Fair or not, the careers of No. 1 overall picks are scrutinized more than any NFL player. Some No. 1 overall picks flourish at the next level while helping deliver wins and memorable moments to their team and fan base. Other No. 1 overall picks, however, fail to live up to the hype.
Walker is one of 23 players who have been selected with the No. 1 overall pick since the turn of the century. To find the best No. 1 overall pick of the 21st century, we decided to rank each one using the following criteria:
- Individual success/accolades
- Team success
In this list, the best player was determined by which No. 1 overall pick has had the better career. That may help clarify the player that was ultimately picked as the greatest No. 1 pick of the 21st century.
Here's a complete rundown of the list, starting with No. 23.
23. QB JaMarcus Russell, Raiders, 2007
Russell was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft after leading the LSU Tigers to an 11-2 record that included a blowout victory over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. Russell enjoyed a memorable junior season in Baton Rouge, completing 67.8% of his passes with 28 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.
After spending most of his rookie season on the bench, Russell completed less than 54% of his passes in 2008, as the Raiders went just 5-10 with Russell as their starter. Russell completely bottomed out the following season, completing just 48.8% percent of his passes with three touchdowns and 11 interceptions in nine starts. Russell, who was released by the team during the ensuing offseason, has not played professional football since 2009 after unsuccessful comeback bids in 2013 and in 2016. He is arguably the biggest bust in NFL Draft history.
22. OLB Travon Walker, Jaguars, 2022
The most recent No. 1 overall pick, Walker should have plenty of time to move up this list. He turned in a solid rookie season that included 3.5 sacks, and interception and a forced fumble while helping the Jaguars win the AFC South division. He was credited with a half-sack against Justin Herbert during Jacksonville's come-from-behind win over the Chargers in the wild card round.
21. DE Courtney Brown, Browns, 2000
The Browns' second No. 1 overall pick in as many years after taking Tim Couch in 1999, Brown, the first pick in the 2000 draft, was part of a talented defense at Penn State that included linebacker LaVar Arrington, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Redskins who was selected immediately after Brown. Unlike Arrington, Brown never blossomed into a Pro Bowl-level player, recording just 19 sacks in 61 career games.
Injuries plagued Brown throughout his career. After a decent rookie campaign, Brown tallied 4.5 sacks five games into his second season before sustaining a season-ending injury. While he rebounded to post solid numbers in 2002 and in 2003 (recording a career-high six sacks in 2003, a year after helping the Browns secure their only playoff berth since returning to the NFL in 1999), injuries ultimately ended Brown's career after just one season with the Broncos in 2005.
20. QB Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars, 2021
Lawrence should skyrocket up this list if the rest of his career mimics his first two seasons in Jacksonville. After a solid rookie campaign, Lawrence thrived in Doug Pederson's offense last season. He threw more than three times as many touchdowns then interceptions while leading the Jaguars to their first division title in five years.
19. QB David Carr, Texans, 2002
The Texans' first-ever draft pick, Carr was the NFL's most-sacked quarterback in three of his first four NFL seasons. While Houston's inability to protect him hindered his growth, Carr eventually developed into a decent starting NFL quarterback. In his third season, Carr completed over 60% of his passes for the first time while helping lead the Texans to a 7-9 record. Two years later, he led the NFL by completing 68.8% of his passes. Carr's play significantly improved after the Texans drafted receiver Andre Johnson in the first round of the 2003 draft. Johnson, one of the best receivers of his era, earned his first two Pro Bowl selections with Carr as his quarterback.
After compiling a 22-53 record during his five seasons in Houston, Carr received just four starts during the final six years of his career. Carr, who spent one season in Carolina and another in San Francisco, won a Super Bowl ring as Eli Manning's backup at the end of the 2011 season. He retired with 65 touchdowns, 71 interceptions and a 23-56 record as a starter.
18. QB Sam Bradford, Rams, 2010
While he never developed into a franchise quarterback for the Rams, Bradford, the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner, put together a solid nine-year career that included leading the NFL by completing 71.6% of his passes in 2016 as a member of the Vikings. That season proved to be Bradford's best in the NFL. In 15 games, Bradford threw for a career-high 3,877 yards with 20 touchdowns against just five interceptions.
Bradford had four different seasons that saw him win at least seven games as a starter. During those seasons, Bradford, who led seven comebacks and eight game-winning drives during his career, averaged 3,706 yards passing with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while completing 63.9% of his passes. Bradford struggled to stay healthy, as he sustained several serious injuries that included two injuries to the same ACL.
17. QB Baker Mayfield, Browns, 2018
After starting the season as a backup, Mayfield enjoyed one of the best seasons by a rookie quarterback in league history. In 2018, Mayfield completed nearly 64% of his passes with 27 touchdown passes while leading the Browns -- a team that won just one game during the previous two seasons -- to six wins in 13 starts. His success led to him being named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Mayfield endured a rocky 2019 season that saw him throw nearly as many interceptions (21) as touchdown passes (22) while failing to complete 60% of his throws. Mayfield bounced back with gusto in 2020; he led the Browns to an 11-5 regular-season record before throwing three touchdown passes in Cleveland's wild card win over the Steelers. But he endured another setback season in 2021, as injuries significantly hindered his play as the Browns stumbled to an 8-9 record. Mayfield spent time with two teams last season (going 2-8 as a starter) and will play for his fourth team in 2023 as a member of the Buccaneers.
16. QB Jameis Winston, Buccaneers, 2015
Two years after leading Florida State to a national championship, Winston was named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns for the Buccaneers that season. Winston didn't appear to improve much after his rookie season, however, as he currently carries a career completion percentage of just 61.2%. He has also thrown 91 career interceptions, which includes a league-high 30 in 2019. Winston also led the NFL in passing yards in 2019, as his 5,109 yards are the eighth-highest total in league history.
In 2021, Winston went 5-2 as the Saints' starter in 2021 (with 14 touchdowns against just three picks) before an injury prematurely ended his season. He made just three starts last year and will serve as Derek Carr's backup for the 2023 season.
15. DE Jadeveon Clowney, Texans, 2014
After injuries wiped out most of his rookie season, Clowney bounced back in 2015, recording 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss in 13 games (nine starts). Clowney earned the first of three consecutive Pro Bowl selections in 2016 while becoming a regular starter on the Texans' defense. During that span, Clowney averaged just over eight sacks, 53 tackles and 18 tackles per loss per season. He also forced four fumbles while recovering six forced fumbles.
Clowney put up solid numbers during his only season in Seattle in 2019. While his three sacks were his lowest total in a season since his rookie year, Clowney posted a career-high four forced fumbles while returning one of his two fumble recoveries for a touchdown. He also returned his first career interception for a touchdown. Clowney did little during his lone season in Tennessee, making just 19 tackles (and recording zero sacks) in eight games. He had a brief resurgence in Cleveland in 2021, though, recording nine sacks and two forced fumbles in 14 games. Clowney is back on the open market as he prepares for his 10th season.
14. QB Kyler Murray, Cardinals, 2019
As a rookie, Murray completed 64.4% of his passes with 20 touchdowns and 12 picks. The 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year, Murray also finished as the Cardinals' second leading rusher that season with four touchdowns while averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
Murray was better in 2020. In 16 games, Murray completed over 67% of his passes with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also rushed for 11 touchdowns while averaging 6.2 yards per carry, joining Cam Newton and Kordell Stewart as the only quarterbacks in league history to throw for at least 20 touchdown and run for at least 10 in the same season.
Murray was even better in 2021, as he was in the early conversations for league MVP after leading Arizona to a 9-0 start. His play in 14 games helped the Cardinals clinch their first playoff berth since 2015. Murray is hoping to have a bounce-back season in 2023 after injuries limited him to just 11 games in 2022.
13. OT Eric Fisher, Chiefs, 2013
While he has only one Pro Bowl nod to his credit, Fisher has been one of the better offensive tackles in football after joining the Chiefs in 2013. Fisher, who joined the Colts prior to the 2021 season, has started in 128 in 132 of his career games. A starter on Kansas City's 2019 championship team, Fisher has helped provide sturdy protection for quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has blossomed into arguably the NFL's best player.
A first-time Pro Bowler in 2016, Fisher earned Pro Bowl honors for a second time in 2020 before suffering a torn Achilles injury during the AFC title game. Without Fisher, the Chiefs failed to properly protect Mahomes during the Chiefs' 31-9 loss to the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV.
During his lone season in Indianapolis, Fisher helped running back Jonathan Taylor win the NFL rushing title. He is currently a free agent after not playing a single down in 2022.
12. OT Jake Long, Dolphins, 2008
The former Michigan All-American made an immediate impact in Miami. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft, Long was an immediate starter at left tackle for the Dolphins. As a rookie, Long helped the Dolphins capture the AFC East division title while helping anchor Miami's "Wildcat" offense featuring Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. Long's protection also helped quarterback Chad Pennington win his second Comeback Player of the Year award. An All-Pro in 2010, Long was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons.
Long's career took an unfortunate turn near the end of the 2011 season, when his streak of 61 consecutive games played ended after suffering a back injury. Long would battle through injuries for the remainder of his career, appearing in just 15 games during his final three seasons. He decided to hang up his cleats for good at the end of the 2016 season following brief stints with the Rams, Falcons and Vikings.
11. Joe Burrow, Bengals, 2020
Barring an injury, look for Burrow to crack the top 10 when this list is revisited next spring. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 Draft, Burrow led the NFL in passing before suffering a season-ending injury 10 games into the season. Despite playing with a patchwork offensive line, Burrow managed to complete 65.3% of his passes for 2,688 yards and 13 touchdowns with five interceptions prior to his injury.
Burrow bounced back in a big way in 2021, winning Comeback Player of the Year while leading the NFL in completion percentage. He then led the Bengals to the franchise's third Super Bowl appearance after guiding Cincinnati to postseason wins over the Raiders, Titans and Chiefs. Burrow earned his first Pro Bowl nod last year while leading the Bengals to within a game of their second consecutive Super Bowl appearance. Burrow's five playoff wins over the past two years are more than any other quarterback over that span.
10. QB Jared Goff, Rams, 2010
Goff enjoyed a solid run with the Rams that included two Pro Bowls and an NFC title. After enduing a rocky rookie season that saw him fail to win any of his seven starts, Goff flourished under Sean McVay, who joined the Rams prior to Goff's second season. During his second and third seasons, Goff completed nearly 64% of his passes while averaging 4,246 passing yards per season. He also threw 60 touchdowns against just 19 interceptions while posting a 26-9 record as a starter. Goff's performance during the 2018 playoffs helped the Rams advance to Super Bowl LIII, where they scored just three points in a loss to the Patriots.
Despite helping lead the Rams to the playoffs in 2020, Los Angeles traded Goff to the Lions (in exchange for Stafford and several draft picks) that offseason. Goff has enjoyed a career rebirth in Detroit; he earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2022 while leading the Lions to their best record since 2017.
9. DE Myles Garrett, Browns, 2017
Garrett earns a spot in the top 10 after piling up 74.5 sacks in his first 84 games with the Browns. Garrett earned Pro Bowl honors in 2018 after recording 13.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and 12 tackles for loss. Garrett likely would have earned another Pro Bowl selection in 2019 before he was suspended for the final six games of the season. Despite appearing in just 10 games, Garrett finished the 2019 season with 10 sacks, two forced fumbles and 11 tackles for loss.
The 2020 season solidified Garrett's status as one of the NFL's premier pass rushers. In 14 games, Garrett recorded 14 sacks along with four forced fumbles. Garrett's play helped the Browns win their first playoff game since 1994. He earned All-Pro honors for a second straight year in 2021 after recording a career-best 16 sacks. Garrett matched that total in 2022 while being named to his third straight Pro Bowl.
8. DE Mario Williams, Texans, 2006
The third former Texans player on this list, Williams' career was better than most people remember. After an underwhelming rookie season, Williams tallied 14 sacks and 14 tackles for loss during his second season. A Pro Bowl snub that year, Williams was selected to the Pro Bowl during the next two seasons while becoming one of the NFL's best pass rushers.
After six mostly productive seasons in Houston, Williams was even better during his four seasons with the Bills. During that span, Williams recorded 43 sacks, 53 tackles for loss, and five forced fumbles. A two-time Pro Bowler during his time with the Bills, Williams' best season was in 2014, when he earned All-Pro honors after setting career highs with 14.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Williams, who retired after one season with the Dolphins, finished his 11-year career with 97.5 sacks, 121 tackles for loss, and 16 forced fumbles.
7. QB Alex Smith, 49ers, 2005
Had he come around 20 years earlier, Smith's best five-year output would have made him a perennial All-Pro. That being said, Smith still managed to earn three Pro Bowl selections during that span. He has also won an impressive 99 regular-season games as a starting quarterback.
During his five seasons with the Chiefs, Smith, who helped lead the 49ers to an NFC Championship Game appearance in 2011, averaged 3,522 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions per season while completing 65.1% of his passes. Smith's best season was in 2017, when he completed 67.5% of his passes for 4,042 yards with 26 touchdowns against just five interceptions. In 2015, he led the Chiefs to their first postseason victory since 1993. That win, however, is mostly overshadowed by the Chiefs three one-and-done postseasons with Smith under center. In 2018, Smith led Washington to six wins in its first 10 games before breaking his leg.
6. QB Michael Vick, Falcons, 2001
Had his career not been interrupted by a two-year prison sentence for his role in a dog-fighting ring, Vick likely would have finished even higher on this list. Nevertheless, what Vick was able to do in Atlanta, along with his second wave of success in Philadelphia, got him the fifth spot.
One of the most exciting (and popular) players in league history, Vick provided a much-needed shot in the arm for a Falcons franchise that won just 16 games the previous three seasons before Vick became the starting quarterback in 2002, his second season in Atlanta. That year, Vick earned Pro Bowl honors while leading the Falcons to the playoffs. In the wild card round, Vick did something no other NFL quarterback had been able to do to that point: beat Brett Favre and the Packers at Lambeau Field in the playoffs. Vick, after missing most of the 2003 season with an injury, led the Falcons to the NFC Championship Game in 2004. Two years later, Vick became the first quarterback in league history to run for over 1,000 yards in a season. His 6,109 career rushing yards are the most in league history for a quarterback.
After two seasons away from football, Vick served as Donavan McNabb's backup in Philadelphia in 2009. In 2010, an injury to starter Kevin Kolb propelled Vick back into the starting lineup. That year, Vick enjoyed his finest season as a passer, completing a career-best 62.6% of his passes with 21 touchdowns and just six interceptions while leading the Eagles to the NFC East division title. The pounding he endured throughout his career eventually caught up to Vick, however, as he missed more than half of the 2013 season with an injury. He spent his final two seasons as a backup in New York and Pittsburgh.
5. QB Andrew Luck, Colts, 2012
Luck would have likely cracked the top three of this list if not for injuries and his decision to call it quits at just 29 years old. Peyton Manning's heir apparent in Indianapolis, Luck certainly played like a franchise quarterback, as he was selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. Luck also guided the Colts to three consecutive 11-5 regular seasons that included a trip to the AFC Championship Game in 2014. That season, Luck led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes while throwing for a career-high 4,761 yards.
After missing half of the 2015 season and all of the 2017 season with injuries, Luck won Comeback Player of the Year honors in 2018 while leading the Colts back into the postseason. While Luck proved that could still play at a high level (he earned his fourth Pro Bowl nod that season), he was not willing to continue playing through injury, thus deciding to call it a career just before the start of the 2019 season. In 94 career games, Luck threw 183 touchdown passes (against 96 interceptions) while compiling a 55-33 regular-season record and a 4-4 postseason record. He joinedof former NFL players who chose early retirement.
When deciding who to pick between Luck and Vick, it came down two one factor. If I had to pick one player to watch, I'm picking Vick. He was one of the most exciting players in league history. But if I'm picking someone to quarterback my team in a must-win game, I'm picking Luck, who was a considerably more accurate passer who had just the right amount of mobility to make plays outside the pocket. He was also an extremely driven player who had the respect of his huddle, something that was often overlooked during his time in Indianapolis.
4. QB Carson Palmer, Bengals, 2003
The 2002 Heisman Trophy winner, Palmer took a Bengals team that went 2-14 the season before his arrival and helped helped lead them to an AFC North division title in 2005, his second season as a starting quarterback. That season, Palmer led the NFL in touchdown passes (32) and completion percentage (67.8%). Unfortunately for Palmer, the Bengals' season ended in gut-wrenching fashion after he suffered a career-threatening knee injury on Cincinnati's first offensive play in its eventual loss to Pittsburgh in the wild card round.
While Palmer returned to play at a Pro Bowl level in 2006, things were never the same during his time in Cincinnati. Despite leading the Bengals back to the postseason in 2009, Palmer (who had philosophical issues with Bengals owner Mike Brown as it related to how much he was financially investing in the team's success) decided to retire instead of returning to Cincinnati for the 2011 season. Palmer ended his brief retirement later that year, spending two mostly forgettable seasons in Oakland before signing with the Cardinals during the 2013 offseason.
Palmer enjoyed a career rebirth in Arizona. Teamed with head coach Bruce Arians and future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Palmer posted a 38-21-1 record as a starter during his five seasons in the desert. In 2015, the 36-year-old Palmer enjoyed the best year of his career, as he completed 63.7% of his passes for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions while leading the Cardinals to the NFC title game. Palmer, who was inducted into the Cardinals' Ring of Honor in 2019, is 15th all time in career touchdown passes and career passing yards.
3. QB Matthew Stafford, Lions, 2009
Stafford moved way up the charts after helping lead the Rams to a win in Super Bowl LVI. In his first season in Los Angeles, Stafford threw for 4,886 yards and 41 touchdowns during the regular season. He led the Rams to playoff wins over the Cardinals, Buccaneers and 49ers before throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp late in Super Bowl LVI. Stafford was awarded the game's MVP following the Rams' 23-20 win over the Bengals.
Stafford had a prolific run in Detroit before joining the Rams. A Pro Bowler in 2014, Stafford averaged 4,466 passing yards and 27 touchdown passes per season from 2011-18. He didn't miss a single start during that stretch while helping the Lions advance to the postseason in 2011, 2014 and in 2016.
2. QB Cam Newton, Panthers, 2011
Newton's 2015 MVP and overall mastery during the Panthers' 17-1 record entering Super Bowl 50 are the main reasons why he is ranked one spot ahead of Palmer. The 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and national champion quarterback, Newton earned Pro Bowl and Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2011. That season, Newton, who used his passing and running ability to help lead the Panthers to three consecutive NFC South division titles, led the NFL with a 5.6-yards-per-carry average. His 14 rushing touchdown that season are the most ever by a quarterback.
A three-time Pro Bowler, Newton earned All-Pro honors in 2015 after throwing a career-high 35 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions. Newton also set NFL history that season, becoming the first player in league history to throw for 35 touchdowns and run for 10 more scores in the same season. Newton and his teammates hit a speed bump in the Super Bowl, however, as the Panthers were upset by game MVP Von Miller and the Broncos, 21-10. It was not one of Newton's better performances, as he lost two fumbles while completing just 18 of his 41 pass attempts.
Like Vick, the pounding Newton has enduring as a mobile quarterback appears to have taken its toll, as he has made just 22 starts over the past four years. Newton, who is currently a free agent, has already put up solid career numbers. His 75 career rushing touchdowns are the most by a quarterback, while his 5,628 career rushing yards are the second-highest total for a quarterback. He is also just six touchdown passes shy of 200 for his career. Newton is also one of just 52 quarterbacks with at least 30,000 career passing yards.
1. QB Eli Manning, Chargers (traded to Giants), 2004
The first overall pick in the 2004 draft, Manning retired after the 2019 season with 125 career wins and two Super Bowl MVP awards under his belt. A four-time Pro Bowler, Manning is 10th all time in both career passing yards and touchdown passes.
Manning's legacy as an all-time great player is complicated. While he did author one of the greatest upsets in professional sports history, Manning also led the league in interceptions three times, barely completed over 60% of his passes and recorded an underwhelming 117-117 regular-season record. That being said, Manning did post an impressive 8-4 postseason record that included two Super Bowl wins over the Patriots. To get there, Manning and the Giants defeated Tony Romo and the Cowboys in the 2007 divisional round, Brett Favre and the Packers in the '07 NFC title game, Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the 15-1 Packers in the divisional round of the 2011 playoffs, and Alex Smith and the 49ers in the '11 NFC Championship Game.
When asked about his younger brother's legacy, Peyton Manning, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2021,.
"When you're the Super Bowl MVP twice against the greatest dynasty of all time, the New England Patriots, Tom Brady/Bill Belichick, and you join a list that includes Terry Bradshaw, Bart Starr, Tom Brady and Joe Montana, Eli Manning as the only (multiple) Super Bowl MVPs. I don't really know what that term, 'drop the mic' is, but I guess if there was one. ... There really is no 'yeah, but' after that. That kind of ends it. But if you want a, 'yeah, but,' yeah, but he also started 220-plus consecutive games. He's sixth or seventh all time in touchdowns. It wasn't like he just played those two seasons.
"He answered the bell, played his butt off, won some huge games for his team."