Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Ranking best NFL draft picks of all time: Walter Payton headlines the top five taken at No. 4

The 2022 NFL Draft is fast approaching and soon we’ll have an influx of young talent coming into the league. Of course, that means there’s a possibility we’ll welcome in players that could change the face of the NFL upon their arrival, just as all the players that we’ll be discussing today did. Yes, we’re continuing our countdown to the draft by ranking some of the greatest players to ever step on an NFL field, who were taken in one of the top 32 spots. Today, we’ll be diving into the best of the best who have ever been selected No. 4 overall. 

As you’d expect, when you get this high in the draft, you’re deciding between a number of legendary players, who all deserve to be on this list. However, that’s not how a top-five list works, and there will be some all-time greats that unfortunately get left on the cutting room floor. Those include greats like Gale Sayers, Bob Griese, Jonathan Ogden, Derrick Thomas, Willie McGinest, and Philip Rivers. There’s a case to be made for each of them to find their way inside this top five but they simply didn’t make the cut this time around.   

As for the 2022 NFL Draft, the No. 4 pick currently belongs to the New York Jets. Our CBS Sports NFL Draft experts have Oregon pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton as some of the prospects to possibly come off the board at this spot in their most recent mock drafts. Of course, whoever is picked here has a chance of becoming an all-time great and finding himself on this list when his career is all said in done. In the meantime, here’s who we consider to be the greatest players to ever be taken at the fourth overall spot. 

5. Charles Woodson, safety

1998 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 4 overall (Michigan)

Team(s): Oakland Raiders (1998-2005, 2013-2015), Green Bay Packers (2006-2012)

For me, this No. 5 spot was unbelievably difficult to pick. I honestly wouldn’t even fight you that hard if you wanted to put Gale Sayers in here somewhere and bump Woodson out. That said, the safety was tremendous throughout his NFL career and is largely looked at as one of the greatest defensive backs of all time. After a legendary collegiate career at Michigan, he came out of the gate strong winning the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1998. Woodson went on to be a true ironman playing 18 seasons in the NFL after being drafted by the Raiders and was an eight-time All-Pro (four first-team, four second-team). 

Woodson led the league in interceptions twice, won Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, and helped the Packers to a Super Bowl XLV title, a game where he broke his collar bone before halftime. His 65 career interceptions are tied for the fifth-most all-time in NFL history. He also finished his career inside the top five in NFL history in pick-sixes and passes defended. Along with those NFL records, Woodson has a handful of franchise records with both the Raiders and Packers due to his success with both clubs throughout his career. 

Woodson is a 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, who’ll soon have his bust on display in Canton so it seems only fitting that he finds himself on this list as one of the greatest ever to be taken No. 4 overall.   

4. Otto Graham, quarterback

1944 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 4 overall (Northwestern)

Team(s): Cleveland Browns (1946-1955)

Seeing as he’s considered to be one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, it’d seem silly to leave Graham off this list. He found his way to the Cleveland Browns in 1946 but at the time the organization was a member of the AAFC, where he was the league’s all-time leading passer in yards and touchdowns. When they made the move into the NFL, Graham not only showed that he could hang with the best of them but that he could outshine them. Graham led the Browns to three NFL championships, was the league MVP three times, and was a seven-time first-team All-Pro. When you account for Graham’s four AAFC championships and two AAFC MVPs, he is one of the more decorated players in the history of professional football. 

Similar to Tom Brady today, Graham was considered to be — above all else — a winner and really set the standard for how the quarterback position is to be played in the league’s earliest days. The Browns legend is still held in high regard today, being named to NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-time Team a few years back. He’s naturally a member of the Browns Ring of Honor and his No. 14 is retired by the franchise. 

3. “Mean” Joe Greene, defensive tackle

1969 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 4 overall (North Texas State) 

Team(s): Pittsburgh Steelers (1969-1981)

“Mean” Joe Greene is another legend who is one of the greatest defensive players of all time, giving him proper claim to be inside this top five. Not only was Greene dominant on the field, but it also translated to wins. The future Hall of Famer’s arrival in the 1969 draft coincided with the hiring of head coach Chuck Noll. Those two grew to be some of the main faces of the Steelers dynasty that went on to win four Super Bowls over Greene’s tenure. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound behemoth was one of the main figures in Pittsburgh’s dominant defense dubbed the Steel Curtain and showed that all-time potential out of the gate, winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1969. Greene went on to be named to 10 Pro Bowls and was an eight-time All-Pro (five first-team, three second-team).

It’s not a stretch to say that Greene was the best defensive player in the NFL throughout the 1970s, which is fitting as he was named to the All-Decade Team over that ten-year stretch. His combination of speed and strength allowed him to disrupt any game at his pea. He was also clutch as he almost single-handedly led Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl IX title — the franchise’s first — with dominant games against both the Raiders in the AFC title game and the Vikings in the Super Bowl. 

In 1972 and 1974, Greene also was honored with NFL Defensive Player of the Year, further cementing his greatness. Not only was Greene a stud defensive player, but he was also durable, which is a tremendous feat given his physical style of play. Out of a possible 190 games, Greene suited up in 181 contests throughout his career. 

His No. 75 is retired by the Pittsburgh Steelers as he’s the greatest defensive player to ever put on the black and gold.  

2. John Hannah, offensive guard

1973 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 4 overall (Alabama)

Team(s): New England Patriots (1973-1985)

When you are considered the be the greatest player at your position in the history of the NFL, you’re going to find yourself high on lists like these. Not only is John Hannah considered to be the greatest guard of all time, but Sports Illustrated dubbed him as the “The Best Offensive Lineman of All Time” back in 1981. The Alabama product was the fourth overall selection of the Patriots in 1973 and went on to play his entire 13-year NFL career in Foxborough. Over his tenure, Hannah reached 10 consecutive All-Pro teams along with nine Pro Bowl nods. His ability to pull and serve as the lead blocker on sweeps for Patriots backs was simply unmatched. His combination of size, speed, and strength at the position helped New England dominate on the ground. In 1978, Hannah led the way as the Patriots set an NFL record with 3,165 yards rushing. That mark stood as the gold standard for a team’s ground attack until the 2019 Baltimore Ravens recently surpassed it. 

What makes Hannah special is that he dominated over a long period, being named to the All-Decade Team in both the 1970s and 1980s. He’s also a member of the NFL’s 100th and 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. Of course, he eventually found his way to Canton as an inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the inaugural member of the New England Patriots Hall of Fame in 1991. His No. 73 is also retired by the organization. 

1. Walter Payton, running back

1975 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 4 overall (Jackson State)

Team(s): Chicago Bears (1975-1987)

Even with all these legends in the mix, it was clear pretty early on that Walter Payton was going to be the player who slots in at No. 1. He’s one of the greatest players in NFL history and if you were to start a team from scratch, he’d be the back you want as the centerpiece to your backfield. As you’d imagine, the résumé is pristine: NFL MVP (1977), seven-time first-team All-Pro, All-Decade Team (1970s, 1980s), 100th and 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, and the list goes on. His 1977 season was the stuff out of a video game. He rushed for 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns, both NFL records at the time. He was also named league MVP and the NFL’s Man of the Year that season, making it one of the most remarkable campaigns by a back in history. 

However, Payton was not a one-year wonder catching lightning in a bottle. He dominated essentially wire-to-wire throughout his pro career, all of which was spent with the Chicago Bears. Payton was also on board as the Bears beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XX, giving him the lone title of his career. At the time of his retirement, Payton held the all-time records in rushing yards and combined scrimmage yards. Today, he’s No. 2 on the all-time rushing list, only looking up at Emmitt Smith. 

Not only was Payton a fantastic player on the field, but he was also a tremendous person off it and the NFL honored his legacy as a humanitarian by renaming the NFL Man of the Year Award to the Walter Payton Man of the Year following his death in 1999. A clear-cut No. 1 spot on this all-time list. 

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