How Many Wide Receivers Drafted First Overall in NFL Draft History?

Only three wide receivers have been drafted first overall in NFL history, dating back to 1936. But who were those three players?

Historically, NFL teams have spent the majority of No. 1 overall picks on three positions: quarterback, offensive tackle, and defensive end. Since its inception in 1936, the NFL draft has seen just three wide receivers chosen first overall. Who were there, how did their careers pan out, and will there ever be another WR drafted with the opening selection again?

Wide Receivers Drafted First Overall in NFL Draft History

  • 1964: Dave Parks, San Francisco 49ers
    • 10 seasons played (118 games)
    • Three teams (49ers, Saints, Oilers)
    • Career receiving stats: 360 receptions, 5,619 yards, 44 touchdowns
    • Three-time Pro Bowler (1964, 1965, 1966)
  • 1984: Irving Fryar, New England Patriots
    • 17 seasons played (255 games)
    • Four teams (Patriots, Dolphins, Jets, Washington)
    • Career receiving stats: 851 receptions, 12,785 yards, 84 touchdowns
    • Five-time Pro Bowler (1985, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997)
  • 1996: Keyshawn Johnson, New York Jets
    • 11 seasons played (167 games)
    • Four teams (Jets, Buccaneers, Cowboys, Panthers)
    • Career receiving stats: 814 receptions, 10,571 yards, 64 touchdowns
    • Three-time Pro Bowler (1998, 1999, 2001)
    • Super Bowl XXXVII (37) champion

Who Was the Last Receiver Drafted First Overall?

The New York Jets made Keyshawn Johnson the last WR drafted first overall in the 1996 NFL Draft.

Johnson’s selection was just as unprecedented as his escape from the streets of Los Angeles, California. “I started hanging out with the wrong crowd and got myself in trouble,” Johnson told Cal-Hi Sports in 1994. “I was selling drugs, gang banging, and robbing people on the streets when I was finally arrested in the eighth grade and put in a correctional facility for nine months.”

Despite his obvious talent, Johnson had to take the JUCO route out of high school due to poor grades and SAT scores. Yet, after a couple of trying years at West Los Angeles College, he earned a transfer to USC. And it didn’t take long for him to make himself at home, producing back-to-back All-American seasons in 1994 (66-1,362-9 receiving line) and 1995 (102-1,434-7).

Johnson proved to be a top-tier NFL wideout with the Jets, producing two Pro Bowl seasons in 1998 and 1999. But his time in the Big Apple is most remembered for the book he wrote shortly after his 63-reception rookie season: “Just Give Me the Damn Ball!”

MORE: List of Every First-Round Pick in NFL History

Well, the Jets did, and Johnson helped them go from 3-13 his first year to 12-4 in his fourth — a record New York has yet to match since. Although he was the team’s clear No. 1 WR, the Jets weren’t willing to make him the highest-paid WR in the NFL. But the Buccaneers were, and they sent two first-round picks to New York for the rights to do so.

Johnson signed an eight-year, $53.5 million contract with Tampa, and it paid off in 2002, as the Bucs defeated the Raiders 48-21 to win the Super Bowl. But in Year 4 of his deal, Johnson’s tumultuous relationship with head coach Jon Gruden came to a head on the sideline after the Pro Bowler was pulled out of a Week 11 game.

Following the incident, the Bucs deactivated Johnson for the rest of the year and ultimately shipped him off to Dallas in the offseason. Sound similar to another Bucs WR that left midseason after winning the Super Bowl the year before? *Cough* Antonio Brown *Cough*

After a couple of campaigns with the Cowboys and a final season in Carolina, Johnson retired in 2006 as the 16th player in NFL history to reach 800 career receptions and the 26th with 10,000 receiving yards.

Will Another WR Ever Get Drafted First Overall Again?

While we can never say never, it’s highly unlikely we will see another WR go first overall any time soon. And it’s not due to a lack of talented prospects declaring for the draft each cycle. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

With the rise of the spread and Air Raid offenses in college football, as well as the expansion of seven-on-seven showcases on the high school level, the skill gap between older and younger receivers has profoundly diminished. The difference between first- and second-round WRs has basically become nonexistent.

Just look at the notable second-round WRs over the last few drafts:

  • George Pickens, 2022
  • Christian Watson, 2022
  • Elijah Moore, 2021
  • Tee Higgins, 2020
  • Michael Pittman Jr., 2020
  • Deebo Samuel, 2019
  • A.J. Brown, 2019
  • DK Metcalf, 2019

Plus, with the majority of NFL offenses trotting out three to four WRs on a regular basis, the positional value has decreased — it’s simple supply and demand. But all it takes is one team to fall in love with one prospect. Just don’t put money on it.

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