Monday March 26th, 2012

Ronnie Lott was as feared a hitter as he was a ballhawk. (Sports Illustrated)

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. 8 Pick: Ronnie Lott, 1981, 49ers

His Credentials: 10-time Pro Bowl selection, eight-time All-Pro, four-time Super Bowl champion, named to NFL's All-Decade Team for the 1980s and 1990s, member of NFL's 75th anniversary team, tied for sixth all-time in career interceptions (63), ranked No. 11 on NFL's list of 100 greatest players, inducted into Hall of Fame in 2000

Others in Consideration: James Farrior (1997, Jets); Willie Roaf (1993, Saints); Leslie O'Neal (1986, Chargers); Mike Munchak (1982, Oilers); Ottis Anderson (1979, Rams)

Despite being one of the hardest hitters ever in the NFL, Ronnie Lott never carried a reputation as being a dirty player. That said, you have to wonder how Lott's no-holds-barred style would have translated into the modern NFL, which has placed a premium on player safety.

Lott played the game with a mean streak. He wasn't the type of defensive back who went low on ball carriers in hopes of upending them with minimal contact. Lott punished people, over and over again.

When asked once what it would feel like for a casual NFL fan to receive a hit from Lott, he responded:  "Grab a football, throw it in the air, and before you catch it, have your best friend belt you with a baseball bat. No shoulder pads. No helmet. Just you, your best friend and the biggest Louisville Slugger you can find."

Lott has a nearly unending highlight reel of bone-crunching hits from his career, which saw him make the Pro Bowl as a cornerback, free safety and strong safety.

Watch those highlights, though, and you'll notice that it is not just unsuspecting and vulnerable wide receivers in Lott's crosshairs -- a running back trying to cut back was just as likely to feel the pain from a Lott hit as a sprawling receiver going over the middle.

Lott had a nose for the football and matched that with an incredible propensity for being in the right place at the right time.

"You look at all the interceptions he's got ... he always sought the ball," said NFL Hall of Famer Marcus Allen, who was a teammate of Lott's at USC. "He was a destroyer.

"I think he realized that to really play this game at the level and be recognized as one of the best ever, you have to have a little crazy inside you."

Nothing fits that description more than Lott's legendary decision to amputate part of his finger rather than miss a game. During the 1985 season finale against Dallas, Lott crushed his left pinky finger on a helmet. Yet he suited up in the playoffs the next week, then opted to chop the injured portion of that finger off during the offseason when he was told surgery could cause him to miss the start of the 1986 season.

But there was much more to Lott than just a warrior's mentality.

He helped the 49ers to four Super Bowl crowns in his career, including one in his rookie season of 1981. Lott also led the league in interceptions twice (1986 and 1991) and sits sixth all-time with 63 career picks. He topped 100 tackles in four separate seasons and finished with more than 1,100 tackles for his career.

His ball-hawking skills combined with his punishing style made him one of the greatest defensive backs in NFL history.

And Lott, for one, believes he would have been just as successful had he joined the league at a later date.

"I truly believe this: If I was playing the game today, I think I would still be a Hall of Famer," Lott told CBS radio in Cleveland last year. "I would learn how to do it because I'd want to play -- I wouldn't want to be suspended. You have to learn the game. That's the challenge of great players." No matter the era, Lott lands in that category.

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