The NFL draft is one of the most exciting times of the year for football fans. There’s always drama that only adds to the buzz. Most of the time people are obsessed with NFL Draft busts but many gems are also found in the draft. Sometimes franchises even pursue players that are deemed ‘reaches’ at the time who become incredible draft steals.
Today we’ll take a look at 20 such scenarios when this happened. Fans shared their stories of these draft picks and their perceptions of them at the time. Furthermore, they explain what changed their opinions and we discuss their achievements on the playing field. Some are first-round reaches, others are later-round steals, but they are all brilliant. Check out the list below via Reddit and Bleacher Report.
20. Willis McGahee
“People considered Willis McGahee a pretty big reach due to his college injuries,”WideRight43 wrote. “I think any RB drafted by Buffalo fits this description. Lynch, Antoine Smith… the list goes on.” As a two-time Pro Bowler and an NFL Comeback Player of the Year, it’s fair to say that McGahee had a reasonably good career. Scouts believed that he was a top-five back but then he suffered a devastating knee injury that scared many teams away.
McGahee spent had two excellent seasons with the Bills before insulting the entire city and leaving a cloud of dust behind him. Then he went to Baltimore where he performed well but endured injuries at various points. While he was never the devastating force that many previously predicted, he did enjoy some incredible moments. He was blistering at his best.
“It’s always the first that comes to mind,”JoeyBrickz observed. “I didn’t even recognize the name which is why I loved the pick so much and then he just has dominated ever since.” Frederick is one of the most obscure draft picks of all time. Then he emerged as one of the biggest steals ever. The media proclaimed that he was a reach but Frederick proved them all wrong as he performed magnificently for the Dallas Cowboys.
Gloriously bearded, Frederick spent seven years playing for the Cowboys as a center. He arrived from Wisconsin with no reputation but played in every game of his rookie season. In the end, he was a five-time Pro Bowler and one of the best in his position in the league. It just goes to show that incredible talent can emerge from the most unexpected of places because few thought that he would be that good.
“I could be off base here but I seem to remember both Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams being considered reaches at the time and they both worked out pretty damn well,”adapt313 reminisced. The Reddit user was absolutely correct in his assessment because Nelson was a relatively obscure second-round pick who endured a tough rookie season in Green Bay. But he turned things around in style.
Nelson won a Super Bowl in Wisconsin and spent a total of 10 seasons with the Packers. He was also a one-time Pro Bowler. Furthermore, Davante Adams was also a wide receiver with low expectations upon his shoulders. However, he performed at a strong level and quickly became a fan favorite in Green Bay. They made him the ninth selected receiver in 2014 but he outperformed many above him.
“Darius Leonard. Many “draft experts” gave the colts an F for that pick. Of course, he had an All-Pro rookie season,”MGCCC_num4 noted. The Colts picked him in the second round in 2018. Many critics believed that it was a bad selection because of his injury problems. But Leonard silenced his doubters with a superb season and was the Defensive Rookie of the Year that season.
All of the scouting and analysis in the world doesn’t guarantee success. Of course, it helps, but players like Leonard show there are gems throughout the draft. Also, Leonard became a two-time, First-Team All-Pro after consistently delivering on the playing field. To sum up, he is an incredible tank and one of the top linebackers in the AFC. He puts his body on the line every week for Indianapolis.
“Frank Clark was a huge surprise to go in the 2nd round,”OBJesus noted. “Even if you don’t take into account the off-field issues nobody saw him as a first-round talent and many expected him to fall in the draft because of off-field issues. Seattle taking him as their first pick (2nd round) of the draft was a major surprise.” Clark exploded into life in his sophomore season and posted 10 sacks.
Finally, after performing at an incredible level for Seattle, the Kansas City Chiefs swooped in for his talents. He became one of their most important players as he helped them to a first Super Bowl in over 50 years. However, many felt that he was a massive risk because of his personality and the perceived limits of his talent. But he overcame the odds to prove himself to the fans.
“James Jones in the 3rd round was another,”octopus_rex said. “For a really long time, I actually called him James ‘The Reach’ Jones. After struggling with drops his first few years, he became the pinnacle of reliability. Lead the league in TD’s one year too.” That latter achievement came in 2012 when he started every game for the Green Bay Packers. It was an incredible rise for the third-round draft pick.
Jones also earned himself a Super Bowl ring during his first stint with the Packers. He also became notorious because he wore a hoody underneath his jersey and it resulted in an NFL rule change. The former San Jose State star also played for the Raiders. He actually played as a quarterback in high school before developing into a wide receiver in college.
“Ju’Wuan James was seen as a reach in the first. Then he became the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL,”AskMeAboutTheJets observed. James definitely didn’t convince fans that he was the answer in his first season as he played poorly for at least half of it. Then, in his sophomore year, he was solid until an injury brought his year to an unforeseen end. Finally, the Miami Dolphins star completed a full season the following year.
James is a tremendous athlete but sustains a lot of injuries. There is no doubting his talent because he is truly an excellent player. He didn’t feature in 2020 after he opted out due to the global health crisis. Furthermore, he commands a tremendous amount of money from the Broncos. During his time with the Tennessee Volunteers, he was a part of one of the best offensive lines in the country.
“Kenny Golladay was given horrible grades and was a “big reach” in the 3rd round and here we are,”SockThemBoppers noted. The Detroit Lions didn’t have much to smile about over the past number of seasons, but Golladay was one bright spark. Along with QB Matthew Stafford, they brought some quality to the Lions’ attack. However, both men departed after the 2020 season.
Stafford’s move to L. A was a massive story but Golladay was another major blow. The Pro Bowler led the league in receiving touchdowns in 2019 and clearly has incredible talent. He made a mockery of his position in the draft with a series of sensational performances. This also sealed a massive contract with the New York Giants because they were desperate to inject some electricity into their roster.
“He was projected to go like rd2 but the Colts “reached” and took him at pick 11. Later another top-15 team said they were clearly planning to take him and thought they were safe based on mocks (the Cardinals I think),”WiSeIVIaN recollected. Freeney has one of the most incredible records on this entire list because he was so good throughout his career. He even won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts.
But lots of players win Super Bowl rings just by being in the right place at the right time. Freeney demonstrated his talents consistently as he became a seven-time Pro Bowler. One of the best defensive ends of his generation, he was dominant and led the league in sacks in 2004. In hindsight, it is crazy to imagine that some teams thought they were taking a chance by pursuing him.
“Many draftniks had him ranked below Darnold, Rosen, and Allen yet he went No. 1 overall. It’s still a bit early to say he’s worked out but so far it is extremely promising,”benedictcumberpatch said. Mayfield is one of the most polarizing quarterbacks in recent NFL history because of his attitude and output on the field. His rookie season was excellent but his sophomore year was appalling.
However, he turned it around again in year three as he helped the Browns to a rare postseason appearance and brought joy to an entire city. Mayfield is undoubtedly gifted and had an incredible college career. But a lot of fans and analysts questioned him after that poor second year and doubted him. It is excessive to call him a steal but considering that Allen is the only other success story from the aforementioned names, the Browns will be happy.
“Marlon Humphrey, at least so far. Nobody had him going that early, but he looks like he’s blossoming into a top-tier corner,”hossboss69 commented. The Baltimore Ravens were happy to land their man in the first round of the draft and he didn’t let them down. His performances earned him Pro Bowl selections and made him a fan-favorite in Maryland. In short, it was an incredible steal.
In 2020, the Ravens signed him up to a contract worth almost $100 million. This was well-earned because he was so consistent and influential on the playing field. Alabama-born-and-bred, he gave everything to the Crimson Tide before he arrived in the NFL. Sports Illustrated considered him the fifth-best corner in the 2017 draft but he is out on his own as one of the best in the league.
“Todd Gurley. I mean, he was a consensus first-round talent, but due to position and his knee was thought to be a late first at best. The Rams got pretty panned for taking him at 10. Safe to say it’s worked out pretty well for us,”CB1984 reflected. While injuries eventually ended Gurley’s tenure in Los Angeles, it’s safe to say that the first few years were incredible for Gurley and the franchise.
He won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2015. Then, two years later, he picked up the Offensive Player of the Year award. Meanwhile, he led the league in rushing touchdowns on two occasions and made two Pro Bowl appearances. Gurley was electric at his peak before injuries took their toll. Finally, in 2020, he departed the Rams for the Atlanta Falcons in a bid to revive his fortunes.
“The best pick recently that fans thought was a reach for the Packers that I can think of was Kenny Clark. He turned out to be a beast,”GridironFootballer said. Clark was a late first-round selection in 2016. Nowadays, Green Bay fans believe it was a steal because he emerged as a ferocious nose tackle. Quite simply, Clark is like a rhinoceros in human form because he’s such a powerhouse.
Clark truly announced himself in 2018 when he outperformed his previous years with the Packers. Finally, after he completed his five-year rookie deal, they signed him up to a massive mega-money contract. This pleased many fans because they wanted to keep the popular former UCLA star in Wisconsin. Clark has the potential to be a mainstay in his position long into the future.
“I remember the 2011 NFL offseason like it was last week. I remember the anger Panther fans online felt after Luck stayed in school. There was a rumor that Harbaugh had advised Luck to avoid the Panthers a la Eli Manning. It got so big that Oliver Luck went onto local radio to denounce that rumor,”Sturdevant recollected. It’s safe to say that Newton wasn’t a bad option for the Panthers, at least initially.
Andrew Luck was one of the best talents of his generation but he wasn’t available. Then, Newton proved himself by winning the NFL MVP award. While injuries affected his later career with the Panthers and then the Patriots, there’s no denying his talent. “With Cam Newton, they didn’t see him as a reach so much as just a polarizing prospect. If you didn’t think he’d be a total bust, he was easily the 1st overall pick,”sfzen confirmed.
“Jerod Mayo of the Patriots was one,”finnwormser said. “He was considered a bit of a reach at #10 overall, but he had a bunch of above-average seasons and a few really good ones. Unfortunately, his career ended a little early because of injuries but I heard he’s back with the Patriots as a linebackers coach.” Mayo won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in his first season as he proved his ability.
But he also proved his incredible loyalty to the Patriots and Bill Belichick made him a member of his coaching staff after his retirement. A Super Bowl champion and a two-time Pro Bowler, Mayo had some superb success on the playing field. Mayo’s work ethic is the stuff of legend. He never took his draft status for granted and worked hard on and off the field. No wonder Belichick holds him in such high regard.
“Mahomes was seen as a Clelin Ferrell type reach (~15 spots higher than expected to go) in 2017. It’s turned out okay,”IIHURRlCANEII pointed out. It’s evident that Mahomes is a generational talent, but this was by no means a guarantee when the Chiefs picked him up in the first round. But they did the right thing and redshirted him for his rookie year. Then, he exploded into life in 2018 and turned Kansas City into a force.
“Great one. I do recall plenty of people ripping the Chiefs about taking a QB so early that was a developmental QB, and while they had Alex Smith under contract and playing well,”AKraiderfan noted. Andy Reid and his staff deserve immense credit for the manner in which they guided Mahomes and fine=tuned him for the NFL. A Super Bowl champion and multi-time Pro Bowler, they definitely pulled off a steal.
“Bruce Irvin was a huge surprise at 15 and played a key role in that Super Bowl,”ImanShumpertplus observed. Irvin had influential roles in more than one Super Bowl but at least earned one ring. He helped the Patriots overcome the Broncos in 2013 and was an integral presence on the field. However, he became the first player to suffer the indignity of a Super Bowl ejection when the Patriots defeated his Seahawks in 2014.
“Yeah, not a superstar like a lot of other players being mentioned, but he was a very productive player on our defense and was widely seen as a reach when we drafted him. We haven’t really been able to find a good 3rd LB since he left,”hendrix67 said. Irvin wasn’t the most glamorous player but he was a tremendous athlete and his effectiveness was incredible. Every Super Bowl-winning team needs this.
“I remember Texans fans getting really p***ed in 2011 “reaching” for JJ Watt. Everybody was so mad we would get an unathletic DE over Prince Amukamara. Gotta say that turned out to be a good “reach” on the Texans part,”RhoAlphaPhii said. Many Texans fans were in tears when Watt finally departed Houston for Arizona in 2021. This was because of his incredible commitment to the team.
The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year broke every meaningful Texans’ record during his time with the franchise. He also led the league in sacks on two occasions. Meanwhile, a quick glance at one of his workouts illustrates that Watt is an incredible animal. His ferocious tackling and superb positional play make him one of the best defensive ends out there.
“Kyle Long wanted to return to school for one more year to improve his skills and increase his value. but the NCAA turned him down for a medical redshirt and forced him to go pro, too,”Hyperdrunk said. He applied for one more year of eligibility but after the NCAA’s refusal, he ended up playing for the Chicago Bears. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the former Oregon star.
Many fans criticized the Bears’ decision but it turned out to be a good one. “Long was only a starter for like half a season in college, and it was due to an injury. His age was less of a factor than the fact that he was a major unknown with fairly limited tape,”TheManWhoWasNotShort recalled. He became a three-time Pro Bowler during this time in the Windy City so it was an incredible decision.
“This has to be the winner, Ed Reed is without a doubt the best safety to ever play,”andyzaltzman1 agreed. “Probably the best DB to ever play, and easily one of the best defenders of the last 30 years.” This is not an overstatement by any means. Reed was an incredible athlete and deserves his spot in the Hall of Fame. He is one of Baltimore’s greatest ever players and deserves his place at the top of this list.
A Super Bowl winner with the Ravens, he was also the Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. Reed was a nine-time Pro Bowler and led the league in interceptions. Meanwhile, he is also a massive personality and this endeared him to the fans. Every generation a player comes along who changes the game and Reed was one of these. Quite simply, he was outstanding and a top athlete.