On Friday, Gerald McCoy will step onto a football field with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers logo on his helmet for the very first time.
The Buccaneers hope it is the first step in a long and successful career in Tampa. Across the NFL, as most of the league's 32 teams prepare for their first practices since the 2010 draft, similar dreams are being quietly nurtured. Will our first-round pick be a star? Will our seventh-rounder prove to be unexpectedly valuable? It will take several years, but eventually the best players of the 2010 draft class will emerge, and it will be obvious which picks in that draft were best spent.
Just before the 2010 draft, the NFL took a historical look at that very topic: In the first 74 years of the league's draft, which picks proved to be the best. In honor of its landmark 75th draft, the NFL enlisted the help of its fans to determine the 75 Most Valuable Draft Picks of All Time.
If the Buccaneers do indeed hit on McCoy, or Arrelious Benn, Dekoda Watson or any of their nine picks from this year's draft, it won't be the team's first major draft-weekend success. In fact, three of the players chosen among the 75 Most Valuable Draft Picks of All Time were Buccaneer selections.
Defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who is likely Hall of Fame-bound, came in the highest among the Buccaneer choices, ranking 54th on the list, just between Brian Urlacher and Thurman Thomas. Linebacker Derrick Brooks, another man likely to hear Canton calling, was next at #72, right behind Julius Peppers and just ahead of the third Buc on the list, safety John Lynch.
Topping the list were a pair of key figures from the San Francisco 49ers' dominant team of the 1980s, quarterback Joe Montana and wide receiver Jerry Rice, in that order. Montana was a third-round pick in 1982 and Rice followed in the first round of the 1985 draft. Walter Payton (Chicago, 1975, 1st), Barry Sanders (Detroit, 1989, 1st), Peyton Manning (Indianapolis, 1998, 1st), Dan Marino (Miami, 1983, 1st), Brett Favre (Atlanta, 1991, 2nd), Tom Brady (New England, 2000, 6th), Emmitt Smith (Dallas, 1990, 1st) and Lawrence Taylor (New York Giants, 1981, 1st) rounded out the top 10.
The final list was chosen through a voting process on NFL.com that drew a remarkable 45 million ballots from March 12 through April 18. League representatives began the process by selecting 10 particularly valuable draft picks from each of the 32 teams currently in the league. Fans who participated in the voting process were presented with a series of randomly-selected head-to-head battles between two of the 320 players on the overall list. Fans could continue to vote on as many battles as they wished, and their accumulated votes eventually formed personal top-10 lists. This data was used to form the final list of 75.
While the fans did not vote any Buccaneers into the top 10, it's worth noting that few franchises have ever had a few hours that were as successful, in terms of the draft, than Tampa Bay did in the spring of 1995. By nabbing both Sapp and Brooks in the first round of that year's draft, the Buccaneers put together one of the most amazing single rounds of all time. In fact, only that round and the Chicago Bears' opening stanza of the 1965 draft, which produced both Dick Butkus (20th on the list) and Gale Sayers (28th), came in with more than one player on the list.
Even Lynch, a third-rounder in the 1993 draft, is in somewhat rare company. While it's true that NFL stars can come from any point in the draft (and even from among the ranks of undrafted players), it's worth noting that 51 of the 75 players on the NFL's list were originally first-round picks. Another 10 were second-rounders, meaning Lynch was one of just 14 players among the 75 Most Valuable Draft Picks of All Time who were selected in the third round or later.
At the far end of that category was quarterback Bart Starr, who was a 17th-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 1956. Of course, there were fewer teams in the draft in the 1950s, and thus a 17th-round pick wasn't quite as far down the board as he would be now. In fact, while Starr is indeed the lowest-drafted player on the list, at #200 overall, he only gets that honor by one spot over Brady, who was the 199th overall choice in 2000.
Pittsburgh placed the most players on the list, and it's easy to see why the Steelers were the dominant team of the 1970s. Six of their seven choices were taken between 1969 (Mean Joe Greene) and 1974 (Jack Lambert). Chicago finished second with six picks on the list and Dallas was third with five. Only four teams failed to place a single player on the list: Cincinnati, Jacksonville, New Orleans and Seattle.
Redskins great Sammy Baugh was drafted earliest among all the players on the list, by a wide margin. A first-round pick in 1937, which was only the second draft in league history, Baugh came in a good 19 years before Starr, the second man on the list chronologically. The voting definitely skewed towards the modern era, with 30 of the 75 picks being selected in the 1990s and the 2000s. The players who made it onto the list with the least NFL experience so far were Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, both 2004 draft picks.
The famous 1983 draft produced four of the 75 Most Valuable Draft Picks of All Time, including quarterbacks Jim Kelly of Buffalo and Dan Marino of Miami. Joining them from the Class of '83 were Washington cornerback Darrell Green and Rams running back Eric Dickerson. That matched the highest number of players on the list from any single draft, with the 1981, 1989 and 1996 drafts all getting four apiece.
Will the 2010 draft prove just as successful at unearthing future stars, either for Tampa Bay or the league as a whole? The Bucs can only hope so, and in the meantime enjoy some of their best moments from drafts past.