The NFL draft is the ceremonial process surrounding rookie talent acquisition in professional football. The goal is to vastly improve your football team by drafting high-caliber players at high-value positions. And while hitting on first and second-round picks is important, striking gold on fourth, sixth, seventh, and even 15th-round picks can be truly franchise-altering selections. Who are some of the best NFL draft steals of all time?
Well, the list starts in a place all too known to us all.
What Was the Best NFL Draft Steal of All Time?
Tom Brady is the biggest draft steal of all time, and it is not particularly close. In the modern seven-round NFL draft format, nobody can hold a candle to the value that Brady has brought.
Many of his accolades will never be broken. And although the likes of Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers were able to best him in MVP awards, they don’t compare elsewhere. Seven Super Bowl victories, five Super Bowl MVPs, Hall of Fame 2000s and 2010s teams, and the 2009 Comeback Player of the Year alone gives Brady an outstanding argument as the greatest player ever.
A CVS receipt full of regular season, postseason, and Super Bowl records slams the door shut. It’s insulting to Brady that he must wait five years before his Hall of Fame induction. The league should have announced it the minute he put in his retirement paperwork.
The 199th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft deserves that recognition.
Ranking the Best NFL Draft Steals Nos. 2-10
2) Joe Montana, QB, 1979, San Francisco 49ers
The “Comeback Kid” was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers with the 82nd pick in the 1979 NFL Draft. The third-round pick would go on to win all four of the Super Bowls he played in.
Michael Jordan must have watched closely to Joe Montana’s reputation after having a perfect record in big games. And while that perfect record keeps Jordan as the NBA’s best ever by most, Montana’s title has been run over by Brady, who bludgeoned Montana with sheer numbers, like a medieval battleground.
Seven Super Bowls in nine appearances is inarguable. But Montana’s value as a draft pick is unquestionable. He has won the second-most Super Bowls of any quarterback, is a three-time All-Pro, and a two-time league MVP. The efficiency of his 1989 season remains incredible to look back on.
3) Roger Staubach, QB, 1964, Dallas Cowboys
It’s 2023, and the Dallas Cowboys still live by trying to find any tactical advantage possible in the NFL draft. They’ll draft injured players and players with questionable off-the-field concerns. Meanwhile, in the 10th round of the 1964 NFL Draft, the Cowboys selected Navy’s Roger Staubach, who couldn’t play in the NFL until his four years of service had been squared away.
I’m not sure how many history buffs we have in the audience, but there was some conflict between the United States and a foreign entity at the time. And while we can certainly take a blindfold and point wildly at a horizontal timeline and find America in some conflict, Vietnam was particularly nasty.
But, in 1969, Staubach took the field. In 1971, he went 10-0 as a starter and was as prone to interceptions as modern-day passers. He won the Super Bowl with the Cowboys that season and another in 1977. “Captain Comeback” remains a critical part of the DFW landscape nearly 60 years after that draft.
4) Bart Starr, QB, 1956, Green Bay Packers
Before the antics of Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre, the Green Bay Packers fielded Bart Starr, a quarterback who fell out of favor with legendary college football coach Bear Bryant at Alabama, barely playing because of it.
The 17th-round pick was the 200th player drafted. No team run has been more successful than Starr and the Packers’ from 1961-1967. During that seven-year run, Green Bay won five championships, including the first two Super Bowls, in which Starr won MVP for both games. While his career overall is not as illustrious as Johnny Unitas’ from an individual perspective, as we all know, the QB position revolves around championships.
5) Deacon Jones, DE, 1961, Los Angeles Rams
The 14th-round pick was the 186th overall pick in the 1961 NFL Draft. He’d only go on to have the most sacks of all time, a stat that he is credited with being the one who coined the term.
George Allen, who coached Deacon Jones, told his DL unit before playing the Cowboys one game. He told his unit they’d pour Craig Morton into a sack. Jones, who tackled the quarterback for a loss more than anybody, ran the term we now all use.
Without Jones, the original sack artist, we may have missed out on an incredibly important development in the game. The league as we know it could look very different today if it weren’t for his 173.5 unofficial sacks.
6) Shannon Sharpe, TE, 1990, Denver Broncos
While Shannon Sharpe doesn’t necessarily wow us with gaudy numbers by today’s standard at the position, like Jones, he changed how the game is played. Without Sharpe, we may not have the modern-day “move” tight end, a receiver in the body of a 230-250 pounder. The player who is more receiver than tight end, but is still used as one often enough to where they couldn’t argue their position to those dealing money out during franchise tag time.
Even at 54, Sharpe looks as though he could still step onto the field and survive the contact, a feat only a fraction of a healthy population in their 30s could withstand. He was a considerable contributor to both Denver Super Bowl victories and might be the sole reason why the Ravens continue to invest in the position year after year, because Sharpe helped them to their 2000 Super Bowl victory as well.
7) Antonio Brown, WR, 2010, Pittsburgh Steelers
Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers are special. They consistently draft wide receivers with… interesting… personalities. Oftentimes those players fall a bit in the NFL draft, and Pittsburgh scoops them up and develops them into pass catchers who provide more value than the capital they used to draft them.
Antonio Brown is a magnification of all that. Whatever Pittsburgh did while he was there was nothing short of a miracle. While there were issues, they never publically progressed to the point we saw them after 2018.
Brown went from 1,297 yards to 56 in a single season, but from 2013-2018, he was the most prolific receiver in the NFL. He led the league in yards three times and catches twice over that span. Brown also never dipped below 1,284 yards during that span. He was the best in the game over that stretch, all as the 195th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
8) Tony Romo, QB, 2004, Dallas Cowboys
Kurt Warner and Warren Moon both had better careers than Tony Romo, but they don’t make this list because neither actually got to participate in their respective drafts. Both played in different leagues before transferring over to the NFL, whereas Jerry Jones and Bill Parcells wanted the Eastern Illinois QB immediately after the NFL draft.
Romo would go on to make four Pro Bowls, but more importantly, he made the Cowboys relevant again. Dallas had been a shell of America’s team since their incredible run in the mid-90s, swinging and missing on quarterbacks left and right before lucking into Romo as a talent.
9) Richard Sherman, CB, 2011, Seattle Seahawks
The 154th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft ended up being a three-time All-Pro, Super Bowl champion, Hall of Fame 2010s member, and one of the best cornerbacks of the previous generation.
Richard Sherman and Seattle’s DB group in the early 2010s were outstanding marketers. The “Legion of Boom” became the most feared unit in football, and Sherman’s 16 interceptions in 2012 and 2013 are the most ever in a two-year span. His length and intelligence made him a menace in Seattle’s Cover 3. In addition to his eight INTs in 2012, Sherman led the NFL with 24 passes defensed as well.
10) Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry, QB & WR, 1955 & 1954, Indianapolis Colts
Is this cheating? Yes. Do I care? Not particularly. Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry go together like peanut butter and jelly.
In 1957, Unitas led the league in passing yards. That year, Berry led the league in yards. Unitas did that again in 1959 and 1960. Leroy Jethro Gibbs never believed in coincidence, and neither do we. Berry’s two other seasons leading the league in yards also happened in 1959 and 1960. They won championships together in 1958 and 1959.
Unitas was drafted in the ninth round with the 102nd pick. Berry, meanwhile, was drafted all the way down in Round 20 with the 232nd pick.
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