Since 1936, the first year in which an official pro football draft took place, 481 Ohio State Buckeyes have been selected in the NFL Draft. Two players – Russ Thomas and Bob Meyers – were actually drafted into the NFL twice, in back-to-back (but separate) years. And 14 of those 481 former Buckeyes were also taken in the AFL Draft, including the legendary Hall of Fame wideout Paul Warfield. That makes 497 total draft picks for OSU since Gomer Jones was selected by the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals nearly a century ago.
Of the nearly 500 Buckeyes taken, hundreds have enjoyed successful pro careers, while others flamed out and/or never played a snap after their time in Columbus. The Ohio State football program has produced NFL Hall of Famers, Pro Bowlers, Players and Rookies of the Year, ten-year tackling dummies, one-and-doners, monumental busts, and everything in between.
All of these former OSU football players share one thing in common, which is their affiliation with THE greatest university on the planet. Conversely, one thing that sets them all apart is their varying degrees of success (or lack thereof) in the NFL.
Another way to look at it is in terms of value. Each of these players produced value – positive or negative – for the team which drafted them. And that is what I am going to look at in the weeks leading up to the 2023 NFL Draft. I am going to attempt to identify the seven best Scarlet and Gray values, picking only one player from each round (length of the modern draft, and going in reverse order).
Before we get started, “best” and “most” must be sorted out. Best value is not the same as most valuable. And “most valuable” is not the same as “best value.” Warfield, Eddie George, Orlando Pace, Jack Tatum, or Jim Parker would inarguably be among the most valuable (former) Buckeyes at the professional level. All became team captains, Pro Bowlers, eventual Hall of Famers, you name it. But they were also taken within the first 20 picks of their respective drafts, whereas Dick LeBeau made the NFL Hall of Fame as a fifth-rounder.
I might argue that LeBeau was the better overall value because of where/when he was drafted. But going round by round means I do not have to choose between Pace or LeBeau, which is a good thing because there are already plenty of difficult decisions ahead... Without further ado, let’s go bargain shopping.
Round 5: Dick LeBeau, Cornerback
Heavily featured in the intro above, LeBeau might be remembered more for his coaching career, which lasted 45 (!) years. But to ignore his achievements as a player would be doing a major disservice to this former Buckeye. Because LeBeau was a legend long before he ever wore a coaching headset.
A two-way contributor for Woody Hayes’ 1957 national championship team, he then went on to snatch 62 interceptions during a 14-year NFL career which ultimately earned him a HOF nod in 2010. We’re talking about an all-time great and one of the stingiest defensive backs the NFL has ever seen... A damn fine career for any player, let alone a fifth-round draft pick.
**LeBeau was actually cut during training camp as a rookie before he ever played a down for the team that drafted him. So his inclusion on this list could be argued against because he did not provide any value to said team. But it’s my list and he is a legend, so deal with it.
Now, it should be pointed out that LeBeau was drafted 58th overall in 1959 — with a pick that would currently fall in the latter half of the second round. However, the NFL was much smaller 60+ years ago, and a fifth-rounder is a fifth-rounder. Interestingly enough, LeBeau became the most accomplished player from his draft class, but we’ll get to that later.
Prior to being selected in the 1959 NFL Draft, LeBeau was a two-way standout for Ohio State. And prior to that, he made his mark in London, Ohio, just west of Columbus. He chose to remain close to home (for college) and suited up for the Scarlet and Gray from 1956-1958.
As a halfback for the Buckeyes, LeBeau scored nine career touchdowns and threw a handful of passes... I think. OSU only lists official stats dating back to 1960, so we’ll have to trust the rest of the internet on this one. But it was LeBeau’s play at corner which caught the eye(s) of most NFL teams. The Cleveland Browns were particularly impressed and selected the sticky cover man with pick No. 58, making him the fourth Ohio State player taken in that ‘59 draft.
Unfortunately for the ol’ Brownies, they made the mistake of cutting LeBeau before he ever played a game in Cleveland. The team severed ties with their rookie DB during training camp, leaving the homegrown Buckeye unemployed for a period of time. Although not the start he likely envisioned, LeBeau did eventually find work with the Detroit Lions, for whom he played the entirety of his career. So all’s well that ends well, I suppose.
Initially a backup, LeBeau earned a spot in the starting lineup for the final six games of his rookie campaign. He then remained in the Lions’ lineup for over a decade, not missing a game until his second-to-last season in 1971. The ultimate ironman, he was paired with fellow Hall of Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane from ‘60-65 and helped form one of the league’s best secondary units.
LeBeau picked off at least three passes in 12 straight seasons and earned Second Team All-Pro recognition in 1964, ‘65, and ‘70. He was also named to the Pro Bowl three times, although not after his amazing 1970 season. As a 33-year-old corner that year, the soon-to-be coach came down with 9 INT in 14 games to lead the NFC.
Detroit experienced a mixed bag of success with LeBeau on the team, but his stellar individual play was consistent. He finished his career with 62 INT, which ranked third all-time in 1972 (LeBeau’s last season) and seventh all these years later. The former OSU great then transitioned to coaching immediately upon retirement and became one of the greatest defensive coordinators of all time.
For 44 years, much of it spent in the AFC North, LeBeau designed, developed, and coached some of the best defenses in the league. He helped turn the Cincinnati Bengals into a contender during the 80s and 90’s before overseeing one of the best pass-rushes ever in Pittsburgh. LeBeau has also been credited with inventing the zone blitz and popularizing the 3-4 base defense.
All told, LeBeau spent 59 years in the NFL. Fifty. Nine... A fifth-round pick in any sport is lucky to spend 59 weeks in the league, forget about 59 years spanning multiple generations. But this former Buckeye was and is one of a kind in the football world, making him the most valuable fifth-rounder to ever wear shoulder pads for the Scarlet and Gray.