Best Draft Picks in NFL History

By Eric Williams
Updated: April 28, 2006

PHILADELPHIA—With the NFL daft quickly approaching, I figured this would be a perfect time to write a column focusing on the best draft selections of all-time. The only criteria I have for this column is that the player selected can’t be a first round pick and that the player greatly surpassed the expectations that were predicted for them prior to their being drafted and went on to achieve a measure of greatness that no one could have ever predicted. So, without further delay, here are the greatest NFL draft selections of all-time.

  1. Joe Montana (third round 1979)

Montana is arguably the greatest NFL quarterback of all-time – although, I personally favor the Miami Dolphins’ Dan Marino. Montana led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl titles and was named MVP in three of them. Pretty good for a guy drafted in the third round.

The Cincinnati Bengals selected former Washington State QB, Jack Thompson (who?), with the third overall selection that year, which as we all know was a decision that altered their future for decades.

Former San Francisco head coach, Bill Walsh obviously saw something in Montana that no one else saw that year, because, while Montana wasn’t the biggest, flashiest or even the fastest quarterback prospect to come out of college that year – he was certainly the smartest (along with Phil Simms).

39 times, Montana passed for more than 300 yards in a game and seven times he surpassed 400 yards. His six 300-yard passing performances in the postseason are an NFL record and he also owns the career playoff record for attempts, completions, touchdowns, and yards gained passing.

I believe that Montana is, hands-down, the greatest draft selection of all-time.

  1. Tom Brady (sixth round 2000)

Speaking of the 49ers, they probably could have used Bill Walsh’s keen eye in 2000 when they selected former Hofstra quarterback, Giovanni Carmazzi (remember him) in the third round with the 65th overall selection. Ten picks later, the Baltimore Ravens selected Chris Redman – and both teams – along with a lot of others – have been kicking themselves ever since.

All Brady, who was taken in the sixth round with the 199th overall selection, has done is lead the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles and earn himself a Super Bowl MVP. Brady’s highly successful young career, which still has quite a few years left, makes him one of the greatest draft selections of all time.

  1. Johnny Unitas (ninth round 1955)

After my wonderful conversation with the Hall of Famer in Philadelphia back in 1996, I will forever be thankful for having met Johnny U., whom I can unequivocally say, has been one of the greatest and most pleasant people that I have ever interviewed in my entire career.

A ninth-round draft choice of the1955 Pittsburgh Steelers, Unitas was cut before he ever threw a regular season pass in New York. Incredibly, Unitas then played semi-pro football for $6 a game before former Baltimore Colts head coach Weeb Ewbank found out about a “prospect” on the Pittsburgh sandlots and signed Unitas for $17,000 on a make-the-team basis. When Unitas finally got his chance to play, his very first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown but from that point on, for the next 18 seasons Unitas’ quarterbacking feats were seldom matched in NFL history.

His last-second heroics in the 1958 NFL title game, often called “the greatest game ever played,” turned Unitas into a household name. Unitas passed for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns in his career and his record of at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games may never be broken. Unitas was a first or second team All-NFL choice eight years, selected NFL Player of the Year three times and was named to10 Pro Bowls. All this from a guy who was an almost afterthought when he was drafted by the Giants.

4. Mike Webster (fifth round 1974)

Although Webster, the man I believe is the greatest center of all-time, was a All-Big Ten player and three-years starter at the University of Wisconsin, he lasted until the fifth round in 1974, when the Steelers wisely snatched him up with the 125th overall pick.

From 1975 to 1986, Webster made 150 consecutive starts and became the glue that held the Steelers’ offensive line together for more than a decade.

The four-time Super Bowl champ also played in six AFC championship games and was an all-pro choice seven times. Webster was also selected to the All-AFC team five times from 1978 through 1982 and played in nine Pro Bowls.

For a guy to be taken in the fifth round and become possibly the greatest player of all-time at his position – is almost miraculous.

5. Roger Staubach (tenth round 1964)

I know Staubach won the Heisman Trophy in 1963 following his junior year at the U.S. Naval Academy, however, I thought the Cowboys’ drafting of Staubach was a stroke of genius. You see, every team knew that Staubach wouldn’t be available to play until 1969 – four years after he served his commitment to the Navy and his collegiate career ended, which, obviously scared a lot of teams away.

However, after arriving in Dallas as a 27-year-old rookie, Staubach eventually won the starting job two years later. For the nine seasons he was in command of the potent Cowboys attack, the Cowboys played in six NFC championship games, winning four of them, and recording victories in Super Bowls VI and XII.

6. Bart Starr (seventeenth round 1956)

First of all, for Starr to even make the Packers team as a 17th round draft pick is an incredible feat in itself. The fact that he led the Packers to almost rivaled dominance for nearly a decade is almost unbelievable.

In 1960, Starr led Green Bay to the Western Division championship, which was the first in a long sequence of successes for Starr and the Packers. From 1960 through 1967, Starr’s won-lost record was a sizzling 62-24-4 and the Packers won six divisional titles, five NFL Championships, and the first two Super Bowls.

Starr may not be the greatest quarterback ever, but he is clearly one of the smartest players to play the position and one of the greatest leaders to ever line up under center.

The statistics will never show what Starr brought to the game, but he did lead the league in passing three times and was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1966. He also won MVP honors in both Super Bowls I and II and after their first title loss to Philadelphia in 1960, the Packers never lost another playoff game under Starr – pretty good for a gut picked in the seventeenth round as an after-thought.

7. John Stallworth (fourth round 1974)

Looking back at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dynasty of the 1970s, it’s easy to see why they were so dominant. They basically out-scouted every team in the league for a decade. Not only did guess correctly on some of their early round draft picks, but they struck it rich in the later rounds with Hall of Famers like Webster and Stallworth.

A lot of teams failed to recognize the immense talents of Stallworth who played at tiny, Alabama A&M. The coaches in the 1974 Senior Bowl played him at defensive back, rather than at wide receiver, which also didn’t help either. However, the Steelers brass – and former head coach, Chuck Knoll – knew better – and turned their selection of Stallworth into one of the greatest of all-time.

8. Terrell Davis, Broncos(sixth round 1995)

Before I get into Davis’ vast accomplishments, let me name some of the running backs selected ahead of him in 1995. Ki-Jana Carter (No. 1 overall) Larry Jones, Aaron Hayden and of course, Citadel’s Travis Jervey. Although Davis’ career was cut short because of injuries, a case could be made for him being one of the greatest running backs of all-time. Not only did he lead the Broncos to two consecutive Super Bowl titles, winning MVP honors in Super Bowl XXXII, but he also gained a total of 5,296 yards over a three-season period, including one of 2,00 plus yards.

9. Nick Buoniconti (thirteenth round 1962 AFL draft)

Incredibly, Buoniconti who played both ways at Notre Dame, was ignored by the NFL – and to a certain degree – the AFL as well – although he was eventually taken in the thirteenth round by the Boston Patriots. The 5-11, 220-pound middle linebacker (can you say Zach Thomas) went on to play 14 seasons with the Patriots and the Miami Dolphins and made an immediate impact at linebacker with the Patriots – helping the team capture the 1963 AFL Eastern Division title.

However, it was with my beloved Dolphins that Buoniconti achieved his greatest measure of admiration. The eight-time pro bowler helped the Dolphins reach three consecutive Super Bowls – and win two of them.

“Every play is like life or death,” Buoniconti once said. “I can’t think of anything except the play that is taking place at the moment.”

Maybe that’s exactly what the Patriots saw when they made Buoniconti their selection way back in 1962.

10. Shannon Sharpe (seventh round in 1990)

No matter what you think of Shannon Sharpe as an individual – although he is quite on the arrogant side – much like his brother Sterling – he’s really not that bad. As a three-time Super Bowl winner who played an integral part in all three victories, I couldn’t deny Sharpe’s place in history.

Sharpe helped the Broncos to the league title in 1997 and 1998 and then helped the Baltimore Ravens win the championship in 2000. The eight-time pro bowler finished his 14-year career with 815 receptions for 10,060 yards and 62 touchdowns in 204 games. Sharpe is the NFL’s all-time receptions and yardage leader for a tight-end, as well as the second leading receiver in Denver Broncos history. He also holds the team’s single-game record for receiving yards, with 214 against the Kansas City Chiefs in 2002. Not to shabby for a guy picked in the seventh round.

So, there you have it. The 10 greatest draft picks in NFL history. Remember - one man’s trash can be another man’s treasure – and this list backs it up.