Every time the NFL draft rolls around, everyone starts analyzing stats and assessing risks in an attempt to figure out which prospects are the real deal and which are bound to go down in history as major draft busts. Ultimately, however, after all the studying and thinking and discussing, success and failure balance each other out. The majority of picks are safe and productive, one handful of supposedly elite prospects falls flat, and another handful comes out of nowhere to become superstars.
Since we covered the “draft busts” angle last year, this year we’re going to take a look at the flip side. What follows is a list of the 13 biggest steals in the history of the NFL draft—guys who went unnoticed in the draft and demonstrate one of the most important maxims in professional sports: you never know.
The magnitude of a "steal" is not determined solely by a player's performance. It's determined by distance between the performance and the original expectations. And the "expectations" are different depending on the position. For example, since quarterbacks are more valuable commodities, the 3rd round for them is like the 6th round for a center.
You also have to consider external factors that affect a player's draft position. For example, was a guy coming off an injury that made teams wary, or did he have serious legal issues that made teams wonder if he would even play? Being selected late in the draft because of things like this is not the same as being selected late because teams overlook your inherent value.
With all this laid out, here are some guys that merited consideration for this list of the biggest NFL draft steals but didn't quite make the cut:
Bo Jackson – 7th Round, 1987
Dan Marino – 1st Round, 1983
Thurman Thomas – 2nd Round, 1988
Isaac Bruce – 2nd Round, 1994
Jackson is one of the greatest all-around athletes of the modern era and might have been a Hall-of-Famer if his career wasn't cut short by injuries. However, he's not one of the biggest draft steals because he actually went 1st overall in 1986 but wouldn't sign with the Buccaneers. As for the other three, they are all some of the best to ever play their respective skill positions. However, you can't really say that they got snubbed in the draft. Sure, some guy named Todd Blakcbridge got drafted ahead of Dan Marino, but so did Hall of Famers's John Elway, Eric Dickerson, Bruce Mathews, and Jim Kelly.
The players who actually made the cut here are all bigger steals than these guys...so let's have a look.
Kaepernick is without a doubt the boldest choice for this list. He has less than one whole NFL season under his belt and he was 36th overall in 2011. However, I couldn't ignore the immediate impact this guy had in the league the moment he took over for poor Alex Smith last year. He started seven regular season games, then led his team to within a few points of a Super Bowl championship. How many NFL teams wouldn't pick this guy over the guy they currently have at QB? Five? Six? Not many, that's for sure. Thus, because he's a quarterback, and because he had such a huge impact in only 10 games, he slides in at number 13.
13. Colin Kaepernick – 2nd Round, 2011
Russell Wilson was an even bigger steal than Kaepernick, given that he wasn't chosen until the 3rd round because he doesn't have the typical quarterback physique. However, the kid proved everyone but Pete Carroll wrong by starting every game in 2012-13 and leading the Seahawks to an 11-5 record while throwing for 3,118 yards and 26 touchdowns...and rushing for 489 yards. This guy is elite, and now everybody knows it.
12. Russell Wilson – 3rd Round, 2012
Former Kansas City Chiefs guard Will Shields didn't miss a game during his 14-year NFL career, though he did make 12 straight appearances in the Pro Bowl while getting All-Pro honors eight times. He's one of the greatest guards ever and a lock for the Hall of Fame. The only reason he isn't higher on this list is because, for a guard, the 3rd round isn't that big of a slight.
11. Will Shields – 3rd Round, 1993
Former linebacker Zach Thomas played 10 years for the Dolphins, then one each for the Cowboys and Chiefs. During that time, he made seven trips to the Pro Bowl and was a first-team All-Pro five times. At 154th overall, the Dolphins got a steal in the 1996 NFL draft.
10. Zach Thomas – 5th Round, 1996
Donald Driver isn't on the short list for "greatest wide receiver of all time," and he's on the bubble when it comes to making the Hall of Fame. However, this guy was one of the most valuable and most popular Green Bay Packers for over a decade and he racked up seven 1,000-yard seasons in eight years for a career total of 10,137. Those are the kinds of numbers you'd expect form a first-rounder, not the 213th overall pick.
9. Donald Driver – 7th Round, 1999
Larry Wilson played 13 season for the St. Louis Cardinals. During that time the free safety recorded 52 interceptions, made eight Pro Bowls, and was selected as an All-Pro eight times. However, the Hall of Famer wasn't even selected until the 7th round of the 1960 draft...which is nuts.
8. Larry Wilson – 7th Round, 1960
Sadly, Terrell Davis's career was cut short by injuries. However, during the first four years of his career the guy was basically unstoppable. As a rookie he rushed for 1,117 yards. The year after that he rushed for 1,538 yards. The year after that it was 1,750 yards. And finally, in 1998, he rushed for 2,008 yards. Oh, and he helped the Broncos win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1998 and 1999.
So even though his career was short, Terrell Davis's prolific production still makes him the 7th biggest draft steal of all time.
7. Terrell Davis – 6th Round, 1995
Former safety Ken Houston recorded 49 interceptions and returned them for 898 total yards in his Hall of Fame career. In 1971 he set an NFL record (that stood until 2006) by returning four interceptions and one fumble for five touchdowns. That's a lot of production from a guy chosen 214th overall in 1967.
6. Ken Houston – 9th Round, 1969
Staubach won the Heisman trophy in 1963 and was chosen with the 122nd pick of the 1964 NFL draft by the Cowboys. However, he didn't even enter the NFL draft until he was 27 years old due to his commitments to the Navy.
Of course, all Staubach would go on to do is make six Pro Bowls, win five NFC Championships, two Super Bowls, one Super Bowl MVP award, and get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
5. Roger Staubach – 10th Round, 1964
When Shannon Sharpe retired in 2003, he left the game as the all-time leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns by a tight end. Since then, Tony Gonzalez has broken all those records...but he was chosen in the first round, 13th overall, in the 1997 NFL draft. Sharpe wasn't selected until the 7th round, or 192nd overall. So that should tell you what kind of draft steal he was.
4. Shannon Sharpe – 7th Round, 1990
Former Rams defensive end Deacon Jones is one of the greatest defensive players in the history of football. The NFL didn't keep official sack records until 1982, and the term "sack" hadn't even been invented when Jones started playing...because he was the one who invented it. However, some say he recorded as many as 194.5 sacks in his career, while the NFL pegs the number unofficially at 173.5—either of which place him 3rd all-time behind Bruce Smith and Reggie White.
So when was Deacon Smith selected? How about 186th overall. Not bad for a guy who revolutionized the game with his blinding, sideline-to-sideline speed.
3. Deacon Jones – 14th Round, 1961
If Deacon Jones had been selected in the 3rd round of the NFL draft as a defensive end, we might think, "oh, well that's not so bad." But Joe Montana? He might just be the greatest quarterback of all time. The guy has four Super Bowl rings, three Super Bowl MVP awards, eight Pro Bowl selections, two NFL MVP awards, and about 40,000 career passing yards on his resume.
However, for some reason, he was only the 82nd overall pick in 1979. Ahead of him were such quarterback legends as Jack "Who?" Thompson (3rd overall) and Steve "that one guy" Fuller (23rd overall). And it's not like that draft class was packed full of legends at other positions, either. Only three guys total made it to the Hall of Fame: Dan Hampton (4th overall), Kellen Winslow (13th overall), and Joe Montana.
2. Joe Montana – 3rd Round, 1979
Does the fact that Tom Brady takes the #1 spot mean he is a better quarterback than Joe Montana? No. He might be, but that's besides the point. What Brady ranking higher than Montana means is that he was an even bigger draft steal. Like Montana, Brady is a two-time NFL MVP with eight Pro Bowl selections. Sure, he's got one less ring than Joe, but three Championships is still kind of good, right?
Yeah, three Super Bowl Championships is kind of good. So the fact that Mr. Gisele Bundchen was selected in the 6th round, 199th overall, is just ridiculous.