Best of the Firsts, No. 17: Emmitt Smith
Emmitt Smith was part of the Triplets, with Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, that molded the Cowboys into a '90s dynasty. (Getty Images)
As part of our offseason coverage, we're taking a look back at some of the best first-round draft picks since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. We'll work our way up the draft board, starting with the best selection made with the No. 32 pick and ending with the top No. 1 pick. Track all the choices here.
The No. 17 Pick: Emmitt Smith, 1990, Cowboys
His Credentials: Inducted into NFL Hall of Fame in 2010, eight-time Pro Bowl selection, six-time All-Pro, leading rusher in NFL history with 18,355 yards, most TDs for a running back with 164, named to NFL's All-Decade Team for the 1990s, three-time Super Bowl winner
There is no debate here. While Steve Hutchinson has had a tremendous career -- some might even say a Hall of Fame career (and given his five Pro Bowl bids and seven All-Pro honors, they'd have a point) -- Emmitt Smith stands in the record books as the most productive running back in league history.
Smith spent 13 seasons with the Cowboys before finishing his career on a two-year cameo in Arizona. Along the way, he put up these numbers:
• 4,409 rushing attempts, nearly 600 more than Walter Payton, who stands in second place on that all-time list. Only one active player, LaDainian Tomlinson (3,174 attempts) is in the top 10.
• 18,355 yards rushing -- or 1,600-plus yards more than Payton, who also held this record until Smith came along and smashed it. Tomlinson, at 13,684 yards, is the highest-ranking active player here too, but Smith is nearly 8,000 yards ahead of the next active player on the list, Thomas Jones (10,591 yards).
• 164 rushing touchdowns. At the time of Smith's retirement, he held a 41-TD edge in this category, well ahead of Marcus Allen. Tomlinson is the closest to Smith at 145 TDs, but at 32 years of age and coming off a one-score season, it's hard to see him finding the end zone 20 more times before he hangs 'em up. Smith also had 175 total touchdowns, 13 ahead of Tomlinson's career total and behind only Jerry Rice's 207 in NFL history.
Given how short running backs' careers tend to be these days and how many teams have turned to two- or three-back systems, it's hard to see any of Smith's marks toppling soon.
"At the age of 21, I already knew what I needed to do in order to make my mark," Smith said at his Hall of Fame enshrinement. "I wanted to become the all-time leading rusher. I knew Walter Payton was one of the best to have ever played the game, and I wanted to achieve that level of greatness.
"He established an insurmountable record to shoot for. ... Now here I am standing at the same podium he did, being inducted into the 2010 Hall of Fame. And you know what, I am, I am, I am now the all-time leading rusher. Wow, what an honor."
Smith, with the help of Troy Aikman and others, helped turn around a struggling Cowboys franchise. Two years after Dallas finished the 1989 season 1-15, the team made the playoffs. In 1992, '93 and '95, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl, and they made the postseason in eight of nine seasons. It's hard to imagine any of that happening without Smith's contributions. He set a standard at the running back position that may never be equaled.