This list started out with 41 of a possible 80 players on the list, which is probably the highest percentage of any pick yet. I don’t think that even the first overall pick started out with that many worth mentioning. Out of the ten players listed, nine of them are in the Hall of Fame, with the lone exception being former Texans turned Colts wide receiver Andre Johnson. The only Hall of Famer to miss the cut was Lions running back Doak Walker, who played for only six seasons (1950-1955).
So, here’s my list if the top 10 NFL players ever drafted with the third overall pick:
10. Seattle Seahawks-Cortez Kennedy, DT, Miami (Fla.), 1990
He became a 16 game starter in 1991, and also earned his first Pro Bowl selection, with 73 tackles and 6.5 sacks. He was basically a one man army in 1992, with 92 tackles, 14 sacks, four forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. His performance earned him NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1992, in spite of playing for a hopeless Seahawks team that finished 2-14. He started all 16 games every year from 1991-1996, but was limited to eight games due to a broken left ankle in 1997.
He was right back in the Pro Bowl in 1998 & 1999, and had 6.5 sacks for the fourth time in 1999. He was limited to one sack in 2000, and retired after the season. He spent his entire 11 year career with the Seahawks (1990-2000), reaching the Pro Bowl eight times (1991-1996, 1998, 1999). He started 153 of the 167 games he played in, recording 58 sacks, 11 forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries, and three interceptions for 26 yards.
He was named to the NFL 1990’s All-Decade Team. He was inducted into the Seattle Seahawks Ring of Honor in 2006, and had his jersey #96 retired by the Seahawks. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
9. Chicago Cardinals-Ollie Matson, RB, San Francisco, 1952
He was one of the great all purpose backs of the 1950’s, going over 1,000 all purpose yards in each of his first seven seasons. As a rookie he ran for 344 yards and three touchdowns, had 11 catches for 187 yards and three touchdowns, and added two more touchdowns and 624 yards as a kickoff returner. He also had nine punt returns for 86 yards, giving him 1,275 all purpose yards. He missed out on the 1953 season serving in the military, but came back strong in 1954.
He led the league with 1,666 all purpose yards in 1954, with 506 yards and four touchdowns rushing, 34 catches for 611 yards and three touchdowns, 11 punt returns for 100 yards and a touchdown, and 17 kickoff returns for 449 yards and a touchdown. In 1955 he led the league in punt return yardage (254), average yards per punt return (18.8), punts returned for touchdowns (2), and had the league’s longest punt return (78 yards). He also added 475 yards rushing 237 yards receiving, and 368 yards on kickoff returns, for a total of 1,325 all purpose yards. In 1956 he only returned five punts for 39 yards, but made up for it on kickoff returns.
He had 13 kickoff returns for 362 yards in 1956, including a career long 105 yard return for a touchdown. He also had career highs as a runner, with 192 carries for 924 yards and five touchdowns, and 15 catches for 199 yards and a touchdown, once again leading the league with 1,524 all purpose yards. In 1957 he went over 1,000 yards combined rushing and receiving for the third time in his career, with 134 carries for 577 yards and six touchdowns, and 20 catches for 451 yards and three touchdowns, for a total of 1,028 yards. He also had 54 yards on punt returns and 154 yards on kickoff returns, for a total of 1,236 all purpose yards.
His performances earned him selection in the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons (1952, 1954-1958). In 1958 he had 129 carries for 505 yards and five touchdowns, 33 catches for 465 yards and three touchdowns, and 497 yards and two touchdowns on kickoff returns, for a total of 1,467 all purpose yards. He was traded to the Rams for nine players in 1959, and paid immediate dividends for his new team. He had the second highest rushing yardage total of his career in 1959, with 161 carries for 863 yards and six touchdowns.
His playing time dropped in 1960, with only 484 all purpose yards, but he rebounded the next year. He had his second highest receiving yardage total of his career in 1961, with 29 catches for 537 yards and three touchdowns. He moved on to the Lions in 1963, but played sparingly, with only three kickoff returns for 61 yards. He rebounded nicely with the Eagles in 1964, with his highest yardage totals since joining the Rams five years earlier.
At the age of 34, when most running back are running on fumes, Matson had 96 carries for 404 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 4.2 yards per carry, along with 17 catches for 242 yards and one touchdown. Two years later, in his final season, he had 26 kickoffs returned for 544 yards, his second highest single season kickoff return yardage total. He played a total of 14 seasons in the NFL, six seasons with the Cardinals (1952, 1954-1958), four with the Rams (1959-1962), one with the Lions (1963), and three years with the Eagles (1964-1966). He had 1,170 carries for 5,173 yards and 40 touchdowns, 222 catches for 3,285 yards and 23 touchdowns, 65 punt returns for 595 yards and three touchdowns, 143 kickoffs returned for 3,746 yards and six touchdowns, and 51 yards on interception returns, for a grand total of 12,884 all purpose yards.
At the time of his retirement, the only player with more all purpose yardage was Jim Brown. He was named to the NFL 1950’s All-Decade Team. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972. He was inducted into the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame in 1987. He was added to the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor in 2006.
8. New York Giants (supplemental USFL draft)-Gary Zimmerman, T, Oregon, 1984
You might not find this selection on too many draft pick compilation articles like this one, but a lot of modern fans might not even know this draft ever happened. The NFL had a special supplemental draft in 1984 for players who signed with the USFL or the Canadian Football League, but had not yet been drafted by an NFL club. Since three of the top four players selected in that draft are now in the Hall of Fame (Steve Young, Zimmerman, and Reggie White), I think it’s worth including them here.
After the USFL folded, the Vikings traded two second round picks in 1986 to acquire the rights to Zimmerman. The Giants used those picks on cornerback Mark Collins & nose tackle Erik Howard, both starters on two Super Bowl winning teams, so it was a rare win/win trade deal. Zimmerman became the Vikings starting left tackle, and was named to three consecutive Pro Bowls (1987-1989). He was chosen for the Pro Bowl again in 1992.
The Broncos were in such dire need of a new left tackle, they traded their first & sixth round picks in 1994, and a second round pick in 1995 for Zimmerman. The Vikings turned the picks into cornerback DeWayne Washington, tight end Andrew Jordan, and ballhawk safety Orlando Thomas. Denver got three Pro Bowl seasons out of Zimmerman (1994-1996), and finally got a Super Bowl championship a year later, which turned out to be Zimmerman’s last season (1997). He was named to the NFL 1980’s All-Decade Team, the NFL 1990’s All-Decade Team, the USFL All-Time Team, the 50 Greatest Vikings, and the Denver Broncos 50th Anniversary Team. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
7. Washington Redskins-Charley Taylor, RB/WR, Arizona State, 1964
He was the UPI NFL Rookie of the Year in 1964, with 199 carries for 755 yards and five touchdowns, and 53 catches for 814 yards and five touchdowns. He was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons (1964-1967). In 1965 he had 145 carries for 402 yards and three touchdowns, but averaged only 2.8 yards per carry. His receiver skills became his bread & butter, with 40 catches for 577 yards and three touchdowns.
In 1966 he spent more time at wide receiver, and led the league with 72 catches for 1,119 yards and 12 touchdowns. He led the league in receptions again in 1967, with 70 catches for 990 yards and nine touchdowns. His production dipped to 48 catches in 1968, but he rebounded with 71 catches for 883 yards and eight touchdowns. In 1970 he had 42 catches for 593 yards, turning eight of them into touchdowns.
He suffered a broken leg in 1971, ending his season after six games, with 24 catches for 370 yards and four touchdowns. He came back so strong, he was selected to the next four Pro Bowls (1972-1975). He had 49 catches for 673 yards and seven touchdowns in 1972. The Redskins reached Super Bowl VII at the end of the 1972 season, but lost a defensive battle to the Dolphins, 14-7.
He had 50 or more catches in each of the next three seasons, with 59 in 1973, 54 in 1974, and 53 in 1975. He became the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions in the last game of the 1975 season, with his 634th catch. He missed the entire 1976 season due to injury. He started only seven of 12 games played in 1977, finishing with 14 catches for 158 yards in his final season. He joined fellow Redskins legend Bobby Mitchell in the front office after retirement, and joined Joe Gibbs staff as the wide receivers coach in 1981, sticking around for three Super Bowl wins.
He spent his entire 14 year career with the Redskins (1964-1977). He played in 165 games and had 649 catches for 9,110 yards and 79 touchdowns, and 442 carries for 1,488 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was named to the NFL 1960’s All-Decade Team, and the 70 Greatest Redskins. He was inducted into the Redskins Ring of Fame, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
6. Houston Texans-Andre Johnson, WR, Miami (Fla.), 2003
He started all 16 games as a rookie, and had 66 catches for 976 yards and four touchdowns. He had his first 1,000 yard season and first Pro Bowl selection in 2004, with 79 catches for 1,142 yards and six touchdowns. He had a slight dropoff with 63 catches in 2005, but he rebounded & led the league with 103 catches, producing 1,147 yards and five touchdowns in 2006. He missed seven games with injuries in 2007, but still had 60 catches in nine games.
In 2008 he led the league in receptions and receiving yards, with 115 catches for 1,575 yards and eight touchdowns. In 2009 he had 14 fewer catches (101), but still had 1,569 yards (only six yards less than 2008), and had a career high nine touchdowns. In 2010 he missed three games, but still had 86 catches for 1,216 yards and eight touchdowns. That season saw him earn the fifth of seven Pro Bowl selections (2004, 2006, 2008-2010, 2012, 2013).
He suffered a hamstring injury in 2011 that cost him nine games, and limited his performance in others, finishing with only 33 catches for 492 yards and two touchdowns. In 2012 he set a career high in receiving yardage, with 1,598 yards and four touchdowns on 112 catches. In 2013 he had over 100 catches for the fifth time in his career, with 109 catches for 1,407 yards and five touchdowns, topping 1,000 yards for the seventh time. In 2014 he missed one start, and had 85 catches for 936 yards and three touchdowns.
In 2014 he became the tenth player in NFL history with over 1,000 receptions in his career, and is currently at 1,012 catches. He is currently 12th in career receiving yardage, with 13,597 yards. He became a salary cap casualty after the 2014 season, and signed with the division rival Colts. At the very least he’s expected to be a strong #2 receiver opposite T.Y. Hilton.
5. Chicago Bears-Bobby Layne, QB, Texas, 1948
He spent his rookie season sitting behind Sid Luckman and Johnny Lujack in Chicago,and wasn’t thrilled with being a third stringer. He was traded to the New York Bulldogs in 1949 for their first round pick in 1950. The Bulldogs won only one of 12 games played, and he was traded again the next season. He was traded to the Detroit Lions for wide receiver Bob Mann, and it turned into possibly the greatest trade in the history of the Lions franchise.
In 1950 he led the NFL with 2,323 yards passing, and had 16 touchdowns. He was named to his first of six Pro Bowls (1951-1953, 1956, 1958, 1959) after throwing for 2,403 yards and 26 touchdowns in 1951. He followed that with 1,999 yards and 19 touchdowns in 1952, and together with former high school teammate Doak Walker helped the Lions win their first NFL Championship since 1935.
They duplicated the effort in 1953, with Layne throwing for 2,088 yards and 16 touchdowns, giving the NFL it’s first back-to-back NFL championships since the 1940-1941 Chicago Bears. He set a career high in completion percentage with a 54.9 in 1954, throwing for 1,818 yards and 14 touchdowns. In 1955 he led the league with a completion percentage of 53%, throwing for 1,830 yards and 11 touchdowns. In 1956 he went 9-3 as the starter, throwing for 1,909 yards and nine touchdowns.
In 1957 he went on to collect the third championship ring of his career, but suffered a broken leg in the seventh game of the season. His replacement, Tobin Rote, played well enough in the championship victory that the Lions traded Layne two games in the 1958 season. The Steelers gave up a younger quarterback, Earl Morrall, who was drafted second overall in 1956, and two draft picks. The Steelers were so sold on Layne that they traded Len Dawson to the Browns on New Year’s Eve in 1959.
Layne had four more solid seasons left in him before retiring with the Steelers after the 1962 season. At the time of his retirement, he was the NFL’s all-time leader with 26,768 yards and 196 touchdowns. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, his first year of eligibility. He was named to the NFL 1950’s All-Decade Team, and had his jersey #22 retired by the Lions.
4. Chicago Bears-Dick Butkus, LB, Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 1965
As a rookie in 1965 he had a career high five interceptions for 84 yards. He was named the NEA NFL Defensive Player of the year in 1969 and 1970. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight seasons (1965-1972), only missing out on it in his final season, 1973. He played in 119 games in his career, but played only nine games in his final season due to injury.
He spent his entire career with Da Bears, playing from 1965-1973. In nine seasons he had 22 interceptions for 166 yards, and 27 fumble recoveries, including seven as a rookie. He was named to the NFL 1960’s All-Decade Team, the NFL 1970’s All-Decade Team, and the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. He had his jersey number #51 retired by the Bears, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility. In the NFL’s Top 100 countdown, he was rated as the 10th best player of all time.
3. L.A. Rams-Merlin Olsen, DT, Utah State, 1962
He alone held the record for most Pro Bowl selections in a career with 14 until the record was tied by Bruce Matthews, Tony Gonzalez, and Peyton Manning. He only had one interception in his career, a 20 yarder returned for a touchdown in his rookie year. He was named the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1962. He played in 208 games in his career, and was credited with 94 sacks along the way, but it isn’t considered official since it was before 1982.
He spent his entire 15 year career with the Rams (1962-1976). He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility. He was named to the NFL 1960’s All-Decade Team, the NFL 1970’s All-Decade Team, and the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. He had his jersey #74 retired by the Rams.
2. Cincinnati Bengals-Anthony Munoz, T, USC, 1980
He is considered one of the greatest offensive linemen in NFL history, I see it as a toss-up between Munoz, John Hannah, and Joe DeLamielleure. He was the Bengals left tackle for both Super Bowl losses to the 49ers, and both games were close losses. He was selected to the Pro Bowl 11 years in a row, from 1981 to 1991, only missing out in his first & last years. He was named the Offensive Lineman of the Year in 1981, 1987, and 1988. He was selected to the NFL 1980’s All-Decade Team, & the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1998. He was ranked as the 12th best player of all time on the NFL’s Top 100.
1. Detroit Lions-Barry Sanders, RB, Oklahoma State, 1989
He was the runaway choice as the 1989 NFL Rookie of the Year, with 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns. He rushed for over 1,000 yards each season in the NFL, and even his lowest season total was 1,115 yards in 11 games in 1993. He averaged over five yards per carry five times, and even his career average is five yards per carry, tied with Gale Sayers, Adrian Peterson, and Joe Perry for seventh highest in NFL history. He was the NFL MVP in 1991, missing one game but still finishing with 342 carries for 1,548 yards, and he led the league with16 rushing touchdowns.
The Lions reached the NFC Championship in 1991, but lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Redskins. He started all 16 games in 1992, rushing for 1,352 yards and nine touchdowns. He missed five games in 1993, but still rushed for 1,115 yards. In 1994 he led the league in rushing yardage again, with what was then a career high 1,883 yards and nine touchdowns. The 1994 season started an incredible streak: he rushed for at least 1,500 yards for four years in a row.
In 1995 he had 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. In 1996 he led the league again, with 1,553 yards and 11 touchdowns. In 1997 he became the third 2,000 yard rusher in NFL history, with 335 carries for 2,053 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging an incredible 6.1 yards per carry. The 1997 season saw him win the NFL MVP award from five different news groups, as well as being named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year for the second time (1994, 1997), and the NFL Alumni Running Back of the Year for 1997.
In 1998 he had 343 carries for 1,491 yards and four touchdowns, ending his 1,500 rushing yardage streak. He was really quiet about his retirement in 1999, making the announcement through a fax to the newspaper in his hometown. At the time of his retirement, he was only 1,457 yards away from all-time leading rusher Walter Payton’s 16,726 yards. Even after Emmitt played his 10th season, he was still 1,307 yards away from Barry’s 10 year career totals.
He spent his entire 10 year career with the Detroit Lions (1989-1998). He had 3,062 carries for 15,269 yards and 99 touchdowns, along with 352 catches for 2,921 yards and 10 touchdowns. He is currently ranked third in career rushing yards, behind only Walter Payton & Emmitt Smith. He was rated the #1 Most Elusive Running Back of All Time by nfl.com. He was named to the NFL 1990’s All-Decade Team. He had his #20 retired by the Lions, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.