There are good NFL Draft picks, and then there are great NFL Draft picks.
NFL teams hope, of course, that their first-round selections will hit. Although occasionally, sometimes without warning, the planets align and a franchise-altering player appears in that first round.
As we turn the page on another NFL Draft, we are highlighting the best first-round picks since the year 2000.
Before we begin, a few disclaimers. Peyton Manning, a 1998 draft pick, did not make the list. Neither did Randy Moss, who fit this profile perfectly, who was taken in the same draft.
This set of rankings comes with a few caveats. We aren’t just ranking the best football players, but we are ranking the selections. Specifically, when a certain player was taken in Round 1 and how that player performed. Positional value also played a role, as did stats, Super Bowls, and star power.
The end result is a list of rankings, with a slew of high-power honorable mentions, that we will undoubtedly agree on. Spoiler alert - we won’t.
Top 10 NFL Draft Round 1 Picks Since 2000
10. T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers (2017, Pick 30)
Let’s address the elephant in the room. T.J. Watt cracks our top 10o, as does his brother, J.J. Watt. More on him in a moment.
In five seasons, T.J. has accumulated 72 sacks and four interceptions. J.J., who has really been hindered by injuries over the past six years, has 102 sacks and two interceptions in 11 years.
T.J. is a more productive player so far, and yes, J.J.’s three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards surpass T.J.’s single award, which he won this past season. If T.J. stays healthy, he’s likely to surpass his brother in almost every category.
Oh, and he was picked at No. 30. What a steal for Pittsburgh.
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9. Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions (2007, Pick 2)
There are two knocks on this placement, and we can address them out of the gate. Calvin Johnson was selected second overall, which isn’t tremendous value considering how high the pick was. Johnson also only played for nine years in the NFL.
The eight years that we saw from Johnson, were magical. He finished his career with a staggering 83 touchdowns. He also averaged 15.9 yards per catch, which is impressive in itself. His 1,964 receiving yards in 2012 is the most ever in a single season. He also holds a slew of receiving marks, doing so before the league turned into a passing league.
Johnson was a three-time 1st-Team All-Pro. He led the league in receiving yards twice. He’s now a Hall of Famer. The only issue? He played for the Lions.
8. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans (2011, Pick 11)
If not for the injuries referenced above, J.J. Watt could’ve made a push at the top spot on this list. His production between 2012 and 2015 was simply superb.
Even still, being named a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is a unicorn achievement. He is also a five-time 1st-Team All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl five times. Watt delivered two 20.5-sack seasons in a three-year span, which is outrageous. Oh, and he followed it up with a 17.5-sack season encore.
In four of the past six seasons, Watt’s played in single-digit games because of his injuries. If not for that, the production would be staggering.
7. Darrelle Revis, New York Jets (2007, Pick 14)
How good was Darrelle Revis? Well, it’s quite simple. At his peak, Revis shut down wide receivers so dominantly that the term “Revis Island” was born.
The No. 14 pick in the 2007 NFL Draft for a four-time 1st-Team All-Pro. He also won a Super Bowl with the Patriots and is largely regarded as one of the greatest players to ever play his position.
The numbers were excellent. Revis intercepted 29 passes in his career. His ability to seemingly shut down the team’s best offensive player and one side of the field each week had an impact beyond numbers.
6. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (2017, Pick 10)
Yes, this one hits a little differently. Some will say it’s a bit early to make this call.
That being said, when you consider the impact Patrick Mahomes has had in a relatively short period of time, at a position that generates more impact on a football game than any other, it’s an easy decision.
The fact that Kansas City traded up from the No. 27 pick to the No. 10 pick to get Mahomes only makes the move that much sweeter. Since then, he has won a Super Bowl, been named a Super Bowl MVP, was named the season-long MVP, and made the Pro Bowl four consecutive years.
Mahomes also led Kansas City to a record of 58-16, including the postseason. He’s thrown 151 touchdowns and is on pace to become the most productive quarterback to ever play, and he’s still just 26 years old.
5. Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers (2003, Pick 16)
The Steelers waited until the middle of Round 1 to select the safety out of USC, and the end result was one of the greatest safeties the NFL has ever seen. Troy Polamalu and his trademark hair knew not only how to hit, but he could also cover. He provided an impact few at the position rarely have.
Polamalu finished his 12-year career with 783 tackles and 32 interceptions. He also forced 14 fumbles and scored five touchdowns. With him, the Steelers won two Super Bowls.
Polamalu also was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, was a first-team All-Pro four times, and made eight Pro Bowls.
4. Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears (2000, Pick 9)
A former hybrid defensive back at New Mexico, Brian Urlacher turned a unicorn collegiate career into a Hall of Fame career for the Chicago Bears. Although he just sneaks into our rankings having been drafted in the year 2000, his impact and longevity make him an easy selection for this list.
Urlacher won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, was named NFL Defensive Player of the year, made eight Pro Bowls, and was named a 1st-Team All-Pro four times. He was a production machine, finishing with 1,361 tackles, 41 sacks, and 22 interceptions in 13 seasons.
Few players in the history of the sport could do the myriad of things Urlacher could do on the football field.
3. Aaron Donald, St. Louis Rams (2014, Pick 13)
While his full resume is still being constructed, that doesn’t stop Aaron Donald from crashing this list in an enormous way.
The former Pitt standout was selected one pick after the New York Giants selected Odell Beckham Jr. Donald, who is still just 30-years-old, has already won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award a staggering three times, been a 1st-Team All-Pro for seven consecutive years and he just won his first Super Bowl.
While Donald has flirted with retirement, it might be a ploy to get a new contract. He’s certainly earned that and then some.
2. Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens (2002, Pick 24)
One could make an argument that no defensive player was more fun to watch than Ed Reed. The former Miami Hurricane was the No. 24 selection back in 2004, and he turned that into a Hall of Fame career.
Reed was the NFL Defensive Player of the year, a five-time 1st-Team All-Pro, a Super Bowl champion, and a nine-time Pro Bowler. Now, he’s a Hall of Famer.
Reed also intercepted a jaw-dropping 73 passes, including nine in the playoffs. He didn’t just make big plays, but he made huge plays in huge moments.
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (2005, Pick 24)
The green room shots were uncomfortable as Aaron Rodgers waited to hear his name called in the 2005 NFL Draft. That being said, he was drafted much later than expected.
Regardless, the former Cal quarterback was selected by the Green Bay Packers, who were searching for Brett Favre’s replacement. Rodgers has since won a Super Bowl, a Super Bowl MVP, and four MVPs.
He’s seemingly getting better with age, albeit with a little controversy here and there. However, his play has been nothing short of extraordinary for nearly two decades. The teams that passed on him certainly missed out as many consider Rodgers one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game.
The value of quarterback and longevity, not to mention the value of the pick here, pushes Rodgers to the very top of this list.
- Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings: (2007, Pick 7)
- DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys (2005, Pick 11)
- LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers (2001, Pick 5)
- Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburg Steelers (2004, Pick 11)
- Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs (2005, Pick 15)