NFL franchises spend millions of dollars and years of time scouting the best college players. Many of these athletes receive attention before they step onto an NCAA field. There’s a rush to select the best-measured prospects in the early rounds of the draft. Many of these players end up as monstrous draft busts, but some players slip through the cracks as draft steals.
This list shows that there are always exceptions in the unpredictable draft. Sometimes all of the pre-draft assessments and projections do not matter even one bit. Hall of Famers and all-time greats have emerged from the later rounds. Check out the 30 biggest draft steals in NFL history via Goliath.
30. Jason Kelce
Kelce fell to Day Three in the 2011 Draft because of his weight. He was deemed an undersized offensive lineman and that’s why nobody wanted to take a punt on him before the sixth round. The 280-pound athlete fell into the Eagles’ laps. But little did they know that they had landed one of the steals of the decade.
Somehow they picked the future All-Pro with the 191st pick in the draft. Ultimately, Kelce made five Pro Bowl appearances and also won a Super Bowl. His run of consecutive games for the franchise was awe-inspiring. This man is a great competitor but should not have fallen so low (via The Sporting News).
Jackson is the first of two first-round quarterbacks who appear as steals on this list. That may seem strange because he still went relatively early in the 2018 draft. However, he remains one of the biggest steals of the decade. He was the fifth-selected quarterback that year. Somehow, the likes of Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen went ahead of him.
Only Josh Allen was a success with the Bills. Otherwise, Jackson outperformed every quarterback in his class. In 2019, he won the NFL MVP award after a phenomenal year where he led the league in passing touchdowns. The Ravens pulled off a coup after trading up to steal him at the end of the first round (via NBC Sports).
Kittle had a decent career at Iowa but he didn’t play enough to excite NFL scouts. He had talent but his lack of relevant game tape had an impact on his draft prospects. That’s why he fell to the fifth round. If it wasn’t for his injury record, a team most likely would have picked him up earlier (via SBNation).
Every other team’s loss was the 49ers’ gain. They used the 146th overall pick to bring him West and he developed into one of the top tight ends in the NFL. The three-time Pro Bowler continues to suffer injuries. But he also produces when he plays and that’s why he’s on this list.
Jones played for the UTEP Miners in college before he entered the NFL Draft. The school didn’t play the highest standard of opposition so Jones fell to the fifth round. Teams chose 18 running backs before the Packers finally drafted him and made him one of the steals of the century (via El Paso Times).
The running back is a brilliant player and scores touchdowns for fun. He was the co-leader for rushing touchdowns in 2019 and continues to be an important weapon for Aaron Rodgers. It just goes to show that there is NFL-ready talent outside of the main college programs.
One of the sport’s greatest pass rushers at one time, Dumervil enjoyed a phenomenal career with Denver. The defensive end is also one of the Broncos’ most noteworthy draft steals. He led the league in sacks in 2009 and was also a five-time Pro Bowler. Consistency is important in this position and he provided it.
After a successful college career with Louisville, he entered the draft in 2006. However, his short stature worried some NFL teams. That’s why the Broncos didn’t draft him until the fourth round. It all turned out well for the team and the player in the end (via Fansided).
Yes, Henry’s inclusion may be controversial because he was a second-round pick. Nonetheless, he remains one of the Titans’ biggest draft steals. That’s because he is one of the most integral cogs in their machine. When Henry doesn’t play, the team loses more games.
The Heisman Trophy winner fell behind Ezekiel Elliot as the second-selected running back in the draft. He was also the 45th overall pick, staggering considering his impact. However, it’s important to note that running backs rarely go in the first round now (via FOX Sports).
This former Colorado offensive tackle is another of the Packers’ best draft steals. He became the ninth-selected offensive tackle in 2013 when Green Bay picked him on Day Three. Nobody expected the impact that he would have because he outperformed his pre-draft grades.
Then he became the first rookie to start all 16 regular-season games for the Packers. There was luck on his side after Brian Bulaga’s season-ending injury in camp. However, Bakhtiari continued to evolve and became one of the best in his position in the league (via TDN).
The unheralded Marshall was a fourth-round pick in 2006. He played extremely well for UCF but didn’t excite NFL scouts. He fell into Denver’s laps but had a quiet rookie season. However, things changed dramatically in his sophomore year as he exploded to life (via Bleacher Report).
Marshall had an impressive NFL career with five Pro Bowl appearances. Meanwhile, he led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in 2015. Remarkably, he never played in a single postseason game. It makes his legacy one of the strangest in the sport because he was a top player.
Rodgers is the second first-round quarterback on this list. He earned a place after a phenomenal career that saw him become statistically one of the best ever. However, Rodgers was only the 24th overall pick in 2005 and the second quarterback after Alex Smith (via Clutchpoints).
There was a belief that Tampa Bay wanted him after a successful workout but they went for Cadillac Williams instead. Rodgers went on and won a Super Bowl with Green Bay after usurping Brett Favre as the starter. He also broke numerous records throughout his career.
Howard’s status in the 2016 draft fell after his inconsistent workouts at the NFL Combine. Nonetheless, Miami aggressively went after the cornerback and selected him in the second round. Since then, his performances proved that he’s one of the league’s top corners.
The three-time Pro Bowler led the league in interceptions twice. While the Dolphins have been a team in transition forever, Howard is a shining light. That’s why they signed him to a mega-money contract in 2022. He’s a phenomenal player and worth every dollar (via SBNation).
Context is important when it comes to Thomas’s situation. The Saints picked him in the second round of the 2016 draft. That in itself isn’t too surprising. However, he was the sixth-selected wide receiver in his class. Incredibly, nobody else picked him up before New Orleans.
Thomas has his troubles but there’s no denying that he’s a phenomenal player. He won the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award in 2019. Furthermore, he led the league in receptions for two straight years. That’s why the three-time Pro Bowl selection is one of the greatest ever (via PFF).
Most people agree that Mathieu was one of the biggest steals of the decade. After a drug-related arrest, Mathieu entered the draft in 2012. The safety dropped to the third round when the Cardinals made him the sixth-drafted safety. It’s remarkable because of his successful career.
Mathieu’s most successful period was with the Chiefs. He was a part of their Super Bowl-winning team in 2020. Meanwhile, he’s a three-time Pro Bowler and famously consistent. Once again, it just goes to show that quality lies in every round of the draft (via NBC Sports).
Both Chicago’s NFL and NBA franchises made appalling decisions over the past decade. However, Jackson was one of the few things that the Bears got right. They’re infamously bad in the early rounds of the draft but they’ve had some luck when it goes deeper (via USA Today).
Jackson is one of the league’s best safeties since he arrived in 2017. He waited until the fourth round before Chicago finally picked him. It’s wild that nobody selected him before this because of his quality. His future may lie outside of the Windy City but they’ll enjoy him for now.
Brown is one of the best steals in recent years. The Ravens drafted him in 2018 as a third-round pick. This also made him the ninth offensive tackle to earn a selection that year. Baltimore had a lot of satisfaction because they got a lot of quality late in the day.
He made three straight Pro Bowl appearances from 2019 onwards as he showed his skills. Finally, in 2021, Kansas City liked what they saw. They swapped a first-round pick for Brown in 2021 as he made the move to Missouri. He hopes to bring his career to the next level (via ESPN).
Reed was another fourth-round pick who had a great career. That’s why many consider him one of the greatest steals in history. The receiver played a crucial role in the great Bills’ teams of the 1990s. They never won a Super Bowl despite four straight appearances.
Nonetheless, Reed has a great record. The seven-time Pro Bowler was a tremendous athlete who ignited fear in the hearts of opposition defenses. It was no surprise when he became a Hall of Famer in 2014. But it’s still absurd that the Bills picked him so late (via USA Today).
Amazingly, Diggs fell as low as the fifth round of the 2015 Draft. But that’s exactly what happened to the wide receiver. Minnesota benefited from other teams’ indecision with three great seasons. He was the key figure in the iconic ‘Minneapolis Miracle.’
Diggs led the league in receptions and receiving yards in 2020 after the Bills traded draft picks to the Vikings for him. His relationship with Josh Allen is one of the most exciting dynamics in the NFL. Diggs is one of the biggest steals of the past 10 years (via 247 Sports).
Kamara is a five-time Pro Bowler and one of the NFL’s best running backs. The Saints didn’t pick him up until the third round of the 2017 draft. This seems laughable now because he’s such a good player. Now he’s one of the franchise’s most important stars.
He’s a crucial cog in the Saints’ system because they lack an elite quarterback. They need a runner who can do more and that’s exactly Kamara’s role. He’s also capable of stepping into the QB role if necessary. Kamara is truly a unique player but a special one (via Yahoo!).
Davante Adams may end Renfrow’s run as the Raiders’ most important receiver. However, he’s had a great career with the franchise despite low expectations. The 2021 Pro Bowl selection isn’t as physically impressive as some rivals. But he possesses phenomenal game smarts.
The Raiders selected Renfrow in the fifth round of the 2019 draft. This makes him one of the most surprising steals in recent years. Nobody expects an elite wideout to emerge so late, but that’s exactly what happened. Renfrow confounded his critics (via Sportsnaut).
Prescott’s career is one of the most surprising on this list. That’s because the Cowboys selected him in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. He had a great career with Mississippi State. But scouts doubted that he would flourish in an NFL passing scheme. There were also questions about his accuracy.
However, Prescott made a mockery of all of this. The quarterback firmly cemented his status as Dallas’s starter. Their season completely collapsed in 2020 after his injury. This convinced them to offer Prescott a $160 million contract extension. The franchise and player are a great match (via AS).
Davis had a short career but it was very sweet. He went down as one of the greatest running backs in history after he won two Super Bowls with the Broncos. Furthermore, he was a two-time NFL touchdown leader and Offensive Player of the Year.
The most remarkable aspect of this was that he was a sixth-round pick. There was no hype around Davis’s name before the Draft. But he burst into the public’s consciousness most dramatically. That’s why he’s one of the most incredible steals ever (via The Sportster).
The Eagles didn’t select Carter until the fourth round of the 1987 draft. Little did they know that they had a future Hall of Famer on their hands. It took Carter a season to become a starter after sitting out for most of his rookie year. But then he began producing at a high level.
Carter was a phenomenal talent with the most NFL receptions in 1994. Meanwhile, he led the league in receiving touchdowns on three occasions. It’s a shame that he never won a Super Bowl ring but he still had a great career. His eight Pro Bowl appearances attest to that (via Sportscasting).
There’s no denying that Sherman was one of the biggest steals of the past 20 years. He wasn’t even Stanford’s most heralded player in 2011. But the Seahawks pulled off a coup when they made their fifth-round selection. They didn’t realize how good he was.
The cornerback played a central role in their Super Bowl win. He was one of the leaders of “The Legion of Boom” and a true juggernaut. Some NFL players throw all of the scouting metrics out of the window It’s safe to say that Sherman was one of these (via The Athletic).
Former Tampa star Lynch was a phenomenal player. The defensive end played a key role in the run to their first Super Bowl win. Incredibly, they didn’t select him until the third round of the 1993 draft after he flirted with baseball. Then he became one of the best players in the league.
Lynch earned nine Pro Bowl selections because of his amazing consistency. It’s bizarre that he fell so low in the draft because the writing was on the wall. In the end, Tampa benefited from their pick before he moved to Denver. What a run it was (via Tampa Bay Times).
It’s possible to argue that Patrick Mahomes was not a major draft steal. But let’s go further back in time and look at one of the Chiefs’ best picks ever. Allen was a fantastic defensive end after he arrived from Idaho State in 2004. However, they didn’t select him until the fourth round.
Allen proved that he was far better than his lowly draft status suggested. He became a consistent presence on the Chiefs’ team before a trade to the Vikings. The five-time Pro Bowler led the NFL in sacks in two seasons. Only time will tell if he makes the Hall of Fame (via Clutch Points).
Everybody knew that Hill wasn’t a true fifth-round pick when it came to raw ability. However, his off-the-field problems meant that many teams didn’t want to touch him. After all, domestic assault is a bad look. But the Chiefs didn’t have such qualms and selected him late in the day.
Their gamble paid off because he blossomed into one of the NFL’s best receivers. He helped the franchise win their first Super Bowl in 50 years. Meanwhile, the five-time Pro Bowler’s production is next level. Now one of the NFL’s greatest draft steals plays for the Dolphins (via Sporting News).
Now it’s laughable that Wilson was a third-round pick in 2012 but there were genuine doubts over his height. He was impressive for the Wisconsin Badgers but his short stature drew significant criticism. The Seahawks also felt the heat after their selection (via Sportskeeda).
Many analysts believed it was a pointless choice. After all, they had Matt Flynn on their books too. Then, Wilson silenced his doubters as he emerged as one of the league’s most consistent quarterbacks. He helped them win a Super Bowl and should have had another.
Montana is the second-most successful quarterback in NFL history. Before Tom Brady came along he was unquestionably the greatest. However, the 49ers didn’t select him until relatively late in the draft. They used a third-round pick to bring ‘Joe Cool’ to the Golden State.
They reaped the rewards because his abilities were remarkable. Montana had a magnificent career with the 49ers before a short spell with the Chiefs. He won four Super Bowl rings with three MVP awards. It’s crazy but Montana was one of the biggest steals ever (via Sportskeeda).
We’ve tried to keep this list relatively recent, but Starr is worthy of a place. He declared for the Draft in 1956. There were fewer teams back then but a ridiculous number of rounds. When the Packers finally selected the legendary quarterback it was in the 17th round (via Franchise Sports).
This made him the 200th selected player of the year. Starr was one of five future Hall of Famers that year. He helped his franchise win the first two installments of the Super Bowl. It’s no exaggeration to say that he was one of the NFL’s first true stars.
Sharpe belied his lowly seventh-round status with one of the most iconic careers ever. The tight end won three Super Bowl rings and retired with the most receptions by a tight end in NFL history. It’s amazing in hindsight that he fell as low as he did after a great career at Savannah State.
However, scouts didn’t rate him highly because of his size. The Broncos gambled on him with a late selection and he quickly repaid him. After transitioning from receiver to tight end, he defined the position. He was also very influential for the Ravens (via Washington Times).
Could anybody else top this list? Brady is arguably the greatest NFL player of all time. With his longevity and seven Super Bowl rings, his legacy outshines everybody else’s. Meanwhile, he’s also the biggest steal in history. That’s because the Patriots selected him in the sixth round of the 2000 draft.
They used the 199th overall pick to select the former Michigan quarterback. Nobody expected much from him. But an opportunity arose after Drew Bledsoe’s injury that season. Suddenly, Brady became the starter and he never allowed it to slip (via Business Insider).