A Brief History of the NFL Draft's First Overall Picks

Knox Bardeen@knoxbardeenNFC South Lead WriterApril 14, 2013

When the 2013 NFL draft begins April 25, it’ll mark the 78th time the NFL has held a college draft that disseminates college-level football players into the NFL on a basis of weaker teams picking before the stronger ones.

Future commissioner Bert Bell came up with the idea for teams to pick in reverse order from where they finished in the standings the season prior, giving the league champion the final pick in every round.

The first NFL draft was held Feb. 8, 1936, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia. Since then, the league has convened in a similar manner each year to choose players. That’s 77 opportunities for NFL teams to make a choice and select the first overall pick in the draft.

How many have been good choices? What better way to decide than by looking at a number of firsts surrounding the first overall pick in the drafts over the years?

The First Draft Pick (1936)

The very first draft pick ever was traded prior to taking the field. In fact, the first overall draft pick of the first ever NFL draft never even played an NFL game.

Jay Berwanger played halfback at the University of Chicago and not only was the first overall pick in the 1936 NFL draft, he was the first player to ever win the Heisman Trophy.

The Philadelphia Eagles made Berwanger the first pick, but traded his rights to the Chicago Bears shortly after the selection. Berwanger asked for $25,000 over two years, according to a University of Chicago release, and coach George Halas turned Berwanger down, believing that to be too much money.

Berwanger took a job as a salesman in a foam rubber plant and wrote part time for the Chicago Daily News. But he never played in the NFL.

The First Overall Draft Pick to Actually Play (1937)

Believe it or not, the first overall pick of the second annual NFL draft had a very similarly traveled road.

Once again the Eagles had the first pick in the draft and took fullback Harrison Samuel “Sam” Francis from the University of Nebraska. His rights were also sold to the Bears, just like Berwanger’s a year prior.

Francis played in the NFL for five seasons, two with Chicago, two with the Brooklyn Dodgers and one with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He started 10 games and played in a total of 40, rushing for 873 career yards on 253 carries. He scored five touchdowns.

The First Non-Running Back (1939)

Other than Ki Aldrich, who was the first overall pick in the 1939 NFL draft, every player taken in the first eight years of the draft was a running back of some sort.

Aldrich was an offensive lineman—a center to be exact—from Texas Christian University.

The First Quarterback (1944)

The Boston Yanks hold the distinction of selecting the first quarterback as a first overall selection. Angelo Bertelli won the 1943 Heisman Trophy as the quarterback of Notre Dame. But he hadn’t been a quarterback for long.

According to the Notre Dame Department of Athletics, Bertelli switched from running back to play in the T-formation in 1942 at Notre Dame. While in college, he threw just 318 passes and connected on 28 touchdowns.

In the NFL, Bertelli played for three seasons and threw eight touchdown passes. He only started five games and threw for just 972 yards.

Bertelli was the first of 33 quarterbacks to be selected with the first overall pick in the draft, but passers being taken first was a fleeting occurrence early in draft history.

In the 1950s, a majority of the first overall picks were quarterbacks (60 percent), but the trend of taking quarterbacks first wasn’t popularized until the turn of the century. In the 2000s, 70 percent of the first overall picks were quarterbacks and the first three picks of the 2010s have been passers.

The First Hall of Famer (1942)

Every team wants to make the perfect choice with the first overall pick in the NFL draft. What better way to judge a first pick than by whether he made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

The Pittsburgh Steelers selected running back Bill Dudley first overall in the 1942 NFL draft. Dudley played a total of nine seasons in the NFL, but only three with the Steelers. He spent three years each with the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins.

Dudley played on both sides of the football and special teams throughout his career. He was a tailback and quarterback (he only threw passes in seven of his nine seasons) on offense, played in the secondary on defense and both returned kicks and was the team's place-kicker and punter. He could do it all.

In his career, Dudley rushed for 3,057 yards and 18 touchdowns, was 81-for-222 with 985 passing yards and six touchdowns (he threw 17 interceptions), was a 50 percent field-goal kicker (33-for-66) and enjoyed a 95.3 percent success rate on extra points (121-for-127).

On defense, Dudley intercepted 23 passes in his career, leading the league in 1946 with 10, and returned two for scores. He also returned three punts and one kickoff for touchdowns.

The First Defensive Player (1966)

In the early years of the NFL, it was much more common to see players play on both sides of the football. But the NFL didn’t have its first solely defensive first overall pick in the draft until 1966.

Linebacker Tommy Nobis was a star at the University of Texas, winning the Outland Trophy and the Maxwell Award. He continued his success in the NFL.

The expansion Atlanta Falcons took Nobis with their first pick in the 1966 NFL draft, their first draft pick ever. He went on to become that season’s Rookie of the Year, was selected to five Pro Bowls, was on two All-Pro teams and was enshrined in the Falcons’ Ring of Honor.

Overall Trends

As you can see with the distribution of first overall draft picks by position, teams bestowed with the responsibility of picking first tend to grab a player who touches the ball often.

In the early years of the NFL, that was the running back, which is why it’s the second-most frequently selected position with the No. 1 overall pick and why seven of the first eight picks were ball-carriers. The running back dominated first overall selections until the 1960s, when quarterbacks became en vogue.

Then in the 1970s and 1980s, teams started experimenting with selecting defensive players first overall. Prior to 1972, only one defensive player had ever been the No. 1 overall draft selection. Between 1972 and 1994, 11 defensive players were selected.

In 2001, the league went back to picking players who touched the ball frequently, but this time, first overall picks in the draft typically went to quarterbacks.

When the Falcons picked Michael Vick first in the 2001 draft, it started a trend of 10 quarterback picks in 12 years. Only offensive tackle Jake Long in 2008 and defensive end Mario Williams in 2006 separated years of quarterbacks with the first selection in the NFL draft.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.


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