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A Brief History of 1st Round NFL Draft Picks From the AAC

Ahead of Sauce Gardner being drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, here is a history of AAC players taken in the first round.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The American Athletic Conference, or AAC, doesn’t have a particularly long history. It was born out of the collapsing Big East, which poached top-tier C-USA teams like Houston and UCF. Those new teams began competing in the AAC in 2013, making the 2014 NFL Draft the first one where the new conference was represented. There, it was represented well, as it has been ever since.

Now, the conference is going through another round of realignment. Once again, top teams are moving on to greener pastures, while conference commissioner Mike Aresco is dipping into C-USA again. Before that change happens though, the AAC is bound to add at least one more first round draft pick, as Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner is arguably the best corner in the 2022 NFL Draft.

With that, it’s worth looking back on the AAC’s history of putting first round picks into the NFL, and how they’ve done.


Blake Bortles, Quarterback - UCF

2014 NFL Draft, Round 1, Pick 3 - Jacksonville Jaguars

I love Blake Bortles and will hear no slander on the matter. But, also, I get it. Things didn’t work out in Jacksonville long-term, but I’m going to chalk that up as institutional failure more than Bortles’ failure. After all, they refused to give him an offensive line and traded away all his talented weapons. There were too many interceptions, sure, but who among us hasn’t thrown 18 interceptions in a season? Since things fell apart in Jacksonville, Bortles has bounced around as a backup quarterback and practice squad stopgap.


Calvin Pryor, Safety - Louisville

2014 NFL Draft, Round 1, Pick 18 - New York Jets

In 2014, the New York Jets had arguably the worst draft ever, wasting 11 out of 12 picks. Calvin Pryor was one of those picks that didn’t work out. Despite starting for most of his first three seasons with the Jets, Pryor struggled with the Jets declining his option and watching Pryor bounce from Cleveland to Jacksonville in a failed career. Pryor has been out of football since 2017.


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Marcus Smith, Linebacker - Louisville

2014 NFL Draft, Round 1, Pick 26 - Philadelphia Eagles

An edge rusher who had been First Team All-AAC in 2013, Marcus Smith had a short NFL career, despite being a first round pick. He never started a game and only had 6.5 sacks in a five-year career, which ended in 2018.


Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback - Louisville

2014 NFL Draft, Round 1, Pick 32 - Minnesota Vikings

Teddy Bridgewater had a promising career where he was showing a lot of improvement. Then, disaster struck, A non-contact knee injury in practice nearly ended his career. By the time he recovered, Minnesota had replaced him and Bridgewater found himself in New Orleans as Drew Brees’ backup. Since then, he’s found opportunities to start in Carolina and Denver. Both teams have looked to replace him after one season. Clearly, Bridgewater is good enough to be a stopgap, but not a long-term solution at quarterback. Now with Miami, at least he’s still in the NFL.


Breshad Perriman, Wide Receiver - UCF

2015 NFL Draft, Round 1, Pick 26 - Baltimore Ravens

Breshad Perriman had the legacy (his father Brett Perriman played in the NFL) and an incredibly strong pre-draft process, which helped him break into the first round. In hindsight, this was a stretch for Perriman, who needed time to develop. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 2020 before Perriman consistently started with the Jets. 2019, meanwhile, was his best season, totaling 36 catches and 6 touchdowns.


Byron Jones, Cornerback - UConn

2015 NFL Draft, Round 1, Pick 27 - Dallas Cowboys

Byron Jones has proven himself to be a good defensive back in the NFL. This is despite a good, not great, college career. He fought his way up to the first round by putting up massive numbers at the NFL Combine and UConn pro day, showing his raw athleticism. He played immediately, starting 11 games as a rookie. By 2018, Jones was a Pro Bowler and 2nd Team All-Pro talent. He now plays for Miami.


William Jackson III, Cornerback - Houston

2016 NFL Draft, Round 1, Pick 24 - Cincinnati Bengals

Many people overlooked William Jackson III, focusing on players Jalen Ramsey instead. Despite cramping at the combine, Jackson had a good pre-draft process, pushing him into the backend of the first round. He proved to be a good, consistent corner for Cincinnati, even if he was never as good as other first round corners in 2016. This helped him land a 3-year $40.5 million contract with Washington, where he started in 12 games and had two interceptions in 2021.


Paxton Lynch, Quarterback - Memphis

2016 NFL Draft, Round 1, Pick 26 - Denver Broncos

John Elway likes tall quarterbacks, and if nothing else Paxton Lynch is tall. The problem is, he might really have had nothing else that made him an NFL ready quarterback. Still, big time college numbers and a big frame were enough for Elway in Denver’s search for a Peyton Manning replacement. That juxtaposition wasn’t great for Lynch, who started four games in his entire career, with a 1-1 TD-INT ratio. In 2018, Denver made him the third-string quarterback behind Chad Kelly, before cutting him. After that, he bounced around a bit. He currently plays for the USFL’s Michigan Panthers.


Haason Reddick, Linebacker - Temple

2017 NFL Draft, Round 1, Pick 13 - Arizona Cardinals

The former All-AAC linebacker Haason Reddick was taken in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft by Arizona. After strong performances in the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine, Reddick made his way into the first round, after being a late day two or even a day three pick. It hasn’t really worked out, with Reddick not reaching the potential of a first round linebacker. In 2021, with Carolina, he started sixteen games for the first time in his career, though in a 17-game schedule this still wasn’t a full season.


Mike Hughes, Cornerback - UCF

2018 NFL Draft, Round 1, Pick 30 - Minnesota Vikings

UCF’s lockdown corner and exciting returner Mike Hughes was taken in the first round of the draft by Minnesota. His time there was brief, only starting seven games in three seasons, while suffering several injuries that stunted both his development and playing time. In 2021, Hughes played for Kansas City. It was the first season he played every regular season game, including five starts. He signed with the Detroit Lions in March of 2022 on a one-year deal.


Ed Oliver, Defensive Tackle - Houston

2019 NFL Draft, Round 1, Pick 8 - Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills drafted the former five-star defensive lineman, Ed Oliver, to bolster a weak defensive line. He began starting games as a rookie, and in the two seasons since then, he’s been a consistent starter on the Bills’ defensive line. And, while Oliver hasn’t produced any Pro Bowl quality seasons to this point, he has been a good player.


Zaven Collins, Linebacker - Tulsa

2021 NFL Draft, Round 1, Pick 16 - Arizona Cardinals

Tulsa’s Zaven Collins broke onto the scene after a massive 2020 season on the defensive side of the ball. The Cardinals drafted him in an attempt to build a young and athletic core of linebackers, alongside Isaiah Simmons. As a rookie, Collins struggled. Starting six games, Collins would eventually be pushed towards a third-string role among the inside linebackers, despite playing in 17 games. His career is still young, and he has plenty of time to become an every down player.


Payton Turner, Defensive End - Houston

2021 NFL Draft, Round 1, Pick 28 - New Orleans Saints

Payton Turner was often overlooked during his college career, but he played with excellent athleticism and had a productive 2020 season, which helped land him in the first round. However, Turner struggled during his rookie season, before it was cut short by a shoulder injury that landed him on Injured Reserve.