Projecting NFL talent is a difficult task. It’s easier to judge a draft pick’s status after they’ve spent a few seasons in the NFL. Identifying the best players still playing sits somewhere in between on the scale of arbitrary difficulty, but that’s not going to stop us from trying it, anyway.
With barely a week before the 2017 NFL Draft, we attempted to settle the question of who is the best active NFL player from each round of the draft. One player from every round, and the undrafted free agent crop who stands above his peers for his contribution to his team and the game itself.
But first, a word about the criteria.
Early-round prospects are guys who teams hope can change, or even become the face of, a franchise. The first and second rounds of NFL drafts have yielded a litany of superstars and even franchise-defining players, so the criteria for making the cut here is incredibly specific — the best early-round selections need to be players who are unquestionably on a Hall of Fame track at the present moment. There are a lot of really good players in the NFL, but the guys at the top of this list are the best at what they do in today’s NFL, and could potentially end their respective careers among the best of all time.
Every team in the NFL wants to find the late-round draft steal, but it’s just not that easy. Every year, talking heads debate which late-round prospects could potentially become the next Tom Brady. Every year, those same talking heads quickly realize they’re probably wrong.
Now, let’s dive in. And please feel free to disagree and let us know who your picks for the best active players from each round of the draft.
Round 1: J.J. Watt (Houston Texans, 2011, pick 11)
At age 28, Watt is already one of the best defenders in NFL history.
Despite missing 13 games in 2016, he still leads all 2011 draftees — a loaded draft class which includes Von Miller, Justin Houston, Ryan Kerrigan, and Robert Quinn, among others — with 76 career sacks. Watt, along with Reggie White, is just one of two players in NFL history to register at least 15 sacks in three of their first five NFL seasons. He’s also been one of the more decorated players in the league, earning Defensive Player of the Year honors three times throughout his six-year career.
Watt joined a Texans team, which had never made a playoff appearance in its nine years of existence prior to his selection, and turned Houston into a perennial playoff contender. One of Watt’s more memorable plays came in the form of a pick-six in the Texans’ first playoff appearance.
Since Watt was picked, the Texans have made four playoff appearances and won three playoff games in six years, despite the best quarterback in franchise history being best remembered as the guy who set an NFL record for most consecutive games with a pick-six.
No other player in the NFL has changed a team quite like Watt has changed the Texans, which is what separates him from the rest of the pack here. Houston, despite still not having found its franchise quarterback, went from relative obscurity to perennial playoff contender — all because the team hit on the Watt selection in 2011.
Round 2: Rob Gronkowski (New England Patriots, 2010, pick 42)
Already one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history, Gronk has totaled 69 regular season touchdowns and nine playoff scores. With 68 receiving touchdowns and one rushing score to date, the superstar tight end is well on his way to breaking the record for most career receiving touchdowns by a tight end, held by both Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates (111).
Gronkowski wasn’t even the first player at his position to be selected in his draft class. Jermaine Gresham, a first-round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals, was the first tight end selected in 2010, making the Patriots’ selection of Gronk look that much better.
Despite a strong push from a few second-round quarterbacks, Gronkowski is unquestionably the best active second-round selection in the NFL, thanks to his monster touchdown numbers and revolutionizing of the tight end position. It’s telling that virtually every other team in the league has tried (and, for the most part, failed) to find its own version of Gronk.
Round 3: Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks, 2012, pick 75)
The fifth quarterback selected in the 2012 NFL draft, Wilson has emerged as one of the NFL’s best passers. With two Super Bowl appearances, a Super Bowl victory, and three Pro Bowls under his belt, the Seahawks’ signal-caller has been phenomenal throughout his five-year career.
Not bad for a guy everyone thought was too short to succeed as a quarterback in the NFL.
Wilson’s selection came as a surprise, given that Seattle had just signed Matt Flynn to a $26 million contract. In hindsight, the Wilson selection is the crowning achievement of general manager John Schneider’s brilliant tenure in Seattle.
Round 4: Geno Atkins (Cincinnati Bengals, 2010, pick 120)
One of the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL, Atkins has put together an impressive career. The Bengals defensive tackle has totaled 52 sacks in seven seasons, which ranks second in his draft class behind teammate Carlos Dunlap, who has 57.
Atkins’ emergence to stardom despite his lack of prototypical size for a defensive tackle paved the way for future undersized defensive tackles — specifically, Aaron Donald.
"I think [Atkins] showed that if you can play, you can play no matter your size," Donald told the MMQB. "If you can be productive, make plays and help the team win games, that's what it's all about. He did that and all the teams passed on him because they thought he was undersized. I bet a lot of teams are regretting that now. He's one of the best three techniques in the NFL for sure. The success he's having in the NFL, I think he paved the way for a lot of guys that were undersized."
Round 5: Richard Sherman (Seahawks, 2011, pick 154)
Pick your poison here, as Sherman and teammate Kam Chancellor were both fifth-round picks by the Seahawks. Sherman edges out Chancellor here. The playmaking defensive back has already intercepted 30 passes in six seasons, despite opponents usually avoiding him in coverage.
Sherman earned NFC Defensive Player of the Year recognition in 2014, along with four Pro Bowl nods. Not only do Sherman’s 30 picks since entering the NFL in 2011 lead the league, by a substantial margin, but his 97 pass breakups over that same time frame also rank first in the league.
Round 6: Tom Brady (Patriots, 2000, pick 199)
Brady’s the biggest no-brainer on this list, even with Antonio Brown hailing from the sixth round of the draft. He’s arguably the greatest quarterback of all time and arguably the greatest player ever to play the game. Let that sink in for a minute — every team in the NFL, Patriots included, passed on Brady at least five times.
Brady is the white whale of late-round draft picks, the player every fan wants their team to pull from selections that usually hit their ceiling as role players.
Round 7: Julian Edelman (Patriots, 2009, pick 232)
The Patriots owe a big part of their success to their ability to find unique ways to add talent in unconventional ways — late-round picks, undrafted free agents and their franchise quarterback plucked out of the sixth round. Edelman, who played quarterback in college, has transformed into one of the league’s premier slot receivers from a low-profile late-round draft selection.
He’s also played a massive part in New England’s success as a dynasty, hauling in what might’ve been the best catch in Super Bowl history against the Atlanta Falcons and tallying five postseason scores throughout his career. Who would’ve thought a former college quarterback could turn into a thousand-yard receiver? Only Bill Belichick.
Undrafted free agent: Chris Harris (Denver Broncos, 2011)
Guys like Harris are why undrafted free agents have become more and more coveted as part of the draft process. The best slot cornerback in the NFL, Harris has been phenomenal. With 14 career interceptions and 66 pass deflections, the UDFA cornerback has emerged as a playmaker for one of the best defenses in the league.
A Super Bowl champion and three-time Pro Bowler is one of many talented undrafted free agents (Doug Baldwin, Vontaze Burfict and the recently retired Tony Romo, to name a few) to make an impact in the NFL, proving yet again that even some of the league’s best players slip through the cracks.
Romo, of course, is the big name here. The quarterback everyone loved to hate overcame drastic odds, making his way from undrafted rookie to Dallas Cowboys legend. His rise to stardom just goes to show that the draft pick you’ve never heard of could be a superstar in the making.