This is my first top-10 article for 2022 and it feels good to be back! We’ll restart this series with a draft-related piece.
This one will focus on the most successful Eagles first-round draft picks in the 80-plus years of drafting. Jordan Davis was this year’s first-round pick, so we’ll check back after a few seasons to see if he makes the list.
We decided to keep this one positive because we know the Eagles have missed on some first-rounders in the past. One of the franchise’s greats came through a first-round supplemental draft pick (Reggie White in 1984) but his circumstances are about as extraordinary as his career, which technically started in the old USFL.
Top 10 Philadelphia Eagles First-Round Draft Picks
We’ll examine players’ impact on the franchise, and the league, and try our best to fairly compare across eras, positions, and skillsets. Of course, readers can comment on the site and through social media if they disagree with selections.
Going over the list initially, I was surprised to see some names that didn’t go in the first round. Yes, there were more rounds in the pre-expansion eras and many greats went in later rounds, like Tommy McDonald going third-round in 1957 and ending his journey in Canton. The team has done well with finding some gems in the lower picks but this will focus on the Eagles first-round draft picks from years past.
10. Bob Brown
As mentioned above, the Eagles have had their share of top picks go awry. Of course, the team made the first pick in NFL history back in 1936 when they selected Heisman winner Jay Berwanger out of the University of Chicago, and he said, thanks but nah, I’d rather be a lawyer.
The Eagles had the second overall pick in 1964 and they selected tackle Bob Brown from Nebraska. Unlike the previous year’s first-round pick Ed Budde who went to the Chiefs in the AFL instead, Brown reported to Philadelphia and was a dominant right tackle. In three of his first five seasons, he made the Pro Bowl and All-Pro team.
While Brown was one of the best in the league, the Eagles were not. After the 1968 season, he demanded a trade and left for Los Angeles. Now, among the great what-ifs in franchise history is this one: does Bob Brown stay if the Eagles got the #1 pick in 1969, and could thus draft OJ Simpson?
Brown made two more Pro Bowls with the Rams before finishing his career in Oakland in 1973. He made the all-1960s team and is enshrined in Canton.
9. Lito Sheppard
It’d be hard to find a team that did better drafting for a position group in one draft as the Eagles did in 2002. After winning the division, Joe Banner and the team brain trust got three defensive backs in a row, one in the first round, two in the second. That trio combined for over 400 games played in the NFL.
The first selected was Lito Sheppard with the 26th pick out of Florida. First-round cornerbacks can be boom or bust. Sheppard stood out on a very good secondary. Remember, Philly had Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor for years as cornerbacks and they were good. So were Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. Add Michael Lewis to the mix with the veteran being Brian Dawkins, and this was the backend of defenses that won divisions and made a Super Bowl.
Sheppard made two Pro Bowls in 2004 and 2006, with a first-team All-Pro selection to go with the NFC title, when he led the league with two returns for scores. His most memorable is likely from the 2006 campaign when he went 102 yards against Dallas to seal the TO comeback game at the Linc.
After seven years and 93 games in Philly, Sheppard left for the Jets. He only stayed one season in New York, Minnesota, and Oakland before retiring in 2011. As an Eagle, he collected 258 combined tackles, 226 solo, three sacks, and 18 interceptions.
Of course, ask anyone about that 2002 draft class, they’ll likely remember that was the one when the Eagles got Brian Westbrook in the 3rd round. So yeah, good job, front office.
8. Jerry Sisemore
The Eagles traded away a lot of early draft picks in the mid-1970s. In 1975, their first pick didn’t come until the SEVENTH ROUND at #167. This was part of a long, laborious rebuild that helped get the team out of the decade-plus of mediocrity and all the way to their first championship game appearance in 20 years in Super Bowl XV.
One of the major components to that process was the third overall pick in the 1973 draft. The team selected Jerry Sisemore out of Texas and had a stalwart on the offensive line. In his first nine seasons with the Eagles, he only missed one game, as a rookie.
He was named to the Pro Bowl following the 1979 and 1981 seasons. He also started all 16 games in the magical 1980 run that brought the Eagles to the Super Bowl.
His career ended in 1984 with two games played that year before retiring. In a franchise with some noteworthy tackles, his name may be forgotten. However, he helped the Eagles return to glory as one of the unsung heroes that kept Ron Jaworski upright and ignited a prolific offense.
7. Brandon Graham
Ok, I’ll admit, when I saw the Eagles took this Michigan pass-rusher 13th overall in 2010, I wasn’t overjoyed. I watched him play in the Big 10, especially against my beloved Penn State. He was good, but an Eagles first-round draft pick, good? Wasn’t sold.
Eagles first-round draft picks get graded on immediate impact and long-term success. Graham has the latter in droves. It took six seasons and multiple alignments but he blossomed under Jim Schwartz and made second-team AP All-Pro in 2016. The following season, he recorded a career-high 9.5 sacks in the regular season and had The Strip Sack that all but sealed Super Bowl LII.
Graham started as the right defensive end three straight seasons, earning a Pro Bowl appearance in 2020, before an injury ended his 2021 campaign. Like many on this list, he has matured into a leader on the team. He is one of the success stories in franchise history that developed over time and is now a stalwart.
6. Tra Thomas
NFL fans love massive offensive tackles. Some of the best look like they’re hewn from marble and mythology. Find a “franchise” tackle and success is soon to follow.
The year before they made a really important first-round pick (to appear later), they nailed the bookend tackle at #11 with Florida State’s Tra Thomas. When he could play, he started, and he dominated. Listed at 6’7, 349 pounds, he was the prototype rock at right tackle.
Thomas started all but one game in which he played for the Eagles. Paired with free agent signing Jon Runyan, they were arguably the best tackles in the league. Thomas made three Pro Bowls in 2001, 2002, and 2004. In ‘02 he was voted second-team All-Pro. He stayed with the franchise until 2008. After he left, the Eagles made the blockbuster deal to bring in Jason Peters. Thomas played one more season in Jacksonville before retiring.
5. Fletcher Cox
It’ll be a race to see if Jason Peters or Chase Utley is the next Philadelphia star voted into his respective league’s Hall of Fame. After those two, this is the next active player who deserves induction (ok, if Eric Allen gets in first I won’t protest, but he’s overdue).
Fletcher Cox joined Philadelphia as the 12th overall pick in 2012 out of Mississippi State. Since then, he’s terrorized backfields. After a few seasons as an end in the “wide nine”, Cox established himself as one of the league’s best DTs in 2016. In ten seasons, he’s only missed five games, in spite of being in a physically grueling position and one of the most double-teamed names in the game for years.
Cox made six straight Pro Bowls from 2015 to 2020. He finally made first-team All-Pro in 2018 after a career-high of 10.5 sacks. His burst of speed for his size (6’4, 310 lbs.) has made him a match-up nightmare for guards and centers. Being able to explode from a three-point stance for backfield tackles or chase QBs to affect pass plays is a rare skill. Even in the increasingly athletic NFL, he’s a freak.
It will be interesting to see if he can regain the step he seemingly lost in 2021 and continue to impact teams going forward. Right now, he has cemented his case for the best DT in franchise history. Can he become the first Eagles defender selected in the first round to earn a gold jacket?
4. Mike Quick
Most of the franchise’s greatest pass-catchers have been found in late rounds. While few can deny the impact of Freddie Mitchell in the postseason, the guy who redefined wide receiver in Philly was selected 20th overall in 1982 from NC State. In the end he did not have a very successful career and became one of the worse Eagles first-round draft picks of the 2000’s.
Mike Quick had a quiet rookie year as the strike-shortened campaign saw him come off the bench in all nine games. In his second pro year, Quick made the All-Pro and Pro Bowl teams with a league-leading 1,409 yards receiving on 69 receptions and 13 TDs. This was the first of five straight Pro Bowl and three 1,000-yard seasons.
Quick made a second All-Pro team with a career-high 71 receptions in 1985, including his famous 99-yard catch-and-run score against the Falcons in overtime. Injuries cut short seasons after 1987, as Randall Cunningham developed receivers like Cris Carter, Fred Barnett, and others. Most fans now know Quick as the radio analyst for the team. But in the 1980s, he was The Guy at wide receiver.
3. Steve Van Buren
Steve Van Buren was the fifth overall pick in 1944 from Louisiana State. To look at his stats today and consider how he played all three aspects of the game at that level is hard to fathom.
Van Buren was All-Pro in five of his eight NFL seasons. Four times he led the league in rushing attempts, yards, and TDs. He won the “rushing Triple Crown” in 1947, 48, and 49. In all three of those seasons, the Eagles made the championship game, winning the last two. He also handled kick and punt returns, with five career return scores. On defense he was disruptive, recording 34 forced fumbles, 13 recoveries, and nine picks.
Find some old footage online. Van Buren invited contact and ran with vitriol. He was punishing to tackle. He retired in 1953 after years of injuries (and after the team drafted his brother Ebert) but left the game as the NFL’s rush yardage king. Then, he made the all-1940s team and the league’s 75th and 100th Anniversary teams. Van Buren entered Canton in 1965. For the first twenty years of the franchise, he was the biggest star.
Fans knew this would be one of the more successful Eagles first-round draft picks right from the start.
2. Chuck Bednarik
Quick backstory: during the early days of the NFL Draft, the first pick was determined via lottery. That’s the only logical explanation why the defending champs got to pick first in 1949. They went local, selecting Penn’s two-way standout and WWII veteran Chuck Bednarik.
Bednarik won two world championships in 1949 and 1960. He became a mainstay in the league and the last “two-way” player. After flying missions over Germany with the Army Air Force, football must not have been that terrifying. He made 10 Pro Bowls and eight All-Pro teams as center and linebacker.
For a fan base that values tough players, Bednarik is an icon. He famously knocked out Frank Gifford and forced the fumble that sealed the Eagles’ 1960 East Division title. In the title game, he held down Green Bay’s Jim Taylor to run out the clock at Franklin Field. Nowadays, that’s a delay of game penalty. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1967, all-decade for the 1950s, and was part of the 75th and 100th-anniversary teams.
1. Donovan McNabb
When you talk about the history of the Eagles first-round draft picks, Donovan McNabb’s name will come up for a variety of reasons. Most good, some not so great.
Taking a quarterback in the first few picks is a risky proposition. Choosing from two or more can be the difference between a franchise reaching seasons of glory or being stuck in mediocrity.
In 2016, the Eagles seem to have made the better pick after trading up twice to get Carson Wentz. What has followed is almost too bizarre to put in a Coen brothers movie.
A few times in history, quarterback classes have been so tempting and talented as to change fortunes for teams, although not always for good.
In 1983, Philly passed on QBs and took Michael Haddix to complement Ron Jaworski and the offense. That didn’t work. Of course, the Eagles got a pretty good QB the following year out of UNLV.
1999 was almost as good a class and arguably far more consequential. Multiple QBs regarded as franchise faces were available. Philadelphia picked second behind Cleveland, who was linked to Tim Couch from Kentucky.
- Before the draft, of course, was a controversy that swept the Delaware Valley.
- Fans wanted Heisman winner Ricky Williams.
- They went to New York demanding the team take the running back.
- When Paul Tagliabue read the card, they booed as he had just blown his nose in the Declaration of Independence.
- Donovan McNabb, a large QB from Syracuse, received a most Philadelphia welcome.
Think back to the moment, whether you remember it or not. Selecting McNabb proved to be the most consequential pick in franchise history. After some time on the bench as a rookie, the athletic QB became one of the best in the league. He could move for his size, throw bombs, and he was entertaining. Yeah, we got sick of seeing him and his mom in those Chunky Soup ads, but imagine if we took Akili Smith.
McNabb’s selection set up rookie head coach Andy Reid for the most sustained success in franchise history. They dominated the NFC East, made five conference titles, and played in a Super Bowl. McNabb did so without an elite receiver, save for 20-some games with the tempestuous Terrell Owens. He was frustrating at times, and corny in others, but he was the franchise QB we wanted and deserved.
Through all the worm killer throws, personnel shortcomings, and myriad controversies, most of which weren’t his fault, we had one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He made five Pro Bowls and broke team records. He played hurt, albeit at times with a weak stomach.
Through all the ups and downs, he retired the franchise’s best QB and proved to be the best outcome in a draft when the Eagles needed to nail a pick. They did. Ricky Williams had some success in the league but Philly got the right guy.