It’s not easy to obtain the first overall draft pick. Unless you’re willing to give up a sultan’s ransom for it, you’re going to have to put in an awful lot of leg work to be so bad that you’re worse than everybody else in football in any given year.
And chances are, that’s not going to be a one-off, outlier year. Chances are, you’ve been bad for at least a couple of years, and you’ll be bad for a couple more years, at a minimum. One interesting ‘statistic’ that I saw recently really brings that point home.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow will be the first quarterback in NFL history to be drafted first overall and start in a conference finals within his first two seasons. The Bengals went 2-14 in 2019, the year before they drafted him, then went 4-11-1 during his rookie year, before finishing the 2021 season with a 10-7 record (with a loss in a meaningless finale).
The Bengals won the AFC North, and now they have two postseason victories under their belt, defeating the Las Vegas Raiders and then the top-seeded Tennessee Titans. On Sunday, they will play the second-seeded Kansas City Chiefs, who beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in round one and the Buffalo Bills—albeit just barely—in the Divisional Round.
But back to the broader point. While there have obviously been successful first overall picks in the past, generally speaking, it takes time for their teams to develop around them into a competitive outfit. Jared Goff is the most recent first overall quarterback, drafted in 2016, to participate in a conference final (and a Super Bowl). He did do that in year three in 2018, so it’s not like it’s miles off.
Andrew Luck also advanced to a conference finals in his third season after the Indianapolis Colts drafted him first overall in 2012. This one deserves quite a caveat, however, as this was the rare one-year exception. Their franchise quarterback, Peyton Manning, had career-threatening neck surgery. They went 10-6 the year before he missed the season and 11-5 the year after, and the next two years after that as well.
Luck was drafted onto a team built to compete with that incredibly rare outlier year. But it still took them three years to get to the conference finals, and they would miss the postseason the next three years after that.
Cam Newton is another former first overall pick who advanced to a Super Bowl, though did not win. That was in his fifth season, however, and they did not reach a conference finals prior to that (nor since). 2010 first overall pick Sam Bradford never even played in a postseason game. Matthew Stafford is about to play in his first conference finals as the 2009 first overall pick, with a new team.
2005 first overall pick Alex Smith appeared in one conference finals in 2011. Eli Manning’s first of two appearances came in year four. Michael Vick played in one during his fifth season.
Peyton is the most recent first-overall quarterback to win a Super Bowl, aside from his younger brother. And they’re the only ones to do it (as a starter), other than Troy Aikman, since Jim Plunkett, who was drafted in 1971, and Terry Bradshaw, drafted in 1970, the first quarterback drafted first overall in the common draft era.