I am so lucky I put off this one for a few months. When I first started assembling this list, I was trying really hard to justify putting Andrew Luck in at the #10 slot. I thought the fact that he was already starting to break some of Peyton Manning’s team records would be enough to do it. In the end though, I realized that putting a player going into his fourth season would be a stretch on a pick this high, with 80 years of history behind it.
In 80 years of NFL drafts, there have been 13 players selected first overall elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Orlando Pace was selected as I was writing this article). This doesn’t even include the two Hall of Fame AFL players drafted first overall before the AFL & NFL held a combined common draft: the Chiefs Buck Buchanan in 1963, and the Jets Joe Namath in 1965. Another one that I will be including is the first overall pick in the 1984 USFL Supplemental Draft: Buccaneers quarterback Steve Young. A lot of people don’t realize that draft produced three Hall of Famers in the first four picks: Young, offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman, and defensive end Reggie White. None of those three were drafted in any other NFL draft, so they’re included in my series.
There have been other supplemental drafts that produced good players, but the next best one drafted this high was Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar, and he’s just not cracking the top 16 full of Hall of Fame players. Among the ones not in yet, Colts/Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is the one sure thing left now that Orlando Pace got in. That brings us to a list of 17 players: Steelers RB Bill Dudley, Cardinals RB Charley Trippi, Eagles C/LB Chuck Bednarik, Packers RB Paul Hornung, Chiefs DT Buck Buchanan, Jets QB Joe Namath, Vikings OT Ron Yary, Bills RB O.J. Simpson, Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw,Buccaneers DE Lee Roy Selmon, Oilers RB Earl Campbell, Broncos QB John Elway, 49ers QB Steve Young, Bills DE Bruce Smith, Cowboys QB Troy Aikman, Rams OT Orlando Pace, and Colts/Broncos QB Peyton Manning.
When this list first started, the formula was pretty simple: one point for each season played, two points for each Pro Bowl selection, three additional points for each Super Bowl winning team they were on, and an additional four points if they were selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As we got further along, I had to find more ways to add points as tiebreakers. I started using the players inclusion on other all-time greats lists, like the NFL 1970’s All-Decade Team, as the equivalent to a Pro Bowl selection, points wise (two points). I also added the same amount of points for any player that won other NFL annual performance based awards, like NFL MVP, or Comeback Player of the Year. My newest bright idea was to use the player’s ranking on the NFL’s Top 100 to add more points, like 1 point for #100, 100 points for #1, and so on. The only other factor I hadn’t added in was record breaking performances, or becoming the first player to reach a new statistical height. The record breakers are awarded two points for each record broken, while “pioneers” as I call them get five points for achieving a statistical first. The reason for the difference is that most of the modern record breakers end up sweeping their category, so they end up beating all of their predecessor’s records (Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith).
So, with all of that in mind, here is my top 10 NFL players drafted with the first overall pick:
10. New York Jets-Joe Namath, QB, Alabama, 1965 He achieved a significant first in his league by becoming the first AFL quarterback to lead his team to victory over an NFL team in the game now known as The Super Bowl. It helped disprove the theory that the AFL was inferior to the NFL, and probably helped make the AFL/NFL merger a lot smoother. At the time, he was also one of the few college superstars to choose the fledgling AFL over the stronger, more established league. I would bet that he probably picked the Jets over the NFL because he saw it as a chance to become the big star in the league, and in a major market.
Namath achieved a modern landmark in 1967, becoming the first quarterback in pro football history to throw for over 4,000 yards in a single season (4,007). He was named the AFL MVP in 1968, leading the Jets to an 11-3 record, and a battle against Johnny Unitas & the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. He became a household name by guaranteeing a Jets a victory when the Colts were favored by nearly three touchdowns, and backing it up with a 16-7 victory. The AFL & NFL merged just a few months after that victory, on May 17th.
It was rather fitting then, that Joe Namath was the last AFL MVP in 1969, even though his numbers were nothing like 1967: 2,734 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. Injuries limited him to a total of 15 games in 1970, 1971, and 1973. He played in 13 games in 1972, throwing for 2,816 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions. After missing alot of playing time during three of the past four seasons, he was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 1974, throwing for 2,616 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions.
His last full season as a starter was 1975, when he threw for 2,286 yards, 15 TD’s, and 28 INT’s. The team drafted Richard Todd in the first round in 1976, and the two shared the role that year. Namath signed with the Rams in 1977, where he was eventually replaced by Pat Haden en route to a 10-4 season. He retired after the 1977 season. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
9. Dallas Cowboys-Troy Aikman, QB, UCLA, 1989 In his rookie season, he was given the difficult task of helping rebuild after the firing of the only coach in team history, Tom Landry. He went 0-11 in 1989, throwing twice as many interceptions (18) as touchdowns (9). The team went 1-15 that year, so in 1990 he had to compete for the starting job with Steve Walsh. Walsh was also coach Jimmy Johnson’s starting quarterback for the 1988 national champion Miami Hurricanes, and was a supplemental first round pick in 1989, when Dallas had the first overall pick. Aikman won the starting job, and Walsh was traded to the Saints.
Aikman had gone 7-7 as a starter in 1990, and had a chance at leading the team to the playoffs when an injury ended his second season. The team acquired veteran Steve Beuerlein from the Raiders to back him up in 1991, and had much better luck when injuries struck again. They had gotten off to a 6-4 start when the injury happened this time. Beuerlein was 5-0 during Aikman’s absence, leading some to believe that they should just stick with him.
The Cowboys kept Beuerlein in the lineup for the playoffs, leading to a road win in Chicago, followed by a loss in Detroit. Aikman was named to his first of six consecutive Pro Bowls (199-1996) at the end of the season, and it was enough for the team to let Steve Beuerlein leave in free agency. Aikman started all 16 games in 1992, completing 302 of 473 passes for 3,445 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXVII, leading the Cowboys to a 52-17 victory over the Bills.
In 1993 he led the team to a 12-4 record, nearly duplicating the previous season’s success. They advanced to Super Bowl XXVIII for a rematch with the Bills, although it was a closer one, winning 30-13. He missed two games to injury in 1994, but the Cowboys dynasty was mostly intact (minus former head coach Jimmy Johnson), and the team made it to the NFC Championship, losing to the San Francisco 49ers & their one-year rental All-Pro cornerback Deion Sanders. So, what does Jerry Jones do to get Troy Aikman & the Cowboys back in the Super Bowl the next season? Sign Deion Sanders, of course!
I think Jerry saw that his franchise quarterback was already getting beat up, and that his window for winning championships wasn’t going to be the typical 16 years you see in modern quarterbacks. So Jerry signs Deion, Dallas advances to Super Bowl XXX, beating Pittsburgh 27-17, and Aikman gets his third ring in four years. He only missed one game to injury in 1996, and had his second straight 3,000 yard season, but the team lost in the second round of the playoffs. He threw for over 3,000 yards for the third season in a row in 1997 ( then a team record), but the team finished 6-10.
Aikman helped lead the team to a 10-6 record in 1998, although he missed five games due to injuries along the way. They won their division, but suffered one of the biggest upsets of the year, losing 20-7 to Jake Plummer & the Cardinals in the wildcard round. He started 14 games in 1999, throwing for 2,964 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. They advanced to the playoffs as a wildcard, but lost in Minnesota.
The 2000 season would be Aikman’s last as a player. He threw twice as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (7). He was in & out of the lineup due to concussions, sharing the job with Randall Cunningham. Even though he only played 12 seasons, he still accomplished what most don’t do in a typical, dragged out 16-18 year career you see from quarterbacks these days. He set a record for most wins by a quarterback in one decade, with 90 wins in the 1990’s (since beaten by Peyton Manning & Tom Brady). In 12 years he played in 165 regular season games, completing 2,898 out of 4,715 passes for 32,942 yards, 165 touchdowns, 141 interceptions, and had a career passer rating of 81.6. He was inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor in 2005, had his jersey #8 retired, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. He was ranked #80 among the all time greats on the NFL’s Top 100 list.
8. Houston Oilers-Earl Campbell, RB, Texas, 1978 The term “man amongst boys” fits his scenario perfectly, there was no one like him in the league, even as a rookie. At 5’11” & 244 lbs, & clocked at 4.5 seconds in the 40 yard dash, he had the size & speed to bulldoze through defenses like no one else. He led the league in rushing as a rookie, with 1,450 yards and 13 touchdowns on 302 carries, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He also earned his first of five Pro Bowl selections (1978-1981, 1983) as a rookie.
He led the league in rushing again in 1979, with 1,697 yards and 19 touchdowns on 368 carries, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. He accomplished the feat in each of his first three seasons, doing it again in 1980, reaching carer highs in carries (373), yards (1,934), and yards per carry (5.2), while scoring 13 rushing touchdowns. Those first three seasons saw him earn virtually every award & accolade possible for a running back: he was named NFL MVP from 1978-1980, NFL Offensive Player of the Year from 1978-1980, AFC Offensive Player of the Year in 1978, & 1978 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Even with a bit of a dropoff in yards per carry in 1981 (3.8), he still ran for 1,376 yards & 10 touchdowns. He had an even bigger dropoff in the strike shortened nine game season in 1982, with only 538 yards and two touchdowns on 157 carries, averaging only 3.4 yards per carry. He returned to Pro Bowl form in 1983, rushing for 1,301 yards and 12 touchdowns on 322 carries, despite missing two games. After a slow start in the 1984 season (278 yards, 2.9 yards per carry thru 6 games), he was traded to the New Orleans Saints for their #1 pick in the 1985 draft (Houston picked cornerback Richard Johnson, 11th overall).
He did improve after joining the Saints in 1984, rushing for 190 yards on 50 carries in eight games (3.8 average). He did manage one last decent season in 1985, playing in all 16 games and rushing for 643 yards and one touchdown on 158 carries, averaging 4.1 yards per carry. He retired rather abruptly before the 1986 season, but it was pretty well timed, with rookies Reuben Mayes & Dalton Hilliard ready to take on the load. In eight seasons in the NFL, he played in 118 games, with 2,187 carries for 9,407 yards and 78 touchdowns. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991. He was ranked #55 among the all-time greats in the NFL’s Top 100 Players list.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Steve Young, QB, BYU, 1984 USFL Supplemental Draft He was ranked #81 among the all-time legends on the NFL Top 100 list. He began his career in the USFL with the Los Angeles Express. He landed on this list because the NFL held a special draft in 1984 for players in the Canadian league & the USFL whose rights were not already controlled by an NFL team, and Young was the first player chosen in that draft. The first round of that draft had as much talent as a typical collegiate draft, with three Hall of Fame players ( Young, Gary Zimmerman, and Reggie White) chosen in the first four picks. The USFL folded in 1985, and Young reported to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Unfortunately, the team gave up on him quickly after two losing seasons, and chose quarterback Vinny Testaverde with the first pick in the 1987 draft.
Young was traded to the 49ers for two picks in the 1987 draft: a second rounder (linebacker Winston Moss), and a fourth rounder (wide receiver Bruce Hill). Young settled into a job as the backup and future successor to Joe Montana. He only started three games each season from 1987-1989, and only one game in 1990, but his performance in those games made him one of the league’s highest paid backup quarterbacks. He also earned his first two Super Bowl rings with the team’s wins in Super Bowl XXIII & XXIV.
No one knew it at the time, but he officially replaced Montana in the lineup when Montana suffered an elbow injury in the team’s NFC Championship loss to the Giants in January 1991. Montana went on to miss the entire 1991 season, leaving Young as the starter. He was 4-4 as a starter when his own injury took him out of the lineup for several weeks. While Young was out, backup Steve Bono went 5-0 as as starter, and Young didn’t get back in until Bono got hurt.
Young still led the league with a passer rating of 101.8 in 1991, and the team had a respectable 10-6 record, but missed the playoffs. The team kept Young, Bono, and a slowly recovering Montana around in 1992, but Young still managed to start all 16 games. The team got a better look at what he could do with a full season, completing 66.7% of his passes for 3,465 yards, 25 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions, for a passer rating of 107.0, while adding 537 yards and 4 touchdowns on 76 carries (7.1 avg.). He became the first quarterback in NFL history to record back-to-back seasons with a passer rating of 100 or more.
The 1992 season was also the start of his 7 year run of Pro Bowl selections (1992-1998). He earned many awards for his performance in 1992: NFL MVP, AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year, UPI NFC Offensive Player of the Year, and Kansas City Committee of 101 NFC Offensive Player of the Year. There was still one blemish on the resume in the eyes of niners fans: the team lost the NFC Championship game. His performance was still good enough to clear up the quarterback controversy: the team traded Joe Montana, safety David Whitmore, and a 1994 3rd round pick to the Chiefs for a #1 pick, which they traded down with & still turned into Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield.
He raised the bar for himself again in 1993, completing 68% of his passes, throwing for a career high 4,023 yards, 29 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, with a passer rating of 101.5 ( a new record three seasons in a row over 100), and rushing for 407 yards and two touchdowns. Unfortunately, they suffered the same fate as the previous season: losing in the NFC Championship game to the Dallas Cowboys. The team made a key acquisition in free agency (Deion Sanders) in 1994, and Young reached new statistical heights, completing 70.3% of his passes for 3,969 yards, 35 touchdowns,10 interceptions, and a passer rating of 112.8 (his highest as a starter, & record 4th season in a row over 100), while rushing for 293 yards and a career high 7 touchdowns. The season had a storybook ending he could hardly imagine: throwing 6 touchdowns for the first time in his life in Super Bowl XXIX, and being named Super Bowl XXIX MVP.
That ending pretty much dwarfed the other accolades he received for the 1994 season: 3rd straight Pro Bowl, being named the NFL MVP by 5 different sports writers organizations, 1st team AP All-Pro 3rd year in a row, UPI NFC Offensive Player of the Year, & Kansas City Committee of 101 NFC Offensive Player of the Year. The team suffered some big losses in the offseason, and they just couldn’t duplicate that kind of magic again. Deion Sanders signed a multi-year contract with Dallas, Young’s mentor Mike Shanahan took over as the Broncos head coach, and he signed Ed McCaffrey in free agency. The team took a big gamble on draft day & traded up to draft a receiver whose stock fell because of his forty time (J.J. Stokes), and he was immediately seen as the second coming of Jerry Rice.
He missed 5 games due to injuries in 1995, but he still threw for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns. He only missed 4 starts in 1996, and had his lowest yardage total as a starter: 2,410 yards, but also led the NFL with a passer rating of 97.2. His numbers were closer to normal in 1997, missing only one start, and completing 67.7% of his passes for 3,029 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, leading the NFL for the 2nd year in a row with a passer rating of 104.6. Unfortunately, all three seasons ended with playoff losses to Brett Favre & the Packers.
Young still had one last great season left in him in 1998: he threw for a career high 4,170 yards, an NFL leading 36 touchdowns, & 12 interceptions, with a passer rating of 101.6. He also added on 454 yards and 6 touchdowns on the ground, both second highest totals of his career. This time, however, they beat the Packers in the wildcard round, and lost to the eventual NFC Champion Falcons in the second round of the playoffs. Young did come back to play in the 1999 season, but he only lasted three games after suffering his second concussion of the season.
He retired after the 1999 season, but he posted some pretty respectable career numbers for a guy that mostly sat on the bench for four years. In 15 seasons in the NFL he played in 169 games, starting 143. He completed 2,667 of 4,149 passing attempts (64.3%) for 33,124 yards, 232 touchdowns, 107 interceptions, with a passer rating of 96.8. He also ran 722 times for 4,239 yards (5.9 avg.), and 43 touchdowns. At the time of his retirement, his career passer rating was the highest in NFL history, it is now 4th. His 43 career rushing touchdowns were the most by a quarterback, but he is now tied with Cam Newton. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005, and the San Francisco 49ers retired his #8 in 2008.
6. Buffalo Bills-O. J. Simpson, RB, USC, 1969 I know, I’m not exactly winning any popularity contests by putting him ahead of Steve Young, Earl Campbell, Troy Aikman, and Joe Namath (and the others that didn’t even crack the top 10), but he deserves mention here for what is still the greatest single season by a running back in NFL history. He started his career in 1969 with 181 carries for 697 yards & two touchdowns, and 30 catches for 343 yards and 3 touchdowns. His rookie season also earned him his first of 6 Pro Bowl selections (1969, 1972-1976). He played in only 8 games in 1970, and had 488 rushing yards. The 1971 season was a little bit better, with 742 yards.
His first 1,000 yard season came in 1972, when he led the league with 1,251 yards rushing on 292 carries with six touchdowns. He was named MVP of the Pro Bowl that year, with 16 carries for 112 yards & a touchdown, and 3 catches for 58 yards. His repeat league leading rushing performance in 1973 set records that are still standing: he became the first player in league history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single season, with 332 carries for 2,003 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. He was named the 1973 NFL MVP, and 1973 NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
The 2,000 yard rushing mark has been beaten several times since then: by Eric Dickerson in 1984 (2,105), Barry Sanders in 1997 (2,053), Terrell Davis in 1998 (2,008), Jamal Lewis in 2003 (2,066), Chris Johnson in 2009 (2,006), and Adrian Peterson (2,097). Even though they had a higher yardage total than him, he holds the advantage in one key area: yards per game (143.1). O. J. only needed 14 games to reach 2,000 yards, and he also set an NFL record by becoming the first player to rush for 1,000 yards in 7 games (1,025). If he had maintained that 143 yards per game average in a 16 game season, his single season total would be a still standing record total of 2,289 yards! Since the modern running game has turned into sort of a timeshare system for most teams, it has become even less likely that this record will ever be broken.
The 1974 was a bit of a dropoff compared to the previous season’s stats: 270 carries for 1,125 yards and 3 touchdowns. He was off to another record performance in 1975, rushing for 1,005 yards through the first 7 games, tying his own record for fastest to reach 1,000 yards in a season( a mark later tied by Terrell Davis). Unfortunately he didn’t quite stay at that pace, but still led the league in rushing for the third time, with 1,817 yards and 16 touchdowns, along with 28 catches for 426 yards and 7 touchdowns. He led the league in rushing for the fourth time in 1976, with 290 carries for 1,503 yards, and 8 touchdowns.
Injuries finally began taking their toll on him in 1977, limiting him to 7 games, with 126 carries for 557 yards. The Bills traded him to the 49ers in 1978 in a fleecing that was only about half as bad as the Cowboys/Vikings Herschel Walker trade. The 49ers gave up their 1978 2nd & 3rd round picks, 1979 1st & 4th round picks, and a 1980 2nd round pick. The 49ers, in return, got 593 yards and a touchdown in 1978, and 463 yards and 3 touchdowns in 1979, and O.J. retired after the season. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. He was named to the NFL 1970’s All-Decade Team, the NFL 75th Anniversary All Time Team, and he was ranked #40 on the NFL’s Top 100.
5. Philadelphia Eagles-Chuck Bednarik, C/LB, Penn, 1949 He was one of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game. The Eagles won the NFL Championship game at the end of his rookie season. He was named to the Pro Bowl 8 times (1950-1956, 1960), he was the 1953 Pro Bowl MVP, and was a 10 time All-Pro (1950-1957, 1960, 1961). The Eagles won a 2nd NFL Championship in 1960, and his tackle of Jim Taylor on the 8 yard line ate up enough time to stop Green Bay from attempting one last shot at the end zone.
He spent his entire 14 year NFL career with the Eagles (1949-1962), and was one of the last great two-way players. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, his first year of eligibility. He was inducted into the initial class of The Philadelphia Eagles Honor Roll (since re-named the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame) in 1987. He had his jersey #60 retired by the Eagles. He was named to the NFL 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, the NFL 75th Anniversary Team, the NFL 1950’s All-Decade Team, and was ranked #35 among the all time greats in the NFL’s Top 100 list.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers-Terry Bradshaw, QB, Louisiana Tech, 1970 He spent his entire 14 year career with the Steelers (1970-1983). It’s amazing that they kept him in the lineup based on his early numbers. As a rookie he completed only 83 of 218 attempts for 1,410 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions. His completion percentage got better in year two, completing 203 of 373 attempts for 2,259 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions in 1971 . His completion percentage remained under 50% for the next three years, but with a strong defense, and a running game led by Franco Harris & Rocky Bleier, they won in spite of him, going 11-3 in 1972, 10-4 in 1973, and 10-3-1 in 1974.
His performance improved just in time for the team’s first Super Bowl appearance. He competed 9 of 14 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown, with a passer rating of 108.4 as the Steelers beat the Vikings 16-6 in Super Bowl IX. His improvement carried over into the 1975 season, when he threw for 2,055 yards, 18 touchdowns, and only 9 interceptions, with a passer rating of 88.0. He also earned the first of 3 Pro Bowl selections (1975, 1978, 1979) in his career.
The Steelers went on to win their 2nd Super Bowl in a row at the end of the 1975 season, beating the Cowboys 21-17 in Super Bowl X. Bradshaw was 9 of 19 for 209 yards and 2 touchdowns. He missed 4 games due to injuries in 1976, and was 92 of 192 for 1,177 yards, 10 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He threw for 2,523 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in 1977, and was named the 1977 Pittsburgh Steelers MVP.
He was named the 1978 NFL MVP, when he threw for 2,915 yards, 28 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions. He was also named the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers MVP, & the 1978 NFL QB of the Year. He led the Steelers to a 35-31 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIV, winning the Super Bowl MVP award by going 17 of 30 for 318 yards and 4 touchdowns, with 1 interception. He went on to win consecutive Super Bowl MVP awards by engineering a 31-19 win over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV, going 14 of 21 for 309 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions.
After four Super Bowl wins in a span of six years, he still had three more productive seasons left in him after the team drafted his successor Mark Malone in the first round in 1980.He threw for 3,339 yards,24 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions in 1980, and 2,887 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 1981. He finished tied for the league lead in touchdown passes with 17 in the strike shortened nine game season in 1982. He missed the first 14 games in 1983, and threw two touchdowns in what would be the last game of his career.
He spent his entire 14 year with the Pittsburgh Steelers (1970-1983). He played in 168 regular season games, completing 2,025 of 3,901 attempts for 27,989 yards, 212 touchdowns, and 210 interceptions, with a passer rating of 70.9. Although his regular season numbers seem rather pedestrian, he was incredible in the postseason, especially in the Super Bowl. In four Super Bowls he was 49 of 84 for 932 yards, nine touchdowns, and four interceptions, with a passer rating of 112.7, and a record of 4-0.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989. He was named to the NFL 1970’s All-Decade Team, the Pittsburgh Steelers 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, & the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team. He was selected to the Pittsburgh Pro Football Hall of Fame in it’s inaugural class in 2011. He was ranked #50 among the all-time greats on the NFL’s Top 100 list.
3. Buffalo Bills-Bruce Smith, DE, Virginia Tech, 1985 He had 48 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and four fumble recoveries as a rookie. He had 15 sacks in 1986, but somehow got left out of the Pro Bowl. The Pro Bowl voters made it up to him afterwards, as he was selected 11 times in the next 12 years (1987-1990, 1992-1998). He missed 11 games due to injury in 1991, but reached double digits in sacks every other season that he made the Pro Bowl.
He was named Defensive Player of the Year a total of five different times by four different sports writers organizations: by the Associated Press in 1990 & 1996, the Pro Football Writers Association in 1990, 1993, and 1996, the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1990 & 1993, and the United Press International in 1987, 1988, 1990, & 1996. His best year was 1990, when he had 19 sacks, and helped lead the Bills to their first Super Bowl appearance (XXV). Even though people may mock their four Super Bowl losses, they were still the best team in the AFC for four seasons in a row. He missed 11 games due to a knee injury, then came back strong with 14 sacks in each of the next two seasons in 1992 & 1993.
Even after the knee surgery, he still came back strong, with seven straight seasons with 10 or more sacks, including 14 in 1998. So when he had only seven in 1999, the Bills made him one of their big name salary cap cuts. The Redskins made him one of their big name signings, and they mainly used him in pass rushing situations. He recorded 10 sacks in 2000, and a total of 29 in four seasons with the Redskins (2000-2003).
He spent a total of 19 years in the NFL, 15 years with the Buffalo Bills (1985-1999), and four years with the Washington Redskins (2000-2003). He surpassed Reggie White as the NFL’s all time sack leader in his final season, but it took him 19 seasons to do it, as us cheeseheads like to point out :p He became the first in league history to reach the 200 career sack mark, and no one else has gotten close yet. He was ranked 31st among the legends in the NFL Top 100, he was selected to the NFL 1980’s All-Decade Team, the NFL 1990’s All-Decade Team, he was selected to the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame, & he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
2. Baltimore Colts-John Elway, QB, Stanford, 1983
So I guess it’s quite unanimous now that he did the right thing by holding out & refusing to play for the Colts. He got traded to the Denver Broncos, where he lost three Super Bowls in a span of four years, then won two of them in the twilight of his playing career. After seeing them careen to an all time low during the Josh McDaniels coaching era, he took over as General Manager & guided them to two Super Bowls in the next four years, winning the most recent one. He’s probably the most iconic figure in Broncos history now, & he might not have been a Bronco if the Colts had played hardball.
Luckily he had baseball as a fallback option, and he threatened to join the Yankees if the Colts didn’t trade him. He was traded to the Broncos for offensive guard Chris Hinton (the 4th pick in the same draft as Elway), a #1 pick in 1984 (starting guard Ron Solt), and backup quarterback Marc Hermann. By his fourth season, he had the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI, losing to the Giants, 39-20. He was the 1987 NFL MVP, & led them to the Super Bowl again, but it was another blowout, a 42-10 loss to the Redskins.
The team missed the playoffs in 1988, but Elway kept producing 3,000 yard passing seasons in spite of being stuck in a run based offense coached by Dan Reeves. The team just wasn’t building a good enough supporting cast around him, and I thought it was obvious they screwed up when they passed on WR Carl Pickens to get Tommy Maddox as Elway’s eventual successor. Elway missed four games due to injury in 1992, and coincidentally, they had undrafted rookie free agent Russell Freeman starting at left tackle that year. The team fired Reeves after the 1992 season, and they finally started putting better talent around him.
The Broncos treaded water for two more seasons under Wade Phillips, but the return of Elway ally Mike Shanahan as head coach in 1995 turned into the icing on the cake for Elway’s career.He set a career high with 26 touchdown passes in 1995, then tied that mark in 1996, and topped it with 27 in 1997. His first year with Shanahan as head coach also produced his second highest single season yardage total: 3,970. He led the team to a 13-3 season & the top seed in the AFC in 1996, but they were shockingly beat at home by the Jaguars.
He started all 16 games in 1997, completing 280 of 502 passes for 3,625 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, with a passer rating of 87.5. He led the Broncos to Super Bowl XXXII, where they beat the Packers 31-24. He missed four starts due to injury in 1998, with 12 starts in 13 games played, completing 59% of his passes, throwing for 2,806 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He led the Broncos to Super Bowl XXXIII, beating the Falcons 34-19. Elway was 18 of 29 for 336 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and one rushing touchdown, earning the Super Bowl XXXIII MVP award.
After winning his second Super Bowl in a row, Elway retired on May 2nd, 1999. He played 16 years in the NFL, all with the Denver Broncos (1983-1998). He was selected to the Pro Bowl nine times (1986, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1996-1998). He was voted the UPI AFC Offensive Player of the Year in 1987 & 1993. He was named to the NFL 1990’s All-Decade Team. He was inducted into the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame in 1999, and had his jersey #7 retired by the team. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004. He was ranked #23 among the legends on the NFL Top 100.
1. Indianapolis Colts-Peyton Manning, QB, Tennessee, 1998
I know there’s going to be some haters & critics that won’t agree with this pick. Just based on my standard scoring formula, he played 17 seasons (17 pts), he played in a record tying 14 Pro Bowls (28 pts), won two Super Bowls (6 pts), was the MVP of Super Bowl XLI (3 pts), ranked #8 on the top 100 of all time (92 pts), first team all pro seven times (14 pts), second team all pro three times (6 pts), voted NFL MVP five times by the Associated Press (10 pts), AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year twice (4 pts), NFL Player of the Year in 2003 & 2004, the Bert Bell Award (4 pts), & AP NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 2012 (2 pts). If you compare his score in these areas with Elway’s, Manning is ahead by a score of 186-140. Even if you only gave him one point for each record set, he holds 48 NFL regular season records, 13 NFL playoffs records, five rookie records, four quarterback/wide receiver tandem records set with Marvin Harrison, 10 Pro Bowl records, 48 Colts franchise records ( breaking records set by Johnny Unitas in the process), and then breaking 17 franchise passing records in four seasons with the Broncos, he would have another 145 points just based on all of the records he broke!
He was selected to the 1998 NFL All Rookie Team. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl following the 1999 season, when he threw for 4,135 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, with a passer rating of 90.5. He was selected to the Pro Bowl a total of 14 times, in 1999, 2000, 2002-2010, and 2012-2014, and was the MVP of the 2005 Pro Bowl. He threw for over 4,000 yards 14 times in 17 seasons, and led the league in passing yardage three times, in 2000, 2003, and 2013. His best season was in 2013 with the Broncos, when he set the league’s single season records for completions (450), attempts (659), passing yards (5,477), and touchdowns (55), while throwing only 10 interceptions, with a career high passer rating of 115.1.
He led the NFL in touchdown passes in 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2013. He was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2004 & 2013. He was selected as the NFL MVP in 2003, 2004, 2008, 2009, and 2013. He was a seven time first team All Pro (2003-2005, 2008, 2009, 2012, & 2013), & a three time second team All Pro (1999, 2000, & 2006).
He won the Bert Bell award (NFL Player of the Year) in 2003 & 2004. He won the AFC Offensive Player of the Year Award eight times: in 1999, 2003-2005, 2008, 2009, 2012, and 2013. He was named the AFC Offensive Player of the week 27 times. He was named to the NFL 2000’s All-Decade Team. He also won quite a few Espy awards from ESPN: Best NFL Player in 2004 & 2005, Best Record Breaking Performance in 2005 & 2014, and Best Championship Performance in 2007. He was named the 2004 FedEx Express Player of the Year in 2004.
By the time his Colts career came to an end in 2012, he was the team’s all time leader in passing attempts (4,682), completions (7,210), yards (54,828), touchdowns (399), and career wins (141). He missed the entire 2011 season after undergoing spinal fusion surgery, and the Colts had to waive him in 2012 to clear salary cap space & a starting spot for the eventual top pick in the draft: Andrew Luck. It wasn’t even certain he would be able to play again, but there was no shortage of teams willing to give him a chance. In the end, he chose his boyhood idol John Elway & the Denver Broncos.
We now know what a storybook finish it turned into for Peyton & the Broncos. His first season with them was incredible, winning 13 games while completing 400 of 583 passes for 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, with a passer rating of 105.9. He won the award for NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 2012, but the team lost a home playoff game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens. He was even better statistically in 2013, when he set most of the single season passing records, including 5,477 yards, 55 touchdowns, and only 10 interceptions. He was named the 2013 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. The team advanced to Super Bowl XLVIII, but lost to the Seahawks, 43-8.
The team advanced to the playoffs again in 2014 in spite of a late season slump by Manning, but another playoff loss forced Elway to make some major changes. He fired veteran head coach John Fox, and brought in old friend & former Broncos backup quarterback & Texans head coach Gary Kubiak to be the new head coach. Kubiak also convinced defensive coordinator & former Broncos head coach Wade Phillips to join him as the defensive coordinator in Denver. With the new coaching staff onboard, the team built a defense to win a championship. Even with Manning missing seven games due to injury, Brock Osweiler went 5-2 in his place. However, when Osweiler slumped in the season finale, Manning took over in the second half & led a comeback win, the Broncos won the rest of the way, and the rest is history.
He’s done too much for me to justify putting any of the guys behind him any higher. In his 17 year playing career, he completed 6,125 of 9,380 attempts for 71,940 yards, 539 touchdowns, and 251 interceptions, with a passer rating of 96.5. The play that really sticks out in my head was the one where he overruled coach Dungy & waved off the punt team, and basically said, “I GOT THIS!!!!,” telling coach Dungy he was absolutely sure he would convert the fourth down based on the coverage they were playing. He threw a fourth down completion to Reggie Wayne & kept the drive going. It’s plays like that that make guys say it was like having an offensive coordinator on the field when he was in at quarterback. He did things that no other quarterback could, there’s never been anyone else that could read a defense like him.