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.
Honorable Mention: Mario Williams (2006, Texans); Eli Manning (2004, Chargers); Michael Vick (2001, Falcons); Orlando Pace (1997, Rams); Drew Bledsoe (1993, Patriots); Troy Aikman (1989, Cowboys); Bo Jackson (1986, Buccaneers); Earl Campbell (1978, Oilers); Lee Roy Selmon (1976, Buccaneers); Terry Bradshaw (1970, Steelers)
Just take a look at that list of players on the honorable mention list -- as you might expect, the No. 1 slot in the NFL Draft has produced more than a few quality performers.
When it comes right down to it, though, we can narrow our list of candidates for "Best No. 1 pick" down to three: John Elway, Peyton Manning and Bruce Smith.
Let's take a look at each player's case:
• John Elway: The former Stanford star's NFL career began with a bit of controversy, as Elway was selected in 1983 by the Baltimore Colts, then refused to play for that team. Eventually, the Colts honored Elway's request for a new home and dealt him to Denver.
The rest is history.
Elway went on to have a Hall of Fame career in Denver, complete with nine Pro Bowls, a pair of championships and a Super Bowl XXXIII MVP award. He threw for 51,475 yards and 300 touchdowns over a career that spanned 1983-98, and he walked away after wining rings in both '97 and '98. Few players in NFL history are as synonymous with a franchise as Elway, who now holds the title of executive vice president in Denver and was instrumental in signing Manning this offseason.
• Peyton Manning: And speaking of Manning ...
The 36-year-old quarterback, who sat out all of last season with a neck injury, passed Elway in 2010 for the No. 3 spot on the all-time passing yardage list. Manning currently sits on 54,828 yards, a little less than 7,000 behind Dan Marino -- meaning that Manning has a shot to move up, should he stay healthy for two or three more seasons.
Manning could also leapfrog Marino in career touchdown passes. Manning will enter 2012 with 399 TD strikes, 21 back of Marino and 109 behind all-time leader Brett Favre.
Like Elway in Denver, Manning will always be remembered as an Indianapolis Colt, a fact that made his recent move to the Broncos such a headline-grabber. Manning already owns 11 Pro Bowl trips, eight All-Pro nominations, four NFL MVPs, as well as a Super Bowl trophy and MVP honor. Manning's incredible ability to read defenses and make adjustments at the line led to the Colts giving him more control of the offense than just about any quarterback has ever had.
The big question now: Would a subpar showing in Denver tarnish his legacy?
• Bruce Smith: Like Elway, Smith is a current Hall of Famer (though Manning is a lock to make it on his first ballot). Smith never won a Super Bowl -- his Bills fell one win short four consecutive times -- but that's about the only thing missing from his resume.
While playing an astonishing 19 seasons (1985-99 with Buffalo, 2000-03 with Washington), Smith chalked up an NFL-record 200 sacks. He reached double digits in that category during 13 different seasons, paced by a 19-sack showing in 1990.
Smith earned 11 Pro Bowl berths and was named to 11 different All-Pro teams, plus landed on the NFL's All-Decade Team for both the 1980s and 1990s. He twice took home the league's Defensive Player of the Year award, first in 1990, then again in 1996, when he had 13.5 sacks, 90 tackles and five forced fumbles.
Smith put up all of his incredible numbers despite drawing double teams (at the very least) on the majority of passing plays. Offenses had to account for Smith's presence on the field, often to an extreme degree.
So ... who's it going to be?
The vote here is for Peyton Manning.
Is he the greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL? You definitely could make that case, putting Manning in the company of Joe Montana, Sammy Baugh, Brett Favre, Otto Graham and others. Manning's numbers more than speak for themselves, and his Super Bowl triumph in the 2006 season means that he has accomplished just about everything you could ask.
With 11 playoff appearances and seven division titles, I suppose it could be argued that Manning should have another Super Bowl crown or two, and it's entirely possible that he adds on to the lone title before all is said and done. But you can ask Smith (who never won one) or Elway (who waited 15 seasons for his first ring) just how difficult an NFL title is to capture.
Elway's career was tremendous in its own right, with his cannon of a throwing arm and unquenchable desire to win combining to make him a standout talent.
Smith, too, was a total game-changer for the Bills, as he anchored that defense through the franchise's glory days.
Yet, all that said, Manning still stands apart. Witnessing him quarterback a game is like watching a maestro conducting his orchestra -- just think about Manning in action, and it's hard to envision anything other than his pre-snap routine, where he sets the offense, reads the defense, then works through an extended sequence of instructions for his teammates.
Manning has always displayed high-level intelligence for the game of football, the type of mental acumen that puts him one step ahead of defenses.
It can be argued that the NFL may have seen greater players than Manning, and possibly even greater quarterbacks. No player taken No. 1 overall since 1970, however, has been better than Manning.