How defensive linemen picked No. 1 have fared in the NFL

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Tuesday April 25th, 2017

Since 1990, six defensive linemen have been taken first in the NFL draft. Teams that have gone that route have met mixed results, as linemen taken first have tended to have solid but unspectacular careers.

Excluding Jadeveon Clowney, who is blossoming into a star in Houston through three seasons, defensive linemen picked first overall over the last nearly three decades have averaged careers lasting just under 10 years and have made five total total Pro Bowl appearances, with Mario Williams accounting for four. 

It's very possible that a seventh lineman will be added to the list come Thursday’s draft, as defensive end Myles Garrett tops most NFL mock drafts, including Chris Burke's

Here’s a look at the careers of the other six:

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina (2014, Texans)

The Texans took Clowney over skill-position guys like Blake Bortles and Sammy Watkins, and the former South Carolina Gamecock followed up a much-hyped college career with an injury-filled rookie season. Clowney played in just four games and recorded seven tackles in 2014, but went on to start much of the 2015 campaign, notching 40 tackles and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, his best season yet, he finished with 52 tackles and 6.0 sacks, garnering a Pro Bowl selection.

Mario Williams, DE, N.C. State (2006, Texans)

Cut by Miami this February, Williams has nonetheless had the best career of any defensive lineman taken first in recent years. After the Texans drafted him, he racked up huge seasons in Houston, reaching double-digit sack totals in his second and third year and repeating the feat three times later in his career with Buffalo. Williams made it to the Pro Bowl in 2008, 2009, 2013 and 2014. The Texans selected him out of North Carolina State over big names like Reggie Bush and Vince Young.

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Courtney Brown, DE, Penn State (2000, Browns)

Cleveland took Brown in a draft rich with talent, and the former Penn State Nittany Lion didn’t quite live up to the top pick in his seven-year NFL career. He got off to a decent start as a rookie, recording 69 tackles and 4.5 sacks, but struggled to stay healthy for the bulk of his career, averaging 7.8 games played during his next five seasons with the Browns. He played one more full season with Denver in 2005 before bowing out of the NFL.

Dan Wilkinson, DT, Ohio State (1994, Bengals)

A former Buckeye, Wilkinson had a productive NFL career after the Bengals selected him first, over Marshall Faulk.  Though Wilkinson produced consistently, logging at least 30 tackles and 5.0 sacks in each of his first six seasons, he spared with the city of Cincinnati and was traded to Washington in 1998. Domestic abuse allegations also followed Wilkinson. On the field, he finished his career with 195 games played and 385 tackles. He never made a Pro Bowl.

Steve Emtman, DT, Washington (1992, Colts)

The biggest disappointment on this list, Emtman was drafted by the Colts and proceeded to start just 19 games in a short pro career. A University of Washington product, Emtman started nine games and picked up 3.0 sacks as a rookie, but both tallies would prove career bests. Injuries shortened his rookie campaign and continued to bother him throughout his time in the NFL. He played three seasons in Indianapolis, two in Miami and wrapped up his career with a stint in Washington in 1997.

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Russell Maryland, DT, Miami (Fla.) (1991, Cowboys)

Tackles were all the rage in the early '90s, as Maryland’s selection started a four-year stretch that saw three teams take defensive tackles first overall. Maryland, who played his college ball at Miami, was drafted by the Cowboys and had a successful 10-year NFL career. After picking up seven starts as a rookie, he started consistently in the middle throughout the rest of his career, earning a Pro Bowl nod in 1993 and winning three Super Bowls in Dallas.

Other picks of note:

Julius Peppers, DE, North Carolina (No. 2 pick by Panthers in 2002)

Peppers’ outstanding NFL career was born when the Panthers took him second in the draft — after the Texans choose quarterback David Carr first. Carr had a disappointing career. Peppers has made nine Pro Bowls.

Bruce Smith, DE, Virginia Tech (No. 1 pick by Bills in 1985)

Smith is probably the best defensive lineman ever taken first in the draft. The Hall of Famer made 11 Pro Bowls and owns the NFL record for most career sacks.

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