Commentary

First Round: Best of the best

Cleveland's Brown, Dallas' Smith, Pittsburgh's Bradshaw form first-choice backfield

Originally Published: April 16, 2010
By Sheldon Spencer | ESPN.com

Jim Brown, Terry Bradshaw & Emmitt SmithGetty Images, US Presswire, US PresswireOur first-round NFL regular draft all-star backfield: Brown (left), Bradshaw (center) and Smith (right).
Even though the debates never will end, ESPN.com's round-by-round NFL draft all-stars survey finishes with a take on some of the best first-round picks.

How can we select just one quarterback from among the likes of Troy Aikman (1989, Dallas Cowboys), Bob Griese (1967, Miami Dolphins) and Peyton Manning (1998, Indianapolis Colts)?

We tab the first-round draftee quarterback with four Super Bowl rings -- Terry Bradshaw (1970, Pittsburgh Steelers) -- and we rest our case.

But based on that logic, why wouldn't Paul Hornung (1957, Green Bay Packers) and Franco Harris (1972, Pittsburgh Steelers) be automatic starters behind Bradshaw, since both Hornung and Harris boast four NFL titles each?

We're just promoting debate here, folks, not providing empirical evidence of any player's superiority.

Hence, we're picking Jim Brown (1957, Cleveland Browns) and Emmitt Smith (1990, Dallas Cowboys) for the running back slots.

Interestingly, while Louisiana Tech's Bradshaw was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1970 draft, Smith and Brown were available to plenty of takers in their respective drafts.

Despite falling to the No. 17 slot in the 1990 draft, former Florida star Smith proved any doubters wrong by winning Offensive Rookie Of The Year honors. Smith retired as the NFL's career rushing leader (18,355 yards) and has 164 rushing touchdowns, the bulk of which he produced in 13 Cowboys seasons. He was a key part of the Cowboys' draft trinity -- with wide receiver Michael Irvin (1988, Cowboys) and Aikman -- to form the foundation Dallas needed to score three Super Bowl victories in the early 1990s.

Barry Sanders (1989, Detroit Lions), Marcus Allen (1982, Los Angeles Raiders), Tony Dorsett (1977, Cowboys), Walter Payton (1975, Chicago Bears), Larry Csonka (1968, Dolphins) are among the dozens whose numbers -- and in some cases, Super Bowl rings -- make compelling arguments to run with Mr. Smith, but there's one unavoidable backfield mate.

Brown's status as an unparalleled NFL icon grants him the other running back slot on our first-round all-star team. Yes, he won only one NFL title and has fallen to No. 9 on the career rushing list.

But Brown is the prototype running back, even though he wasn't the apple of Cleveland's eye during the 1957 draft.

Apparently Cleveland coveted one of the three top quarterbacks in that draft class, including Notre Dame's Hornung (who became a halfback in the NFL), Stanford's John Brodie or Purdue's Len Dawson. Hailing from Alliance, Ohio, Dawson was particularly coveted by Browns coach and general manager Paul Brown. The Steelers, however, won a coin flip to determine the No. 5 overall pick in that draft and they selected Dawson.

With the next pick the Browns settled for Brown, the Syracuse superstar fullback.

He won rookie of the year honors in 1957 by leading the NFL in rushing, the first of eight seasons he would pace the league. Six games, 15 touchdowns and 928 rushing yards into his second NFL season, Brown prompted Sports Illustrated to declare him "the greatest running back professional football has ever seen."

Years later, even his modern-day peers don't want to debate that assertion.

LaDainian Tomlinson (2001, San Diego Chargers) probably said it best after supplanting Brown for No. 8 on the all-time career rushing list:

"Jim Brown transcended generations."

We can't top that.

Sheldon Spencer is an NFL editor at ESPN.com. Thanks to ESPN's Stats & Information crew for their researching efforts, as well as Pro-Football-Reference.com and the Pro Football Hall Of Fame's Web site.