Ranking the best NFL draft picks of all time: Vikings’ Alan Page headlines top five ever taken at No. 15 – CBS Sports

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Mike Meredith / CBS Sports

Tick tock goes the hovering clock, as the 2021 NFL Draft waits to land on April 29 in Cleveland. It’s already shaping up to be one of the most interesting first rounds in recent memory, with an early blockbuster trade between the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins and then between the Dolphins and the Philadelphia Eagles only moments later, pouring that much more gasoline on the fire. What will happen beneath the top two (three?) spots is anyone’s guess, but the bigger challenge will be for teams who sit just outside the top 10, and especially as premium players of several positions begin to inevitably fall. 

This means the team sitting in the No. 15 seat will likely end up with a player deemed a top-10 pick, and seeing as that team is currently the New England Patriots, head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft have to be all smiles. Assuming they stay put and don’t trade up for a falling player, they’ll be in prime position to pick a player who might one day be considered one of the best to have ever been drafted at that spot. Kraft himself noted recently, however, how he’d like to see the Patriots draft better and he’s hoping that begins effective immediately — here’s who our draft analysts have going there — after making it rain in free agency

Of course, it’s all easier said than done, but there have been several instances of the 15th-overall pick paying off magnificently. Here’s a look at our top five — along with an honorable mention — and you can check out our top five at every first-round spot, 32-1, in our hub.

2010 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 15 overall (South Florida)
Team(s): N.Y. Giants (2010-2017), T.B. Buccaneers (2018-present)

Pierre-Paul would be hard-pressed to edge out anyone in the top five on this list, but he deserves to at least be in the conversation of best to be selected at 15th overall. He was a tour de force in his time with the Giants, but adversity hit in a major way when his hand became disfigured due to a fireworks accident that required several surgeries thereafter. He’d return to the field but with a club on his hand, before ditching the club and undergoing yet another surgery that would allow him to play with a customized glove. He’d eventually part ways with the Giants, but not before helping lift them to a Super Bowl victory and, now, he’s enjoying another Lombardi trophy after dominating for Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Despite all he’s gone through, Pierre-Paul remains one of the best pass rushers in the league and, in 2020, he inked another deal with the Bucs to keep him in town until at least 2022. With 89 career sacks and 30.5 in the last three seasons alone, Pierre-Paul shows no signs of slowing down.

5. Deltha O’Neal, CB

2000 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 15 overall (Cal)
Team(s): Denver Broncos (2000-2003), Cincinnati Bengals (2004-2007), New England Patriots (2008), Houston Texans (2009)

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Everything you could’ve wanted in an NFL cornerback came packaged in O’Neal, whose name still rings bells to this day, after having often rung them in yesteryear. Opposing quarterbacks feared O’Neal and for good reason, because if the ball was in the air, he was probably going to come down with it. In only his second year as a pro, he grabbed nine interceptions, eventually besting that number by reeling in 10 INTs in 2005. On both occasions, he surpassed 100 defensive yards from his takeaways, becoming a dynamic player for both the Broncos and Bengals, respectively. And while his ability to take the ball away began to dwindle at the back end of his career — one he finished with short stints in New England and Houston — the footprint O’Neal left on the game is one many cornerbacks can only envy. A winner of several awards at Cal, the California kid grew up to be one of the most recognizable names of his NFL era. 

2005 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 15 overall (Texas)
Team(s): K.C. Chiefs (2005-2017), Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders (2018)

If you played offense in the NFL when Johnson was in uniform, he likely autographed yours for you, but not with a pen. Johnson was a force to contend with at the linebacker position, able to pursue, cover and hit with the power of three men. Before the Chiefs became the new-age “Chiiiieeeeffffssss,” it was Johnson anchoring the defense (and franchise), and his greatness was hinted at before he stepped foot in the league. The former Longhorn racked up a list of awards at Texas, including the Dick Butkus Award (2004), the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (2004), Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year (2004), two Consensus All-American nods (2003, 2004) and three First-Team All-Big 12 honors. As a pro, he finished his career with four Pro Bowl honors and two All-Pro awards, driven by his overall phenomenal play and eerie ability to create turnovers. Johnson left the NFL with 22 forced fumbles and 27.5 sacks, along with 14 interceptions and 1,171 combined tackles. His final year with the rival Raiders did nothing to change his legacy in Kansas City, or within the NFL as a whole.

3. Dennis Smith, S

1981 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 15 overall (USC)
Team(s): Denver Broncos (1981-1994)

You won’t hear Smith’s name mentioned often outside of Colorado with some of the best to ever play the game, and that’s as disappointing as it is unacceptable. Hailing from USC, where he earned honors as First-Team All-American in 1980, Smith became the Broncos’ first-round grab in 1981 and spent his entire 14-year NFL career putting in work for Denver. A six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro safety, Smith has since been inducted into the Broncos Ring of Fame and remains one of the most impactful defensive backs to ever lace up a pair of cleats. In a league dominated by the run game — the antithesis of what it’s now morphed into — Smith was still able to make his presence felt to opposing offenses. He retired having grabbed 30 career interceptions to go along with 15 sacks, 17 fumble recoveries and 1,158 combined tackles in 170 starts. Smith always had a nose for making plays, and he needs more recognition for what he did as a player.

2. Jim Taylor, FB

1958 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 15 overall (LSU) 
Team(s): Green Bay Packers (2958-1966), New Orleans Saints (1967)

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Let’s give the fullback position (and offense) some love here, seeing as it’s rarely valued nowadays and mostly dismissed as a need in today’s NFL — something that was absolutely not the case as recently as the turn of the century. When Taylor took handoffs for the Packers and then the Saints, he was a key part of what the offense was able to accomplish on a game-to-game basis. Taylor was a load to contend with, averaging 4.4 yards per carry for his career and finishing with 8,597 rushing yards to go along with 1,756 receiving yards, making him a true do-it-all fullback that could block, carry and become a target out of the backfield. And don’t let the fact he won only one Super Bowl fool you, because he played much of his career before that existed, having also racked up four NFL championships to add to a list of accomplishments that includes five Pro Bowls, six All-Pro honors, a former NFL MVP nod and so much more — the Pro Football Hall of Famer having also been inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame and his No. 31 jersey now retired in New Orleans. Taylor is a legend for two different organizations and a member of the 1960s NFL All-Decade Team, and there’s only one person who could best him on this list. So when you think of fullbacks, remember what they used to be, because Taylor.

1. Alan Page, DL

1967 NFL Draft: Round 1, No. 15 overall (Notre Dame)
Team(s): Minnesota Vikings (1967-1978), Chicago Bears (1978-1981)

There can only be one, and Page is it when it comes to the best of this esteemed list. He was an animal at his position, first for the Vikings before ultimately heading to the rival Bears to complete his illustrious NFL career. Page entered the league with a hype train fueled by his two national championships and Consensus All-American honor at Notre Dame and the pressure to hit the ground running didn’t derail him in the least, going on to land nine Pro Bowl honors, nine All-Pro nods, two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards and league MVP in 1971. The credits didn’t stop there, and were good enough to see him named to both the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team and the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team — also inducted into both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame. He has since gone on to become a renowned Associate Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court, having attended the University of Minnesota Law School and earning his law degree while dominating for the Vikings. As I said a moment ago, there can only be one, and Page has no competition for the No. 1 spot on this list.

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