Best of the Firsts, No. 16: Jerry Rice
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. 16 Pick: Jerry Rice, 1985, 49ers
His Credentials: Inducted into NFL Hall of Fame in 2010, 13-time Pro Bowl selection, 12-time All-Pro, two-time Offensive Player of the Year, named to NFL's All-Decade Team for the 1980s and 1990s, three-time Super Bowl winner, holds multiple NFL records (most all-time receptions, yards receiving, receiving touchdowns and total touchdowns), ranked No. 1 player of all-time by NFL.com
When everyone swoons over the draft's top few picks, keep this in mind: Emmitt Smith, maybe the greatest running back in league history (certainly tops from a statistical standpoint), came off the board at No. 17 overall. And at No. 16 on our list, we find Jerry Rice, who might be the best player ever to suit up in the NFL.
The 1985 draft also gave us Hall of Famers Bruce Smith (No. 1 overall) and Chris Doleman (No. 4), but amazingly, Rice was the third receiver to come off the board in Round 1. Ahead of him the Jets took Al Toon at No. 10 and the Bengals snatched up Eddie Brown at No. 13.
Those two receivers enjoyed decent NFL careers -- together, they combined for 880 catches, more than 12,000 yards receiving and 72 touchdowns.
Not bad. But not even close to what Rice did on his own.
In 16 seasons with San Francisco, three-plus years with Oakland and a brief stop in Seattle, Rice accumulated 1,549 catches for 22,895 yards and scored 207 times (197 receiving, 10 rushing).
All of those numbers, including the 197 receiving TDs, are NFL records by substantial margins. Rice is 400 receptions ahead of Tony Gonzalez, who's No. 2 on that all-time list and sounds like he will play just one more season. The next closest competitors to his 197 receiving touchdowns are Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, with 153 each. Owens is the only player within 7,000 yards of Rice's career total in that category.
Quite frankly, the numbers are staggering. Add in six years with 1,400-plus yards receiving, four with more than 100 catches and three Super Bowl rings, and it's easy to see why Rice is held in such high esteem.
"You can go through the ranks of the different positions -- there isn't anybody that is anywhere near Jerry Rice, in ability and what he's done on the football field," ex-49ers owner Eddie Debartolo Jr., said as he presented Rice for Hall of Fame enshrinement. "There's no question that Jerry Rice is the greatest athlete and greatest football player that has ever put on a uniform."
Rice did have the benefit of catching passes from Joe Montana for his first six seasons and from Steve Young for the next eight. Still, for as much as it helped to have those quarterbacks around, the case could be made that Rice's presence helped them just as much.
And no matter how you slice it, the NFL has never seen a player as dominant for as many seasons as Rice was. You could cast a different vote for the league's greatest player of all-time.