Each year, the NFL Draft’s first round is comprised mainly of players from colleges with massive college football programs. Colleges like Alabama, Notre Dame, Georgia, and more put out multiple first-round players seemingly every year, and have done so for decades. Then, there are surprises from small colleges, even all the way at the top. Let’s take a look at the first overall picks that came from surprising college programs.
For this list, we decided to stick with colleges in the Super Bowl era of professional football. Prior to then, it wasn’t uncommon to see a lot of small programs end up having a first-overall pick. After all, the University of Chicago hasn’t had a Division I team since the start of World War II, and they produced first-overall pick, Jay Berwanger.
Leading up to the 2005 NFL Draft, there had only been one Utah Ute drafted in the top 10, and that was two years prior when tackle Jordan Gross was selected eighth overall by the Carolina Panthers. In 2005, many thought that Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers was going to end up being the number one pick, but the San Francisco 49ers surprised many and went with quarterback Alex Smith at the top spot.
Smith became a starter in his first season with the 49ers and played for eight seasons in San Francisco. He also spent five seasons in Kansas City and three more with Washington before calling it quits after the 2020 season. Smith finished with 199 touchdowns and was a three-time Pro Bowl player.
University of Tampa
If you think of college football in Tampa, Florida, you probably think of the University of South Florida. However, the University of Tampa had a football program from 1933 until 1974, spending its final few years as an NCAA D-1 Independent. In their third-to-final season as a program, the Tampa Spartans produced defensive end John Matuszak, who was a surprise pick at number one in 1973 by the Houston Oilers.
Matuszak bounced around the league for a few years before finding a home with the Raiders from 1976 until the end of his career in 1982. He had no Pro Bowls and played in 123 career games, amassing 48.5 career sacks.
Prior to 2002, only two players in Fresno State history had been drafted in the first round. The first came in 1990 when defensive back James Williams (16th overall) was selected by the Bears, and quarterback Trent Dilfer was the sixth overall pick by the Buccaneers. David Carr became the third first-round Bulldog and the first to be taken with the number one pick by the expansion Houston Texans.
Carr became the day-one starter for the new franchise but failed to produce as a lack of an offensive line made him the most-sacked quarterback in the league twice in his first four seasons. Carr finished with a record of 23-53 in Houston and became a backup for Carolina, San Francisco, and New York (Giants) before retiring after the 2012 season.
HBCU school Tennessee State began play in 1912 and has yet to produce two dozen players into the NFL. However, one of those players was the number one overall selection, and it happened when Ed “Too Tall” Jones was selected first by the Dallas Cowboys in 1974. The defensive end was selected ahead of the likes of Bo Matthews and John Hicks, and for the Cowboys, it was the right pick.
Jones was a three-time All-Pro in his career, all of which was spent with Dallas. He won a Super Bowl and was named to a trio of Pro Bowls, as well. Jones finished with 106 career sacks over 224 games with the Cowboys, achieving legend status with the franchise.
Central Michigan University
Mid-American Conference teams simply don’t have many first-round picks, and it took until 2013 for one of the MAC members to have a number one overall pick. Nobody knew what the Kansas City Chiefs would do with the number one pick that year since there wasn’t a clear-cut top player in the draft, so they selected offensive tackle Eric Fisher, which was even a surprise to the fine folks of Mount Pleasant, Michigan.
Fisher spent all but one of his 9 NFL seasons with the Chiefs, earning himself a Super Bowl title and a pair of Pro Bowl honors. Fisher was the full-time starter for the Chiefs during their rebuild that saw the team draft Patrick Mahomes. To date, he is the only MAC player drafted first overall, and only three have been within the top five.