Best of the Firsts, No. 5: Deion Sanders
As part of our offseason coverage, we’re taking a look back at some of the best first-round draft picks since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. We’ll work our way up the draft board, starting with the best selection made with the No. 32 pick and ending with the top No. 1 pick. Track all the choices here.
The No. 5 Pick: Deion Sanders, 1989, Falcons
His Credentials: Eight-time Pro Bowl selection, eight-time All-Pro, named to NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s, 53 career interceptions, more than 5,700 return yards, AP Defensive Player of the Year in 1994, two-time Super Bowl champion, elected to Hall of Fame in 2011, ranked No. 34 player of all time on NFL’s top 100 list
Others in Consideration: LaDainian Tomlinson (2001, Chargers); Junior Seau (1990, Chargers); Mike Haynes (1976, Patriots)
How incredible was Deion Sanders at his peak?
Well, consider that to earn this spot in our countdown, he’s rather convincingly ahead of:
• Mike Haynes, a member of the 1997 Hall of Fame class, who made nine Pro Bowls and was a dynamic defender and return man.
• Junior Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowler and member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s. Seau also earned 10 All-Pro nods and is a member of the Chargers Hall of Fame.
• LaDainian Tomlinson, a virtual lock for a future Hall of Fame spot. Tomlinson currently sits fifth all-time in rushing yards and is 19 rushing touchdowns behind Emmitt Smith for the most in NFL history.
But Deion Sanders was a one-of-a-kind talent, possibly the greatest cornerback in NFL history and a terrific showman. He dominated the game on defense and special teams, scoring touchdowns as a kick returner, punt returner, cornerback and even as a wide receiver.
You could make the argument that Sanders was the greatest pure athlete ever to play pro football — he is the only player to ever score an NFL touchdown and hit a home run in a Major League Baseball game in the same week, a feat he accomplished in 1989. Not that it impacts his football accolades at all, but Sanders’ baseball career spanned 1989-97, with a brief return in 2001.
Sanders opened his career with five terrific seasons in Atlanta before jumping to San Francisco for the 1994 season. That year he picked off six passes, which he returned for 303 yards and three touchdowns, both career highs. The 49ers won the Super Bowl that season and Sanders was named the league’s defensive player of the year.
He then signed with the Cowboys — a $35 million deal that, at the time, made him the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player — and proceeded to win another title in 1995.
“I remember the kinds of things that were in the decision to bring him to the Cowboys and they were really watershed moments for me,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said of signing Sanders. “I remember getting in front of the entire team and putting his contract on the board in a team meeting before I signed him and saying, ‘Now, are we all together? Do we want to bring him on?’
” ‘Hell, yes, bring him on’ (was the reaction). It was a very significant thing – that Super Bowl team was made up of a lot of great players and he was an instrumental player on it.”
He was also the type of player that drove opposing teams and fan bases crazy. Sanders could completely shut down an entire half of the field with his cover skills … and his “Prime Time” persona made sure everyone knew that.
The NFL has exploded as a television commodity, and no one enjoyed that ever-increasing spotlight as much as Sanders.
Sanders was in a class by himself, both as a player and personality. His accomplishments speak for themselves, but Sanders has always been more than willing to back them up with some chatter if need be.