NFL Draft: How often do certain positions get taken with the No. 1 pick?

The first round of the 2018 NFL draft takes place this Thursday. Cleveland holds the first pick in the draft, with mock projections either having them take one of the top quarterbacks or running back Saquon Barkley. However, which positions get selected with the top pick in the draft the most and how has this changed over time?

Positions to be taken with the 1st pick

Quarterbacks have dominated the top spot in the NFL draft, being selected 31 times in the previous 82 NFL drafts (37.80%). After this is running back/fullback, which has been picked 20 times (24.39%). Rounding out the top three spots are the guys who get after the quarterback, as defensive lineman have been selected 14 times (17.07%).

Positions pie

*The only DB selected 1st overall was Gary Glick in the 1956 draft by the Steelers.

Timeline of each position being taken

Here is a chart that shows how often each position has been taken with the first pick. The start of the chart is the 1936 draft and the end is 2017 draft. Each high point means that a position was selected with that year’s top pick. I excluded DB from the chart since only one has ever been taken.

Time - Copy.png


Positions taken in NFL draft by era

Over time the NFL has changed and evolved. Teams have come and gone, rules have been changed and more games are being played. With these changes has come a change in philosophy, especially on offense, as teams have transitioned emphasizing the running game to a modern, high-powered passing attack.

Old school era (1936-1966): Before the first Superbowl takes place

This period saw the most HB/FB get taken, as 13 of the 20 (65%) backs taken first overall were selected during this time. Out of the first eight NFL drafts, seven of them saw a back get taken with the top pick. This included four backs being selected first from 1940-43. (George Cafego, Tom Harmon, Bill Dudley and Frankie Sinkwich)


*Only OL taken was Ki Aldrich in the 1939 draft

Modern era (1967-1992): Prior to free agency being implemented

The modern era saw a slow change in NFL philosophy, as there was an almost equal emphasis on the passing and running game. There was also a focus on getting to the quarterback as 9 of the 14 DE/DT (64.28%) drafted first overall were taken during this period.


This period saw the most consecutive defensive lineman picks first overall. From 1972 to 1974, defensive ends Walt Patulski, John Matuszak and Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones was taken with the top pick.

*Only WR/End/TE/SE taken was Irving Fryar in the 1984 draft

*Only OL taken was Ron Yary in the 1968 draft

Post-modern era (1993-present): After free agency, higher emphasis on passing game

The post-modern era has seen total dominance by quarterbacks at the top spot of the draft. This is due to how dominant the passing game has become and rule changes to favor throwing the ball have been implemented.

Post Modern

Starting with Peyton Manning being taken first in the 1998 draft, 14 of the last 20 (70%) of top picks have been quarterbacks. From 2001 to 2005, five quarterbacks (Michael Vick, David Carr, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, and Alex Smith) were taken with the first pick in consecutive years. This is the longest streak of quarterbacks taken with the top pick.

*Only RB/FB taken was Ki-Jana Carter in the 1995 draft

*Only WR/End/TE/SE taken was Keyshawn Johnson in the 1997 draft

First player taken at each position

Let’s take a look at the first player ever taken first overall at each position.

Position Year drafted Player
QB 1944 Angelo Bertelli
HB/FB 1936 Jay Berwanger
WR/End/SE 1950 *Leon Hart
TE 1960 *Billy Cannon
OL (Tackle) 1968 Ron Yary
OL (Center) 1939 *Ki Aldrich
DE 1967 Bubba Smith
DT 1991 Russell Maryland
LB 1949 *Chuck Bednarik
DB 1956 *Gary Glick

*Hart also played FB and DE

*Cannon also played HB and FB

*Aldrich also played LB

*Bednarik also played center

*Glick was also the kicker in his first two seasons

Last player taken at each position 

Finally, let’s end with seeing the last player who was taken first overall at each position with the top pick.

Position Year drafted Player
QB 2016 Jared Goff
HB/FB 1995 Ki-Jana Carter
WR/End/SE 1996 Keyshawn Johnson
TE 1960 Billy Cannon
OL (Tackle) 2013  Eric Fisher
OL (Center) 1939 Ki Aldrich
DE 2017 Myles Garrett
DT  1994  Dan Wilkinson
LB  1988  Aundray Bruce
DB 1956 Gary Glick

Info and sources:

Featured Image: “NFL Draft 2010 Set at Radio City Music Hall” by Marianne O’Leary is licensed under CC BY-2.0 (Use to take note of each player’s listed position)

All charts and graphs made using Google Spreadsheet in Google Docs


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