Being the number one overall draft pick comes with plenty of fanfare but if you’re a football card collector, take a pass. Going back to the 1950s, only about one of every four number one picks went on to a Hall of Fame career.
Many were total flops.
Only a few top selections bring big bucks on the open market. The most valuable rookie card of all of the number one draft picks since the draft began in 1936 belongs to a guy who didn’t even join the NFL out of college. Joe Namath signed with the New York Jets of the AFL after they took him #1 in 1964. His 1965 Topps rookie card will cost you at least $1,000 in nice shape.
Namath, by the way, was drafted #12 on the first round of the NFL draft by the St. Louis Cardinals.
In the 1940s, three #1 picks became Hall of Famers; Bill Dudley, Charley Trippi and Chuck Bednarik. Bednarik’s 1949 Leaf card will set you back $200-300; Trippi and Dudley came earlier and didn’t make their first appearances on trading cards until 1948.
An average of about two or three top selections per decade are now considered all-time greats. Just one, however, from the 1950s. Paul Hornung’s 1957 Topps card is one of the most popular football cards of all-time. You won’t find a nice one for less than $350.
In addition to Namath, the 1960s brought top picks Buck Buchanan (1963), Ron Yary (1968) and O.J. Simpson, who was legendary on the field, but of course, had later issues off the gridiron. None of their rookie cards are especially hard to find or valuable, although Simpson’s 1970 card remains one of the keys to the set.
A year after Simpson joined the Buffalo Bills, the woeful Pittsburgh Steelers took Terry Bradshaw with the top pick. It took a few years, but Bradshaw eventually proved worthy. Several Super Bowl rings and a Hall of Fame induction speech later, Bradshaw’s 1971 Topps rookie card is one of the most desirable and expensive cards of the post-1950s era, running about $150-200. LeeRoy Selmon(1976) and Earl Campbell (1978) were the #1 pick stars of the 1970s. Campbell’s 1979 Topps has always been the premier card of the set, often selling for $100 or more in “9” grade.
In 1983, John Elway muscled his way into Denver, spurning the Baltimore Colts who had the top pick. Snakebit but talented for the first half of his career, Elway wound up with two Super Bowl rings and a 1984 Topps card that sells for $100 in ‘9’.
Bruce Smith and Troy Aikman are the other two 1980s Hall of Famers who began their NFL careers as top draft picks. Aikman’s 1989 Score actually turned out to be the best of several rookie cards that were issued with his mug on the front.
There have been plenty of #1 pick duds, including several in the last 40 years. Ki-Jana Carter anyone? There have been others who were good, sometimes great, but not quite legendary (Jim Plunkett, Too Tall Jones), others who played forever (see Testaverde, Vinny) and at least one who was brilliant, but only for awhile (Bo knows the answer).
Sam Bradford looks like a top level prospect, but let the buyer beware. Eight quarterbacks have been taken with the top pick since 1998. Peyton Manning will go down as one of the all-time greats. Carson Palmer wasn’t a bad choice. But…the top pick also gave us JaMarcus Russell, Alex Smith, Tim Couch and Michael Vick.