The eight best years for first overall picks in the NFL & CFL drafts

Photos courtesy: Dallas Cowboys & Scott Grant. Photo edit: 3DownNation.

The NFL and CFL drafts are very different, yet the goal is ultimately the same: select the player who will help your team win the most possible games.

In the NFL, this often means drafting the best available quarterback. The top of the draft used to be dominated by running backs and middle linebackers but these days it’s almost impossible for anything other than a quarterback, offensive tackle or edge rusher to be selected with the first overall pick.

The CFL draft is completely different. The prospect pool is smaller and teams almost exclusively start American quarterbacks. Only one quarterback has ever been taken with the first overall pick north of the border — the Stampeders took Simon Fraser’s Wayne Holm in 1970 — and he was converted to defensive back by his second season.

The CFL also had territorial exemptions in place until 1985, which means many all-time greats including Rocky DiPietro, Paul Bennett, Tony Gabriel, Miles Gorrell, and Joe Poplawski were never drafted. This limited the size of the draft’s talent pool even more before the league’s modern era.

Below I’ve broken down the eight best years for first overall picks in the NFL and CFL drafts. You might be wondering what the two drafts have to do with each other given how different they are, which is perfectly fair. The answer is that I’m a nerd who thought this list would be fun to make, so here we go.

Photo courtesy: Michael C. Hebert/New Orleans Saints

8) QB Jameis Winston and OL Alex Mateas (2015)

Winston’s career has had plenty of ups and downs — he threw 30 interceptions in 2019 — but it’s hard to ignore that he had two 4,000-yard seasons and one 5,000-yard season by the age of 25. With 21,840 passing yards and 139 touchdowns to his name, the Florida State product may yet have a bright future in the NFL.

Mateas made two East Division all-star teams over five seasons with the Ottawa Redblacks during which he appeared in 88 games. The local product chose not to return to field following the CFL’s cancelled 2020 season, retiring at 30 to pursue a career in real estate.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

7) RB/FB Tucker Frederickson and RB/REC Jim Young (1965)

Frederickson recorded 3,220 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns over a seven-year career with the New York Giants. He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie but was forced to miss the following year due to a knee injury, which prevented him from recreating the success he’d enjoyed at Auburn at the professional level.

Young is the best first overall pick in the history of the CFL draft. ‘Dirty 30’ recorded 10,098 yards from scrimmage and 68 touchdowns over 13 seasons with the B.C. Lions, winning two Most Outstanding Canadian awards and being named to two all-star teams. Had Frederickson had a better NFL career, this would have been the top pairing on this list.

Photo: AP/Emilee Chinn

6) QB Joe Burrow and LB Jordan Williams (2020)

It’s a little early to herald this pairing, though the future seems bright for both players. Burrow has led the Bengals to two deep playoff runs despite suffering a torn ACL as a rookie, throwing for 11,774 yards, 82 touchdowns, and 31 interceptions over 42 career regular season games.

Williams was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie in 2021 after recording 92 defensive tackles, five special teams tackles, one sack, and one interception in 14 starts at middle linebacker with the B.C. Lions. The East Carolina product appears to be Toronto’s heir apparent to Henoc Muamba as he was acquired by the club via trade in February.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

5) QB Vinny Testaverde and OL Leo Groenewegen (1987)

Testaverde played 21 seasons in the NFL and started at least one game in all but one of those years. He threw for 46,233 yards, 275 touchdowns, and 267 interceptions, making the Pro Bowl as a member of the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets. He remains No. 16 all-time in NFL passing yards and No. 18 in all-time NFL passing touchdowns.

Groenewegen also experienced extreme longevity, playing 288 career CFL games as a member of the Ottawa Rough Riders, B.C. Lions, and Edmonton Elks. The Vancouver native holds the CFL record for consecutive starts by a non-kicker at 252 games and was a four-time all-star, winning the Grey Cup in his second-last season in 2003.

Photo: AP/John Amis

4) QB Michael Vick and DL Scott Schultz (2001)

Vick remains arguably the best dual-threat quarterback in NFL history, retiring with 22,464 passing yards and 6,109 rushing yards. He missed most of the 2003 season due to injury and was out for all of 2007 and 2008 due to a prison sentence but returned with the Eagles to reach a fourth career Pro Bowl in 2010.

Schultz played 128 career games over seven seasons for the Saskatchewan Roughriders — starting 115 — and recorded 178 tackles, 34 sacks, and four forced fumbles. The native of Moose Jaw, Sask. was named a CFL all-star in 2005 and helped his hometown team win the Grey Cup in 2007.

Photo: AP/Lynne Sladky

3) QB Matthew Stafford and OL Simeon Rottier (2009)

Stafford has been one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks for over a decade and led the Rams to a victory in Super Bowl LVI, defeating the Bengals by a score of 23-20. He has thrown for 52,082 yards and 333 touchdowns over his 14-year NFL career, already putting him firmly into the conversation for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Rottier quickly became a mainstay along the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ offensive line before signing with his hometown Edmonton Football Team in free agency. He started 107 career games and was named a CFL all-star in 2014 before winning his first and only Grey Cup the following year in 2015.

Photo courtesy: Carolina Panthers

2) QB Cam Newton and LB Henoc Muamba (2011)

Newton’s career appears to be over at 33 but the dual-threat passer was named the NFL’s MVP in 2015 for a reason. The three-time Pro Bowl selection has thrown for 32,382 yards, 194 touchdowns, and 123 interceptions while rushing for 5,628 yards and 75 touchdowns over 148 career games.

Muamba is a three-time all-star who was named the East Division’s Most Outstanding Canadian in 2013, the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian in 2019, and the Grey Cup MVP in 2022. He has 592 defensive tackles, 78 special teams tackles, 17 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, and eight interceptions over 135 career CFL games.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

1) QB Troy Aikman and REC Gerald Wilcox (1989)

Aikman won three Super Bowls over a 12-year career with the Dallas Cowboys, throwing for 32,942 yards, 165 touchdowns, and 141 interceptions and reaching six consecutive Pro Bowls. He broke all of Roger Staubach’s club passing records and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

Wilcox’s career got off to a slow start with Ottawa but reached new heights after he was traded to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He had three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons from 1993 to 1995, making 259 catches for 3,988 yards and 28 touchdowns. He was named a CFL all-star and the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian in 1994.

Honourable mentions

QB Andrew Luck and OL Ben Heenan (2012)

QB Jeff George and RB/FB Sean Millington (1990)

DL/LB Aundray Bruce and RB Orville Lee (1988)

DL Dan Wilkinson and OL Val St. Germain (1994)

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.