The best part of the NFL draft is the euphoria that envelops each fanbase as they speculate about what the future may hold. The impact of uncovering a legitimate draft steal, on the other hand, is much larger than the early hoopla.
Over the last decade, players who could be classified as draft steals have given Super Bowl runs and some of the best moments in NFL history.
For first- and second-round picks, the stakes are always enormous. These guys received a lot of attention in college and were studied for months, if not years, before the draft. As they begin their professional careers, players selected in the third round and later typically have significantly lower expectations.
With the NFL draft in 2022 less than a month away, we’re taking a look back over the past decade to find the top ten draft steals. This list excludes players picked in the first two rounds, as it is more difficult to classify them as thefts. Former second-round picks like Bobby Wagner and Lavonte David have emerged as Hall of Fame candidates, but the guys we’ve discovered have taken more unusual paths to success.
Through outstanding output and timely, jaw-dropping plays, these steals have had a significant impact on the NFL. We’ll go into each of the top ten draft steals, with an honorable mention for those who fall just short of the top 10. Where each star lands is determined by a combination of longevity, peak performance, original selection position, and overall impact on the league.
Outside of the first round, above-average quarterbacks have an advantage, but All-Pro selections and Super Bowl MVP winners aren’t far behind. We’ll also take into account the importance of each individual’s position and how their arrival affected the way their team operated. Each player is listed with the team that picked them, rather than their current squad if they’ve moved on.
Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Pick No. 165 in 2016
While Tyrann Matheiu missed class due to a legal issue, Tyreek Hill’s draft slip is far more heinous. Hill was drafted in the fifth round after being arrested for domestic abuse and battery by strangulation while at Oklahoma State. Hill accepted a plea deal in the case and was sentenced to three years of probation.
Mike Gundy fired him right away, and he went to West Alabama for his senior year.
The 5’10”, 185-pounder totaled 815 yards as a receiver and runner in his lone season at Oklahoma State in 2014, and he added 996 return yards. Hill is arguably the league’s fastest and quickest player. It was always fair to wonder what the value of such a little and positionless playmaker joining the NFL was, but Hill is perhaps the league’s fastest and quickest player.
Hill is a true exception to the historical similarities since many equally undersized athletes who lacked a distinct position have failed in the NFL. Hill honed his route-running skills and became a great master of finding space on broken and prolonged plays. He’s likely the best overall receiver right now, and due to his unique skill set, no one comes close to matching him.
Stefon Diggs, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Stefon Diggs was a difficult prospect to count on in the 2015 class, as he was a high-caliber high school recruit who chose to attend a struggling Maryland program. He showed excellent agility and athleticism, but injuries plagued him, and he had to cope with poor quarterback play. In retrospect, a better environment would have helped Diggs land where he plainly belonged: the first round.
Of course, Diggs had even worse luck, as he was assigned to a struggling Vikings offense until Kirk Cousins was acquired. His 2017 season with Case Keenum was promising, with 849 yards and eight touchdowns, but since then, Diggs has been partnered with much superior quarterbacks, and his production has skyrocketed.
With Buffalo, he’s reached his best during the last two seasons. In 2020 and 2021, the Bills’ high-volume passing game resulted in 166 and 164 targets, respectively, and Diggs has 230 receptions for 2,760 yards and 18 touchdowns. It’s difficult to argue that he isn’t a top-five receiver in the league.
For his rapid impact on the offense, the Bills rewarded Diggs with a four-year, $96 million extension on Wednesday.
Because of how simple Diggs makes things for his quarterback, the league has transitioned to faster-than-fast receivers who win off the line of scrimmage. If clubs knew what he’d become, he’d be a top-five choice in almost any draft class.
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Finding a quality long-term starting quarterback beyond the first round has become almost impossible. For all of the first-round busts we can name, the only opening-day starters who weren’t first-rounders from the past decade were Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Derek Carr, Jalen Hurts, and Dak Prescott. Garoppolo, Carr, and Hurts were all second-round picks.
The concept of a developmental quarterback is too idealistic for the NFL’s reality. The short windows to win rob talented-but-raw passers of long-term developmental opportunities. Plus, the draft has long been the only avenue for teams to acquire a star passer, so it’s a worthwhile gamble to select a quarterback even if there are legitimate concerns about them.
Prescott is the most recent exception to the established thought that quarterbacks selected beyond the second-round are set for a backup’s career. Taken in the fourth-round as an experienced collegiate quarterback who really found his footing as a senior, Prescott grabbed the chance to be the Cowboys’ long-term answer as soon as Tony Romo was injured during a preseason game. Romo was able to return by the end of the year, but Dallas decided the rookie was the better option.
His five years with the Cowboys have featured some highs and lows. Early, he was part of an incredibly talented unit and orchestrated the offense as a game manager. Over the past two years, Prescott has blossomed as a passer despite a major injury in 2020, and he has cemented himself as—at worst—an above-average quarterback.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson is destined to be a highlight in any NFL draft steals piece for the rest of his life. Wilson, a former third-round pick, swiftly confounded naysayers by leading the Seattle Seahawks to five consecutive seasons of double-digit wins, including a Super Bowl XLVIII victory in 2014. In ten seasons in Seattle, he had a 104-53-1 record, which is even more astounding given that he only missed two games despite pre-draft concerns about his 5’11”, 215-pound height.
Throughout his career, the nine-time Pro Bowler has established himself as one of the most dynamic, explosive, and dependable playmakers at the position. Few quarterbacks in NFL history can match Wilson’s combination of accuracy (65.0 percent lifetime), downfield throwing ability, and pocket escapability.
His influence extends beyond the Seahawks. The success of a short, thick-bodied quarterback paved the way for more smaller quarterbacks. Despite not having ideal measurements, Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Tua Tagovailoa were all first-round picks.
After a tremendous NCAA career at North Carolina State and Wisconsin, Wilson is now with the Denver Broncos for the next chapter of his career, and it’s simply funny that clubs passed on him. He started four years in college, averaging 7.9 yards per throw attempt, and passing combine drills revealed him to be an excellent athlete.
Wilson’s legacy as an era-defining figure will only be cemented by what is ahead.
David Bakhtiari, OT, Green Bay Packers
Pick No. 109 in 2013
A true cornerstone blocker over the past nine years, David Bakhtiari has enjoyed one of the highest peaks possible for an offensive tackle. Aaron Rodgers’ blindside protector entered the league as a fourth-round selection, and the fact he turned into a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro member has been a godsend for the Green Bay Packers.
Bakhtiari was known for his elite pass blocking and durability up until the end of 2020 when he suffered a torn ACL. He missed all but one game in 2021 because of a nightmare knee injury, but he plans to be back to full strength in 2022. Prior to this injury, he missed just six games in seven seasons.
Getting Bakhtiari back to his prime form will be imperative for the Packers to reach their own peak in 2022. Just 30 years old, only health can slow Bakhtiari’s reign as one of the elite left tackles.
Either way, he’s proved himself to be an immensely valuable steal.
George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers
Pick No. 146 in 2017
There are so few tight ends who have proved to be reliably unguardable that it may be the position with the largest gap between the good starters and average starters. George Kittle has been a major part of the position’s development since being drafted in the fifth round in 2017. The athletic 6’4″, 250-pounder has only been slowed by injuries since his rookie season.
Kittle’s ability to create after the catch is especially notable for a big man. In 2021, Kittle ranked second among tight ends in yards after catch (YAC) despite missing three games. His presence forces defenses to react to his alignment, and defenders must follow his movements thanks to San Francisco’s desire to feed him targets.
After Kittle’s emergence in 2018 when his 1,377 receiving yards set the all-time record for receiving yards by a tight end—a number eclipsed in 2020 by Travis Kelce—we saw heavier investments into receiving tight ends like Mike Gesicki, David Njoku, T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant and Kyle Pitts. The value of a star at the position is immense, but high-production, standout tight ends are still fairly rare commodities.
Kittle, as a Day 3 pick, is easily a top steal considering how the position is now valued.
Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams
Pick No. 69 in 2017
Prior to 2021, Cooper Kupp had established himself as a premier slot receiver who could give defenses headaches on critical plays. He was solid but seemed to be capped in his role. After accumulating 3,570 yards in his first four years, though, he broke out for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns on 145 receptions in a monster 2021 season.
It was his first season with more than 94 receptions and just his second 1,000-yard season. His prior limited outputs were partially due to injuries, as he missed eight games in 2018 and one game in 2020. Regardless, Kupp’s dominance was undeniable as he played a massive role in Los Angeles’ Super Bowl run through this past season’s playoffs, too.
The 6’2″, 208-pounder has a devastating blend of deep speed, agility on sharp cuts and incredible toughness through contact. He’s a magician with the ball in his hands, and he seemingly never drops the ball on key plays.
There’s no question the 2021 AP Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl LVI MVP was a massive third-round steal considering his resume.
Tyrann Mathieu, S, Arizona Cardinals
Pick No. 69 in 2013
The Honey Badger was one of the most memorable and impactful defensive players in college football during the 2010s. His energy was infectious for LSU, and he was an obvious first-round talent on the field. However, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and later said he had regularly used the drug: “I abused myself through marijuana.”
The Arizona Cardinals wisely snapped Tyrann Mathieu as the 17th defensive back drafted in the 2013 class. He immediately made an impact as a versatile presence who was lightning quick to find the football. Mathieu earned All-Pro status in his third season and appeared set for a long, dominant career.
A torn ACL in 2015 essentially doomed the rest of his tenure in Arizona, though. He lost some of his explosiveness and was exposed in coverage more than ever. Mathieu had a nice bounce-back season in Houston in 2018 before he fully regained his form in Kansas City in 2019.
Regardless of Mathieu’s next destination, he’s served as a face of three different defenses already. He helped the Chiefs win a Super Bowl in 2020 and remains one of the most unique talents in the NFL.
Fred Warner, LB, San Francisco 49ers
In 2018, the number 70 pick was made.
The 49ers have done a good job replacing some of the NFL’s most explosive linebackers, from NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis to Reuben Foster. Fred Warner, a third-round choice out of BYU, has emerged as their newest superstar at the position. Warner has been extremely prolific since his debut, amassing 504 tackles and earning one All-Pro nod in four seasons.
The 25-year-old is regarded as one of the best new-school linebackers. Warner is equally at ease racing downhill into the trenches as he is turning his back on the quarterback in coverage. His self-assurance and consistency opened up more options for his defensive coordinators than the vast majority of teams can afford to experiment with.
The 49ers didn’t waste any time in extending Warner, rewarding him with a five-year, $95 million contract last summer. Along with Nick Bosa, his play and subsequent extension have solidified him as one of the franchise’s defensive pillars. If the 2018 draft were remade today, Warner would have easily cost a team a high first-round pick.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Commanders
In 2012, the 102nd pick was made.
Who would have guessed Kirk Cousins would be 10 years into his career with 32,593 yards, 223 touchdowns, and only 91 interceptions on his CV after being drafted to be Robert Griffin III’s backup and little else? Cousins has flaws and is the poster child for being good but not significant enough to pull his club into the Super Bowl conversation, but he’s also been efficient and steady throughout his career. He’s been a fantastic return on investment for a fourth-round choice.
After the two sides couldn’t agree on a multi-year contract, his time in Washington ended in an unpleasant split. Both he and the team had valid reasons for not wanting to stay long-term, but Washington was never able to find a better replacement for Cousins. Cousins has been even better statistically since signing with Minnesota than he was in Washington.
On top of his own ill-timed turnovers and stupid decisions, Cousins’ ability to win in the playoffs has been hampered by terrible luck. In the playoffs, the best team he’s ever played on, the 2019 Minnesota Vikings, ran against the buzzsaw that was the San Francisco 49ers. Cousins didn’t have a good game, but Dalvin Cook had 18 yards and Tevin Coleman torched the defense.