As the season without sports continues, I decided to dig into the past and look through the previous first overall selections in the NFL Draft. Surprisingly, most former first overall picks only experienced limited success in the league, and only ten of the last 20 No. 1 overall selections are still active.
Based on their success in the league, I decided to rank the top picks from the previous twenty NFL Drafts, excluding Joe Burrow, who the Cincinnati Bengals selected with the top pick this year, because we haven’t seen the LSU product in action yet.
1. Eli Manning, QB Ole Miss 2004
The San Diego Chargers drafted Manning with the first overall pick in 2004, but he refused to play for the team. So, the Chargers sent Manning to New York in return for Philip Rivers. With the Giants, Manning made four Pro Bowls and won two Super Bowls, claiming the game’s MVP award both times. Manning is seventh all-time in pass completions, yards, and touchdowns.
2. Cam Newton, QB Auburn 2011
While Newton’s NFL future remains in limbo, the former first overall pick experienced quite the run in Carolina. With the Panthers, Newton went to three Pro Bowls and won the league MVP in 2015. That year, he also led the Panthers to the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. However, Newton’s team came up short against the Denver Broncos. Newton holds the record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in NFL history with 58.
3. Andrew Luck, QB Stanford 2012
In terms of pure talent, Luck is without question the best first overall pick from the past 20 years. However, his early retirement before the 2019 season limited how high he could climb on this list. Luck led the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs four times during his seven-year career. Unfortunately, he missed nine games in 2015 and the entire 2017 season. Luck retired after winning the 2018 Comeback Player of the Year award and making four Pro Bowls.
4. Carson Palmer, QB USC 2003
The Cincinnati Bengals took Palmer first overall in 2003, but the team didn’t start the USC product until 2004. From that point on, Palmer held the starting job, and the team’s future looked bright. However, mistakes in the front office eventually led to Palmer’s departure. He did experience a successful second act to his career with the Arizona Cardinals. During his career, Palmer went to three Pro Bowls and appeared in four playoff games.
5. Matthew Stafford, QB Georgia 2009
Playoff success has not come easily for Stafford. Then again, it never does for the Detroit Lions. In his 11 seasons, Stafford has only appeared in the playoffs three times, and he’s never won a playoff game. The 2011 Comeback Player of the Year was on his way to a career performance in 2019 before a back injury ended his season early. At 32, Stafford is already in the top 20 for career completions, passing yards, and passing touchdowns.
6. Alex Smith, QB Utah 2005
Early in his career, Smith struggled to gain a foothold with the San Francisco 49ers. Injuries, inconsistent play, and poor coaching caused multiple setbacks. However, everything changed when Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2011. Smith evolved into an efficient passer who led San Francisco for its first nine games during the team’s run to the Super Bowl in 2012.
The Utah product experienced the best success of his career with Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs. Smith is currently rehabbing from a gruesome leg injury, which forced him to miss the entire 2019 season. At 36 years old, there’s still hope that Smith can complete an NFL comeback.
7. Michael Vick, QB Virginia Tech 2001
Perhaps the Atlanta Falcons version of Vick is more legendary than reality at this point, but that shouldn’t take away from how exciting and dynamic the Virginia Tech product was during his first six seasons. In 2006, Vick became the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, but he ended up in jail for his role in a dogfighting ring.
Vick missed out on the prime of his career, but he returned to the NFL in 2009. In 2010, he led the Philadelphia Eagles to the playoffs, made the Pro Bowl, and won the Comeback Player of the Year award. Vick’s greatest legacy is modern dual-threat quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson.
8. Mario Williams, DE North Carolina St. 2006
When the Houston Texans drafted Williams in 2006, the team had never experienced a winning season. It took until 2007 for the franchise to go 8-8 and until 2009 for the team to break even. Williams did make Pro Bowls in 2008 and 2009, but he underwhelmed toward the end of his time in Houston. He rebounded with the Buffalo Bills, making two more Pro Bowls. Williams retired with 97.5 career sacks and is second in Texans history with 53 sacks.
9. Jared Goff, QB California 2016
After a horrendous rookie season, expectations were low for Goff and the Los Angeles Rams in 2017. However, the young quarterback led Los Angeles to an 11-4 record in 2017 and a Super Bowl appearance in 2018. He posted passer ratings over 100.0 in each season and made the Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, Goff took a massive step back in 2019.
10. Myles Garrett, DE Texas A&M 2017
Before he decided to play whack-a-mole with Mason Rudolph, Garrett looked primed to win the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2019. After 35 career starts, Garrett already has 30.5 sacks and 65 quarterback hits. He should be a perennial Pro Bowler if he cleans up his act on the field.
11. Jadeveon Clowney, DE South Carolina 2014
When he entered the league in 2014, Clowney was supposed to be a generational talent. Unfortunately, he only appeared in four games as a rookie and underwhelmed in his second season. Clowney did rebound by making three consecutive Pro Bowls, but he’s never capitalized on his talent. Injuries and inconsistent play led to a mediocre performance in 2019. Six years into his career, Clowney has 32 sacks and 80 quarterback hits.
12. Jake Long, T Michigan 2008
For the first four years of his career, Long looked like the next great left tackle. During that time, he made four consecutive Pro Bowls and earned a First-Team All-Pro selection in 2010 alongside Cleveland’s Joe Thomas. Unfortunately, injuries quickly dragged down Long’s career, and he was no longer a consistent starter by 2014.
13. Jameis Winston, QB Florida St. 2015
Scouts hoped Winston could turn into a top-ten quarterback someday. While he did make the Pro Bowl as a rookie, Winston’s career has gone downhill since then. He’s never made the playoffs, split starting time with Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2018, and became the first quarterback to ever throw for 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a single season. Now, he’s serving as Drew Brees’ backup in New Orleans.
14. Eric Fisher, T Central Michigan 2013
Fisher entered the NFL to a torrent of criticism. Unlike Long, the Central Michigan product did not perform well as a rookie. Early on, it looked like Fisher would go down as one of the biggest busts in NFL history, but the left tackle eventually stabilized his career. Fisher even made the Pro Bowl in 2018 and won the Super Bowl with the Chiefs this past season.
15. Kyler Murray, QB Oklahoma 2019
Analysts believe Murray can take a massive step forward in 2020, but the quarterback is only one year into his career. He performed decently as a rookie but didn’t do anything special. Even Gardner Minshew threw for more touchdowns and fewer interceptions than Murray last season. He’s only this high on the list because of poor performances from other players.
16. Baker Mayfield, QB Oklahoma 2018
In two years, we’ve seen two different sides of Mayfield. In 2018, he and the Cleveland Browns played the role of a swaggy underdog. This past year, the team failed to reach expectations, and Mayfield floundered in the national spotlight. His rookie season already showed how much potential the Oklahoma product has, now the Browns need to maximize that potential.
17. Sam Bradford, QB Oklahoma 2010
In his nine-year career, Bradford put together one quality season. He led the league in completion percentage with the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, and the team barely missed the playoffs. Otherwise, Bradford missed significant chunks of five different seasons and finished his career with a 34-48-1 record as a starter.
18. David Carr, QB Fresno State 2002
The older brother of Derek Carr, David was thrown into the fire as a rookie. He was the first draft pick in Houston Texans’ history and led the team to a 4-12 record during its inaugural season. Houston never did put a proper supporting cast around its quarterback. Carr led the league in sacks taken three times during his five years with the Texans, including an incredible 76 sacks taken in 2002.
19. Courtney Brown, DE Penn St. 2000
Brown’s NFL career lasted six seasons. He set career highs with six sacks and four forced fumbles in 2003, but injuries cut his 2004 season down to only two games. Brown also missed significant time with injuries earlier in his career, including the majority of the 2001 season. He retired with 19 career sacks.
20. JaMarcus Russell, QB LSU 2007
As a rookie, Russell appeared in four games and only earned one start, yet he threw four interceptions and only two touchdowns. The following season marked the high point of Russell’s career. He went 5-10 as a starter but only completed 53.8% of his pass attempts. Russell went 2-7 as a starter in 2009, throwing three touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He never played in another NFL regular season game.
Only two players on this list, Eric Fisher and Eli Manning, have won Super Bowls. So, is it too much for an organization to expect a top pick to turn a downtrodden franchise around in a couple of years? Absolutely. Securing the first overall selection means nothing for the future of a franchise. For example, look at the Texans. They received the top pick three times in the past twenty years, and only have four playoff wins to show for it.
As Burrow begins his NFL career with the highest expectations for a quarterback since Luck entered the league, the pressure to turn the Bengals into a winning football team is immense. We’ll see if Burrow can live up to expectations as the first No. 1 overall pick in the 2020s.