2023 NFL Draft season is revving up with the scouting combine taking place this week and ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Monday morning that the Chicago Bears are leaning towards dealing the No. 1 overall pick. GM Ryan Poles confirmed that report at the combine as well. The franchise has a number of position needs to address in its rebuild, so trading back and acquiring more draft capital would make sense.
Since the AFL-NFL merger agreement in 1967, the No. 1 overall pick has been moved just 12 times prior to the draft. Some of those instances worked out well for the team dealing the top pick, while other times it has ended in disaster. Below, I’ll analyze and rank all 12 occurrences in terms of how well it worked out for the franchise trading the top selection.
1. Chargers-Falcons 2001
Coming off a dreadful 1-15 campaign in 2000, the San Diego Chargers owned the No. 1 overall pick in 2001. With an opportunity to find a replacement for notorious draft bust Ryan Leaf, the team elected instead to ship the top pick to the Atlanta Falcons for a haul that included the No. 5 pick.
That No. 5 selection ended up being none other than running back LaDainian Tomlinson, a future NFL Hall of Famer who became one of the most iconic players in franchise history and the seventh all-time leading rusher in league history. In turn, the Falcons used the No. 1 pick on quarterback Michael Vick, who was the face of the entire organization for several seasons.
This trade ended up working out for both sides (well, at least until 2007 for Atlanta).
2. Titans-Rams 2016
After picking No. 2 the year before, the Tennessee Titans entered the 2016 draft season sitting at No. 1 overall and opted to shop their haul to the Los Angeles Rams. Part of the haul included a pair of first-round picks that they used on future Pro Bowl tackle Jack Conklin at No. 8 and wide receiver Corey Coleman at No. 15, whom they later traded to the Cleveland Browns. The 2017 picks they acquired included a pair of future starters in wide receiver Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith.
Ok, I’ve buried the lede here long enough. They used the 2016 second-rounder they acquired on Heisman Trophy winning running back Derrick Henry, a future multi-time NFL rushing champion who is still carrying the entire Titans offense to this day. As for the Rams, they used the top pick on quarterback Jared Goff, who would help lead the team to a Super Bowl appearance in 2018.
This is another one where the trade ended up working out on both ends.
3. Buccaneers-Oilers 1978
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were completely hapless through their first two years of existence, posting a combined 2-26 record in one of the worst starts for an expansion franchise in professional sports history. Desperately needing depth, the Bucs traded the No. 1 pick of the 1978 draft to the Houston Oilers.
What they got in return proved fruitful as the acquired Oilers tight end Jimmie Giles. He would go on to make four Pro Bowls as a member of the Bucs and held the franchise’s receiving touchdown record until Mike Evans shattered it decades later. They would also acquire the No. 17 pick in the ‘78 draft, whom they used on Doug Williams, the first true franchise quarterback for the organization. The team saw immediate improvement as a result of this, going 5-11 in 1978 before making a surprise run to the NFC Championship Game in 1979.
In turn, Houston used the top pick on future Hall of Fame running back and Lonestar State legend Earl Campbell. The “Tyler Rose” become one of the most synonymous figures with the Oilers franchise and took home the 1979 NFL MVP award in just his second year.
This trade worked out for both franchises in the interim but hang tight, I’ll circle back around to the Bucs later.
4. Colts-Falcons 1975
The Baltimore Colts had bottomed out just four years after winning Super Bowl 5 and entered the 1975 draft with the No. 1 overall pick. They opted instead to flip it to the Atlanta Falcons.
The Colts would end up selecting guard Ken Huff with the No. 3 pick that they acquired, and also received All-Pro tackle George Kunz. Both ended up starting on a resurgent Baltimore team that won three straight AFC East titles in the mid-late 1970’s. Meanwhile, Atlanta took quarterback Steve Bartkowski with the No. 1 pick. Bartkowski would become a two-time Pro Bowler and led the Falcons to the franchise’s very first playoff victory in 1978.
This is another example of the deal working out on both ends, but it should be noted that they both missed out an opportunity to draft Walter Payton in 1975.
5. Panthers-Bengals 1995
The expansion Carolina Panthers had the top pick in their inaugural season of 1995 and opted to deal that pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for a first-rounder and second-rounder that same year.
The Panthers took quarterback Kerry Collins with the fifth pick, who made the Pro Bowl as part of their surprise run to the 1996 NFC Championship Game before fizzling out. Cincinnati used the No. 1 pick on running back Ki-Jana Carter, whose pro career never got off the ground due to injuries. If not for Carolina’s quick surge in 1996, this trade would be a wash on both sides.
6. Oilers-Cowboys 1974
Prior to the 1973 season, the struggling Houston Oilers would deal their first and third-round picks for the 1974 draft up I-45 to the Dallas Cowboys for a pair of players in defensive end Tody Smith and wide receiver Billy Parks. Both guys would be productive starters for the improving Oilers over the next few years, but both would be gone by 1976.
By the way, Houston finished with the league’s worst record in 1973 at 1-13, meaning Dallas would select first in 1974. They’d use that pick on legendary defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones, a future All-Pro who would play a major role on the Cowboys’ Super Bowl teams throughout the 1970’s. That third-round pick they also acquired turned into quarterback Danny White, who had his own success when taking over for quarterback Roger Staubach in the 1980’s.
7. Patriots-Cowboys 1991
The Dallas Cowboys’ dynasty of the 1990’s was built on draft trade robberies and the New England Patriots were a victim of that in 1991. Coming off a horrific 1-15 campaign the year prior, the Pats decided to deal the top pick to the Cowboys for a haul. That included draftees in tackle Pat Harlow and defensive back Jerome Henderson, as well as veterans in cornerback Ron Francis, linebacker David Howard, and linebacker Eugene Lockhart Jr. None of those players would even make it to 1996, when the Pats actually made the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson would turn to one of his former Miami players with the No. 1 pick in defensive tackle Russell Maryland, a future Pro Bowler who was an important piece of Dallas’ dynasty. Swing and a miss for New England there.
8. Falcons-Colts 1990
There’s a chance Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay could trade up to No. 1 this year to select a franchise quarterback. If that does happen, he’d hope it turns out better than the first time he did it in 1990.
That year, the Colts traded a draft package to the Atlanta Falcons to get the No. 1 overall pick. They’d use the pick on quarterback Jeff George, who threw more interceptions than touchdowns in his four years in Indy. Relations soured between the QB and the franchise in 1993 and they ended up trading him to...the Atlanta Falcons, where he actually led them to the postseason in 1995.
The 1990 draft trade ended up working out better for the Falcons as they acquired All-Pro tackle Chris Hinton as well as drafting future All-Pro wideout Andre Rison.
9. Bucs-Bengals-Patriots 1984
Hey, so remember earlier when I talked about the Bucs turning things around with their selection of Doug Williams at quarterback? Well years later, owner Hugh Culverhouse infamously low-balled Williams in contract negotiations to the point where the QB would depart for the USFL. Needing a quarterback prior to the 1983 season, the team would trade the following year’s first-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for the “Throwin’ Samoan” Jack Thompson. The team would finish with a league-worst 2-14 record and missed out on selecting No. 1 overall. This would be the beginning of a death spiral for the franchise for the next decade and change.
As for the Bengals, they would deal the No. 1 pick to the New England Patriots, who would use it on future Pro Bowl wide receiver Irving Fryar. The only productive player the Bengals would end up getting in their draft haul was offensive linemen Brian Blados. But hey, they would select quarterback Boomer Esiason in the second round, so that draft wasn’t a total waste for Cincy.
10. Jets-Rams 1997
In 1997, Bill Parcells took over a mess of a New York Jets franchise that hadn’t had a winning season since 1986. With the No. 1 overall pick, the Hall of Fame head coach decided to wheel and deal and trade down.
New York flipped the the No. 1 to the St. Louis Rams for a draft package that included the sixth pick. The Rams would then use the top pick on Orlando Pace, one the greatest offensive tackles in league history. At No. 6, the Jets decided to move down again and traded with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs immediately flipped that pick to the Seattle Seahawks, who drafted future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Walter Jones. The Jets did select linebacker James Farrior with the No. 8 pick they acquired from the Bucs, but his career took off when he left the Jets for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002.
Out of the 11 picks they ended up making in the 1997 draft, seventh-round defensive tackle Jason Ferguson was the only one who stayed with the franchise for more than five seasons. New York did end up making the 1998 AFC Championship Game, so there was at least some semblance of short term success. But continually trading down and missing out on two future Hall of Fame tackles is absolutely brutal.
11. Saints-Colts 1967
In the very first draft combined draft following the AFL-NFL merger agreement, the expansion New Orleans Saints opted to deal the No. 1 overall pick to the the Baltimore Colts for quarterback Gary Cuozzo.
Cuozzo would be the first starting quarterback in franchise history, but he would be benched later in the 1967 season and ultimately dealt to the Minnesota Vikings the following January. Baltimore, meanwhile, used the No. 1 pick on future All-Pro defensive end Bubba Smith, who later helped them win Super Bowl 5 years later. You can see why New Orleans struggled for several years out the gate.
12. Giants-Vikings 1968
Quarterback Fran Tarkenton is synonymous with the early success of the Minnesota Vikings franchise in the 1960’s and 70’s, but sandwiched in the middle was a five-year stint with the New York Giants. How were the Giants able to acquire a future Hall of Fame QB in his prime? Let’s back up and set the stage. Follow along.
Going a league-worst 1-12-1 in 1966, New York would’ve had the No. 1 overall pick in 1967 under normal circumstances. However, because of the AFL-NFL merger and the expansion Saints coming into the league, the team was able to negotiate getting the top pick in either the 1967 or 1968 drafts. The Giants opted for 1968 and with a significant amount of guaranteed draft capital, they ended up sending the following to Minnesota for Tarkenton’s services:
No. 2 pick in 1967
No. 28 pick in 1967
No. 1 pick in 1968
No. 39 pick in 1969
That haul turned into a gold mine for the Vikings. They used the two picks in 1967 on productive running back Clint Jones and future Pro Bowl wide receiver Bob Grim. Basically having a free lottery ticket with the top pick in 1968, they nailed it by taking future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Ron Yary. They would also hit big on their 1969 pick with the selection of future Pro Bowl guard Ed White. All of these players would be part of the foundation for a a dominant Minnesota franchise that ended up making four Super Bowl appearances in eight seasons.
As for New York, well, the Tarkenton move didn’t move the needle. Sure, the quarterback made the Pro Bowl in four of his five seasons in the Big Apple, but the Giants failed to make the playoffs in all five years. After the 1971 season, they ended up dealing him...back to Minnesota, where he continued their run of success. Don’t worry Giants fans, it ended up working out for you guys...15 years later