This week’s NFL Draft will be the renewal of a sports tradition that started during the Great Depression. It began with the selection of Jay Berwanger, a University of Chicago halfback who played against Gerald Ford in college and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, then traded to the Chicago Bears. A $1,500 difference between his asking price and what Bears owner George Halas was willing to pay steered him into the business world. That’s right, the NFL’s first draft pick never played a down in the league.
That 1935 scenario is not one we’re ever likely to see again, but it’s important to realize that being the number one player picked in the draft doesn’t guarantee anything except a lot will be written about you in the years to come — good or bad.
In fact, since that first draft, only 14 of the more than 70 players taken first overall who are eligible to be elected have gone on to be enshrined in Canton. The first was Bill Dudley. He was drafted by the Steelers in 1942, and won the league’s MVP award in 1946. Dudley finally got his rookie card with the first edition of Bowman’s football line in 1948. Today, decent copies of his rookie card typically cost $100-$300.
The number of popular and valuable rookie cards of number 1 picks through the years is pretty limited. A few of them include Paul Hornung (1957 draft, 1957 Topps); Terry Bradshaw (1970 draft, 1971 Topps); John Elway (1983 draft, 1984 Topps); and Peyton Manning (1998 draft, various products 1998). Earl Campbell, the top pick in ’78, was on a Topps rookie card the next year — and never appeared on another for the rest of his career, apparently unwilling to sign a card contract.
There have been 32 quarterbacks drafted first overall, but so far only a few have gone on to Hall of Fame careers. Manning and Elway will go down as two of the all-time greats at the position.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is a lock to be the first selection this year and collectors are already clamoring for his cards inside some of the pre-draft products that have already hit the market. While it seems like he’s a good bet to succeed in Jacksonville, there have been a ton of players taken first overall who’ve never quite lived up to the expectations so keep that in mind when you’re staring down prices for this year’s rookies ahead of next September’s kickoff. Lawrence could buck the odds, but history says it’s far from a sure thing.