No spot in the NFL draft matches the surging pressure of the No. 1 overall pick. The hits are as legendary as the misses are infamous.
Houston Texans GM Rick Smith should know. He’s preparing for his shot at No. 1 in the shadow of his Charley Casserly’s controversial selection of Mario Williams in ’06. Smith replaced Casserly within six weeks.
Therefore, former Buffalo Bills GM Bob Lustig (1967-79) deserves the ultimate kudos for making O.J. Simpson the greatest No. 1 NFL draft pick of all time.
Simpson—the ‘68 Heisman Trophy winner—plodded through the first three years before reeling off five consecutive First-Team All-Pro seasons from ’72-76. This included his celebrated 2,003-yard performance in ’73. Simpson was the first NFL running back to top 2,000 yards, and he did it in only 14 games. “The Juice” was the NFL MVP.
Several top picks won MVP’s on their way to Canton, so Lustig’s pick doesn’t rise to the top simply on achievements. It’s the way he parlayed the Simpson pick that separates it from the John Elway’s, Bruce Smith’s and Peyton Manning’s.
Buffalo decided to shop Simpson after his injury-stunted ’77 campaign. Lustig tapped Simpson’s hometown San Francisco 49ers, bilking them out of five draft picks for a fading star. The trade is widely considered among the worst in NFL history.
One of the picks was the 49ers first-rounder in ’79, which became the No. 1 overall thanks to a league-worst 2-14 finish in ’78. While San Francisco started over with a young offensive mastermind named Bill Walsh, Buffalo used the 49ers top pick on LB Tom Cousineau from Ohio State.
Cousineau was lured away from the Bills with a larger contract from the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. This apparent disaster would be the last in Lustig’s 12-year tenure.
However, Cousineau decided to leave Canada for the NFL after three successful seasons. Buffalo retained his rights, and traded him to the Cleveland Browns in ’82 for three future draft picks.
Buffalo landed the No. 14 pick in the extraordinarily talented ’83 draft class, thanks to yet another mediocre Browns season. The Bills selected Jim Kelly out of Miami (FL) and the rest is history, right?
Kelly also initially snubbed the Bills for another league, choosing the USFL’s Houston Gamblers and the Astrodome over often-frigid Rich Stadium. But the USFL folded two years later, unlike the Bills. Buffalo dragged the reluctant East Brady, PA, native back to the “Rust Belt” to start his eventual Hall-of-Fame career.
Few teams have taken one Hall-of-Famer with the top overall selection, let alone extended it to two. On that feat alone, the Bills ’69 selection of Simpson reigns as the greatest No. 1 draft pick in NFL history.
(Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference. Draft information courtesy of Wikipedia and Pro Sports Transactions)