NFL Draft: 10 best first-round picks since 2000
Many great players have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft since the turn of the century. But a select few, because of when and where they were drafted, stand out as the absolute best.
Here are the 10 all-time heavyweights who pack a little more punch than their Hall of Fame-bound contemporaries.
1 Honorable mentions
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, No. 11 overall, 2004: Roethlisberger was a Steelers steal several picks behind Eli Manning and Philip Rivers in the same class.
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, No. 5 overall, 2001: The Chargers made this pick and also got Drew Brees in the second round after dealing the No. 1 overall pick to Atlanta in what was essentially a Michael Vick trade.
Aaron Donald, DT, No. 13 overall, 2014: Donald is arguably the new best defensive player in the NFL not named J.J. Watt, so well done by the Rams to get him so late.
Odell Beckham Jr., No. 12 overall, 2014: OBJ has been more than A-OK as a No. 1 target out of the top 10.
Andre Johnson, WR, No. 3 overall, 2003: He was a much better foundation pick for the Texans than the QB taken in their first draft the previous year, David Carr.
Von Miller, OLB, No. 2 overall, 2011: Not to be overshadowed by Watt, Miller hand-delivered a Super Bowl to Denver as a non-QB taken that high.
Calvin Johnson, WR, No. 2 overall, 2007: After several wideout whiffs, give credit to Detroit for sticking with the position and getting this gamebreaker, right behind Raiders bust JaMarcus Russell.
2 Troy Polamalu, S, No. 16 overall, 2003
Polamalu’s career is a lesson to those who have so much trouble thinking about safety tweeners early in the draft. Polamalu was equal parts linebacker and cornerback, so in essence, the Steelers got three players for one in this hard-hitting free/strong hybrid.
He was as nasty on the field as he was nice off the field. Polamalu’s energy and effort provided the backbone of Pittsburgh’s defense for many seasons. There were several good defenders drafted in ’03, including Kevin Williams, Terrell Suggs and Nnamdi Asmougha. Polamalu trumps them all.
3 Darrelle Revis, CB, No. 14 overall, 2007
It has gotten a lot harder to find to surefire shutdown cornerbacks so close to the middle of the first round. The Jets saw Revis rise to that level by his second season, and the legend of Revis Island was born.
Although his ring came with the rival Patriots, he’ll be known as one of either New York’s best-ever draft picks.
4 Patrick Willis, ILB, No. 11 overall, 2007
Willis walked away from the game a little early, after “only” eight seasons and before he turned 30. That means his career will be remembered as wire-to-wire, sideline-to-sideline mastery.
He burst on the scene as a speedy tackling machine, going from jaw-dropping defensive player of the year to consistent Pro Bowler. There were several early defensive busts in the 2007 class, so credit the 49ers for avoiding those land mines and landing such a keeper right after the top 10.
5 Larry Fitzgerald, WR, No. 3 overall, 2004
Between the trio of top QBs, big busts and few flashes, there was this pro’s pro in the 2004 class. Fitzgerald has been a consistent, versatile fixture of the Cardinals’ passing game both through seasons of great veteran QB help (Kurt Warner, Carson Palmer) and some tough years with have-nots.
Fitzgerald was and is a safe, can’t-miss pick with an infectious work ethic, the kind every team would like to make a first-rounder every year.
6 DeMarcus Ware, No. 11 overall, 2005
It didn’t matter that Ware was coming out of Troy — not to be confused with either USC or the actual Alabama. Bill Parcells locked into his special talents as the transcendent 3-4 edge pass rusher the Cowboys’ defense needed.
Ware was a Pro Bowl fixture by his second season and a beloved high-effort leader in Dallas. He moved on to give a little bit of that to Denver and get his Super Bowl ring with the Broncos.
7 Adrian Peterson, RB, No. 7 overall, 2007
Every year when teams consider first-round backs in the draft, Peterson remains the paradigm. Everyone is looking for the freakish, home-run hitting power runner in his vein, and only a few are worthy of being taken so high.
From his first day with the Vikings, Peterson ran hard to get the most out of every carry and did not worry about the wear that would eventually catch up to him. As the No. 16 all-time rusher, he’s guaranteed a place in Canton even if doesn’t play another down in the NFL.
8 Joe Thomas, OT, No. 3 overall, 2007
The Browns haven’t had much draft success over the years, which makes their hit on Thomas all the more notable. Although spoiled a little later with their other first-rounder in this draft (Brady Quinn), they were wise not to reach for a QB early and go for the best player they’ve had since 2000.
Thomas, who emerged as an immediate star, has made the Pro Bowl every season he’s been in the league, a decade and counting. He also has been named first-team All Pro seven times as the left tackle pick every team dreams about. It’s too bad Cleveland has wasted his presence with its constant QB carousel.
9 Ed Reed, S, No. 24 overall, 2002
It was surprising when Reed, fresh off being the heart of soul of the Miami Hurricanes’ defense, had to wait so long to hear his name called in the draft, eventually by the Ravens. But Baltimore, where he was paired with Ray Lewis in the middle of the field for many seasons, turned out to be ideal spot for Reed’s range and elite ball-hawking skills. He is one of the smartest, most instinctual defenders in NFL history.
10 Aaron Rodgers, QB, No. 24 overall, 2005
Rodgers’ long wait in the green room after he had hoped to go No. 1 to his hometown-area 49ers (instead of Alex Smith) still stands out in our minds. So does the fact that he was taken by the Packers when Brett Favre was still their starter.
Given extra time to develop and after that chip on his shoulder grew, Rodgers got the last laugh as the best all-around QB in the NFL. It’s unfortunate that few first-round rookie QBs now have the same luxury of being groomed into a superstar.
11 J.J. Watt, DE, No. 11 overall, 2011
The Class of 2011 was incredible: 15 Pro Bowlers selected in the first round, including eight of the top nine picks. Cam Newton, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones and Tyron Smith went ahead of Watt.
It’s hard to believe Watt is better than all those players, but he has dominated like few defensive players ever have. To get that productive of a 3-4 end outside of the top 10 gives the Texans the best pick in the past 17 drafts.