NFL scouts can rank anything.
Best diner in Boone, North Carolina? Check. Favorite hotel in Moscow, Idaho? Check. Best game film set up in the Big 12? Check.
That’s what decades of travel will do. But ask scouts, general managers and coaches to narrow down the best draft prospect they’ve ever seen and, well, that’s another matter entirely.
With the 2023 NFL draft (April 27, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, ABC, ESPN App) nearing, we set out to ask several dozen current or retired evaluators who they say was the best prospect they’ve ever seen. Not the prospect who turned out to be the best player, but in that moment of game film or digital video, pro day or game day, they said to themselves, “That is the best I’ve ever seen.”
Answers varied from “let me get back to you” to “I need to think about that,” and most often, “I can’t pick just one.”
“When you look back hindsight is always like ‘of course,’ but in real time some guys had things in their game, or their height, or their conditioning or weight in college,” one former general manager said. “But when you say best prospect anyone has seen, that’s the player, right then, before he’s played an NFL game, with no questions or very few. The sure things, and you don’t get to see many of those in real time. You see guys you think will be great pros play in the league a long time, but the sure things? Absolutely rare.”
The votes are in and although not every player went on to stardom — some derailed by injuries, bad teams and other circumstances — the list is filled with familiar names.
Bo Jackson, Auburn RB, 1986/1987
As the 1986 NFL draft approached, Jackson’s résumé was something most scouts had never seen.
The running back won the Heisman Trophy in 1985, his final season at Auburn, with 1,786 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Jackson finished his career as the school’s all-time leading rusher and lettered three years in baseball — hitting .401 as a junior — and two years in track, qualifying for the NCAA indoor meet in the 60-yard dash.
“Bo will always be the guy for me that I thought would be in Canton,” one scout said.
Bo Jackson ran a 4.13 40-yard dash
Bo Jackson joins His & Hers to share the story of when he ran the 40-yard dash at the 1986 NFL combine. Jackson says that he ran it in 4.13 seconds, not the previously recorded 4.12 time.
Jackson’s 40-yard dash weeks before the draft, on his way to track practice in 1986, is still the stuff of scouting lore. Jackson was selected No. 1 in the 1986 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but citing a conflict with then-Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse, Jackson signed with the Kansas City Royals instead.
The Los Angeles Raiders selected Jackson in the seventh round of the 1987 draft with the agreement he could play football and baseball.
Jackson played 38 regular-season games for the Raiders before suffering a career-ending hip fracture and dislocation on a tackle during the only playoff appearance of his career — Jan. 13, 1991 — against the Cincinnati Bengals. After hip replacement surgery, he played in the MLB until 1994.
Anthony Munoz, USC OT, 1980
One scout who voted for Munoz said “he was the perfect lineman when I saw him.”
Munoz had three knee surgeries during his career at USC and perhaps his draft status would have taken on a more medical air in today’s environment.
Munoz had pitched for USC’s baseball team that won the College World Series in 1978, but at 6-foot-6, 278 pounds Munoz has said the NFL was a safer bet for him. The Bengals made him the No. 3 pick of the 1980 draft.
The Hall of Famer was named to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team, the 100th anniversary team, was a nine-time All-Pro and 11-time Pro Bowl selection in 13 seasons.
John Elway, Stanford QB, 1983
Former Denver Broncos quarterback Gary Kubiak said he watched Elway throw “like three balls” in their first offseason practice together after the 1983 draft “and I called my mom and dad and told them ‘just letting y’all know I’m never going to play.”’
“He was the blueprint — Stanford brain, best arm I’ve ever seen, run, throw, confident, competitive,” a current general manager said. “He ruined looking at quarterbacks.”
Elway, too, might have had his draft status impacted by current medical reviews. He said he had traveled to a regional scouting combine — there were a few across the country in 1983 — and his dad told him to leave immediately “so they wouldn’t look at my knee.”
Elway, who had been selected by the New York Yankees in the second round of the 1981 MLB draft, was selected No. 1 by the Baltimore Colts in the 1983 NFL draft. Elway did not want to play for the Colts and said he’d play for the Yankees instead, leading the Colts to trade him to the Broncos.
Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State RB, 1989
A personnel director said “I didn’t scout Jim Brown, but you talk to people who played against Jim Brown or saw Jim Brown play and he will always be the standard for them, everybody else is second and nothing will change that, ever. I guess that’s where I was at with Barry after that Heisman year. Different player than Jim Brown, but I thought I was seeing the future.”
Sanders did not have the kind of multisport résumé of others who received votes, but he did have one of the most productive seasons in college football history in 1988. In Oklahoma State’s 11 games that season, Sanders rushed for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns.
Sanders was selected by the Detroit Lions with the No. 3 pick in the 1989 NFL draft, a draft that featured four eventual Hall of Famers in the first five picks of the draft — Troy Aikman, Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders.
In the end, Jim Brown, who many in and around Syracuse long contended was the best lacrosse player they had ever seen as well, got the most I-didn’t-see-him-play votes.
Champ Bailey (Georgia), Orlando Pace (Ohio State) and Rod Woodson (Purdue) — each in the Hall of Fame — as well as Adrian Peterson (Oklahoma), Andrew Luck (Stanford) and Sean Taylor (Miami) also received multiple votes. Longtime Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans scout C.O. Brocato (the team has named its draft conference room after him), once said Peterson was “maybe” the only player he had ever scouted he thought could have gone from high school to the NFL.
Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian might have spoken for everyone when he said he couldn’t “pick just one.”