From Staubach to T.D. to Brady: Picking the biggest NFL Draft steal for all 32 teams
Almost anyone can hit on a first-rounder; the truly good teams are able to unearth stars late
When it comes to building a roster, hitting on first-round picks is a no-brainer. Teams that fail to do that find themselves in a never-ending cycle of losing records and top-10 selections. But what separates the average outfit from the perennial playoff teams is what comes after the first round.
How often does a front office find starters in Rounds 2 or 3? And just as important, do the third-day picks not only make the roster or add depth, but eventually earn starting jobs? Because if we learned anything from Redskins owner Daniel Snyder's early years in Washington, it's that handing out ludicrous contracts to once-great players on the downside of their careers -- at the expense of adding reasonably priced depth at other positions -- is a surefire way to expedite the losing and enrage a fan base.
Put another way: Anybody can pull the trigger on a Jameis Winston or a Marcus Mariota with a top-two pick, but talent evaluators -- from the scouts on the ground all the way up to the general manager -- make their money on the late-round afterthoughts no one paid attention to during the draft process. Richard Sherman and Josh Norman were too slow and too rigid, for example. And Antonio Brown was too raw and didn't run precise routes. To say these words out loud in 2017 is laughable, but at the time, that was the consensus.
So with that in mind, we've taken a look back at some of the best draft steals in recent NFL history. For the most part, this list is restricted to the past 30 years, but there are always exceptions, and in those cases we went back even further. Because sometimes it's impossible to overlook a player originally drafted as an afterthought who goes on to exceed everyone's expectations, usually all the way to Canton.
Aeneas Williams, DB, 1991 sixth-round pick
Williams, drafted out of Southern, spent the first 10 years of his 14-year Hall of Fame career with the Cardinals, where he was one of the league's best defensive backs. In terms of Pro Football Reference's Career Approximate Value metric (CarAV), which is a general measure of productivity that allows you to compare players across positions, Williams ranked behind only Brett Favre in total CarAV among the 1991 draft class.
- Other candidates: Larry Wilson (seventh round), Pat Fischer (17th round), Ray Brown (eighth round).
Jeff Van Note, C, 1969 11th-round pick
Van Note played his entire career in Atlanta, starting 226 games from 1969-86. He was named to five Pro Bowls and was an inaugural member of the Falcons' Ring of Honor along with Steve Bartkowski, William Andrews, Jessie Tuggle and Tommy Nobis.
- Other candidates: Jamal Anderson (seventh round), Todd McClure (seventh round).
Adalius Thomas, OLB, 2000 sixth-round pick
Thomas was an afterthought in a draft class that was led by running back Jamal Lewis, but by the time his career was over, Thomas proved to be one of the Ravens' best selections, no matter the round. After several years on special teams, he went on to start 74 games from 2002-06, before spending the final three years of his career with the Patriots. In 2006, he registered 11 sacks, two better than his previous career high the season before. He was also named to two Pro Bowls.
- Other candidates: Marshal Yanda (third round), Jarret Johnson (fourth round).
Andre Reed, WR, 1985 fourth-round pick
Drafted out of Kutztown, Reed spent 15 seasons in Buffalo, where he played on four Super Bowl teams and finished with 941 receptions for 13,095 yards and 86 touchdowns. (He spent a 16th season in Washington before retiring.) He was chosen for seven Pro Bowls and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.
- Other candidates: Stevie Johnson (seventh round), Kyle Williams (fifth round).
Josh Norman, CB, 2012 fifth-round pick
Norman wasn't well known when he was drafted out of Coastal Carolina, and he wasn't even considered a shutdown corner until his breakout 2015 season. Now he's a highly compensated cornerback for the Redskins who went from the sixth-best player at his position in '15, according to Pro Football Focus' grades, to 39th last season.
Richard Dent, DE, 1983 eighth-round pick
Dent spent 11 years in Chicago, including with the dominant 1985 team that lost just once on its way to the Lombardi Trophy. He was a four-time Pro Bowl pick, and in 1984-85 recorded 34.5 sacks. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
- Other candidates: George Blanda (12th round), Shaun Gayle (10th round).
Geno Atkins, DT, 2010 fourth-round pick
Atkins was the 12th defensive tackle taken in 2010, and the class included four first-rounders: Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Tyson Alualu and Dan Williams. But of the 11 taken before Atkins, only Suh has a higher CarAV than the Bengals' standout. Hampered by injuries in 2013, Atkins was dominant in 2015, registering 11 sacks and grading out as the No. 2 defensive tackle behind only Aaron Donald. Last season he ranked fourth, behind Donald, Suh and Kawann Short. He has been named to five Pro Bowls during his seven-year career.
- Other candidates: Tim Krumrie (10th round), T.J. Houshmandzadeh (seventh round).
Leroy Kelly, RB, 1964 eighth-round pick
Kelly spent 10 seasons in Cleveland, made six Pro Bowls and appeared in nine playoff games. During his first two years he was a standout punt returner. He took over the starting running back job in 1966, and over the next three seasons he rushed for 3,555 yards and 42 touchdowns. Kelly won Player of the Year honors in 1968.
- Other candidates: Brian Sipe (13th round), Gene Hickerson (seventh round).
Roger Staubach, QB, 1964 10th-round pick
Staubach, a Heisman Trophy winner at the U.S. Naval Academy, didn't play in the NFL until 1969 because of military commitments, which included a one-year tour in Vietnam. Still, during an 11-year career, he led the Cowboys to two Lombardi Trophys and made six Pro Bowl appearances. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
- Other candidates: Rayfield Wright (seventh round), Bob Hayes (seventh round), Hershel Walker (fifth round).
Terrell Davis, RB, 1995 sixth-round pick
Once Garrison Hearst's backup at Georgia, Davis had a solid college career but NFL teams were scared off by the perception that he couldn't stay healthy. It's part of the reason he lasted untili the sixth round, though Davis wasted little time proving his critics wrong. He started 14 games as a rookie and rushed for 1,117 yards (4.7 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns. Two years later, he ran for 1,750 yards and the Broncos won the Super Bowl. In 1998, he bettered that mark, rushing for 2,008 yards and Denver defended its Super Bowl title. A knee injury cut short his 1999 season, and a leg injury limited him in 2000; by 2002, Davis had played his last NFL game. And while his career was brief, it was certainly noteworthy; Davis will be a member of the 2017 Hall of Fame class.
- Other candidates: Karl Mecklenburg (12th round), Tom Nalen (seventh round), Shannon Sharpre (seventh round).
Rodney Peete, QB, 1989 sixth-round pick
So yeah, there wasn't a lot to choose from here, particularly over the past couple decades. In fact, you have to go back more than 60 years to find a Lions player taken after the third round who found his way to the Hall of Fame (Jack Christiansen was a sixth-rounder in '51; Joe Schmidt was a seventh-rounder two years later). Fast-forward some 36 years and we find Peete, who played at Southern California and went from late-round pick to eight-game starter as a rookie. He would start 39 more games over his next four seasons in Detroit. By the time it was over, he had amassed a 21-26 record with 8,164 passing yards, 38 touchdowns and 49 interceptions. He would go on to play another 10 NFL seasons for the Eagles, Panthers, Cowboys, Raiders and Redskins.
- Other candidates: Eddie Murray (seventh round), Cory Schlesinger (sixth round), Theo Riddick (sixth round).
Green Bay Packers
Bart Starr, QB, 1956 17th-round pick
Starr played in a different era, but he also was under center for the Packers' first two Super Bowl wins and three NFL championships before that. Still, consider this: He never threw for more than 2,438 yards or 16 touchdowns in a season, but despite the modest numbers, he still ranks seventh on the Packers' all-time CarAV list behind Aaron Rodgers and three other Hall of Famers. (Remember, this includes players originally drafted by the team in question, which is why Brett Favre isn't listed here.) Starr was named league MVP in 1966, and 11 years later, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
- Other candidates: Donald Driver (seventh round), Josh Sitton (fourth round), Scott Wells (seventh round).
Owen Daniels, TE, 2006, fourth-round pick
The Texans have only been around since 2002, so there's not much history here. That said, Daniels, who played at Wisconsin, spent eight seasons in Houston and started 96 games with 479 receptions for 5,661 yards and 36 touchdowns.
Robert Mathis, DE, 2003, fifth-round pick
Mathis was drafted a year after the Colts took Dwight Freeney in the first round, and the two teamed up to be two of the NFL's most ferocious pass rushers. And while Freeney left Indy after the 2012 season, Mathis was still there in 2016, and as recently as 2013 -- his 11th year in the league -- he racked up 19.5 sacks. He had 12 sacks in his final two seasons and announced in December that he was .
- Other candidates: Raymond Berry (20th round), Antoine Bethea (sixth round).
David Garrard, QB, 2002 fourth-round pick
The Jaguars considered Garrard a backup when they drafted him, and that helps explain why they used a top-10 pick on Byron Leftwich in 2003. But by 2006, Garrard had won the job outright, and he remained the Jags' No. 1 quarterback until 2010. In that time, he led Jacksonville to one playoff appearance -- in 2007 -- that included a road win against the Steelers. For his career, Garrard was 39-37, completing 62 percent of his passes for 16,003 yards, 89 touchdowns and 54 interceptions.
- Other candidates: Seth Payne (fourth round), Josh Scobee (fifth round), Rob Meier (seventh round).
Kansas City Chiefs
Jared Allen, DE, 2004 fourth-round pick
Allen spent just four seasons in Kansas City, but it was long enough to tally 43 sacks. However, he hadn't yet hit his prime; he spent the next six years in Minnesota, where he managed 85.5 sacks and was one of the NFL's most dominant pass rushers. Allen is a five-time Pro Bowl pick and set the Vikings' single-season sack record in 2011 with 22.
- Other candidates: Kevin Ross (seventh round), Donnie Edwards (fourth round), Dave Szott (seventh round), Joe Horn (fifth round).
Los Angeles Rams
Deacon Jones, DE, 1961 14th-round pick
Jones was part of the "Fearsome Foursome," which also included Merlin Olsen, Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy. He spent his career terrorizing quarterbacks, became so proficient at the head slap that it was banned by the league, gave us the word "sack" and when he retired in 1974, had been to eight Pro Bowls, was twice named NFL Defensive Player of the Year and would rank third in league history in sacks if it had been a stat throughout his career.
- Other candidates: Kevin Greene (fifth round), Norm Van Brocklin (fourth round).
Zach Thomas, LB, 1996 fifth-round pick
Thomas, who was listed at 5-feet-11 and 230 pounds, was considered undersized coming out of Texas Tech, but ended up being one of the best players in the '96 draft. His CarAV ranked fourth behind only Ray Lewis, Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens. Harrison was enshrined in Canton in 2016, and Lewis and Owens won't be far behind ().
- Other candidates: Mark Clayton (eighth round), Ed Newman (sixth round).
Matt Birk, C, 1998 sixth-round pick
Birk didn't make his first start until the 2000 season, but from 2000-08, he started 187 of 188 games, was a six-time Pro Bowl selection and played a part in five Vikings playoff teams. In 2012, he won a Super Bowl with the Ravens.
- Other candidates: Terry Allen (ninth round), Brad Johnson (ninth round).
New England Patriots
Tom Brady, QB, 2000 sixth-round pick
Perhaps you've heard this story.
It really is a miracle that, despite the lack of natural athleticism, Brady has made himself into the best quarterback in NFL history. Shortly after the 2017 NFL combine had concluded, Brady talked about his journey, one that got off to a rocky start in Indianapolis in 2000.
How April 16 isn't yet a holiday in New England remains one of life's great mysteries. St. Patrick's Day is in March, and Patriots' Day is the third Monday in April. But April 16 is the day the Patriots drafted Tom Brady.
Now, 17 years later, the Patriots have won five Super Bowls and Brady has been Super Bowl MVP four times, not to mention the myriad other awards and honors. He shows no signs of slowing up anytime soon (), which means that as long as he and Bill Belichick are together, the Patriots will be favorites to make it to the Super Bowl. And when they retire they'll be headed straight for Canton.
- Other candidates: Steve Grogan (fifth round), Asante Samuel (fourth round), Malcolm Butler (yes, we know, he went undrafted -- and this is about late-round steals -- but after that Super Bowl-sealing interception against the Seahawks, he never has to do anything else in his NFL career to make this list.)
New Orleans Saints
Jahri Evans, OT, 2006 fourth-round pick
How good has Evans been? He has missed just seven starts in 10 NFL seasons. And not only that, he has played at an extremely high level during that span. In fact, his CarAV is third all time among players drafted by the Saints, behind only Hall of Famers Rickey Jackson and Willie Roaf, and just ahead of Pat Swilling. The name you might have been expecting to see here, fellow '06 draft pick Marques Colston, is 10th in CarAV, just behind Archie Manning.
- Other candidates: Marques Colston (seventh round), Carl Nicks (fifth round), Jermon Bushrod (fourth round).
New York Giants
Rosey Brown, OT, 1953 27th-round pick
There were 320 players selected before the Giants settled on Brown. For some perspective, only 253 players were selected in the 2016 draft. But Brown played 13 seasons and missed just four games during his career. Four. He helped New York to six division championships, and was a key member of the '56 team that trounced the Bears 47-7 in the NFL championship game. He was one of five future Hall of Famers to play in that game, including teammate Frank Gifford.
- Other candidates: Jessie Armstead (eighth round), Harry Carson (fourth round), George Martin (11th round).
New York Jets
Joe Klecko, DL, 1977 sixth-round pick
Klecko spent 11 of his 12 NFL seasons with the Jets. He was part of the "New York Sack Exchange" -- with defensive linemen Mark Gastineau, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam -- a group that combined for a mind-boggling 66 sacks in 1981. That year, Klecko was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He was also a four-time Pro Bowl selection.
- Other candidates: Joe Fields (14th round), John Mackey (fifth round).
Rod Martin, LB, 1977 12th-round pick
Martin spent all 12 seasons with the Raiders -- both in Oakland and Los Angeles -- where he played on two Super Bowl-winning teams, and twice was named to the Pro Bowl. He finished his career with 33.5 sacks (worth noting: Sacks didn't become an official NFL statistic until 1981), 14 interceptions and four touchdowns.
- Other candidates: Greg Biekert (seventh round), Cliff Branch (fourth round), Bo Jackson* (seventh round with an asterisk after being a Bucs first-round pick the year before)
Clyde Simmons, DE, 1986 ninth-round pick
Simmons played in Philly from 1986-93, and on three occasions he registered more than 10 sacks, including a 19-sack season in 1992, which led the league. Simmons, who played at Western Carolina and ranks sixth in CarAV among all the players drafted by the Eagles, was a two-time Pro Bowl selection and stands 11th on the NFL's all-time sack list with 121.5.
- Other candidates: Seth Joyner (eighth round), Harold Carmichael (seventh round).
Antonio Brown, WR, 2010 sixth-round pick
By accounts at the time, Brown came out of Central Michigan a year too soon, and that was part of the reason he lasted until the sixth round. All he has done in the seven NFL seasons since: 632 receptions, 8,377 yards -- including 371 receptions and 35 touchdowns since 2014. There's more: Brown has five special teams touchdowns, is widely considered the NFL's best wideout and also happens to be a legit four-down player.
- Other candidates: Mike Webster (fifth round), Greg Lloyd (sixth round), Hardy Nickerson (fifth round), Johnny Unitas (ninth round), L.C. Greenwood (10th round), James Harrison (again, undrafted, but he deserves a mention for his Super Bowl pick-six against the Cardinals, not to mention, well, everything else).
San Diego Chargers
Rodney Harrison, S, 1994 fifth-round pick
Harrison spent nine years in San Diego, and though he didn't start a game in his second season he still managed five interceptions. From 1996-2002, he started 96 games and had 21 interceptions, 21.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles. Harrison finished his career with the Patriots, where he won two Super Bowl titles. He's also the NFL's first player to record 30 interceptions and 30 sacks.
- Other candidates: Darren Sproles (fourth round), Shaun Phillips (fifth round), Antonio Gates (yes, undrafted, but also worthy of a name check since he's a future Hall of Famer who was a basketball player in college).
San Francisco 49ers
Charles Haley, DE, 1986 fourth-round pick
A two-time All-American at James Madison, Haley needed little time to adjust to the NFL game. He had 12 sacks as a rookie, and by the time he left the 49ers eight years later, he had racked up 66.5. He spent five more years in Dallas, and retired with 100 career sacks. More impressive: Haley won five Super Bowl titles -- two with the 49ers and three more with the Cowboys -- and was a five-time Pro Bowl selection.
- Other candidates: Jesse Sapolu (11th round), Dwight Clark (10th round).
Richard Sherman, CB, 2011 fifth-round pick
Sherman began his Stanford career as a wide receiver but moved to cornerback after an injury. That proved to be a great decision. During his first NFL season, he led all rookies with four interceptions and 17 passes defended, and he has been entrenched as a starter ever since. Sherman has twice had eight-interception seasons, and has 84 career passes defended. He has also been to three Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl.
- Other candidates: Phillip Daniels (fourth round), K.J. Wright (fourth round), Kam Chancellor (fifth round).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Chidi Ahanotu, DE, 1993 sixth-round pick
Ahanotu spent nine seasons with the Buccaneers and finished with 34.5 sacks. In terms of CarAV, he ranks 10th all-time among all Buccaneers, behind Hall of Famers Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and Lee Roy Selmon. Ahanotu is No. 5 on the team's all-time sacks list.
- Other candidates: Dave Logan (12th round), Santana Dotson (fifth round), Ron Heller (fourth round).
Cortland Finnegan, CB, 2006 seventh-round pick
Looking at the team since it arrived in Tennessee in 1997 certainly limits the options, but Finnegan is certainly deserving. Taken with the 215th pick in '06, he was part of the same draft class that included Vince Young and LenDale Whilte. Finnegan became a full-time starter in his second season, and from 2007-11 he had 14 interceptions and 68 passes defended. Considered one of the league's dirtiest players, Finnegan was named to his only Pro Bowl after the 2008 season.
- Other candidates: Bo Scaife (sixth round), Jason McCourty (sixth round), Charlie Joiner (fourth round), Steve Largent (fourth round; Largent was originally drafted by the Houston Oilers, who traded him to Seattle during the preseason before his rookie year. When he retired, he held just about every major receiving record, and in 1995 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame).
Chris Hanburger, LB, 1965 18th-round pick
Hanburger spent his entire 14-year career in Washington, and was considered one of the best outside linebackers of his era. When he retired, Hanburger had started 149 of 187 games, racked up 19 interceptions and was named a first-team All Pro four times. He was named to the Hall of Fame in 2011, only the second player from the University of North Carolina to do so -- after Lawrence Taylor.
- Other candidates: Dexter Manley (fifth round), Mark Rypien (sixth round), Joe Jacoby (undrafted, but was a four-time Pro Bowl pick and an integral part of those dominating Redskins teams of the '80s).
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