Best of the Firsts, No. 4: Walter Payton
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. 4 Pick: Walter Payton, 1975, Chicago Bears
His Credentials: Nine-time Pro Bowl selection, nine-time All-Pro, named to NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1970s and ’80s, Super Bowl XX champion, 1977 NFL MVP, member of NFL’s 75th anniversary team, inducted into Hall of Fame in 1993, ranked No. 5 on NFL’s top 100 players of all-time list, second in career rushing yards, fourth in career rushing touchdowns
Others in Consideration: Philip Rivers (2004, Giants); Edgerrin James (1999, Colts); Charles Woodson (1998, Raiders); Jonathan Ogden (1996, Ravens); Derrick Thomas (1989, Chiefs); Chris Doleman (1985, Vikings); Dan Hampton (1979, Bears); John Hannah (1973, Patriots)
There have been busts at the No. 4 overall spot, but this position in the draft’s first round has also produced more than its fair share of superstar selections. Counting Walter Payton, there are five current Hall of Famers (Chris Doleman, Derrick Thomas, Dan Hampton and John Hannah are the others), plus likely future Hall inductees Jonathan Ogden and Charles Woodson.
We also find Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard here (even though, overall, he was a bust at No. 4), along with names like Philip Rivers, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Justin Smith and Edgerrin James — players who have turned in stellar careers in their own rights.
Above them all, though, stands Payton.
It is not casually that one slips into the conversation of the NFL’s greatest player ever, especially as a running back, where Jim Brown made his mark. But Payton’s ability left even Brown in awe.
“He was a great warrior,” Brown said. “If a guy runs out of bounds because a corner is coming up to get him, that’s not my kind of guy. Walter was definitely (my kind of player) because he was a power man.
“Give me the heart of Walter Payton … there’s never been a greater heart.”
There are may not have been a more versatile athlete in league history. Payton rushed for 16,726 yards (second most all-time), caught 492 passes, threw for eight touchdowns and often punished defenders with his blocking.
Throughout his 13-year NFL career, opposing players tried to figure out how to tackle Payton. Just about all of them failed.
Go low and Payton was quick enough to dance around tackles or leap over guys. Go high and Payton was too strong to bring down without substantial help — especially if he stiff-armed a defender into oblivion. And if you let him get into the open field, it was all over.
Payton’s durability also set him apart, especially when we look back on his career now, as we watch an age of shortened career and platoon situations at running back. Payton led the league in rushing attempts from 1976-79, topping 300 carries each season and maxing out at 369 in 1979. He ran the ball more than 300 times in 10 seasons, the three gaps being his rookie season, final year in 1987 and the strike-shortened 1982 campaign.
Payton left an equally impressive legacy off the field, prompting the NFL to name its Man of the Year award after him following his death in 1999 at age 45.
Since his retirement, Payton has lost his hold on the league’s record books — Emmitt Smith passed him in rushing yards and attempts, while three players (including Smith) surpassed Payton’s rushing touchdowns total.
Still, anyone who saw Payton play would not hesitate to mention him as one of the best to ever play the game.