Athlon Sports ranks every No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft since expansion.
The NFL Draft is an inexact science. It always has been and it always will be.
In fact, millions of dollars are poured into travel, scouting, evaluation, interviewing, discussing and debating the merits of Prospect A versus Prospect B in every NFL war room in every NFL Draft.
And still, Tony Mandarich gets picked ahead of Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders.
So having the first overall pick is a huge moment for any franchise. But its also carries with it tremendous pressure not to screw it up — which, of course, still happens frequently.
Dating back to expansion in 1995 when Carolina and Jacksonville joined the NFL, Athlon Sports has ranked and evaluated every No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Some of the names listed below have become the greatest to ever play the game. And others are JaMarcus Russell.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis (1998)
Not only is Manning the best No. 1 overall pick in the draft between 1995-present but he might also be the greatest No. 1 overall pick of all-time. Which, of course, is extremely interesting considering there was healthy debate between Manning and No. 2 overall pick Ryan Leaf at the time of the Colts' selection. Needless to say, Indianapolis made the right choice with the Tennessee Volunteer quarterback.
2. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis (2012)
Maybe it’s something in the water in Indy, but the Colts know what they are doing when they pick atop the draft. Luck is the best pro prospect to enter the NFL since John Elway in the early 1980s and all he has done is post the best two-year start to an NFL career of any quarterback in NFL history. He has Hall of Fame ability and the question isn’t will he win a Super Bowl it's when and how many.
3. Orlando Pace, T, St. Louis (1997)
Pace started 165 of his 169 career games during his Hall of Fame career with the Rams (12 years) and Bears (one year). He went to seven Pro Bowls and was named an All-Pro five times while also leading the Rams to their one and only Super Bowl championship. Pace might be the most physically talented offensive tackle ever to play the game and is one of the league’s all-time greatest players. Kurt Warner most certainly would agree.
4. Eli Manning, QB, San Diego (2004)
Traded from the Chargers to the Giants on draft day, Peyton’s younger brother has lived up the hype of being not only a Manning but the No. 1 overall pick. He was two Super Bowl wins in which he was the driving force. Has he had some inconsistent seasons and turned the ball over a ton? Certainly — but so, too, did Brett Favre. There is little doubt that Manning deserved to be the top pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.
5. Carson Palmer, QB, Cincinnati (2003)
He was a Heisman Trophy winner in college and Pete Carroll has long claimed that if he could construct a QB from scratch, it would be Palmer. The 2005 AFC Player of the Year has throw for nearly 34,000 yards and 213 touchdowns in his 138-game career thus far — in which he's played for three of the traditionally weaker franchises. In just his third year, Palmer took the Bengals from the basement to the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades (1990). He has four 4,000-yard seasons, including one in each of the last two years. Constantly overlooked, Palmer has developed into one of the better No. 1 overall picks in recent memory.
6. Michael Vick, QB, Atlanta (2001)
Vick is quite the conundrum. He has unprecedented physical ability and wowed fans in ways no other player in NFL history ever has. He also spent two years in prison, has only played one full season (16 games) in his career and has constantly had turnover and health issues. His near 6,000 yards rushing makes him one of the most unique players in NFL history and certainly worthy of a No. 1 overall pick. That said, Falcons fans probably still wonder what could have been had he been able to stay focused off the field.
7. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina (2011)
Newton could fly past Vick and Palmer on this list in a very short period of time. Newton set records as a rookie and led his team to a division crown in his third season. He has proven his doubters wrong and as he begins to mature off the field and in the huddle, the sky could be the limit for a player of such substantial physical talent.
8. Keyshawn Johnson, WR, NY Jets (1996)
Throw him the damn ball. His me-first attitude and overall antics knock him down a peg or two in these rankings. But as the only wide receiver taken No. 1 overall since Irving Fryar in 1984, Johnson delivered a fine career. He only posted four 1,000-yard seasons but topped 10,000 yards and 800 receptions for his career to go with 78 total touchdowns. He also helped lead the Bucs to a Super Bowl title in 2002.
9. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit (2009)
Stafford has all of the physical tools to be one of the greats at his position and certainly justifies his No. 1 overall status. He also has a 5,000-yard season, the NFL record for attempts (727), led the Lions to the playoffs and won 2011 Comeback Player of the Year honors. Having said that, Stafford is 24-37 as a starter, has missed chunks of time due to injury and appears to be missing the “it factor” at times. He has a long way to go in his career and should have plenty of huge seasons in his future. Leading the Lions to the playoffs consistently and making a deep postseason run will go a long way towards silencing his doubters.
10. Mario Williams, DE, Houston (2006)
Houston was knocked for taking Williams over Reggie Bush or Vince Young but he has had a much better career than the common fan may realize. He is 13th among active NFL players in sacks with 76.5 and has forced 14 fumbles in 114 games. Williams has been to three Pro Bowls and has started every single game of his career with the exception of three games in 2010 and 11 in '11. Williams is an underrated No. 1 overall pick.
11. Jake Long, T, Miami (2008)
Long has missed just seven games in his six-year career and has started all 89 games he has played. He has been to four Pro Bowls and appears poised to have a solid career for the Rams after signing with them as a free agent prior to last season. Like Williams, Long doesn’t jump off the page as a starter but he has been an extremely solid, reliable and valuable player to this point in his career.
12. Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco (2005)
This one certainly started slowly. He managed just 19 touchdowns against 31 interceptions and an 11-19 starting record in his first three seasons for the 49ers. However, he persevered and has developed into a solid NFL quarterback. Over his last three seasons, Smith is 30-9-1 as a starter with 53 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, three playoff bids and over 8,000 yards passing (despite missing eight games over that span). His second career in Kansas City could eventually move him up this list.
13. Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis (2010)
Plagued by major injuries for most of his collegiate and pro career, Bradford will likely never live up to the hype of being taken No. 1 overall. He won NFL Rookie of the Year in his first season but has missed a total of 15 games over the last three years. He’s had little in the way of support from his O-line and playmakers on offense, so there is still plenty of time for him to improve under trusted head coach Jeff Fisher. The final verdict on Bradford is still out.
14. Eric Fisher, T, Kansas City (2013)
By default, Fisher lands directly between the players who are deemed “good” and the players who are deemed “bad.” He started 13 of the 14 games he played as a rookie for a team that made the playoffs. He has the tools to be the Chiefs' long-term solution at left tackle but only time will tell.
15. Tim Couch, QB, Cleveland (1999)
Here is where the term bust begins to surface and Couch was the “best” of the busts. He went 22-37 as a starter in 62 career games, throwing for over 11,000 yards, 64 touchdowns and 67 interceptions. He did, however, post a winning record for the Browns in 2002 when he went 8-6 and he had one 3,000-yard season in '01 for a 7-9 squad. These are his top two pro accomplishments, which at least makes him a better pick than….
16. David Carr, QB, Houston (2002)
Carr had no help from the expansion roster around him as he was sacked 76 times as a rookie and led the league in sacks three of his first four seasons. To his credit, Carr lasted in the NFL for 11 seasons (mostly as a backup) but his 23-56 record as a starter is pretty ugly.
18. Courtney Brown, DE, Cleveland (2000)
One of only two defensive players taken No. 1 overall since expansion is one of the most forgettable. Brown played in 61 career games over six seasons. His set a career high with 69 tackles as a rookie and never topped 42 tackles after that. He set a career high with 13 starts and 6.0 sacks in 2003. He finished his career with 19.0 sacks and 196 tackles.
17. Ki-Jana Carter, RB, Cincinnati (1995)
Here is all you need to know about Carter’s NFL career: He made 14 career starts in seven NFL seasons. He never reached 500 yards rushing in any season and only topped 400 once in his career. He was out of football by 2005 and finished with 319 carries, 1,144 yards and 20 touchdowns in his NFL career. No running back has ever been taken No. 1 overall since.
19. JaMarcus Russell, QB, Oakland (2007)
Nine players in the NFL threw for at least 4,000 yards in 2013. Russell barely cracked 4,000 for his entire playing career (4,083). He played in 31 games, going 7-18 as a starter with 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. Needless to say, Russell — both literally and figuratively — was the biggest No. 1 overall bust in the modern NFL expansion era.