Round-by-round NFL draft all-stars

Did Terry Bradshaw (left), Troy Aikman or John Elway make the cut as top first-round quarterback? US Presswire

"It was a brain transplant. I got a sportswriter's brain so I could be sure I had one that hadn't been used." -- Hall of Fame QB Norm Van Brocklin in 1981, describing his brain surgery

Even years ago, The Dutchman must have seen this one coming.

As we approach the 75th NFL draft on April 22-24 in New York City, ESPN.com's great minds hatched another idea. Wouldn't it be fun to assemble an all-time team, round-by-round, of the best players ever drafted -- and undrafted?

Who is the best quarterback ever selected in the first round, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Sammy Baugh or someone else? How would you choose two first-round running backs from Walter Payton, Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Emmitt Smith, Paul Hornung and Tony Dorsett, just for starters?

If you needed only two defensive tackles from a first-round stockpile, who would you cut from among Alan Page, Bob Lilly, Reggie White, Joe Greene, Merlin Olsen and many, many more?

Who are the best running backs ever selected in the sixth round? That would be Terrell Davis and, er, uh, next question.

Who are the best third-round safeties, or the best fifth-round guards? Who might be runner-up to Tom Brady as the best quarterback ever taken in the sixth round? And we all know that even great players somehow escape the formal selection process, so who are among the best undrafted free-agent finds?

Certainly, it's a fun subject to kick about, as everyone has an opinion on the NFL draft. But how would we go about attempting such a task?

As we've discovered in assembling our seven-round all-time team (incorporating Rounds 7 and beyond and NFL original, undrafted free-agent signings in one finite, 23-person package), it's a feat that would tax Einstein's brain, let alone a lowly sportswriter's.

But we are foolhardy. Van Brocklin's assessment of a sportswriter's intellect be damned, we tried to produce what's rarely been done (we'll never say never, but any previous editions of such a project are not easily uncovered via Google).

Let us try to explain ourselves. Over the course of the next four days as we unveil our teams, you'll want to reference our reasoning -- or lack thereof -- and still question it.

  • For each team, we've picked 23 positions -- 11 on offense, 12 on defense. We've added an extra linebacker to pay homage to the popularity of the 3-4 defense the past 40 years -- and to give us a little more leeway. Speaking of wiggle room, we've selected guards and tackles, linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks, but we're not being picky about whether we have two free safeties but no strong, or four outside linebackers but no middle 'backer on these teams.

  • We excluded special teams draft picks. We will issue shout-outs to the great ones (Ray Guy, punter, Southern Mississippi, first round, Oakland Raiders, 1973) when appropriate.

  • For the draftees, these teams reflect NFL selections. The NFL and rival American Football League merged drafts in 1967. Even though our assessments date to the 1936 original NFL selection process, it doesn't incorporate the AFL drafts from 1960-66. We love the AFL, but for simplicity's sake, we're not accounting for greats who elected to sign with that league during those years. So Joe Namath, Ernie Ladd, Jim Otto and the like are not in this conversation. Likewise, we're excluding the 1940s' All-America Football Conference original signees who eventually became NFL legends. Sorry, Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Lou (The Toe) Groza, Joe (The Jet) Perry and many others.

  • The players we've selected initially performed well for the NFL team they originally signed with. In most cases, we used multiple Pro Bowls and/or participation in title games/Super Bowls with that original team as the guide. In some cases, simple extended service with that original team was rewarded, even if those players never received a Pro Bowl citation. Also, we're dismissing any argument that Brett Favre was a great second-round draft pick for the Atlanta Falcons, or Steve Largent was an excellent fourth-round selection of the Houston Oilers. After uninspiring stints with their respective original teams, they made their legends elsewhere in the league.

  • In most cases, the players' accumulated Pro Bowl selections, NFL titles and Super Bowl game appearances/rings and Hall of Fame status broke close calls. There are wild-card exceptions, notably in the seventh and first rounds.

  • Of course, our picks were made without the benefit of examining each and every selection's context. There's not enough time in the world to consider or argue the specifics of why one selection has more validity than another because of circumstances.

    There are no formulas involved and the process is highly subjective, offering plenty of fodder for discussion.

    We'll reveal the teams as follows: Rounds 7 and 6 on Tuesday; Rounds 5 and 4 on Wednesday; Rounds 3 and 2 on Thursday; and Round 1 on Friday.

    And as for Mr. Van Brocklin (1949, fourth round, Los Angeles Rams), your tribute is coming. Click here to read about Round 7 (and beyond). Click here to read about Round 6.

    Sheldon Spencer is an NFL editor at ESPN.com. Thanks to ESPN's Stats & Information crew for their researching efforts, as well as Pro-Football-Reference.com and the Pro Football Hall Of Fame's Web site.