At the very start of the NFL Draft, the team that’s selecting first overall is looking for a player that can turn their franchise around and get them into Super Bowl contention. After all, the first pick is reserved for the worst team in the league unless they trade out of the spot. With that in mind, there are certain positions that have more value at the number one spot in the draft, while others are taken much later in the first round.
Let’s take a look at the history of the NFL Draft and see which positions are taken the most frequently with the number one overall selection. While the most frequent might not surprise you, the rest of the list is quite a surprise.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Despite the fact that the NFL has evolved into a passing-first league, wide receivers and tight ends are being taken later in the draft. Many NFL teams feel that they can get a franchise-altering wide receiver later in the draft, with some of the best at the position being taken well outside of the top 10.
For example, DaVantae Adams was a second-round pick, Terry McLaurin was a third-rounder, while Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs were selected in the fifth round. The last time that an NFL team used the top pick on a receiver or tight end came in 1996 when Keyshawn Johnson was drafted by the New York Jets. That ended a cold spell of more than a decade, with Irving Fryar in 1984 coming before him (New England Patriots).
There are some rare instances in which a team is already set at other positions but still holds the number one overall selection. When this happens, teams can turn their attention to the offensive line in search of help. Sometimes, an offensive lineman is also considered a “safe” pick in drafts where evaluators feel that the talent pool isn’t that great.
Over the course of NFL Draft history, several offensive linemen have been drafted first overall, with all of them being left tackles since 1950. Before then, there were two offensive linemen, both of whom played center(Ki Aldrich and Chuck Bednarik). Recent left tackles include Eric Fischer (Central Michigan), Jake Long (Michigan), and Hall of Famer Orlando Pace (Ohio State).
We mentioned that the NFL has become a passing-first league, and to offset this, many teams have used a first overall selection to shore up their defensive line with a solid pass rusher. The result is an influx of defensive linemen being taken first overall, especially as more elite talent is being developed at the high school and college levels for defensive ends.
Since the 21st century started, some of the defensive linemen to go number one overall include Mario Williams, Myles Garrett, and Travon Walker. Of these teams, only the Jaguars (Walker) were really set at quarterback as they had the first overall pick the previous year and used it on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
It might be hard to believe, but running back was the most drafted position at the number one spot up until the mid-2000s. The NFL of yesteryear had a heavy focus on running the ball, and having a running back with elite talent was an absolute necessity. These days, running backs are lucky if they’re even taken in the first round altogether. It’s a much different game, but running backs are still firmly number two on this list.
No running back has gone number one overall since 1995 when Ki-Jana Carter was selected by the Bengals out of Penn State, and he ended up not making an impact. Other notable number-one overall running backs include Earl Campbell, Bo Jackson, and even O.J. Simpson. It’s likely, however, that a running back won’t go number one again unless he’s also capable of playing quarterback.
It should be no surprise that after the quarterback position overtook the running back position on the list it would never look back. Out of the first 20 number-one picks in the 21st century, 14 of them were quarterbacks, and the list continues to grow. 2001 to 2005 marked the longest streak of quarterbacks being the first selected with Michael Vick, David Carr, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, and Alex Smith being part of it.
You can probably name a big chunk of the quarterbacks who have gone first overall off the top of your head. Names like Kyler Murray, Trevor Lawrence, Andrew Luck, and Cam Newton all come to mind, but the list is a long one that only gets longer as the position (somehow) continues to become more important.