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Greatest No. 1 Picks In NFL Draft History | Will Caleb Williams Join Them?

Continuing on with our vibes of positivity after a couple of negative NFL Draft lists, we’re discussing greatness today. Not just pretty good, or guys who exceeded some draft projections — no, these are the guys who went first in their drafts and lived up to every expectation. These are the players you think of when you get the first overall pick and start hoping for the best. Now let’s get into the greatest No. 1 overall picks in NFL Draft history. We’re focusing on post-merger NFL Draft picks — aka from 1970 on. Sorry, He Who Will Not Be Named, you just missed the cut-off by one year.

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Greatest No. 1 Picks In NFL Draft History

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Honorable Mentions: Earl Campbell, Myles Garrett, Lee Roy Selmon, Troy Aikman

Maybe I’ll annoy some by including Garrett among the honorable mentions, but I feel pretty good about his place in NFL history moving forward. Deserved or not, he just won his first Defensive Player of the Year in 2023 and has made four straight Pro Bowls — plus three First-Team All-Pros. That’s already a Hall of Fame trajectory, and the number of Hall of Fame No. 1 overall picks is not as high as you may think.

The other three are all widely appreciated; they simply lacked either the longevity or individual accolades of the top 5. Campbell is the closest, but his career was crazy short (though he won three Offensive Player of the Year awards in just six full NFL seasons).

Now onto the true top 5 best No. 1 overall picks in NFL Draft History.

5. Terry Bradshaw, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers (1970)

We start off with the very first draft pick post-merger, Terry Bradshaw out of Louisiana Tech. What I love about Bradshaw, aside from the fact he is now a media icon, is that his numbers are maybe the least impressive of any quarterback generally regarded as all-time great. Troy Aikman and his coattail riding have nothing on Bradshaw; the original tagalong was the flowing yet somehow also thinning golden locks of the Steelers franchise signal-caller.

Here are the career stats for Bradshaw: 158 starts, just four seasons over 2,600 yards passing, 212 touchdowns to 210 interceptions, 51.9% completion and more years with 20 picks than years with 20 touchdowns.

And yet, throughout his prime, the Steelers had one of the best offenses in football. Yes, the defense was elite and got Bradshaw the ball a lot. Yes, he had a Hall of Fame back in Franco Harris. And yes, on paper there isn’t that strong an argument for Bradshaw over Aikman. After all, Bradshaw was no better than the third-best quarterback of the 1970s, same as Aikman for the ’90s.

But Bradshaw has an MVP. Bradshaw has four Super Bowls to Aikman’s three. Bradshaw won Super Bowl MVP in two of those, Aikman only one.

The defense was the Steelers’ calling card, but Bradshaw was their face and their catalyst. When it comes down to it, he was more iconic for his era than most No. 1 picks.

4. Orlando Pace, OT, St. Louis Rams (1997)

The legacy of Orlando Pace is slightly complicated. No self-respecting list of the greatest offensive linemen should ever omit him from at least a mention, but he also was had basically 100% career overlap with two of the other greatest tackles ever in Walter Jones and Jonathan Ogden, and Pace’s accolades ever so slightly trail behind theirs (three First-Team All-Pros to four, seven Pro Bowls to nine-plus).

Here’s the rub: Pace was the cornerstone for the greatest offense of the era. He was the blind side protection for the suddenly MVP-caliber Kurt Warner AND created holes for another MVP in Marshall Faulk. The Rams offense was No. 1 in points and yards three straight seasons (1999 to 2001). Was Pace the entire reason for that? Of course not. Was he a major part of it? Absolutely.

The fact that Pace only has three First-Team All-Pros when Jones and Ogden have four each should not be a slight on Pace.

In fact, it’s amazing that he snagged three while competing with two other top-4 all-time offensive tackles (shoutout Anthony Munoz).

3. John Elway, QB, Baltimore Colts (1983)

Not to be contrarian, but a big part of me wanted to put John Elway at No. 5 — or even off the list entirely. To be clear, no one stopped me from doing that; I could have if I wanted to since it’s my own list. Rather, I came to my senses and chose not to be pedantic for the sake of pedantry.

The arguments against Elway are thus: The Colts took him No. 1, and he refused to play for them. Therefore, the team that drafted him got nothing out of Elway save for a really good offensive tackle in Chris Hinton. If this list specified that it was “Best No. 1 Picks for the Team That Drafted Them,” then Elway wouldn’t make it. But he was a No. 1 overall pick, and he was great.

How great, though? Elway was never at any point in his career — with one exception — considered the best quarterback in the NFL. Granted, he was often considered the second best, and a long run as second-best quarterback is basically how Tom Brady became the GOAT (come at me, Massachusetts). Even when Elway won MVP in 1987, he made Second-Team All-Pro, while Joe Montana took First-Team. Elway never actually won First-Team All-Pro.

However … Elway got the Broncos to their second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth Super Bowls. And while he lost the first three while he was in his prime then partially rode Terrell Davis for the two wins at the end of his career, for at least four years Elway and the Broncos were the team in the AFC. Talent-wise, no one but Dan Marino could stand up to Elway, and his playoff clutch factor cannot be overstated.

Maybe you had to be there to understand Elway. That said, there’s a reason everyone includes him in the top handful of QBs ever, even if the numbers don’t necessarily back it up.

2. Bruce Smith, DE, Buffalo Bills (1985)

Bruce Smith at No. 2 means you almost certainly can guess who No. 1 is. This was harder than I expected, though. Smith’s position isn’t quite the premium one that No. 1’s was, is and will continue to be, but it’s hard to argue that Smith wasn’t at least as good at his job as anyone else in NFL history.

That bears out with his 200 NFL sacks, the most of all-time (two more than Reggie White and 16.5 more than third-place Deacon Jones). He was arguably the best player on the best AFC team of the early 1990s, one that made four straight Super Bowls and lost them all. Smith had at least 10 sacks 13 times (NFL record), won two Defensive Player of the Year awards (1990 and 1996), made 11 Pro Bowls in 12 seasons and took home First-Team All-Pro eight times, fifth most in NFL history.

Basically, if you’re drafting a defensive lineman first overall, this is the dream scenario. It’s what Cleveland hopes Myles Garrett is: Not just great, but great for a really, really long time.

1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts

What’s wild about this being No. 1 — and the reason I considered Smith for the top spot — is that Peyton Manning’s Colts run was actually slightly disappointing, at least in terms of team success.

Look, it’s impossible to argue with four MVPs, a buttload of All-Pros, 12 Pro Bowls and the team’s only two Super Bowl appearances (and one win) since the Colts moved to Indianapolis. Considering Manning was the face of the league for a decade, though, us Colts fans wanted a little bit more.

How much of that was Manning’s fault? Honestly, some. Not all or even most, but definitely some. His playoff lapses were real and well documented, and they offset the regular season production that was unprecedented in his time.

Still, he got the Super Bowl to take the monkey off his back and was a guaranteed top-3 offense throughout his prime, so Manning has to be higher than Marino on any all-time great list. At this point, the only names that can definitely go in front of him are Tom Brady, Joe Montana and probably Patrick Mahomes before too long. Maybe also Johnny Unitas for some old spice and to keep my grandpa from calling me. And none of those guys were first overall picks, so yay for Peyton, No. 1. He also really gave back to the community …

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