The 2017 NFL Draft begins Thursday in Philadelphia.
And while hundreds of young men’s lifelong dreams will be fulfilled when they hear their names called, far fewer who played at historically black colleges will share in the same joy.
Only four players, North Carolina A&T’s Tarik Cohen, South Carolina State’s Jevarius Leamon and Tennessee State’s Ezra Robinson and Jessamen Dunker were among the more than 300 athletes invited to the league’s annual scouting combine. Last year, only three players from HBCUs were taken.
On the brink of the annual selection show, let’s take a look at every NFL team’s best ever draft pick from an HBCU. Part 1 of our two-part series begins with the AFC.
Jets, Emerson Boozer – (Maryland Eastern Shore)
New York took the Maryland-Eastern Shore product in the seventh round of the 1966 AFL Draft (the Steelers chose him in the sixth round of the NFL Draft). A two-time AFL all-star and Super Bowl III champion, Boozer is third on the Jets all-time rushing list behind Hall-of-Famer Curtis Martin and Freeman McNeil with 5,135 yards. Boozer’s 52 rushing touchdowns is second in franchise history, and he’s a member of the team’s prestigious ring of honor.
Patriots, Ben Coates – (Livingstone College)
Selected in the fifth round (124th overall) in 1991, the Livingstone (N.C.) alum, went on to earn Pro Bowl honors in five-straight seasons from 1994-98. A prototypical tight end at 6-5, 245-pounds, Coates nabbed 499 passes for 5,555 yards and 50 touchdowns. He won a Super Bowl in 2001 as a Baltimore Raven and is a member of the Patriots’ Hall of Fame.
Dolphins, Don Reese – (Jackson State)
Miami picked Reese, a 6-6, 254-pound defensive end from Jackson State, 26th overall in 1974. He played in for three different teams in a seven-year NFL career that was marred by cocaine abuse. He started just 37 games.
Bills, Howard Ballard – (Alabama A&M)
The former Alabama A&M Bulldog was taken in the 11th round back in 1987 before going on to earn starts in 154 of 170 career games as an offensive lineman and back-to-back Pro-Bowl nods in 1992 and 1993.
Broncos, Shannon Sharpe – (Savannah State)
In 1990, Sharpe was a seventh-round pick of the Broncos. The Savannah State product went on to snag 815 receptions for 10,060 yards while being chosen to participate in the Pro Bowl eight times. The three-time Super Bowl champion was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
Chargers, Ernie Ladd – (Grambling)
A daunting physical specimen at 6-9, 315 pounds, the Chargers picked Ladd in the fourth round of the 1961 AFL Draft. A four-time league all-star, he helped the Chargers win a championship in 1963. When his playing days were over, he enjoyed a successful career as professional wrestler and is a member of the WWE Hall of Fame.
Raiders, Art Shell – (Maryland State)
The pride and joy of Maryland State (now UMES), Shell was taken in the third round in 1968 by the Raiders. One of the most dominant offensive linemen of his time, he was an eight-time Pro Bowler and three-time Super Bowl champion as a player. Former Raiders owner Al Davis named him head coach in 1989, the same year he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 1990, he became the first black coach to lead a team to a conference title game.
Chiefs, Willie Lanier – (Morgan State)
The Chiefs took the former Morgan State linebacker with the 50th overall pick in the 1967 NFL draft. The Super Bowl IV champion was tapped as an All-Pro in eight of 10 seasons. The Hall of Famer’s No. 63 jersey is retired in Kansas City.
Bengals, Ken Riley – (Florida A&M)
One of the greatest defensive backs of all time, Riley’s 65 interceptions is the fifth-most in NFL history. A four-time All-Pro, the former Florida A&M standout played 14 seasons in Cincinnati. It’s fair to say the Bengals got more than they bargained for in return for their sixth-round pick in 1969.
Steelers, Mel Blount – (Southern)
The former Southern Jaguar spent his entire 13-year career in black and gold, winning four Super Bowls while being tapped for the Pro Bowl five times. In 1975, the Hall of Famer was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, after recording 11 interceptions in 14 games.
Ravens, James Roe – (Norfolk State)
The Ravens’ luck with draft picks from HBCUs has been horrible. Since the team’s first season 21 years ago, they’ve chosen just four players from black colleges. Roe, a former Norfolk State wide receiver picked in the sixth round in 1996, saw his NFL career come to and end after three seasons, during which he amassed 239 yards on 15 receptions. Former Texas Southern cornerback Tray Walker, taken in the fourth-round of the 2015 draft, died in a dirt bike accident last March after seeing action in eight games as a rookie.
Browns, Leroy Kelly – (Morgan State)
Kelly began his career backing up the legendary Jim Brown at running back. An eight-round pick out of Morgan State in 1964, Kelly was a member of Cleveland’s NFL Championship team the same year. Once the job was his, he made his predecessor proud, rushing for more than 7,000 yards and 70 touchdowns as a Brown. He led the league in rushing twice and rushing touchdowns on three occasions.
Jaguars, Rashean Mathis – (Bethune-Cookman)
Picked 39th overall in 2003 out of Bethune-Cookman, Mathis enjoyed a 12-year NFL career. The cornerback was a first-team All-Pro selection in 2006, when he picked off six passes. His 30 interceptions as a Jaguar is a franchise record.
Titans, Ken Houston – (Prairie View A&M)
The Houston Oilers waited until the ninth round to take Houston in 1967 out of Prairie View. The defensive back recorded 49 interceptions and recovered 21 fumbles on his way to named an All-Pro 12 times and inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Colts, Robert Mathis – (Alabama A&M)
In 13 seasons in Indianapolis, Mathis, an Alabama A&M alum, recorded 123 sacks, good for 17th all time. A six-time Pro Bowler, he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. All it cost the Colts was a fifth-round pick 14 years ago.
Texans, Jacoby Jones – (Lane College)
Jones made his claim to fame as a Super Bowl champion and first-team All-Pro as a return man for the Ravens in 2012. He helped the Ravens down the 49ers in Super XLVII when he became the first player in the game’s history to score a touchdown on a return and a reception in the game’s history. However, it was the Texans, who made him a third-round draft pick in 2007 out of Division II Lane College.