In every NFL Draft, there are busts and bad choices. Even in the First Round, some players just don’t make it. But what if you could put together a perfect draft class? It got us thinking about the best player selected at every spot in the draft, at least in the First Round. What would that draft class look like? Well, we can wonder no more because we’ve put together such a list. Obviously, some of these were easier to choose than others. Surprisingly, the higher the pick, the more options there seemed to be, go figure.
After making a few hard decisions, here is the perfect draft class, the best player ever selected in the top 32 spots in the draft.
32. Logan Mankings, 2005, New England Patriots
It’s only fitting that the best player ever drafted with the last pick of the first round by a member of the Patriots. After all, New England has practically made a living of being the last team to make a selection. They also tend to make good use of that pick.
Mankings, of course, is no exception to that. He went to seven Pro Bowls during his career as an offensive lineman, including a string of five in a row during his time with the Patriots. The kicker is that the Patriots somehow didn’t win a Super Bowl with Mankings. They won back-to-back titles before he was drafted and won the year after he was traded to Tampa. However, he’s still remembered as one of the all-time great New England linemen.
31. Nnamdi Asomugha, 2003, Raiders
This is a close call because you could also make a strong argument for both Greg Olsen and Cameron Heyward. But we’ll give the nod to Asomugha, who spent half a decade as one of the top shutdown cornerbacks in the NFL. Those can be tough to find.
Asomugha was named to either the first or second-team team All-Pro on four occasions, yet was only invited to three Pro Bowls. He spent all of his best years with the Raiders despite playing elsewhere later in his career and is still considered to be one of the best defensive backs in franchise history.
30. Sam Huff, 1956, Giants
Pickings are surprisingly slim at the 30th overall spot in the draft, so we had to reach all the way back to 1956 when the 30th pick was in the Third Round. It’s there we find Huff, a Hall of Fame linebacker who was born and raised in West Virginia and played for his home state Mountaineers being going to the NFL.
Huff spent his first season on a coaching staff that included both Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. In fact, Landry came up with the 4-3 scheme to help find a spot for Huff, who was talented but didn’t have an obvious position. Huff ultimately became a middle linebacker, helping the Giants win the NFL Championship Game as a rookie, being named an All-Pro six times, and earning a spot on the 1950’s NFL All-Decade Team.
29. Nick Mangold, Jets, 2006
What were the Jets doing drafting this late in the First Round? Well, they had the fourth overall pick that year based on merit but traded John Abraham to get a second pick later in the First Round. But seriously, the Jets hit the goldmine when they took Mangold 29th overall in 2006.
Mangold anchored the New York offensive line for a full decade. He started all 16 games as a rookie, made his first of seven Pro Bowls in his third season, and rarely missed a game over the next decade. To this day, any NFL team would love to clone Mangold and make him their center for 10 years. The Jets did great with this pick and the trade that gave it to them.
28. Derrick Brooks, 1995, Buccaneers
This was one of the most difficult choices of this fictitious draft. It was virtually a tossup between Brooks and cornerback Darrell Green. In the end, Green had one more Super Bowl ring but Brooks had a better overall resume.
Brooks spent all 14 seasons of his career playing with the Bucs, becoming the heart and soul of one of the best defensive teams of that era. He was a 9-time All-Pro and an 11-time Pro Bowler, even making it in his 14th and final season in the league. Green was nearly as impressive, as both are Hall of Famers and members of an All-Decade Team, but Brooks was just a little better.
27. Dan Marino, 1983, Dolphins
This pick was no contest and it always will be. Marino will likely be remembered as the best quarterback to never win a Super Bowl. He almost single-handedly made the Dolphins relevant for long stretches of his 17-year career. It’s actually amazing that he remained on the board until the 27th pick, even in a draft that included a few other quarterbacks of note.
Marino still owns about a dozen NFL records, including the most wins by a starting quarterback on Monday Night Football, meaning he shined under the brightest lights. He also retired owning a couple dozen other records and should never be overlooked in the conversation about the top quarterbacks of all-time.
26. Ray Lewis, 1996, Ravens
This was another easy one because there are few linebackers in the history of the game that are in the same category as Lewis. Few played the game with more passion and intensity, and that’s a big part of what made Lewis a steal for the Ravens in the 1996 Draft, making him the team’s second-ever draft pick.
Most viewed Lewis as a little bit small for an inside linebacker, which is why he was only the fifth linebacker taken that year. But he proved people wrong, going to 13 Pro Bowls in 16 seasons, becoming a 10-time All-Pro and being one of the few defensive players to ever be named Super Bowl MVP. That’s on top of being the league’s Defensive Player of the Year twice.
25. Ted Washington, 1991, 49ers
To be honest, there weren’t that many great options 25th overall, so we gave some consideration to Tim Tebow. Just kidding, both Dont’a Hightower and Santonio Holmes made a decent argument, but we went back to 1991 to find Washington. He wasn’t an instant star and was actually close to being considered a bust after his first four seasons in the league.
But in 1995, Washington moved to Buffalo, and the roughly 375-pound lineman turned his career around. He wasn’t there when the Bills lost four straight Super Bowls, but he became a big part of the Buffalo defense, helping eat up blockers to free up Bruce Smith. For his efforts, Washington was named to the Pro Bowl four times and earned a Super Bowl ring as a key contributor to the Patriots in 2013.
24. Aaron Rodgers, 2005, Packers
With all due respect to Ed Reed, Rodgers is the only option at this spot. He’s arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, and yet he was available all the way until the 24th pick in the First Round. The ultimate irony is that the Packers didn’t even need a quarterback at the time, enabling them to keep Rodgers on the bench for a few years.
Of course, when Rodgers finally got on the field, he was more than ready. He’s won two MVP awards and owns countless NFL records, including the best pass rating in NFL history and the lowest interception percentage in league history. One could argue that drafting Rodgers 24th is the best value pick in the history of the draft.
23. Ray Guy, 1973, Raiders
It’s not always wise to take a punter with the 23rd overall pick, but Guy is the obvious exception. He was the first pure punter to reach the Hall of Fame and considered the greatest punter in the history of the game. That’s why he barely edges out the likes of Ty Law and Ozzie Newsome as the best no. 23 pick of all-time.
In addition to making seven Pro Bowls and eight All-Pro teams, Guy revolutionized punting. He’s the reason we keep track of hang time on punts and why modern punters try to prevent any return at all. During his career with the Raiders, he was just as valuable as any other player on the roster and a big part of the franchise winning three Super Bowls during his career.
22. Andre Rison, 1989, Colts
There were a few options here, including Demaryius Thomas and Tebucky Jones, but Rison gets the nod. Most people don’t remember that he spent the first year of his career with the Colts, who used him in a trade package to get Jeff George as the top pick in the 1990 draft.
Ironically, the Colts would later trade George to the Falcons, where he spent a season with Rison. His five years in Atlanta became his longest tenure with any team and the best years of his career. He had over 1,000 yards receiving in four of those five years. He ended his career with over 10,000 receiving yards and five Pro-Bowl selections.
21. Randy Moss, 1998, Vikings
Lynn Swann was a close second for this pick, but let’s be honest, it’s hard to go with anyone but Moss. Of course, his legal and off-field issues are the only reasons he dropped as far as 21st overall. Otherwise, he would have been a top-5 pick for sure.
The Vikings, to their credit, took a chance on Moss and were rewarded. During his seven seasons in Minnesota, Moss led the league in touchdown catches three times. As we know, he went on to set the single-season NFL record for touchdown catches with 23 during his first season with the Patriots. To date, there may be no better receiver in the history of the game in terms of pure talent than Moss.
20. Jack Youngblood, 1971, Rams
Youngblood gives us another old-school pick, out-performing every other 20th overall pick for over 40 years. He actually started out his career backing up the great Deacon Jones, but soon got his chance and made the most of it. The Rams ended up trading Jones to make way for Youngblood to take over.
Despite being a little undersized, even by 1970s standards, Youngblood was strong and quick, not to mention tough. He spent the 1979 playoffs playing with a broken fibula and even played in the Pro Bowl with it after the Rams lost the Super Bowl. He was NFL Defensive Player of the Year on two occasions, a member of the 1970s All-Decade Team, and truly one of a kind.
19. Marvin Harrison, 1996, Colts
The choice at number 19 is almost impossible. It comes down to Harrison, one of the best wide receivers of all time, and Randall McDaniel, one of the best offensive linemen of all time. But the edge goes to Harrison, in part because he out-performed a draft class loaded with wide receivers. Among the likes of Keyshawn Johnson, Terrell Owens, Joe Horn, Terry Glenn, Amani Toomer, and other, Harrison was the best.
Few receivers in the game’s history played with such class and grace while being so dominant at the same time. He still holds the NFL record for receptions in a single season, and that’s just one of over two dozen NFL records that Harrison shares or holds.
18. Art Monk, 1980, Redskins
Between Monk and Marvin Harrison, we have two former Syracuse wide receivers going back-to-back, which is an oddity, especially since they were separated by 16 years. Monk was undoubtedly the best wide receiver in Redskins history, and arguably the best player of any position in franchise history.
Somehow, Monk was only selected to three Pro Bowls during his career. However, he made the 1980s All-Decade Team and was an important part of three Washington teams that won the Super Bowl, so it’s safe to say the Redskins got their money’s worth with this pick.
17. Emmitt Smith, 1990, Cowboys
The Cowboys should thank their lucky stars that the Bengals took linebacker James Francis, who’s the player Dallas really wanted in the First Round in 1990. Instead, they had to settle for Smith, who some believed was too small and too slow to replicate his college success with the Florida Gators in the NFL.
Of course, sometimes scouts get it wrong, and that was surely the case with Smith. He led the NFL in rushing four times and rushing touchdowns four times. He’s now the all-time leader in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, although, in fairness, he also has the most rushing attempts in league history. Of course, that’s a testament to Smith’s durability and longevity. Just for good measure, Smith has an MVP award and three Super Bowl rings.
16. Jerry Rice, 1985, 49ers
In a way, you have to feel bad for Troy Polamalu. He’d be the obvious choice at 16th overall if it wasn’t for the greatest wide receiver of all time. Oddly enough, Rice went first overall in the USFL Draft but waited until 16th overall in the NFL Draft, as the 49ers grabbed him right before the rival Cowboys intended to draft him.
The rest, as they say, is history. Rice led the NFL in both receiving and touchdowns in his second season, quickly establishing himself among the game’s elite. He would end up spending 21 seasons in the NFL, finishing his career with the most receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns in NFL history, all of which are records that could stand for a long time.
15. Alan Page, 1967, Vikings
If you need a great defensive player, the 15th overall pick might be the place to find him. The likes of Derrick Johnson and Jason Pierre-Paul have also been selected 15th overall, although they don’t quite measure up to Page, one of the top defensive tackles to ever play the game.
Page was just one part of the famous People Purple Eaters defense in Minnesota, but he was arguably the most important part of a group known for getting after opposing quarterbacks. He spent 15 years in the league, which is a long time to be playing in the trenches. Along the way, he made the Pro Bowl nine times and won MVP honors in 1971. As an encore, Page spent over 20 years as an Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
14. Jim Kelly, 1983, Bills
In the never-ending feud between quarterbacks and cornerbacks, we’ve chosen the quarterback Kelly over the cornerback Darrelle Revis as the best no. 14 pick of all-time. Of course, Kelly initially played with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL before coming to Buffalo, a place he didn’t want to end up heading into the 1983 Draft.
However, all is well that ends well, almost. Kelly would lead the Bills to four straight Super Bowls, albeit four losses. Nevertheless, he became a Hall of Famer and a Bills legend during his 11 seasons in Buffalo and remains one of the most revered quarterbacks of his generation.
13. Tony Gonzalez, 1997, Chiefs
It wasn’t easy leaving off 11-time Pro Bowler Bob Lilly, a member of two NFL All-Decade Teams. However, there’s only one Tony Gonzalez, who one could argue is the best tight end of all time. Even if no. 13 feels a little early to take a tight end, Gonzalez was surely worth it.
Somehow, Gonzalez kept his body in shape long enough to play 17 seasons, missing just two games during that time. In those 17 years, he was selected to 14 Pro Bowls, which is tied for the most all-time. More importantly, Gonzalez owns almost every other NFL record among tight ends, including receptions and yards.
12. Warren Sapp, 1995, Buccaneers
Sapp definitely had some good competition at this spot from guys like Haloti Ngata and Marshawn Lynch. But there are few interior linemen who could impact a game the way Sapp did. He wasn’t just about eating up blockers and paving the way for other players, he made plenty of amazing plays himself.
As most people know, Sapp picked up plenty of fines and was once ejected from a game. However, that side of him only existed because he wanted to play harder and hit harder than anyone else. During the prime of his career, Sapp went to seven straight Pro Bowls. In total, he wracked up nearly 100 career sacks, which is incredible for an interior lineman.
11. JJ Watt, 2011, Texans
This spot is nearly impossible to pick. Quarterbacks Frank Gifford and Ben Roethlisberger were an option, as was wide receiver Michael Irvin. But how do you not go with a guy like Watt, who has such an amazing football story, makes such an impact on the field, and is such an incredible person off the field?
Think about this, Watt began his college career at Central Michigan as a tight end before having to walk-on at Wisconsin. From there, he became an All-American, was drafted 11th overall, and won NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors three times. With all due respect to Gifford, Roethlisberger, and Irvin, getting Watt 11th overall is the best value.
10. Marcus Allen, 1982, Raiders
This was another impossible decision because Rod Woodson, Jerome Bettis, Herman Moore and a couple of other players were excellent choices at no. 10 overall. On the other hand, there’s only one Marcus Allen.
He’s one of the few players to win the Heisman one year and Rookie of the Year the next year. Allen also led the NFL in rushing touchdowns as a rookie and did so again over a decade later. In between, he won MVP, Super Bowl MVP, and went to six Pro Bowls on his way to over 12,000 yards rushing and a spot in the Hall of Fame.
9. Bruce Matthews, 1983, Oilers
This pick is close to a coin flip between Matthews and Brian Urlacher, but in the end, we put the quarter away and just went with Matthews. There just haven’t been many offensive linemen like him in the history of the game, and certainly no one who had the same kind of longevity and durability.
For starters, Matthews played 293 NFL games, the second-most in NFL history. He’s also tied for the most Pro Bowl selections with 14. If that wasn’t enough, he started games at all five positions on the offensive line. Matthews had the kind of versatility that’s rarely seen in linemen these days. He was even the snapper on special teams, so his value on an NFL roster is off the charts.
8. Willie Roaf, 1993, Saints
In fairness, Ronnie Lott gave Roaf a run for his money. But it’s so difficult to find quality offensive linemen, especially ones that played at a high level for over a decade. Roaf made the Pro Bowl in 11 of his 13 seasons and started all 189 games of his career.
Despite being lightly recruited coming out of high school, Roaf made a name for himself at Louisiana Tech, so the fact that he was able to work his way into being a top-10 draft pick is impressive. Even more impressive is his presence on two different All-Decade Teams, showing just how dominant of a lineman he was throughout his career.
7. Adrian Peterson, 2007, Vikings
The competition is fierce at the no. 7 spot, but Peterson gets the edge over the likes of Champ Bailey, Sterling Sharpe, and Phil Simms, which isn’t exactly bad company. The fact that Peterson is still playing in 2019 doesn’t hurt his case. He has continued to be a valuable part of NFL teams deep into his 30’s, which is something few running backs can say.
After winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, Peterson went on to lead the NFL in rushing three times and win NFL MVP honors in 2012. At this point, he’s the old man in the backfield just hanging on, but when he was first drafted, Peterson was arguably the best player in his class and one of the biggest difference-makers in the league during his first seven seasons.
6. Jim Brown, 1957, Browns
The no. 6 pick was going to be one Brown or another, but we can all agree that even the great Tim Brown doesn’t hold a candle to Jim Brown. After all, a lot of people still consider Brown to be the best player in football history.
Brown only played what must have seemed like nine short seasons in the NFL. He made the Pro Bowl in all nine seasons and was a First-Team All-Pro in eight of them. Brown led the NFL in rushing eight of those nine years and rushing touchdowns in five of the nine seasons. He was an athletic freak who was a four-sport star during his college years at Syracuse and is arguably the best lacrosse player who ever lived in addition to being the finest football player of all time.
5. Deion Sanders, 1989, Falcons
It’s so difficult to leave the late Junior Seau off this list. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson also has a compelling argument. But there was only one Prime Time. As an athlete, Sanders was something special, and even if you take away the fact that he was often double-dipping as both a football and baseball player, his NFL career was something special.
Sanders was one of the best lockdown cornerbacks of his day, making him an 8-time Pro Bowler and 8-time First-Team All-Pro selection. He had 53 career interceptions, nine of which he high-stepped back for a touchdown. But he was also a dangerous player on special teams, returning six punts and three kickoffs for a touchdown during his career. Sanders even dabbled on the offensive side of the ball, making an impact in all three phases, which is something few players have ever done.
4. Walter Payton, 1975, Bears
Outside of the no. 1 overall pick, the no. 4 spot might have the biggest collection of candidates for our list. From Charles Woodson to Jonathan Ogden to Mean Joe Greene to the late Derrick Thomas, you can’t go wrong no matter who you pick. However, we thought that Payton was just a smidge ahead of the rest.
Payton spent all 13 of his pro seasons with the Bears, helping Chicago win a Super Bowl and being selected to the Pro Bowl nine times. He won MVP honors in his third pro season and rushed for at least, 1,200 yards 10 times in 13 years. Payton was on the NFL’s 75th anniversary All-Time Team and two All-Decade Teams, and those accomplishments are just too much to top.
3. Barry Sanders, 1989, Lions
Anthony Muñoz made this a little interesting, but anyone who saw Sanders run knows that this is close to a no-contest decision. At just 5’8’’ and 200 pounds dripping wet, Sanders wasn’t exactly known for his size and power. But the guy could stop on a dime and change directions like no other running back in the history of the game.
Despite never winning a Super Bowl during his 10 seasons with the Lions, he did go to the Pro Bowl all 10 seasons. Sanders was also an All-Pro all 10 years and even won MVP honors in his penultimate season. From his first year to his last year, there was no slowing him down. In fact, if you look up the word “elusive” in the dictionary, there’s a decent chance you’ll see his picture.
2. Lawrence Taylor, 1981, Giants
Marshall Faulk was an interesting sleeper for this pick, but it was always going to be a two-horse race between Lawrence Taylor and Eric Dickerson. As good as Dickerson was at running the ball, few defensive players in NFL history made the impact that Taylor did. Flaws and all, he’s the best no. 2 pick of all-time.
Never before had an outside linebacker disrupted opposing offenses the way Taylor did. He actually changed the way that offenses had to attack. Taylor had over 10 sacks in seven consecutive years, including 20.5 to lead the league in 1986. Only he and Alan Page have won MVP honors as a defensive player. He went to 10 Pro Bowls in 11 seasons and helped the Giants to two Super Bowl wins.
1. Peyton Manning, 1998, Colts
How can you possibly separate Manning from quarterbacks like John Elway or Troy Aikman, or even an athletic freak like Bo Jackson, who were all the top-overall pick in the NFL Draft once upon a time? It’s not easy, but Manning had not only physical talents but a mental understanding of the game that was on another level and helps elevate him above most other quarterbacks in NFL history.
Ironically, it was Elway who put together that helped Manning win his second Super Bowl ring in his final season with the Broncos (just like Elway). Prior to that, Manning sent himself to 14 Pro Bowls and won five MVP awards. No one else in NFL history can say the same, which is why Manning stands alone as the best player to ever go no. 1 overall in the NFL Draft.