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Ranking the best NFL draft picks of all time: Jerry Rice leads the top five taken at No. 16 overall


The 2021 NFL Draft is just a couple of weeks away, and this is the event of the offseason where real contenders are built. There’s value to be found in all seven rounds, and those teams who capitalize the most see the quickest turnaround. Here at CBS Sports, we are breaking down the best first-round draft picks of all time at each spot from 32-1. The entire rundown of the top-five picks at each number can be found at our hub of all-time selections

Below, we will be examining the best players to have ever been selected at No. 16 overall. This year, the Arizona Cardinals hold the No. 16 overall pick, and they will be looking to cap off what has been an incredible offseason for Kliff Kingsbury and Co. A couple of prospects our CBS NFL Draft writers have the Cardinals potentially selecting at No. 16 overall are cornerback Jaycee Horn out of South Carolina, offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker out of USC and linebacker Azeez Ojulari out of Georgia. 

A few solid players have been taken with the No. 16 overall pick in recent years, as the Atlanta Falcons grabbed cornerback A.J. Terrell out of Clemson last year, the Carolina Panthers drafted a star pass-rusher in Brian Burns out of Florida State in 2019 and the Buffalo Bills selected the versatile linebacker Tremaine Edmunds out of Virginia Tech in 2018. That’s a pretty solid group, but you will be surprised to see the kind of talent that has been taken exactly halfway through the first round over the past few decades.

So, who were the top five players in NFL history to be selected with the No. 16 overall pick? We have two Hall of Famers to get to in this list, but first, let’s start with “The Freak.”

5. Jevon Kearse, DE

1999 NFL DraftNo. 16 overall (Florida)
Teams: Tennessee Titans (1999-2003, 2008-09), Philadelphia Eagles (2004-07)


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The Tennessee Titans’ first pick as the Titans and not the Houston Oilers was used on Kearse, and it turned out to be an incredible decision. “The Freak” had what was one of the best rookie seasons of all time, as he recorded 58 combined tackles, a rookie-record 14.5 sacks and forced a whopping eight fumbles. He immediately became a major player on Tennessee’s defense, and helped escort the Titans to the Super Bowl in his first NFL season. Kearse won AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and also was a Pro Bowler.

Kearse actually recorded double-digit sacks in his first three seasons, but unfortunately wouldn’t reach that mark again for the rest of his career. After five successful seasons in Tennessee, he reset the market at the defensive end position by signing an eight-year, $66 million deal with the Eagles. While he did make the Super Bowl again in 2004, Kearse was eventually released and made his way back to Tennessee. In his first season back in Nashville in 2008, Kearse recorded 3.5 sacks and forced three fumbles while the Titans went an impressive 13-3. 

Kearse was simply built different with how fast he was at 6 foot 5. A truly dominant defensive end that took the league by storm in 1999, Kearse deserved a spot on this list. 

4. Raymond Clayborn, CB

1977 NFL Draft: No. 16 overall (Texas)
Teams: New England Patriots (1977-89), Cleveland Browns (1990-91)


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Clayborn spent 13 seasons with the Patriots and was a three-time First Team All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler. He’s also tied with Ty Law for the most interceptions in a Patriots uniform with 36, and was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame a few years ago. Clayborn was a playmaker from the very beginning, as he scored a touchdown on his first-ever professional play via a punt return, according to the Patriots official website. As a rookie, he returned 28 kicks for 869 yards and led the league with a 31-yard return average. Clayborn also returned three kicks for touchdowns, including a 101-yard score. 

Clayborn was a fast defensive back who was not afraid to lay the hammer either. He did benefit by playing with Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes, but stepped up when Haynes left for the Los Angeles Raiders in 1983, and even earned his first Pro Bowl and First Team All-Pro nod. A couple of seasons later, Clayborn picked off a career-high six passes and another one in the AFC Championship game against the Miami Dolphins to get the Patriots to Super Bowl XX. New England’s offense completely folded against the Chicago Bears‘ famous defense, but Clayborn did recover a fumble in the 46-10 loss. He was one of the best defensive backs in the league in the 1980s, and one of the best Patriots players of all time. 

2014 NFL Draft: No. 16 overall (Notre Dame)
Teams: Dallas Cowboys (2014-present)


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The Cowboys could have selected Johnny Manziel with the No. 16 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but instead landed on Martin. He was an elite left tackle at Notre Dame, but like many offensive linemen do at the next level, moved inside to guard. It really doesn’t matter where you line Martin up on the offensive line, however, because he can make a difference anywhere. Martin has been named a First Team All-Pro four times and Second Team All-Pro two times. He’s a six-time Pro Bowler and has the highest PFF WAR among first-round offensive lineman drafted since 2010. The Cowboys have seemingly always had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL over the past few years, and Martin is a big reason why. 

A reason Martin is one of the best players in today’s NFL is because of his consistency. He missed just two games in his first six seasons, but unfortunately did miss six games this past year due to a calf injury. Martin has put together quite a career at 30-years-old, and he’s not done yet. When it’s all said and done, he could find himself in Canton one day.  

2. Troy Polamalu, S

2003 NFL Draft: No. 16 overall (USC)
Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers (2003-2014)


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The Steelers had never drafted a safety in the first round of any NFL draft, but they traded up in 2003 to grab Polamalu. While they were high on the kid out of USC, they had no way of knowing he would turn into one of the best safeties of all time. Polamalu was a four-time First Team All-Pro, eight-time Pro Bowler, was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 and helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls during his 12 seasons. 

Polamalu was as elite as a defender as you can find. Whether it was serving as a ball hawk deep in the secondary, surveying tight ends in the box or pursuing the quarterback, he really could do it all. His athleticism had a big part in that, but it was his instincts that took his success to another level. How did he know the other team’s snap count so often? 

Soft-spoken yet hard-hitting, Polamalu called it quits in 2014 and will go down as one of the best Steelers in franchise history. In 158 career games, he recorded 32 interceptions, forced 14 fumbles and made 12 sacks. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2020, but there was no ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Polamalu said he was happy to have another year to prepare his speech, since focusing on his own accomplishments is not something he has ever been known for. 

“I never thought about my legacy nor did I ever care about leaving one,” Polamalu said. “Truly there’s a lot of great players that have left inspiring legacies that were literally born in the hood that came from nothing and overcame a lot of things. I personally don’t have that story a lot of great Hall of Famers have, so any of my legacy would be to read anyone else’s legacies!”  

1. Jerry Rice, WR

1985 NFL Draft: No. 16 overall (Mississippi Valley State)
Teams: San Francisco 49ers (1985-2000), Oakland Raiders (2001-2004), Seattle Seahawks (2004)


USA TODAY

The 49ers are certainly happy they traded up to No. 16 overall in the 1985 NFL Draft. Jerry Rice is probably the best wide receiver in NFL history and one of the best players to ever play the game of football. It would take too much time to list all of his achievements, but he was a two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year, a 10-time First Team All-Pro, a 13-time Pro Bowler, a six-time NFL receiving yards leader and still owns NFL records for career receptions (1,549), career receiving yards (22,895), career receiving touchdowns (197) and career all-purpose yards (23,546). Rice also won three Super Bowls and was the Super Bowl XXIII MVP. 

Speaking of Super Bowls, his performances in the “big game” are a big reason he is considered one of the greatest NFL players of all time. Rice is the Super Bowl’s all-time leader in catches (33), yards (589) and touchdowns (8). His 215 receiving yards in Super Bowl XXIII is also still a record. In Super Bowl XXIX, Rice caught 10 passes for 149 yards and three touchdowns against the San Diego Chargers despite playing with a separated shoulder and dealing with the flu. 

Over the last two years, only two wide receivers have gone over 1,500 receiving yards in a single season. Rice did it four times — including in his second season. The consistency and longevity he showed is also a reason he’s one of the best players of all time. During the 2002 season, when Rice was 40 years old, he caught 92 passes for 1,211 yards and seven touchdowns. It’s doubtful you will ever see another receiver be as productive as Rice was when he was over the age of 40. The man had an impeccable work ethic. 

Rice’s pure talent and longevity coupled by his stats and NFL records make him the easy choice for the best player to ever be drafted at No. 16 overall. 



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