23. 1995: Cincinnati Bengals — Derrick Brooks — LB
Original Pick: Ki-Jana Carter — RB
It’s not a coincidence that Carter was the last running back selected first overall in the NFL Draft. The former Penn State standout’s tumultuous NFL career serves as a cautionary tale to other teams. Great running backs are found all throughout the draft. Selecting one early when the team has other pressing needs can be a catastrophic mistake in team building.
During the mid ’90s, the Bengals didn’t struggle on the offensive end. Quarterback Jeff Blake, a former sixth round pick, was enjoying the best stretch of his career, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl the season before Cincinnati drafted Carter. Defensively is where Cincy desperately needed help.
Brooks would make the Pro Bowl in 11 out of his last 12 professional seasons. In 2002, Brooks led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl championship and captured the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award in the process.
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22. 1996: New York Jets — Ray Lewis — LB
Original Pick: Keyshawn Johnson — WR
Routinely panned for their lack of success in the NFL Draft, the Jets opted to make the flashiest move in 1996 by bringing in an enigmatic Johnson as the No. 1 overall pick in 1996. Johnson’s career was a bit of a mixed bag. He had a couple of great years with the Jets, won a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay, and ended his career with a couple of years left in the tank. While he wasn’t a bust, he certainly wasn’t worth the acclaim of being the only receiver selected No. 1 overall in the past 30 years.
Lewis seemed destined for greatness from the moment he stepped on an NFL field. It took him just five seasons to help lead Baltimore to a Super Bowl victory, and he got one more ring on his way out in 2012. As a vocal leader and a tenacious sideline-to-sideline backer, Lewis could have galvanized a Jets franchise that hasn’t reached the Super Bowl in nearly 50 years.
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21. 1997: Los Angeles Rams — Tony Gonzalez — TE
Original Pick: Orlando Pace — OT
The Rams going in a different direction here isn’t intended to be a slight on Pace. The Hall of Famer gave it his all for 12 seasons in St. Louis, earning seven Pro Bowl appearances and three First-team All-Pro nods. For a majority of his career, Pace was considered elite at his position.
However, the 1997 class has its fair share of great talent. It’s arguable that Pace wasn’t even the best lineman selected from that draft. After all, Walter Jones of the Seattle Seahawks made two more Pro Bowl teams and one more First-team All-Pro. That being said, both players fall just short of another quality option.
Gonzalez made the Pro Bowl 14 times in 17 seasons, and is one of the all-time great tight ends in league history. Imagine putting together an offense that consists of Gonzalez at tight end with Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. The Greatest Show on Turf 2.0.
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20. 1998: Indianapolis Colts — Peyton Manning — QB
Original Pick: Peyton Manning — QB
Every now and again, teams get it right with the top pick. It doesn’t take too much brain power to acknowledge the Colts made a smart move by selecting Manning 20 years ago. While the draft produced other all-time greats including Charles Woodson and Randy Moss, there are very few players in the history of the NFL that have made a bigger singular impact than Manning did over his career.
Coming from a family with a strong football background, Manning always flashed great intelligence as it pertained to the game. Over his 18-year career, Manning virtually always had his team in contention. He collected five NFL MVP’s, two Offensive Player of the Year’s, and also happens to be the all-time leader in both passing yards and touchdowns. It’s safe to say the Colts wouldn’t have opted for Ryan Leaf if given a do-over.
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19. 1999: Cleveland Browns — Champ Bailey — CB
Original Pick: Tim Couch — QB
The 1999 draft class was filled with talented players that would go on to enjoy fruitful careers in the NFL. Edgerrin James and Ricky Williams were two of the top bell cows of the generation, and were selected with back-to-back picks in the draft. Torry Holt and Donald Driver both recorded multiple seasons above 1,000-yards as receivers. Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper ended up being the draft’s top quarterbacks, combining for nine Pro Bowl appearances.
While any of those players would be fine candidates, they all fall just a bit short of Bailey’s impressive résumé. The 12-time Pro Bowler was one of the best corners the league has ever seen, and a true game changer in the defensive backfield.
Instead of taking one of the many players that would end up being very good football players, the Browns ended up with one of the biggest busts in recent history. Couch was out of the league in five years, and threw more interceptions (67) than touchdowns (64) over his 59 game career.
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18. 2000: Cleveland Browns — Tom Brady — QB
Original Pick: Courtney Brown — DE
Already equipped with a quarterback from the previous year’s draft haul, the Browns had to address another position with the top pick in 2000. They settled on Penn State pass rusher Courtney Brown. Brown was coming off an All-American season at PSU, and had as impressive of a Pro Day as a prospect could imagine. His impressive showing didn’t translate to the field, as Brown’s NFL career was beset by inconsistency and nagging injuries. He spent five years in Cleveland and one year in Denver before walking away from the game.
The Browns would have been better off taking Brown’s teammate at Penn State, Lavar Arrington, who ended up being selected second overall. Had they been in the market for a quarterback, there’s a chance Cleveland may have stumbled upon a future five-time Super Bowl champion and arguably the best to ever do it. While we can’t fault the Browns for skipping on Brady (every other team had a chance at him as well), the sting hurts all the same.
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17. 2001: Atlanta Falcons — Drew Brees — QB
Original Pick: Michael Vick — QB
The 2001 NFL Draft played host to a star-studded deal involving a pair of top-5 picks. On the day before the draft, the Chargers sent the No. 1 pick to the Falcons in exchange for the No. 5 overall selection. Atlanta would end up selecting Vick, while the Chargers settled on TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson. Both players would wind up becoming two of the biggest stars in league history.
While the rest of the class is certainly stacked (32 Pro Bowlers from the first 75 picks), there’s no reason to pick against Brees here. He guided the Saints to their first ever Super Bowl victory, has as many 5,000-yard passing seasons as all of the other QB’s in history combined, and is still producing at 39 years of age.
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16. 2002: Houston Texans — Ed Reed — S
Original Pick: David Carr — QB
Carr got a bit of an unfair shake during his professional career. The expansion Texans made him the franchise’s first ever draft pick in 2002. Other than Andre Johnson, the Texans lacked quality players at key positions around Carr. Houston’s offensive line was abysmal during the team’s early years, leading to Carr being sacked a total of 249 times in his five seasons as a full-time starter. By the time the Texans began putting some pieces together, it was too late for Carr to reboot his career.
Houston would have been better off signing a veteran QB to kick-start their franchise. Instead of wasting their No. 1 pick on Carr, the Texans could have opted for a franchise player to anchor their defense. Julius Peppers went second in that draft, and is a nine-time Pro Bowler and three-time First-team All-Pro as a pass rushing defensive end. We’ll settle for Reed though, who has a serious case for being the best safety in the past 25 years.
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15. 2003: Cincinnati Bengals — Carson Palmer — QB
Original Pick: Carson Palmer — QB
There’s plenty of talent to be had from the class of 2003. Troy Polamalu and Jason Witten were all-time greats at their position, and will probably be first-ballot Hall of Famers. Andre Johnson and Anquan Boldin were regularly among the league leaders in receiving stats, despite having both played with inconsistent quarterbacks for much of their careers. Terrell Suggs is still chugging along, and just made his seventh Pro Bowl team in 2017.
However, none of those aforementioned names touch the ball on every possession. Say what you will about Palmer’s lack of postseason success, there’s no denying his sustained production. The former Bengal had six seasons of at least 4,000+ passing yards, and is 12th all-time in career passing touchdowns (294). When he’s healthy, Palmer has consistently given his team a chance to win.
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14. 2004: Los Angeles Chargers — Ben Roethlisberger — QB
Original Pick: Eli Manning — QB
The 2004 NFL Draft produced three quarterbacks that are still highly prominent to this day. Joining Manning and Roethlisberger in the first round was Chargers QB Philip Rivers. Although there’s an argument for Rivers being the best pure passer of the group, his lack of playoff success disqualifies him from candidacy.
The Giants certainly aren’t upset at themselves for picking Manning. The youngest Manning brother delivered New York two Super Bowl victories over arguably the greatest quarterback and dynasty the league has ever seen. However, there were plenty of ups-and-downs along the way. Roethlisberger could have possibly provided the Giants a bit more stability, without sacrificing the championship pedigree having captured two rings of his own with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
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13. 2005: San Francisco 49ers — Aaron Rodgers — QB
Original Pick: Alex Smith — QB
The San Francisco 49ers held the first pick heading into the 2005 NFL Draft and were clearly in the market for a starting quarterback. Rodgers was the “home town” kid having grown up in Northern California. Smith was a Heisman finalist hailing from Utah, and was perceived as the safer pick of the two. San Francisco settled on Smith, ultimately leading to Rodgers enduring one of the most infamous falls down a draft board in recent memory. Green Bay eventually scooped up Rodgers 23 picks later, and the rest is history.
To his credit, Smith has developed into a Pro Bowl-caliber QB. He’s led his team to the NFL Playoffs on six occasions, and has effectively shed his “game manager” label. However, he doesn’t quite compare to Rodgers. Rodgers is one of the best pure passers the league has seen, and is inhumanly efficient. The two-time MVP from the Packers has plenty left in the tank.
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12. 2006: Houston Texans — Mario Williams — DE
Original Pick: Mario Williams — DE
Williams’ inclusion on this list speaks volumes about the weakness of the 2006 draft class. Heralded as one of the best pools in years, the entire draft is filled with players that failed to live up to their respective potentials. A pair of popular Trojans — Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart — combined for exactly zero Pro Bowl appearances, while their collegiate foe — Vince Young — recorded more interceptions (51) than games started (50).
At the time, Williams was an unpopular pick with the electric scat back Bush on the board. Williams ended up making four Pro Bowls, three All-Pro teams, and recording 97.5 career sacks. Not bad for a pick that the entire fan base universally panned.
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11. 2007: Oakland Raiders — Calvin Johnson — WR
Original Pick: JaMarcus Russell — QB
There were plenty of eyebrows raised when Russell suited up for just one game throughout the entirety of his rookie year. Oakland’s patience didn’t seem to pay off, as once he gained the starting job it was clear Russell was not an NFL-caliber quarterback. It took just 31 NFL games for the Raiders to release Russell, and he failed to latch on to another team. For the sheer speed in which he flamed out, Russell is often considered one of the biggest draft busts in sports history.
Had they not wasted their pick on Russell, the Raiders could have chosen between Johnson and Adrian Peterson. While both players were supremely talented, Johnson was a bit more consistent, and a bit less injury prone throughout his career. Either way, Oakland could have desperately used the offensive boost either player would have provided.
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10. 2008: Miami Dolphins — Matt Ryan — QB
Original Pick: Jake Long — OT
Skipping on a future MVP is a tough look for the Dolphins. It’s especially bad when you consider Miami entered the 2008 season with Chad Henne and Josh McCown as their two quarterbacks. Ryan fell all the way to third overall, and has been a consistent passer for the Falcons ever since. 2016 was a historic season for Atlanta and Ryan, as the team’s offense erupted for 540 points scored en route to a Super Bowl appearance. While they fell short in a colossal meltdown against the Patriots, the Falcons are still plenty capable of making another run with Ryan at the helm.
For the Dolphins, Long actually looked like a solid pick for a number of years. He made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons, and was First-team All-Pro in 2010. However, after an injury prematurely ended his 2011 campaign, Long was never the same. He played in just 15 games from 2014-2016, and has been out of the league ever since.
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9. 2009: Detroit Lions — Matthew Stafford — QB
Original Pick: Matthew Stafford — QB
On the surface, it’s easy to say the Lions whiffed on the No. 1 overall pick in 2009. After all, Stafford has just one Pro Bowl appearance and zero All-Pro nods in his nine seasons in the league. Despite seven straight seasons of 4,000+ passing yards, detractors still want to point out Stafford’s lack of accolades and playoff victories.
Looking purely at Stafford’s numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Lions have failed to provide a steady defense or running attack during Stafford’s tenure. He plays his heart out every game (often playing injured), and has four winning seasons for a franchise that has been beset by disappointments for much of its history. While Stafford isn’t elite just yet, he’s still only 30 years old, and is one of the more prolific passers in the league today.
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8. 2010: Los Angeles Rams — Antonio Brown — WR
Original Pick: Sam Bradford — QB
Bradford gets a bit more hate than he probably deserves. While he hasn’t lived up to his top billing, the former Oklahoma Sooner has performed fairly well throughout stretches of his career. He can never stay healthy, and often looks lost when facing a pass rush, but give Bradford some time in the pocket and he can pick a defense apart.
However, even Bradford at his apex isn’t a franchise-level QB. In fact, the entire 2010 NFL Draft was rough for signal callers. I guess that’s what happens when the list of drafted quarterbacks include Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy, John Skelton, Rusty Smith, and Joe Webb.
Brown has been as consistent of a producer as any player in the history of the receiver position. He shows no signs of slowing down after polishing off his fifth consecutive season of at least 100+ receptions and 1,000+ receiving yards.
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7. 2011: Carolina Panthers — J.J. Watt — DE
Original Pick: Cam Newton — QB
Newton is as polarizing of a player as we have in today’s league. He’s supremely talented, but can often times have lapses in judgment. He’s scored 212 touchdowns in 109 games, but has also had double-digit interceptions every season of his career. He can be wildly inaccurate in tight spaces, but his dual-threat ability makes him nearly unstoppable near the goal line.
With Newton, you have to take the good with the bad. In 2015, he led the Panthers to a 15-1 record en route to securing the MVP trophy. The very next year, the Panthers missed the playoffs and Newton recorded more games with 3+ interceptions than games with 3+ touchdowns.
Watt might not have the ball in his hands nearly as often as Newton, but is a far more consistent contributor. The four-time All-Pro has already secured three Defensive Player of the Year trophies in his career. Watt is just the second player ever to have three seasons of at least 17.0 sacks (Reggie White).
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6. 2012: Indianapolis Colts — Russell Wilson — QB
Original Pick: Andrew Luck — QB
There’s no good reason to berate the Colts over selecting Luck first overall. At the time, it was the logical pick. Peyton Manning’s days in Indianapolis were numbered, and Luck was one of the best prospects the league had seen in a while. Injuries have severely hindered Luck’s last three seasons as a Colt, but there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. Luck and the Colts won 11 games in each of his first three years as a starter, reaching an AFC Championship game in 2014.
That being said, it’s hard to pick against a Super Bowl champion. Wilson has yet to miss a single game in his career, and has been dangerously efficient as both a passer and a runner since entering the league. Both guys are immensely talented, but Wilson’s championship pedigree and Luck’s cloudy future tips the scales in the favor of Wilson.
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5. 2013: Kansas City Chiefs — Le’Veon Bell — RB
Original Pick: Eric Fisher — OT
In 2013, the Chiefs entered the NFL Draft in an enviable position. Although they had just gone 2-14 the year prior, the Chiefs had a team that was far more talented then their record suggested. It’s not often you see a 2-win team send six players to the Pro Bowl in the same year. The selection of Fisher seems a bit underwhelming given their golden opportunity.
While Fisher isn’t necessarily bad, the Chiefs had a real chance at adding an impact player to an already gifted team. Potential candidates include 2017 All-Pro tackle Lane Johnson, stud receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Pro Bowl corners Xavier Rhodes, Desmond Trufant, and A.J. Bouye, and arguably the league’s best back in Pittsburgh’s Bell.
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4. 2014: Houston Texans — Aaron Donald — DT
Original Pick: Jadeveon Clowney — DE
A string of bad luck has delayed Clowney’s climb to stardom. The most heralded prospect entering the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney entered the process as the near consensus pick to go first overall. Even with the Texans still having a glaring need under center, they jumped at the chance to take a dynamic defender to pair along with Watt. Unfortunately for the Texans, their pair of pass rusher have dealt with injuries in each of the past four seasons, and we haven’t seen their true powers come to fruition simultaneously.
Although Clowney could still develop into a menacing edge rusher, it’s unlikely anybody from the 2014 class can match Donald’s level of productivity. Donald has nearly single-handedly rejuvenated the Rams’ defensive group. His sheer dominance over offensive lines has forced other teams to value defensive tackles to a higher degree.
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3. 2015: Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Todd Gurley — RB
Original Pick: Jameis Winston — QB
Winston has done himself no favors over his NFL tenure. Not only have the Bucs limped to a lackluster 20-28 record over the past three years, but the starting QB has faced troubles off the field as well. Most recently, Winston was handed a three-game suspension for misconduct in an Uber ride.
Tampa Bay has plenty of holes to fill across the field, but the tailback position has been a top need for quite some time. Gurley has all the talent to become the league’s premier every down back.
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2. 2016: Los Angeles Rams — Carson Wentz — QB
Original Pick: Jared Goff — QB
Things were looking bleak for Goff after a rocky rookie season. Goff went 0-7 as the Rams starter in Year 1, and looked severely out of place as an NFL quarterback. His struggles were magnified considering the rest of the top-5 (Wentz, Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, and Jalen Ramsey) and a fourth-rounder (Dak Prescott) were showing flashes of brilliance as rookies. Luckily for Goff, he saw a huge improvement in his second season, thanks in large part to new head coach Sean McVay and a revamped offensive attack.
While Goff put together a strong 2017 campaign, he still doesn’t possess quite the same physical tools that Wentz does. Despite coming off of a serious injury that derailed an MVP-caliber season, Wentz is built for the long haul. His body will hold up over a grueling NFL season, and he has the arm strength and intelligence to stick around in the league for the next decade.
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1. 2017: Cleveland Browns — DeShaun Watson — QB
Original Pick: Myles Garrett — DE
Instead of reaching for a QB, the Browns went for who many believed to be the surest thing in the draft. Garrett would end up missing the first four games of the year due to injury, but picked up his play as the season wore on. Although Garrett looks primed to be a good player, the Browns, yet again, let a franchise level QB slip through their fingers.
Watson was dazzling before his rookie year was cut short due to an ACL tear. The former National Champion at Clemson made the most of his seven appearances, recording 19 touchdowns and four games of a 100+ QB rating or better. The Texans looked like a completely different team with Watson under center. It appears as if they’ve found their quarterback of the future.
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