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Best No. 1 Picks in NFL Draft History: Peyton Manning, John Elway Headline Top 8

Who are the best No. 1 picks in NFL Draft history? We offer our top eight, which includes legends such as Peyton Manning and John Elway.

Sometimes it’s a blessing; sometimes it’s a curse. Either way, when a player goes first overall in an NFL Draft, the lives of everyone involved change dramatically. But who are the best No. 1 picks in NFL history?

We came up with the top eight, along with six honorable mentions. We also focused on the common draft era, which began in 1967.

8 Best No. 1 Picks in NFL Draft History

Honorable mentions: Orlando Pace, Matthew Stafford, Lee Roy Selmon, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Eli Manning, Myles Garrett

8) Ron Yary

The Minnesota Vikings selected Ron Yary with the No. 1 pick in the 1968 NFL Draft, and they never regretted it. Yary made the Pro Bowl every season from 1971 through 1977 while also earning six consecutive first-team All-Pro selections. He was regarded as the best lineman of his era and made our list of the best tackles in NFL history.

Yary was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001, over a decade too late.

7) Earl Campbell

One of the best power running backs of all time, Earl Campbell was drafted first overall by the Houston Oilers in 1978.

Campbell was relentless in his determination to run through people. He wasn’t as big as Derrick Henry, but his running style was similarly intimidating. Campbell led the NFL in rushing in each of his first three seasons, including in 1979 when he won the MVP. In 1980, Campbell led the league in attempts (373), yards (1934), and touchdowns (13).

6) Troy Aikman

Troy Aikman’s career didn’t get off to a great start. After being selected first overall by the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, Aikman began his career with 11 straight losses. In fact, he went just 14-24 over his first three seasons.

But Aikman eventually developed into one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, winning three Super Bowls and earning six Pro Bowl nods along the way. He was the face of the 1990s Cowboys dynasty.

5) O.J. Simpson

O.J. Simpson, who died in April 2024, is best known for his myriad legal woes, which need no rehashing. But when he was on the field, Simpson was one of the best running backs ever to put on a pair of cleats.

Simpson, taken first overall by the Buffalo Bills in 1969, led the NFL in rushing in four of five seasons from 1972 through 1976. His finest campaign was in 1973 when he won the MVP after posting 2,003 yards and 13 TDs, both of which led the NFL.

Simpson was a Hall of Famer, a six-time Pro Bowler, and a five-time All-Pro First-Team honoree.

4) Terry Bradshaw

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Terry Bradshaw first overall in 1970, and, man, did he prove them right.

Due to the Steelers’ run-heavy style in the 1970s, Bradshaw often gets overlooked in debates about the best quarterbacks in NFL History, but he shouldn’t, as the four-time Super Bowl champion was one of the best players of his era and a deserving Hall of Famer.

Bradshaw’s best season came in 1978 when he led the NFL with 28 TDs, won the MVP, and led the Steelers to a Super Bowl title.

3) John Elway

This is a tricky one.

The Baltimore Colts drafted John Elway first overall in 1983, but he refused to play for the Colts, who traded him to the Denver Broncos a week later. Even though Baltimore netted a decent return, Elway never played a down for the Colts, by definition making him a bad No. 1 pick.

However, in Denver, Elway became a two-time Super Bowl champion and one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. So, he needs to be high on this list.

2) Bruce Smith

Easily the best non-QB drafted first overall, Bruce Smith also is one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history.

Smith, drafted by the Bills in 1985, was an immediate star. He averaged 12.8 sacks over his first six seasons, including a then-record 19 sacks in 1990. Smith finished his career with 200 sacks, 11 Pro Bowl nods, eight All-Pro First-Team selections, and two Defensive Player of the Year Awards.

1) Peyton Manning

You definitely can poke holes in Peyton Manning’s résumé.

His first Super Bowl title came against an inferior, unworthy opponent, and his second saw the defense-led Broncos win despite him. The early years of Manning’s career also were filled with postseason choke jobs, including two against the New England Patriots. Manning probably would be the first to tell you he left some championships on the table.

But that’s where the negativity ends. There wasn’t a ton of flash in Manning’s game, but he was as good of a pure quarterback as the NFL has ever seen. A football savant, Manning outsmarted opposing defenses before and after the snap. With him under center, the Indianapolis Colts were AFC contenders year in and year out.

The accolades speak for themselves: five MVPs, 14 Pro Bowl nods, seven first-team All-Pro selections, and two Super Bowl titles. He was the first pick in the 1998 NFL Draft and the best No. 1 pick in league history.