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All-time greats and busts among defensive top picks

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Posted Jan. 30, 2011 @ 12:51 p.m. ET
By Eli Kaberon

When Stanford QB Andrew Luck decided to stay in school for his senior season, the door opened for other candidates to be the No. 1 pick in April's draft. Luck was a surefire top pick, even for a Panthers team that used its first pick last year on QB Jimmy Clausen. With Luck out of the picture, many people believe a defensive player might be drafted No. 1.

In his first mock draft, PFW draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki predicts Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers will be the first overall pick. Alabama DL Marcell Dareus and LSU CB Patrick Peterson are also possibilities for a Panthers team that has serious needs at all three positions.

Top picks on the defensive side of the ball are not only rare but also risky. While there have been a fair share of offensive busts at the top pick, most recently QB JaMarcus Russell, there have been a fair number of busts on defense, even with a smaller sample size.

We looked at the last seven defensive players selected No. 1 overall, dating back to 1985, and examined how they fared in their NFL careers.

1. DE Mario Williams / 2006 — Until a sports hernia ended his season in December, Williams had yet to miss a game in the NFL. He has 48 career sacks, nine career passes defensed and 10 forced fumbles in his five-year career. Williams' team hasn't had a whole lot of success, and the Texans have struggled to complement him at the other DE spot, but Williams is still one of the league's better pass rushers. His first season in the league, though, was his least productive in terms of getting after the QB, as he had just 4½ sacks, but relative to the other defensive players taken No. 1, Williams has been a big success. The North Carolina State product is a two-time Pro Bowler.

2. DE Courtney Brown / 2000 — Brown will go down as one of the bigger busts of those taken No. 1 overall. Coming out of Penn State with fellow defensive star LaVar Arrington, Brown had "the ability, character and desire to go first overall," according to the late Joel Buchsbaum in Pro Football Weekly's 2000 Draft Preview. Despite starting all 16 games and collecting 4½ sacks in his rookie season, Brown struggled to stay healthy throughout his career, as that was his only season playing every game. He played six pro seasons, totaling 19 sacks.

3. DT Dan Wilkinson / 1994 — Nicknamed "Big Daddy" for his humongous size, the 340-pound Wilkinson never dominated like a No. 1 pick is expected to do. He did have a solid 13-year NFL career, recording 54½ sacks in 95 career games for the Bengals, Redskins, Lions and Dolphins. Wilkinson never made a Pro Bowl, unlike two other first-rounders from the '94  draft, Bryant Young and Sam Adams.

4. DT Steve Emtman / 1992 — Buchsbaum called Emtman "a dominating inside player who makes everyone around him better." The former Washington Husky played in just six NFL seasons, with the first three of them ending on I.R. because of issues with both knees. He played in 16 games only once, finishing his career with eight sacks.

5. DT Russell Maryland / 1991 — The Cowboys traded up to acquire Maryland in '91, and the big tackle helped Dallas win three Super Bowls in the 1990s. He then played four solid seasons with the Raiders and one with the Packers before retiring in 2000 with 24½ career sacks. The former Miami Hurricane made one Pro Bowl, in '93.

6. LB-DE Aundray Bruce / 1988 — In PFW's Scout's Notebook '88, Buchsbaum said Bruce "has as much ability as any defensive player in the draft. However, he must really bear down, grow up and get serious if he is to realize his potential." In his first season, Bruce seemed to show the potential the Falcons hoped for. He started all 16 games in '88, recording six sacks and two interceptions. But that was the only season Bruce would start every game. Playing for 11 years in the league with Atlanta and the Raiders, Bruce started just 42 games, recording 32 career sacks, and never made it to the Pro Bowl.

7. DE Bruce Smith / 1985 — Considered one of the greatest No. 1 picks ever, Smith anchored the Bills' D-line for years with his unique combination of speed and power. A product of Virginia Tech, Smith made 11 Pro Bowls and was named to the NFL's All-Decade team in both the 1980s and 1990s. He retired in 2003 with the all-time record for sacks (200) and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.


PFW associate editor Kevin Fishbain contributed  to this article.

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