With the 2021 NFL Draft right around the corner, we here at CBSSports.com decided to kick off a series last month that features the top draft picks of all time. The way this series works is pretty simple: Since there are 32 picks in the first round, we went through and listed the top five picks ever for each one of those 32 spots.
Our countdown started in March with the 32nd spot, and now, after more than four weeks of counting down, we're finally ready to unveil the five best players ever taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Coming up with the list wasn't as easy it might sound and that's because the first pick isn't always a slam dunk. For every Peyton Manning, you get a JaMarcus Russell or a Tim Couch.
This year, the first pick in the draft belongs to the Jaguars and the good news for them is that just happens to be one of the years where the top pick is a slam dunk. Our draft writers here at CBSSports.com don't agree on much, but they do all agree that the Jaguars will be taking Trevor Lawrence with the top pick, and to be honest, it would be an absolute shock if they went any other route.
If Lawrence can put together a Hall of Fame career, he might be able to some day join our list of top-five players ever to be taken with the first overall pick. With that in mind, let's get to our rankings (If you want to check out the top-five players at each spot in the draft, you can head to our draft hub by clicking here).
5. Terry Bradshaw
1970 NFL Draft: First overall pick (Steelers)
Teams: Steelers (1970-83)
It's hard to imagine the Pittsburgh Steelers as the worst team in football, but that's exactly what they were heading into the 1970 NFL Draft. The Steelers finished the 1969 season with a 1-13 record which allowed them to earn the top pick in the draft and they definitely needed it, considering that 1969 marked the 22nd straight year that they had missed out on the playoffs.
With the first pick of the 1970 draft, the Steelers laid the foundation for their future success by selecting Terry Bradshaw. All Bradshaw did was bring a swagger to Pittsburgh that the team was sorely missing. By his third year with the team, the Steelers were playing in their first AFC title game ever, which is something that would soon become a common occurrence. Although Bradshaw didn't make it to the Super Bowl in 1972, he did produce one of the most iconic plays in NFL history when he threw the "Immaculate Reception" to Franco Harris.
That 60-yard TD catch by Harris allowed the Steelers to shock the Raiders. Although the Steelers would lose to the Dolphins in the AFC title game the following week, their playoff appearance in 1972 was a preview of things to come.
Behind Bradshaw and the vaunted Steel Curtain defense, the Steelers would win four Super Bowls in a six season span from 1974 to 1979. Not only did Bradshaw win an NFL MVP award during one of those Super Bowl winning seasons (1978), but he was also voted Super Bowl MVP in two of Pittsburgh's four wins (Super Bowl XIII and XIV). Although he didn't win MVP in Super Bowl X, he did come up with a clutch play when he connected with Lynn Swann for a 64-yard score that provided the winning points in Pittsburgh's 21-17 win over Dallas.
Bradshaw is tied for the second-most Super Bowl wins by a quarterback in NFL history, trailing only Tom Brady. The Steelers legend is also tied for the second-most Super Bowl MVP awards.
4. Chuck Bednarik
1949 NFL Draft: First overall pick (Eagles)
Team: Eagles (1949-62)
Bednarik has one of the most unique stories of any player in the history of the NFL. The future Eagles star didn't get drafted until he was nearly 25 years old and that's because he immediately joined the Army after high school so that he could fight in World War II. Bednarik didn't attend college until AFTER his time in the military, which is how he became one of the oldest top picks ever.
Once Bednarik finally made his way to the NFL, he left his mark on the game almost immediately. During his rookie year, he was so good that the Eagles decided to have him play both ways. Not only was he the team's starting center, but he was also a starting linebacker. Despite playing both ways, Bednarik almost never missed a game. During his 14-year career, he only missed three of a possible 172 games. Not only was he able to stay healthy, but "Concrete Charlie" thrived on the field: He was named a first-team All-Pro a total of six times while also being selected to the Pro Bowl a total of eight times.
Bednarik was known for his monstrous hits and one of his biggest came in 1960 when he knocked out Frank Gifford during a game, which set the stage for one of the most iconic photos in NFL history.
Gifford didn't play in the NFL for 18 months due to the hit he took from Bednarik.
A few weeks after making the hit on Gifford, he made an even bigger one for the Eagles. With time running down in the 1960 NFL Championship game against Green Bay, the Packers were trying to score a game-winning touchdown, but Bednarik tackled running back Jim Taylor at the 8-yard line to preserve Philly's 17-13 win. The Eagles' title that season was one of two that Bednarik would win with Philadelphia (1949, 1960).
Bednarik is one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history and was voted to the NFL's 50th anniversary, 75th anniversary and 100th anniversary teams.
3. Bruce Smith
1985 NFL Draft: First overall pick (Bills)
Teams: Bills (1985-99), Washington (2000-03)
When the Buffalo Bills decided to take Bruce Smith with the first overall pick in 1985, it was somewhat of a gamble and that's because there hadn't been a great track record of success in the NFL with defensive ends selected in the top 10. Fortunately for the Bills, the gamble paid off and they ended up landing one of the best defensive players in NFL history.
Although Smith's career got off to a slow start in 1985, he would dominate the NFL after that. In the 13 seasons from 1986 to 1998, Smith hit the double-digit sack mark a total of 12 times and the only reason he didn't make it a perfect 13 is because he missed 11 games in 1991 due to a knee injury.
In 1987, Smith tallied 12 sacks even though he only played in 12 games. The next year, he totaled 11 sacks even though he once again missed four games. Smith's productivity got people wondering what he might do if he could stay on the field for all 16 games, and in 1990, everyone found out the answer to that question. In a season that ended with the Bills in the Super Bowl, Smith led the NFL with 19 sacks, which is still one of the highest single-season totals in NFL history. The season ended with Smith winning one of his two career defensive player of the year awards.
Over the course of his career, Smith would rack up exactly 200 sacks, which is still the NFL career record for sacks. To give you an idea of how dominant that number is, just consider this: Only ONE other NFL player ever even has more than 160 sacks (Reggie White finished his career with 198).
In an era where the Bills K-Gun offense made all the headlines, Smith anchored a defense that helped propel Buffalo to four straight Super Bowls.
2. John Elway
There's one big difference between John Elway and everyone else on this list and that's the fact that Elway never played for the team that drafted him. In the lead up to the 1983 draft, Elway made it clear that he would never play for the Baltimore Colts, but despite those threats, the team decided to select him anyway. When it became clear that Elway wasn't bluffing, the Colts ended up shipping him off to Denver in exchange for two players and a future first-round pick. The Colts ended up using that pick on offensive lineman Ron Solt, in case you're wondering who ended up winning the trade.
Although picking Elway didn't work out for the Colts, it definitely worked out for the Broncos, who became an instant contender with Elway. After only making the playoffs three times from 1970 to 1982, things got immediately better with Elway, who led the Broncos to the postseason three times in his first four years with the team.
Overall, Elway would lead the Broncos to the playoffs a total of 10 times with five of those trips ending in a Super Bowl appearance. Although Elway started his career by losing the first three Super Bowls he played in, he got to ride off into the sunset with consecutive Super Bowl wins during the final two seasons of his career. Elway's helicopter run against the packers in Super Bowl XXXII is still viewed as one of the most iconic plays in Super Bowl history.
Elway wasn't just known for making big plays in the Super Bowl though. As a matter of fact, he put together one of the most famous scoring drives in NFL history and it came in an AFC Championship. With the Broncos trailing the Browns by a touchdown in the 1986 AFC title game, Elway engineered what would become known as "The Drive," when he led the team on a 98-yard scoring drive that culminated with a game-tying TD pass with just 37 seconds left to play in regulation.
Even though he's been retired for more than 20 years, the 1987 NFL MVP still ranks in the top-15 in all-time passing yards, passing touchdowns and completed passes.
1. Peyton Manning
1998 NFL Draft: First overall pick (Indianapolis Colts)
Team: Colts (1998-2011), Broncos (2012-15)
You can have a debate over the first four spots on this list, but the one thing that's not up for debate is the top spot on this list and that's because it belongs to Peyton Manning. After being selected No. 1 overall by the Colts in 1998, Manning went on to have one of the most storied careers in NFL history.
If you want individual accolades, Manning has plenty of those: During his 18-year career, he was voted NFL MVP a total of five times (2003, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2013), which is a record that still stands. He also won the Comeback Player of the Year award during his first year with the Broncos in 2012 after missing the entire 2011 season due to a neck injury.
During his career, Manning re-wrote the NFL record book and although some of his records have since been broken, he still holds the single-season record for most touchdown passes (55) and most passing yards (5,477). Those are two 16-game records that Manning will forever hold now that the NFL is expanding to 17 games.
Manning thrived even though his coaching staff always seemed to be changing around him. Not only is he one of only two quarterbacks in NFL history to win a Super Bowl with multiple teams, but he's the ONLY quarterback in league history to make it to four Super Bowls with four different head coaches (Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell with the Colts, John Fox and Gary Kubiak with the Broncos). Manning played in two Super Bowls with both the Colts and Broncos and won one with each team.
When Manning decided to retire following the 2015 season, he did so with 200 total wins, 539 touchdown passes and 71,940 passing yards, which all ranked first in NFL history at the time of his retirement (He still ranks in the top 3 in all three categories).
Manning isn't technically a Hall of Famer quite yet, but he will be in August. The induction committee voted Manning in on the first ballot during their meeting earlier this year. The debate on Manning's candidacy lasted just 13 seconds.
Manning will be just the 15th No. 1 overall pick ever inducted to the Hall of Fame and five of them are on this list.
Here's a short look at other players who were considered for the list:
Honorable mention: Troy Aikman, Earl Campbell, O.J. Simpson, Orlando Pace, Paul Hornung, Eli Manning.
Note: Although Joe Namath (1965 AFL Draft) and Steve Young (1984 Supplemental Draft) were both top picks, they weren't considered for this list since they weren't selected in the actual NFL Draft.
Bonus mention: John Matuszak (Oilers, 1973). You might not know Matuszak's name based on his football career, but you've probably seen him on TV at least once in your life, especially if you've ever seen The Goonies. The football player turned actor played Sloth in the 1985 movie.