Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is very likely to go No. 1 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, joining an elite class. While we spend a lot of time focusing on draft busts, most top picks go on to have productive — if not Hall of Fame — careers.
Before we get to the 10 best No. 1 draft picks of all time, it is worth listing a few honorable mentions. (Note: For those you wondering where John Elway is on this list, I did not include players who refused to play for the teams that drafted them; only players that contributed to the teams that selected them.)
Charley Trippi, RB/QB, Georgia
1945 NFL Draft – Chicago Cardinals
Trippi’s eight-year career with the Cardinals was cut short by an injury in a preseason game, but when he retired, he was the NFL’s career leader in total offense. The 98-year-old Hall of Famer now enjoys the distinction of being the oldest living No. 1 draft pick.
Paul Hornung, RB, Notre Dame
1957 NFL Draft – Green Bay Packers
Vince Lombardi did not draft Hornung, but he put him to great use, having him serve as running back, receiver, and placekicker. The all-purpose threat was a crucial part of the Packers’ championship run during the 1960s and he set scoring records in 12-game seasons that were only eclipsed after the NFL season expanded to 16 games.
Orlando Pace, OT, Ohio State
1997 NFL Draft – St. Louis Rams
At left tackle, Pace was as vital a component to the “Greatest Show on Turf” as Kurt Warner or Marshal Faulk. During his Hall of Fame career, he went to seven straight Pro Bowls and was selected for the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team.
Here are the 10 best No. 1 overall selections in NFL draft history:
10. Bill Dudley, RB, Virginia
1942 NFL Draft – Pittsburgh Steelers
During his Hall of Fame career with the Steelers, Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins, Dudley became the only player in NFL history to score a touchdown via a rush, reception, pass, punt return, kickoff return, interception, and fumble recovery. He also kicked PATs and field goals. If he had not missed nearly three seasons of his career to serve in World War II, his stats would be even better.
9. Ron Yary, OT, USC
1968 NFL Draft – Minnesota Vikings
Yary was an anchor on the offensive line of a Vikings team that went to four Super Bowls in the 1970s. In addition to being inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, Yary was voted NFC Offensive Lineman of the Year from 1973-75 by the NFL Players Association.
8. Lee Roy Selmon, DE, Oklahoma
1976 NFL Draft – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The 1976 and ‘77 Buccaneers teams that lost 26 straight games are considered to be the worst of all time. Imagine how much worse they would have been without Selmon on the field. The Hall of Famer went to the Pro Bowl from 1979-84 before a back injury forced him to retire.
7. Troy Aikman, QB, UCLA
1989 NFL Draft – Dallas Cowboys
To quote Reggie Jackson, Aikman was “the straw that stirred the drink” on a Cowboys offense that won three Super Bowls in four seasons in the 1990s. His 90 wins in that decade are the third most by any quarterback in a decade after Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
6. Bruce Smith, DE, Virginia Tech
1985 NFL Draft – Buffalo Bills
It is hard to imagine the Bills going to four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s without Smith. During his 19-year career, he was a measure of consistency and retired as the all-time NFL sack leader with 200 quarterback takedowns.
5. O.J. Simpson, RB, USC
1969 NFL Draft – Buffalo Bills
I will say two things here: 1) If you haven’t watched ESPN’s five-part 30 for 30 documentary, “O.J.: Made in America,” you should do so immediately, and 2) His play from 1972-76 could only be rivaled by Jim Brown.
4. Chuck Bednarik, LB/C
1949 NFL Draft – Philadelphia Eagles
The last full-time two-way player in NFL history set a standard for toughness that no player since has embodied. I usually bristle when someone older than me calls my generation soft, but when Chuck Bednarik said it, I believed him.
3. Terry Bradshaw, QB, Louisiana Tech
1970 NFL Draft – Pittsburgh Steelers
Bradshaw led the Steelers to four Super Bowls in six seasons and did so in a variety of ways. As one of the last quarterbacks in NFL history to call his own plays, Bradshaw beat the Vikings in Super Bowl IX calling a conservative rushing attack and then took to the air to win the last three.
2. Earl Campbell, RB, Texas
1978 NFL Draft – Houston Oilers
Campbell’s arrival immediately turned the Oilers into Super Bowl contenders and they played the Steelers for the AFC championship in his first two seasons. Sadly, his punishing style of running could not sustain itself and he only played eight seasons. His performance during that time was great enough to put him in the Hall of Fame.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Tennessee
1998 NFL Draft – Indianapolis Colts
The first player to win a Super Bowl as the starting quarterback with two different teams retired as the all-time career leader in passing yards and touchdown passes. The Associated Press also named him NFL MVP a record five times.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.