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Getting It Right: Every Team's Top First-Round Draft Bargain

Houston Texans J.J. Watt
Nov 26, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Many draft analysts concede there are 10 true difference makers in each class. You know, the kind of players who can turn around a franchise, setting the course to success, sometimes long-term championship success.

Still, nearly every NFL team also has found those foundational players deeper into the draft's first round. Some clubs luck into them when they fall deeper than expected. Others swoop in through trades when a prospect they rate near the very top is still on the board. And a few franchises are better at the draft game than others.

Here are the best first-round bargains for every team that drafted them, not including achievements elsewhere, since 2000.

Others in this Series:

Best First-Round Bargains

Cardinals: D.J. Humphries, OT, Florida (2015, 24th)

Slim pickings here, though the Arizona Cardinals got some functional players deeper into the first round, such as CB Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie. But D.J. Humphries is the guy for longevity as much as anything. He just finished his seventh pro season, made the Pro Bowl in 2021 and is a good example of perseverance.

Falcons: Roddy White, WR, UAB (2005, 27th)

What a great grab, like many that Roddy White made for the Atlanta Falcons more than 11 seasons. White was the sixth wideout selected that year, and nobody in front of him came close to his stellar career. White made 808 catches for 10,863 yards and 62 touchdowns. He got to four Pro Bowls and led the NFL in receptions in 2010 with 115.

Baltimore Ravens Ed Reed

Ravens: Ed Reed, S, Miami (2002, 24th)

We’re not going to list all of the standouts the Baltimore Ravens landed later in first rounds in the 2000s. Joe Flacco, Todd Heap, Lamar Jackson, C.J. Mosley, Haloti Ngata and Jimmy Smith aren’t the pick here. It has to be Hall of Famer Ed Reed, the best safety of his generation and one of the top ) defenders of this century.

Bills: Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU (2017, 27th)

It’s easy to forget how poorly the Buffalo Bills performed before Sean McDermott arrived as coach in 2017. That also was the year they drafted Tre'Davious White deep into the opening round. What they got is a perennial Pro Bowl pick who when healthy can shut down No. 1 receivers and has a feel for finding the ball. He beats out CB Nate Clements and C Eric Wood.

Panthers: Thomas Davis, LB, Georgia (2005, 14th)

Like Baltimore, the Carolina Panthers have been prescient with their later selections on opening night. Thomas Davis, who made his mark as a tremendous player and leader in Carolina, gets the nod over fellow LBs Jon Beason and Shaq Thompson, RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, CB Chris Gamble, and more recently finds WR D.J. Moore and LB Brian Burns. Davis made three Pro Bowls and was one of the league's most active tacklers for more than a decade.

Bears: Kyle Long, OG, Oregon (2013, 20th)

A three-time Pro Bowler in his seven seasons for the Chicago Bears, Long could have been a long-time stud in the Windy City, but injuries damaged his career. He starred in 47 games over his first three pro campaigns, then appeared in only 40 more the rest of his time in the NFL. Still, he beats out DT Tommie Harris and CB Kyle Fuller. And don’t ask about 2007 pick TE Greg Olsen, whose best showings came with Carolina.

Cincinnati Bengals Leon Hall

Bengals: Leon Hall, CB, Michigan (2007, 18th)

We struggled here before settling on Leon Hall over fellow cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. A solid DB who got picked on a bit – he led the league in passes defensed with 24 in his second season – Hall made 26 interceptions and scored three times for the Cincinnati Bengals, also starting four playoff games.

Brown: Alex Mack, C, California (2009, 21st)

There is no competition here for Alex Mack, partly because the Cleveland Browns usually picked very high in the draft this century, and also, in part, because of their inability to find bargains at all. Mack was the exception, starting all 101 appearances in his seven seasons and performing very well. He played in eight playoff games – elsewhere, of course.

Cowboys: Zack Martin, OG, Notre Dame (2014, 16th)

An argument already can be made for current Dallas Cowboys stars WR CeeDee Lamb (17th in 2020) and LB Micah Parsons (12th in 2021) – how did so many teams pass on them? A strong case also can be presented for DEs Marcus Spears and Anthony Spencer, WR Dez Bryant and C Travis Frederick. Yet this is a slam dunk for Zack Martin, the league’s best guard throughout his nine NFL seasons. Martin has been a Pro Bowler all but one season, in 2020, when he missed six games. He’s a six-time first-team All-Pro and is headed for the Hall of Fame.

Denver Broncos Ryan Clady

Broncos: Ryan Clady, OT, Boise State (2008, 12th)

Three strong candidates, including LB D.J. Williams and WR Demaryius Thomas, but Ryan Clady gets the recognition because of his superb seven seasons for the Denver Broncos. Clady could handle the best NFL pass rushers on his own, was a four-time Pro Bowler and twice an All-Pro. In 2008, he received consideration for Offensive Rookie of the Year, an award no lineman has won, before it went to Matt Ryan.

Lions: Jeff Backus, OT, Michigan (2001, 18th)

One area in which the Detroit Lions have prospered (you don’t hear that often) has been drafting offensive linemen. Unquestionably, the find of the 2000s and possibly ever for this franchise was Jeff Backus. A workhorse with smarts, stamina and dedication, he started all of his 191 pro appearances. Unfortunately for Backus, there wasn’t much around him, and he got into just one playoff contest.

Packers: Aaron Rodgers, QB, California (2005, 24th)

You thought somebody else? C’mon. And c’mon to the rest of the league that let Aaron Rodgers slip so deep, 23 spots behind the top ) selection, Utah QB Alex Smith. We don’t need to recite the numbers, ranging from four MVP awards to a Super Bowl ring, do we? This might be the greatest first-round bargain pick for a QB in NFL history and certainly is for the Green Bay Packers.

Texans: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin (2011, 11th)

There's not a great draft history for this underwhelming franchise. However, the Houston Texans did prosper pretty often with solid choices later in the opening round – and we admit they didn’t get J.J. Watt all that deep. The others include WR DeAndre Hopkins, LB Whitney Mercilus, DB Kareem Jackson and OT Duane Brown. But Watt was a generational player, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and a Canton shoo-in.

Colts: Reggie Wayne, WR, Miami, Fla. (2001, 30th)

Reggie Wayne, a borderline Hall of Famer, is a difficult choice over DE Dwight Freeney, TE Dallas Clark, RB Joseph Addai and OT Anthony Castonzo, all gems from the first round for the Indianapolis Colts. Wayne prospered from having Marvin Harrison at the other wideout slot for the early part of his career, then made good as the No. 1 guy with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck throwing to him. He got to six Pro Bowls, scored 82 times on 1,070 catches, and gained 14,345 yards.

Jacksonville Jaguars Marcedes Lewis

Jaguars: Marcedes Lewis, TE, UCLA (2006, 28th)

DT Marcus Stroud got consideration here, but we’ll give the love to one of the best blocking tight ends the NFL has seen. Indeed, Marcedes Lewis was still in the league last year and no less a quarterback than Rodgers regularly praised him. Lewis has made his share of receptions, 375 for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and another 57 for the Packers. He has 39 career TDs. His forte is his force as a protector and in the run game, as good as anybody.

Chiefs: Derrick Johnson, LB, Texas (2005, 15th)

The Kansas City Chiefs are another team that can dig deep to find first-round jewels, such as Tamba Hali, Larry Johnson, Branden Albert, Dee Ford and Dwayne Bowe. Derrick Johnson is one of the best of a long line of outstanding defenders for this franchise, a four-time Pro Bowler who will be in discussions for the Hall of Fame. He spent 13 fruitful seasons in KC as a tackling machine.

Raiders: Sebastian Janikowski, PK, Florida State (2000, 17th)

Going with the big leg here. Naturally, it’s a reach to take a placekicker in an early round, let alone on the first day. The Oakland Raiders at the time ignored such thinking and grabbed the left-footed bombardier. Janikowski not only became the best kicker in franchise history, but his range also was deeper than anyone else's during his 17 seasons as a Raider. He made 58 field goals of 50 yards or farther in an era when that was unusually impressive.

Los Angeles Chargers Melvin Ingram

Chargers: Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina (2012, 18th)

A premier pass rusher for nine seasons with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers, Melvin Ingram took a couple of years to make an impact. Then he impacted quarterbacks with his hits, getting 43 sacks over five seasons and being selected to three Pro Bowls. He had 57 career sacks, 49 for the Chargers.

Rams: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh (2014, 13th)

A case could be made for RB Steven Jackson, taken 24th in the 2004 selections. But Aaron Donald, the second player chosen by the Los Angeles Rams (then in St. Louis) in ’14 – OT Greg Robinson was No. 2 ) behind Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney – is a generational defensive lineman, as dominant as any of his contemporaries. Donald has performed on par with anyone in the NFL on either side of the ball. He earned three Defensive Player of the Year awards, was the top defensive rookie in ’14, made the All-Decade team, and was a Pro Bowler every season who has been on seven All-Pro squads and counting.

Dolphins: Mike Pouncey, C, Florida (2011, 15th)

He was a four-time Pro Bowler who started every game in which he appeared as an NFL player: 93 for the Miami Dolphins and 114 ). Mike Pouncey was the overseer of the Dolphins’ offensive line, as dependable as the sunshine in Miami. An outstanding pass protector who also could fire out to get to the second level as a blocker.

Vikings: Justin Jefferson, WR, LSU (2020, 22nd)

There isn’t nearly a full resume for Justin Jefferson after three NFL seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. Regardless, getting him at the 22nd spot looks like an all-time coup. Jefferson has become one of the most dangerous receivers in a league stocked with them. His hands, leaping ability, routes and speed all rank at the top of any list of pass catchers. And there’s so much more to come.

New England Patriots Devin McCourty

Patriots: Devin McCourty, DB, Rutgers (2010, 27th)

So much to choose from in the earlier portion of the century, from DT Vince Wilfork to TE Benjamin Watson – both selected in 2004 – to OG Logan Mankins to LB Dont’a Hightower. Devin McCourty, who, as a cornerback, finished second for Defensive Rookie of the Year behind Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh, is favored because of his leadership skills, versatility and savvy. One of the smartest players the New England Patriots have employed, he spent three seasons on the corner before moving to free safety as the guiding force of the secondary. McCourty has 35 INTs for New England.

Saints: Cameron Jordan, DE, California (2011, 24th)

New Orleans Saints franchise greats such as RB Deuce McAllister, DEs Charles Grant and Will Smith deserved heavy consideration. But Jordan stands above, one of the league's premier edge rushers and all-around defenders. An eight-time Pro Bowler who made the 2010s All-Decade team, Jordan has 115.5 sacks over 12 seasons in which he has played in every game. A true warrior who will garner Hall of Fame support.

Giants: Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, South Florida (2010, 15th)

For impact, albeit over a shorter term than the New York Giants would have liked, JPP is the choice over TE Jeremy Shockey and DE-LB Mathias Kiwanuka. Pierre-Paul was a dynamo as a pass rusher, requiring double-team blocking much of the time. He was inconsistent and a fireworks accident cost him on-field time, but JPP also had 58.5 sacks in eight seasons with Big Blue. He made three Pro Bowls ) in his 13 pro seasons and won a Super Bowl for the Giants as well as another with the Bucs.

Jets: Nick Mangold, C, Ohio State (2006, 29th)

We did a double-take when reviewing the New York Jets’ draft history in the 2000s. When it comes to bargain shopping, they’ve done a fine job, a major surprise considering how some of their really high picks have flopped. Mangold gets the nod over a Hall of Famer – CB Darrelle Revis enters the Canton shrine in August. Other solid later selections include DEs John Abraham and Muhammad Wilkerson, LB Jonathan Vilma, DTs Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams. But Mangold was the heart and soul of the offensive line for all 11 seasons in the Meadowlands, making seven Pro Bowls. Revis was a shutdown cornerback for six seasons and not nearly as important in the locker room.

Eagles: Fletcher Cox, DE-DT, Mississippi State (2012, 12th)

This came down to two DLs who have been difference makers for the Philadelphia Eagles: Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, who was taken 13th in 2010. Cox has had more of an effect in Philly, starting every game in which he appeared since 2013, making six Pro Bowls and getting 65 sacks while playing both tackle and end. He also has 15 forced fumbles, 13 recoveries and is a team leader.

Pittsburgh Steelers Troy Polamalu

Steelers: Troy Polamalu, S, USC (2003, 16th)

Not bypassing the Hall of Famer here, even though Pittsburgh Steelers stars such as DE Cam Heyward, TE Heath Miller, C Maurkice Pouncey, NT Casey Hampton, WR Santonio Holmes, G David DeCastro, LBs Lawrence Timmons and T.J. Watt all drew consideration. Heyward and Watt could be Canton-bound as well. But Polamalu became the NFL poster child for great hair — uh, sorry, we mean for aggressive, dynamic and game-changing play from his position. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro who made the All-Decade team, the 2010 top defender, and a two-time Super Bowl winner, finishing his 12-season career as one of the best strong safeties the league has seen.

49ers: Joe Staley, OT, Central Michigan (2007, 28th)

Quite possibly the best offensive tackle the San Francisco 49ers have drafted and developed, Staley was a six-time Pro Bowl honoree who started all 181 of his NFL appearances. Rarely did he need help from his linemates, as he excelled in pass protection and run blocking. A team leader, too, Staley was the second selection by the 49ers in 2007; LB Patrick Willis was chosen 11th ).

Seahawks: Earl Thomas, S, Texas (2010, 14th)

Has to be a Legion of Boom member, right? Had G Steve Hutchinson, now a Hall of Famer, spent more than five seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, maybe not. That said, Thomas gets our vote as the pacesetter among the Boomers. Part of the first draft by coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider, he was selected to seven Pro Bowls, six with the Seahawks. His know-how, power and mobility were enhanced by some of the best tackling in the NFL. Oh, did we mention he made 30 interceptions?

Buccaneers: Davin Joseph, OG, Oklahoma (2006, 23rd)

A starter almost from the outset of his pro career for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Joseph was a solid blocker who made two Pro Bowls. He started 99 of his 100 appearances for the team and was reliable week after week. The Bucs haven’t been hugely successful finding big-time contributors later in the first round of the draft, but they found one in Joseph.

Titans: Keith Bulluck, LB, Syracuse (2000, 30th)

Eventually, this could be DT Jeffery Simmons, and the Tennessee Titans had some other superb selections in RB Chris Johnson and S Michael Griffin. We recognize LB Keith Bulluck, the team’s first-rounder, right after its only Super Bowl trip. Bulluck, a two-time All-Pro, was a tackling dynamo; in 2004, he led the league with 152 stops. He had six seasons with at least 108 tackles and one with 98. Bullock also had 21 interceptions.

Commander: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue (2011, 16th)

What a terrific choice this was by the Washington Commanders, who have done pretty well with defensive players in general. Ryan Kerrigan earned four Pro Bowl selections, leading the league in 2016 with 18 tackles for loss. Also, a strong run defender, Kerrigan made 95.5 sacks in his 10 seasons in Washington to get recognized over LB Brian Orakpo.

Barry Wilner was a sportswriter for the Associated Press for 46 years. He has covered virtually every major sporting event, including 14 Olympics, 9 World Cups, 34 Super Bowls, the World Series, and the Stanley Cup Finals, and has written 75 books. Follow him on Twitter @Wilner88