The 2021 NFL Draft is speeding down the expressway toward us all, and football fans couldn't be more elated. As mock drafts reach fever pitch and all the world pours over which team should select which player(s), it would do everyone well to take pause for a moment to appreciate those who turned their respective draft call into a legendary NFL career -- considering the massive odds against it happening.
And not all picks are created equal, value-wise, which is to say there's obviously a lot more pressure on a top-five pick than there is on someone selected at say, 24th-overall, which is also to say the latter is more overlooked when it comes to what's expected of them. So as the Pittsburgh Steelers ready to pull the trigger on this year's No. 24 -- here's who our draft analysts have going there -- we take a look back at the top five ever selected with that pick, and in doing so, the complete picture of just how difficult it is to find a longtime contributor late in that slot becomes crystal-clear (and be sure to check out our top five players drafted at every first-round spot, 1-32, in our hub found here).
Give these NFL legends a hearty round of applause.
Honorable Mention: David DeCastro, G
2012 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 24 overall (Stanford)
Team(s): Pittsburgh Steelers (2012-present)
While DeCastro was just edged out by Cameron Jordan (see below), he deserves mention here. A three-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler for the Pittsburgh Steelers, DeCastro has been a stalwart on the team's offensive line and a major reason for the overall success of Ben Roethlisberger and running backs such as Le'Veon Bell. He's a force of nature at guard and rarely misses a beat, let along an entire game. The 31-year-old remains one of the best at his position as he enters his 10th year in the NFL, and the Steelers have to be all smiles knowing they were wise enough to not allow him to still be on the board after the 25th-overall pick went on the clock in 2012. He arguably took a step back in 2020, but don't expect that trend to continue in 2021. They're hoping for the same draft success in the same spot this April.
5. Cameron Jordan, DE
2011 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 24 overall (Cal)
Team(s): New Orleans Saints (2011-present)
Teams do all they can to locate impact pass rushers, and the Saints absolutely nailed this pick. Jordan joined the club after putting on a show at Cal in 2010, and has since been one of the most recognizable names in the NFL. Year in, year out, he's been a terror for opposing offenses, having not only been named All-Pro on three separate occasions, but also being a six-time Pro Bowler who's already been named to the NFL 2010 All-Decade Team, and he's only 31. Jordan signed a second contract extension in 2019 and, if he continues to play at the level he has been, he might see a third in a couple years. Go ahead and pencil Jordan in for the Saints Ring of Honor, and for any discussions in the future that involve him potentially wearing a gold jacket. Jordan has racked up 94.5 career sacks, putting up double digit sack counts in five of his 10 seasons, and is an absolute ironman -- having missed regular season games since entering the league. Add his consummate professionalism and leadership to the mix and Jordan is absolutely one of the top five ever selected at No. 24.
4. Calvin Hill, RB
Here's a name you don't hear often when discussing some of the best NFL running backs to ever lace 'em up, and that's criminal. As talented of a halfback as you'll ever see, Hill had both agility and power on-demand, and that's why the Dallas Cowboys scooped him in the first round -- enjoying his abilities for six seasons. Hill was a key reason the Cowboys hoisted the trophy in Super Bowl VI, and finished his NFL career with four Pro Bowl nods, two All-Pro awards and having been named to the NFL All-Rookie Team and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Yale alum took the NFL reins from RB legends like Jim Brown and Gale Sayers and didn't disappoint, finishing with 8,944 yards from scrimmage and 65 touchdowns in his career, shattering how everyone viewed Ivy League football talent in the process. In Dallas, Hill paved the way for runners like Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith, but rarely receives his roses.
3. Dez Bryant, WR
2010 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 24 overall (Oklahoma State)
Team(s): Dallas Cowboys (2010-2017), New Orleans Saints (2018), Baltimore Ravens (2020)
Bryant entered the league with what many viewed as red flags and, as such, the Cowboys were told they were foolish to not select him. By trading up with the New England Patriots -- from No. 27 to No. 24 to acquire him -- they doubled down on a player they believed to be a special talent, and he proved them right in a big way. The former First-Team All-Pro became one of the most lethal receivers in the entire league, and his chemistry with Tony Romo helped carry the Cowboys to wins they probably otherwise wouldn't have had. Things didn't end how he would've liked them to in Dallas, but his dominance will never be forgotten, nor will famed passion, his signature "X" celebration, or his franchise record of 73 touchdowns to go along with 7,459 receiving yards. Oh and by the way, both the NFL and Mike McCarthy now readily admit Dez caught it on that fateful afternoon at Lambeau Field, securing his status as a legend -- albeit after the fact. He'll inevitably ascend to the Cowboys Ring of Honor, and will be discussed as a possible Hall of Fame candidate after he chooses to retire.
2. Ed Reed, S
Ah, the incomparable Ed Reed. An entire generation of defensive backs grew up watching and trying to be like the fiery safety out of Miami -- one who could just as easily rattle your bones with a hit as he could soften his hands to hawk the ball. Reed was the perfect package and displayed it regularly en route to building a Hall of Fame resume with the Ravens, before later trying his hand for the Texans and Jets prior to calling it a career. And what an illustrious career it was, Reed parlaying the 24th-overall pick in 2002 into a Super Bowl victory, eight All-Pro nods, nine Pro Bowl honors, three nods as NFL interceptions leader, membership into both the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team and the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, the Ravens Ring of Honor -- so forth and so on. Reed is arguably the best safety to ever play the game and, as a matter of fact, go ahead and drop the word "arguably" from this sentence.
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB
2005 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 24 overall (Cal)
Team(s): Green Bay Packers (2005-present)
Answer: The best player to ever be selected at No. 24.
"Who is Aaron Rodgers?"
On this short list that includes the likes of Ed Reed, there can only be one who bests him, and that's Aaron Rodgers. What he's been able to accomplish at the NFL level will garner him a first-ballot Hall of Fame entry, and what's even more impressive is the fact he was selected by the Packers when Brett Favre was still "Brett Favre" -- a pick that also infuriated the legend and ultimately led to the two sides divorcing and Rodgers being awarded the mantle of QB1. He took it and ran, having since landed three NFL MVP awards, four All-Pro nods, nine Pro Bowl honors and a list of other salutes to go along with his Super Bowl ring; and the accompanying Super Bowl MVP award. As it stands, Jordan Love will not be walking the same arc in Green Bay as Rodgers did before him, because the team remains all-in on the latter after seeing what he was able to do in 2020, and presumably knowing what he can do for years to come -- once he's done hosting Jeopardy.