The only man to be NFL Executive of the Year for three franchises—and he won the award the Bills, Panthers and Colts twice each. Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.
I went into this project with the attitude that I wasn’t going to draft my former players. They’re like your kids; you can’t pick one and leave other ones out. At least I couldn’t do that. That did bother me some when I was preparing for the draft, because I was around so many good players in Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis. But once you cross that Rubicon, there’s no going back.
Part of my philosophy was paying tribute to the guys I watched growing up. I really wanted Otto Graham because he did so many great things for a great team, the Browns, and that’s the first truly great team I watched. I used to go to games at the Polo Grounds when I was 11 or 12, and then later at Yankee Stadium. I regret not drafting Frank Gifford, because he was such a great weapon for those Giants teams. But I did want to give a nod to history.
The great thing about this draft is that by preparing for it and studying for it, it gave me a chance to look back at all these players and honor the game that I love. As it turned out, so many great players weren’t drafted. Hall of Famers weren’t drafted. It tells you so much about the history of this great game that some truly elite players weren’t picked—we didn’t touch much of the pre-World War II greats, for instance. But overall I wanted my team to show respect for the history of the game.
|While Levy never captured that elusive championship ring, his Bills teams made four straight Super Bowl appearances from 1990 to 1993 behind the firepower of Jim Kelly and the no-huddle offense. Levy was also one of the strongest head coaching proponents of special teams, a unit that contributed to the Bills’ prowess.|
|Dungy established himself as one of the most respected coaches in the game over 13 seasons with the Bucs and Colts and a master of the Cover 2 defense. He was the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl, and he helped other black coaches, including Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin and Jim Caldwell, move up the ladder. Levy and Dungy were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001 and 2016, respectively.|
|The consummate championship quarterback, Graham led the Browns to 10 league title games in 10 seasons between 1946 and 1955, winning seven (including all four AAFC championships). In his six NFL seasons, Graham was three-time MVP and four-time All-Pro. Converted from running back on entering the pros, he chalked up 44 rushing touchdowns over his career. Said his coach, Paul Brown: “The test of a quarterback is where his team finishes; by that standard Otto Graham was the best of all time.” He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1965.|
|Nicknamed “The Tyler Rose,” the first overall pick in 1978 was anything but flowery as a ball-carrier. His pounding style was legendary—“he punished tacklers, they punished him,” wrote SI’s Paul Zimmerman. “When he smacked in there with that amazing takeoff speed of his and his 240 pounds, bodies flew.” The beloved Oiler was the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year and rushing leader in each of his first three years in the league, but the beatings he dished out and received took their toll; he lasted just eight seasons. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991.|
|Perhaps the most elusive tailback to play the game, the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner rushed for at least 1,100 yards in each of his 10 seasons and averaged more than 1,500 yards per year. In 1997 he became just the third player to surpass 2,000 yards in a season; when he surprisingly retired after the following season at age 30, Walter Payton’s all-time rushing mark was well within reach. Sanders’ 15,269 career rushing yards rank third all-time; he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.|
|After a rocky start with the Eagles, Carter turned his NFL career around upon being claimed by the Vikings in 1990. The glue-handed 6’3” wideout was a touchdown machine in Minnesota, amassing 130 for his career, and had back-to-back 122-catch seasons in 1994 and ’95. His pairing with Randy Moss for four seasons from 1998 to 2001 gave the Vikings one of the most dynamic and productive wideout duos in the game’s history. An eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, Carter was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.|
|A dynamic threat as a receiver and return man, the 1987 Heisman winner was named to nine Pro Bowls and one All-Pro squad in his 17 seasons, all but one of which he spent with the Raiders. Brown holds numerous NFL records, including most consecutive seasons with 75 receptions (10) and most consecutive games started by a wide receiver (176). Sixth all-time in receptions with 1,094, Brown made the Hall of Fame in 2015.|
|One of the NFL’s most recognizable personalities, Ditka as a player was a transformative tight end. A product of the rough-and-tumble steeltown of Aliquippa, Pa., he averaged 19.2 yards per catch as rookie and averaged 62 receptions over his first four seasons with the Bears, becoming in many people’s eyes the first great pass-catcher at his position. A five-time Pro Bowler, two-time All-Pro and 1963 NFL champion with Chicago, he reemerged at the end of his career as a contributor to two Cowboys Super Bowl teams. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988.|
|Slater holds the NFL record for most years spent with one team, playing the entirety of his 20-year career with the Rams. As a player, the seven-time Pro Bowler was a model of consistency. Twenty-four quarterbacks and 37 running backs had lined up behind him by the time he finally retired at the age of 41. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001.|
|A three-time Pro Bowl selection and 1968 All-Pro with the 49ers, Mudd was one of three guards named to the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade team, along with Gene Hickerson and Jerry Kramer. After his standout career, he became one of the most accomplished and respected offensive line coaches in the game.|
|A five-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler, Tingelhoff anchored the line for the Vikings from 1962 to 1978, starting all 259 games in his 16-year career, including Minnesota’s four Super Bowl appearances. He was fittingly inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015 as a Seniors Committee selection.|
|Budde was drafted fourth overall by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1963 but opted instead for the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL. He would go on to become one of the best offensive linemen of his era, winning AFL championships in 1966 and 1969 and Super Bowl IV with Kansas City. Budde was a two-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler.|
|No less a light than Paul Brown called McCormack, drafted in 1951 by the New York Yanks, “the finest offensive tackle who ever played pro football.” McCormack spent 1952-53 in the Army, then joined Cleveland in 1954 and won back-to-back NFL championships with the Browns in ’54 and ’55. The six-time Pro Bowler was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984.|
|A dominant force at both outside linebacker and defensive end during a career split between Dallas and San Francisco, Haley was named to both the Cowboys Ring of Honor and the 49ers’ Hall of Fame. Widely considered one of the most accomplished pass-rushers the game has seen, Haley was a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro selection who totaled 100.5 sacks. He is one of only two players with five Super Bowl rings, along with Jimmy Garoppolo (gotcha!). Haley was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.|
|An eighth-round pick out of Tennessee State, Dent played for four teams in his 15 seasons, spending his best years in Chicago, where he partnered with fellow Hall of Famers Mike Singletary and Dan Hampton on the legendary defense that propelled the 1985 Bears team to the Super Bowl XX title (he was the game’s MVP). Dent led the league in sacks that season with 17; he was named to four Pro Bowls and was All-Pro in ’85, and his 137.5 sacks are tied with John Randle for ninth all-time. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.|
|Drafted third overall in 1962, Olsen earned Rookie of the Year honors in a fitting beginning to a distinguished 15-year NFL career. A constant presence for the Rams, Olsen combined with fellow Hall of Famer Deacon Jones to anchor L.A.’s “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line, providing stability from inside with his intelligence and discipline. Olsen was named to a record 14 straight Pro Bowls from 1962 to ’75, and was a member of the NFL’s All-Decade teams for the 1960s and ’70s. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982.|
|A national champion at the University of Miami, Kennedy as a player and a person was the antithesis of that program’s reputation for irreverent swagger. The three-time All-Pro, eight-time Pro Bowl selection and 1992 Defensive Player of the Year missed just nine out of 176 possible games in his 11 seasons with the Seahawks, and was known for his soft-spoken and engaging demeanor. Kennedy was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012. He passed away in May of this year at age 48.|
|Originally a two-way tackle for the Bears, Connor was positioned at linebacker in 1949 by coach George Halas specifically to stop Philadelphia’s dynamic back Steve Van Buren on the Eagles’ devastating sweep. The move paid off in victory, and over the next seven seasons the 6’3”, 240-pound Connor became the new-model linebacker: big, mobile and speedy. The man Grantland Rice once called “the closest thing to a Greek God since Apollo” was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1975.|
|The backbone of a dynamic defense that propelled San Francisco to three straight NFC championship games and a Super Bowl appearance, Willis was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007, a five-time All-Pro and a Pro Bowler every season of his career save his final, injury-ravaged season of 2014. Willis’s early retirement due to the nagging toe injury that shelved him in ’14 was undoubtedly a key cause of the 49ers’ subsequent struggles.|
|Richter amassed 193 points, most of them as a placekicker early in his career, but he is best known as a tough linebacker with a take-no-prisoners mindset. A Pro Bowler in eight of his nine seasons, all with the Rams, Richter was a member of Hall of Fame class of 2011.|
|One of the best cover corners in recent years, Bailey was a three-time All-Pro selection, and his 12 Pro Bowls with Washington and Denver are the most of any cornerback. Solid but unexceptional interception numbers (Bailey tallied 52 in his career) speak to the wariness of opposing quarterbacks, and his 100-yard return against Tom Brady in 2006’s divisional round matchup remains the NFL’s longest-ever non-scoring play. Bailey will be eligible for Hall of Fame consideration in 2019.|
|Over his first five seasons, three as an All-Pro and four as a Pro Bowler, the Jets’ 2007 first-rounder established himself as the game’s best corner. He played on “Revis Island”—so-called because his shutdown skills allowed the defensive scheme to leave him all alone against the opponents’ top wideouts. A series of knee injuries beginning in 2012 cost him some his edge, but he still won a Super Bowl and another All-Pro nod with the 2014 Patriots and three additional Pro Bowl selections. After spending 2015 and ’16 back with the Jets, he was unsigned as of mid-July 2017.|
|SI’s Paul Zimmerman called him the most devastating hitter in the history of the game. “The Assassin” was a player opponents truly feared, and with cause: Tatum delivered the blow that left Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley paralyzed for life. A three-time Pro Bowler, he won Super Bowl XI with the Raiders, for whom he played all but the last of his 10 NFL seasons.|
|Over his 15 seasons with Tampa Bay and Denver, Lynch earned a reputation as a savvy centerfielder and punishing hitter. He won a Super Bowl ring with the Bucs in 2003, was twice named All-Pro and had nine Pro Bowl selections and finished his career with 26 interceptions and 16 forced fumbles. The 49ers’ new GM has been a Hall of Fame finalist in each of the last three years.|
|Playing for seven teams over a 22-year career, Carney amassed 2,062 points, fifth all-time. He earned induction into the Saints’ Hall of Fame and also holds the Chargers’ all-time scoring record. Carney never had the most powerful leg, but his longevity as a player attests to his consistency. He’s one of only two players, along with George Blanda, to play in four decades.|
|A 16-year veteran who played for five teams, Roby had one of the most the most powerful legs in NFL history. At Iowa, his kickoffs would routinely split the uprights, while Dolphins coach Don Shula, who drafted him in the sixth round in 1983, said of Roby, “On walkthroughs in domed stadiums the day before the game, he always would try to hit the top of the dome with a punt. He sometimes succeeded.” Roby was a two-time All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler and a member of the 1980s All-Decade second team.|
|Mitchell and Jim Brown made for a formidable Browns backfield before the former was shipped to the Redskins in 1962 in an ill-fated Cleveland trade for first overall pick Ernie Davis, who would die of leukemia in 1963. Converted to flanker in Washington, Mitchell led the NFL in receiving yards in his first two seasons with the Redskins, as well as receiving touchdowns in 1964. A four-time Pro Bowler and 1962 All-Pro, Mitchell was a member of the 1983 Hall of Fame class.|
The four owners at the back end of the draft all followed a very similar pattern early: QB in Round 1, RB in Round 2, defensive player in Round 3, defensive end in Round 5. Team Polian’s quarterback-running back approach landed on Otto Graham and Barry Sanders. It then tabbed DT Merlin Olsen as its defensive foundation in the third round and supported him with DE Charles Haley in the fifth.
The other selection mixed into the Polian top five was Earl Campbell, who’ll no doubt keep a little wear and tear off Sanders ... and dish a little punishment out himself. The first blocker meant to play in front of the Graham-Campbell-Sanders backfield did not arrive until Round 9 (C Mick Tinglehoff), and the O-line rounded out with a pair of guards, Ed Budde and Howard Mudd, thus far kept out of Canton. Is there enough punch for this team to overwhelm defenses in the trenches?
If not, a lot of pressure would fall on Graham to elevate a receiving corps formed in Rounds 22 through 25. Polian wrapped his draft by taking Cris Carter (Round 22), Tim Brown (Round 24) and wild card Bobby Mitchell (Round 25).
The secondary was, well, secondary to putting a brilliant defensive line in place: Olsen, Cortez Kennedy, Richard Dent and Haley. Even so, a back four of Darrelle Revis and Champ Bailey at corner and Jack Tatum and John Lynch at safety should cause offenses ample issues.
Haven’t talked much about the coaches. Polian was torn between two of his guys, Marv Levy and Tony Dungy, so strongly that the league allowed him to have co-coaches. We trust two guys as classy as Levy and Dungy would be able to share the job just fine.
— Chris Burke