A trade with the Chiefs would have made sense for both teams. The Browns would have received the best pass rusher of the draft and one of the best in the league. The Chiefs could have possibly still landed with Eric Fisher, who they did select first. If not, there were other viable options for the Chiefs to choose from to start on their front line.
13. Russell Wilson – 2012
Original Pick – Andrew Luck
This was the year of the quarterback. Three were three selected within the top 8 of the draft and five would start for their respective teams in Week 1. However, it should have been one that fell all the way to the third round that should have been selected by the Colts with the top pick. Critics will say that Russell Wilson doesn’t fit the scheme of the Colts as he does with the Hawks and that Andrew Luck has been exceptional for the Colts. Both are great points but the truth is Russell Wilson has done more (and is doing more) than Luck with less to work with on offense.
Luck has taken the Colts to the AFC Championship but Wilson is the first QB of this class to win a Super Bowl and go to another. Throw in the fact that Luck has regressed some this season, battling injuries, Wilson has shown that he has become the dominant quarterback of the 2012 draft. People that think Russell Wilson can’t throw are simply mistaken.
Look at the flick of the wrist. Look at the flick of the wrist.
12. J.J. Watt – 2011 (Trade to Buffalo Bills)
Original Pick – Cam Newton
In 2011, there were no clear no.1 options to choose from like in year’s past. A various amount of players could’ve been selected first overall. The Panthers did right by selecting Cam Newton, despite what critics thought. They could have done even better had they made a trade out of the top spot with the Buffalo Bills.
With Denver going defense with the no.2 pick, the Panthers would’ve still gotteb their guy had they made a draft day trade with Buffalo, who was selecting third. Buffalo chose defensive end Marcell Dareus from Alabama, who is a Pro Bowler, but he’s not J.J. Watt. Watt has been indestructible since he joined the NFL. He’s already won Defensive Player of the Year twice in his career.
11. Ndamukong Suh – 2010
Original Pick – Sam Bradford
Six of the first seven players selected in the 2010 draft have been invited to the Pro Bowl. The only one not to have been invited? You guessed it. Top overall pick, Sam Bradford.
It would seem that in drafts after the 2010 season the Rams, successfully, have focused on building their defense. However, they could’ve solved a lot of those problems by drafting Ndamukong Suh first overall in 2010. The term “beast” comes to mind whenever speaking of Suh. He was an absolute terror in Detroit and earned the richest contract for a defensive lineman this past offseason with the Dolphins.
Bradford never lived up to the hype in St. Louis and could never stay on the field. In a thin year at QB, the Rams could’ve selected him later on, even trading back into the first round, if truly necessary. The Rams eventually traded Bradford for Nick Foles. So the Rams still have no one. Suh could’ve been the dominant force of the Rams’ rising defense.
10. Joe Thomas – 2007
Original Pick – JaMarcus Russell
Picking anyone over JaMarcus Russell would’ve been an upgrade over what the Raiders got with him in 2007. Two names come to mind to improve a dreadful Oakland team from a year before. The first, former Big Ten offensive tackle Joe Thomas. Thomas has become one of the greatest tackles to ever play the game and a guaranteed future Hall of Famer. He’s been named to the Pro Bowl every season he’s been in the league. Great tackles are few and far between and the Raiders missed an opportunity at one of the greats for years to come.
You could also make the argument for Calvin Johnson here. There were 16 eventual Pro Bowlers in that first round, so the Raiders probably would’ve been better off just picking a name out of a hat.
9. Lawrence Taylor – 1981
Original Pick – George Rogers
Ask any Hall of Famer who wasn’t taken first overall and they’ll probably say it bothered them that they weren’t picked first. While the 1981 Saints made a solid pick in running back George Rogers, this is L.T. we’re talking about. The Saints would’ve had a leader on defense for a long time and could’ve built around the greatest linebacker in the game. What’s got to be more painful for Saints fans is that Taylor went second overall to the Giants. For all his off-field troubles, L.T. Any time a Hall of Famer slips through your fingers, you know you’ve made a mistake.
8. Aaron Rodgers – 2005
Original Pick – Alex Smith
In 2005, the 49ers desperately needed a quarterback so they drafted one. They got that part right, but picked the wrong one. The Niners went with former Ute Alex Smith when they undoubtedly should’ve gone with Aaron Rodgers, who was drafted later in the first round by the Packers to be groomed into succeeding Brett Favre. That wrong move by the Niners has kept them in search for an elite quarterback, one they have not had since the days of Steve Young.
Meanwhile, the opposite can be said for the Pack as they have not had a quarterback issue in over 20 years…must be nice.
7. Troy Polamalu – 2003
Original Pick – Carson Palmer
In 2002, Cincinnati chose free safety Lamont Thomas in the second round. If they waited just one more year to help their secondary they could’ve gotten one of the hardest hitters the game has ever seen. Instead, they went with another USC alum. Carson Palmer never really fit in with the Bengals and was a bit overrated the majority of his career. It wasn’t until Palmer landed with his current team, the Cardinals, did he really start showing signs of his number one potential.
Polamalu went on to have an incredible career with Cincinnati’s division rival, the Steelers. It’s highly uncommon to see players stick with one team their entire careers these days but that shows how important Polamalu was to the Steelers. He was elected to the Pro Bowl just about every year and is a former Defensive Player of the Year. Polamalu could’ve easily been one of the most hated people in Pittsburgh instead of the most loved.
6. Julius Peppers – 2002
Original Pick – David Carr
The Texans dropped the ball in 2002 with their first selection. There were two names from this draft worthy of the number one spot. The first is the guy that went next to Carolina, Julius Peppers. Carolina had to be saying “thank you” aloud to the Texans when they drafted David Carr first overall. It was pretty naive of the Texans to think that as an expansion team they needed to draft a franchise quarterback immediately. Even if they really did feel that they needed a quarterback in this draft, they could’ve waited a few rounds and selected a guy like David Garrard. The rush for a quarterback though was a bit absurd.
Carr would become a bust for the Texans. He never really had a chance with a porous offensive line and a team depleted of talent. That’s no spot for a young QB. Peppers meanwhile, has gone onto to win every defensive award possible and is still playing. Peppers stint with the Panthers ended in 2009 after he signed with the Bears but he left a lasting impression in Carolina. He helped them reach the Super Bowl in 2003 and the NFC Championship game two years later.
5. Torry Holt – 1999
Original Pick – Tim Couch
The Browns making a draft error? No way! Much like the expansion Texans had no business throwing a rookie into the fire, the new Cleveland Browns shouldn’t have hot-shotted to a quarterback. Instead they should have focused on building their talent pool and groom a young guy to eventually take over.
One guy that could’ve helped their eventual franchise QB would’ve been a top receiver like Torry Holt. Holt was a seven-time Pro Bowler and led the league in receiving twice. He was an essential piece to the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” and could have electrified the Dog Pound. Couch was a bust in Cleveland, but it’s hard to think that any rookie QB could have succeeded for an expansion team.
The 1995 Panthers and Jaguars both went with veterans under center as expansion teams and both made deep playoff runs in their second year as NFL franchises.
4. Tom Brady – 2000 (Trade to New York Jets)
Original Pick – Courtney Brown
If Steelers fans would be upset about a possible Polamalu to Bengals scenario, Patriots fans would be outraged at the possibility of their beloved Tom Brady strutting in a Jets uniform. However, it’s not out of reach as initially thought. Had Brady had the same hype as Peyton Manning coming out of college, the Jets, who are never shy to move up for a player, could have made a deal with the Browns to grab the number one spot and select Brady. The Browns could have even selected Brady here instead of Tim Couch the previous season. Instead, they too swung and missed in back-to-back seasons of holding the number one spot. In 2000, they chose a defensive end from Penn State, Courtney Brown. He hasn’t been seen or heard from again. At least not on a football field.
The Jets, meanwhile, were the first team in the 2000 NFL Draft to choose a quarterback. Chad Pennington was a “good” quarterback in his own right but lacked the athleticism to make him one of the elite. Brady slipped through the NFL cracks, falling all the way to the sixth round and in the lap of Bill Belichick and the Patriots. You know the rest.
3. Warren Sapp – 1995
Original Pick – Ki-Jana Carter
It seems that the Cincinnati Bengals know what their needs are but they choose the wrong years to put an emphasis on those needs. In 1994, the Bengals chose defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson with the first pick and running back Ki-Jana Carter in 1995. Had they swapped the positions chosen in those drafts, they could’ve selected Warren Sapp with the top pick in 1995. A Miami product, Sapp stayed in state instead as he was drafted by Tampa Bay at no.12. The Bucs were the clear winners in ’95, drafting Hall of Famers Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks in the first round. Both were declared NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year during their careers and led the Bucs to win the Super Bowl in 2002.
Coming from Miami, Sapp of course was “vocal” like the majority of his Hurricane teammates and players before him. The Canes were built on swagger and Sapp did not disappoint in that category, running his mouth and getting in the heads of opponents at any opportunity he had. The Bengals could’ve really used a guy like Sapp as they never seemed to have a true leader throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century. Instead, the Bengals selected running back Ki-Jana Carter, who was considered a bust based from his injury problems. Carter lasted only seven complete seasons in the NFL and it’s a surprise it was that long.
2. Emmitt Smith – 1990
Original Pick – Jeff George
The Colts didn’t know it yet, but their running back Eric Dickerson was heading for a decline in the 90s. Indianapolis found themselves picking first and like many people, fell in love with Jeff George’s size and arm strength. Like many teams, they also thought Emmitt Smith was not big enough, strong enough or fast enough to become an elite NFL running back.
The Colts went with George and Smith would fall all the way to 17, where the Cowboys traded up to get him. The Colts could’ve built a dynamic backfield of Dickerson and Smith and waited on a quarterback.
1. Marshall Faulk – 1994
Original Pick – Dan Wilkinson
Cincinnati this. Cleveland that. The more I write this article the more I want to change the title to “The Epic Sports Fails of Ohio.” With so many incredible players coming out during the mid 1990s, it’s a shame really how much Cincinnati and Cleveland missed out on all that talent. Who knows? Maybe if Cleveland had selected a few good players and had been competitive the Baltimore Ravens may not exist. With so many scenarios to go about choosing among future NFL stars, one has to wonder who was evaluating the talent and where did they come from? Was baseball their primary sport? With the amount of swing and a miss moments I counted one may think so.
Cincinnati kicked off their whiffing process by NOT selecting Marshall Faulk in 1994 and going defense instead. It would be the domino effect as it led to more errors from Bengals management. The Colts snatched up Faulk’s services with the second pick. He immediately made an impact. As a rookie, Faulk rushed for over 1,000 yards and was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. He was also selected to the Pro Bowl as a rookie and became the first rookie to win Pro Bowl MVP. The Colts traded Faulk in 1999 to St. Louis, where he helped the Rams get their one and only Super Bowl victory. Faulk was named to seven Pro Bowls, a two-time NFL MVP, and a three-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year. In 2011, he was inducted to the NFL Hall of Fame. If only the Bengals and Browns management teams had a time machine.
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