There’s a well-received notion in sports that the top level will find a talented player no matter the level below.

In FCS college football, sometimes the talented players are right there in plain sight, ready to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.

It’s a select group since the FCS originated in 1978, with offensive linemen Trevor Penning (Northern Iowa) and Cole Strange (Chattanooga) becoming the 22nd and 23rd all-time first-rounders in the 2022 draft.

The list includes a trio of schools with multiple first-rounders: Alcorn State and Jackson State with three each, and North Dakota State with two.

Former FCS Players Selected in NFL Draft First Round

1979 – Phil Simms, QB, Morehead State: New York Giants, No. 7 Pick

There’s common belief quarterback Doug Williams was the first FCS first-round pick, but his final season at Grambling State in 1977 predated the Division I split. The distinction belongs to Simms, one of three Super Bowl MVPs (21) on this list (also Jerry Rice and Joe Flacco).

That the New York Giants drafted Morehead State quarterback Phil Simms with the seventh overall pick in 1979 was considered surprising at the time, but he rewarded them with a 15-year career from 1979-93. (MSU Athletics)

1980 – Roynell Young, CB, Alcorn State: Philadelphia Eagles, 23

1983 – Leonard Smith, CB, McNeese State: St. Louis Cardinals, 17

Smith was part of the 2014 College Football Hall of Fame class and had an All-Pro season with the Cardinals in 1986.

1984 – Terry Taylor, CB, Southern Illinois: Seattle Seahawks, 22

1985 – Jerry Rice, WR, Mississippi Valley State: San Francisco 49ers, 16

The greatest wide receiver in football history holds all-time NFL records for receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895), receiving touchdowns (197), total touchdowns (208) and all-purpose yards (23,546).

1988 – John Stephens, RB, Northwestern State: New England Patriots, 17

The 1988 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with 1,168 rushing yards was 43 when he died in a car accident in 2009. His daughter is tennis star Sloane Stephens.

1988 – Aaron Jones, DE, Eastern Kentucky: Pittsburgh Steelers, 18

1989 – Shawn Collins, WR, Northern Arizona: Atlanta Falcons, 27

1990 – Eric Green, TE, Liberty: Pittsburgh Steelers, 21

A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Green caught 362 passes and 36 touchdowns in a 10-year career.

1992 – Robert Porcher, DE, South Carolina State: Detroit Lions, 26

The three-time All-Pro spent his entire 12-year NFL career with the Lions, totaling 571 tackles and 95.5 sacks in 187 games. The franchise’s annual Man of the Year award is named after Porcher.

1993 – Lester Holmes, OG, Jackson State: Philadelphia Eagles, 19

1994 – John Thierry, DE, Alcorn State: Chicago Bears, 11

1995 – Steve McNair, QB, Alcorn State: Houston Oilers, 3

The late McNair was named the SWAC’s offensive player of the year four times, received the 1994 Walter Payton Award (FCS offensive player of the year) and earned 2003 NFL MVP honors.  

In his Alcorn State career from 1991-94, quarterback Steve “Air” McNair passed for 14,496 yards, which remained the FCS record until 2018, but he’s still No. 1 all-time with 16,823 yards of total offense. (AP photo)

1996 – Jamain Stephens, OT, North Carolina A&T: Pittsburgh Steelers, 29

2000 – Sylvester Morris, WR, Jackson State: Kansas City Chiefs, 21

2000 – Rashard Anderson, CB, Jackson State: Carolina Panthers, 23

Anderson’s selection two picks after Sylvester Morris made Jackson State the first, and still only, FCS program to have two first-rounders in the same draft.

2008 – Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Tennessee State: Arizona Cardinals, 16

In a highly productive 12-year NFL career with six different franchises, DRC intercepted 30 passes with six pick-sixes and collected 455 tackles.

2008 – Joe Flacco, QB, Delaware: Baltimore Ravens, 18

No player in NFL history has more passing yards (41,269) without a Pro Bowl season, but Flacco has a Super Bowl 47 title on his resume.

2016 – Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State: Philadelphia Eagles, 2

A member of NDSU’s five straight national championship teams from 2011-15, Wentz is the highest-drafted FCS player, picked one spot behind top overall selection Jared Goff (Los Angeles Rams).

Carson Wentz Philadelphia Eagles NFL Draft
Quarterback Carson Wentz spent the first five seasons of his NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles after they selected him with the second overall pick in 2016. (AP photo)

2019 – Tytus Howard, OT, Alabama State: Houston Texans, 23

2021 – Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State: San Francisco 49ers, 3

Lance went 17-0 as a starter at NDSU, becoming the first player to receive both the Walter Payton and Jerry Rice (FCS freshman of the year) awards in the same season (2019).

2022 – Trevor Penning, OT, Northern Iowa: New Orleans Saints, 19

2022 – Cole Strange, OG, Chattanooga, New England Patriots, 29