The Best Draft Class for Each NFL Franchise, Ranked

The Best Draft Class for Each NFL Franchise, Ranked

NFL

The Best Draft Class for Each NFL Franchise, Ranked

When it comes to the NFL Draft, hope is always present. Usually, that hope fades, and teams are lucky if they get that one or two iconic players that turn around fortunes. I went back through the draft history of each franchise going back to the start of the common AFL-NFL Draft (1967) to find the best draft class for each. Remember, this list represents the best of the best, the top 2-3% of draft classes over that time. Some choices were easy; others were debatable with other classes for the same franchise.

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers, 1974 (Jack Lambert, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jimmy Allen). The gold standard of all draft classes, with four Hall of Famers.
  2. Oakland Raiders, 1968 (Ken Stabler, Art Shell, George Atkinson, Marv Hubbard, Charlie Smith) The first round pick, Eldridge Dickey, was a bust. That didn’t matter because the rest of the draft was loaded for the Raiders.
  3. Dallas Cowboys, 1989 (Troy Aikman, Steve Wisniewski, Mark Stepnoski, Tony Tolbert, Daryl Johnston). A bad draft for the future of network television, but one that added the franchise quarterback plus several other starters (even if Wisniewski starred for the Raiders). Troy Aikman
  4. .Miami Dolphins, 1983 (Dan Marino, Mark Clayton, Anthony Carter, Reggie Roby). The Dolphins sat back at the end of first round and got Marino, and then added Clayton, plus a long-time punter (with a watch). Carter would star for the Vikings.
  5. San Francisco 49ers, 1986 (Charles Haley, Steve Wallace, John Taylor, Don Griffin, Tim McKyer, Tom Rathman, Kevin Fagan). The 49ers may have had drafts with better individual players, but this was the deepest draft and set up the back-to-back titles in the late 80’s.
  6. Chicago Bears, 1983 (Richard Dent, Mark Bortz, Dave Duerson, Jimbo Covert, Willie Gault, Tom Thayer, Mike Richardson). The draft that set up the 1985 championship season, with seven starters.
  7. Los Angeles Rams, 1971 (Jack Youngblood, Isaiah Robertson, Dave Elmendorf, Randy Vataha). Youngblood, Robertson, and Elmendorf were three of the defensive stalwarts that made the Rams into a dominant force (that could never quite break through and win a title) in the decade of the 70’s.
  8. Minnesota Vikings, 1967 (Alan Page, Bobby Bryant, Gene Washington, Bob Grim). Hall of Famer Page, plus Bryant, who played cornerback for over a decade, and two starting receivers.
  9. Buffalo Bills, 1985 (Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, Chris Burkett, Frank Reich). Two Hall of Famers, and the guy who led the greatest comeback in playoff history. Bruce Smith and Andre Reed
  10. New Orleans Saints, 2006 (Jahri Evans, Marques Colston, Reggie Bush, Rob Ninkovich, Roman Harper, Zach Strief). The first draft post-Katrina and to start the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era. Reggie Bush was the high-profile pick, but this is here for all the value this draft produced after round 1.
  11. Baltimore Ravens, 1996 (Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Jermaine Lewis). The first draft in Baltimore produced two Hall of Famers. baltimore-ravens-linebacker-ray-lewis
  12. San Diego Chargers, 2004 (Philip Rivers, Nick Hardwick, Michael Turner, Shaun Phillips, Igor Olshansky, Nate Kaeding, Shane Olivea). Eli Manning didn’t want to play in San Diego, but this was a great draft class even once you get past Rivers being selected.
  13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1995 (Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp). It’s rare that the two best players in a franchise get selected the same year, but that was the case for the Bucs.
  14. New England Patriots, 1995 (Curtis Martin, Ty Law, Dave Wohlabaugh, Ted Johnson, Jimmy Hitchcock). It’s somewhat shocking that we would go with a class before the Belichick era. That said, Tom Brady’s draft class was barren other than his selection. Others had either one great player or fewer good players than this class.
  15. Seattle Seahawks, 2012 (Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Bruce Irvin, J.R. Sweezy, Jaye Howard). It may still be early, but I feel comfortable declaring that this class will prove to be the best, thanks to getting Wilson in the 3rd round, plus Wagner in the 2nd. Russell Wilson
  16. New York Jets, 2000 (John Abraham, Shaun Ellis, Chad Pennington, Laveranues Coles, Anthony Becht). The Jets had four first round picks. They hit on them, and added Coles in the third round.
  17. Arizona Cardinals, 2004 (Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett, Antonio Smith). The draft class that began the turnaround in the desert and laid the foundation for what has been the best decade in Cardinals’ history (yeah, yeah, I know they won a title in ’48).
  18. Washington Redskins, 1981 (Russ Grimm, Dexter Manley, Mark May, Darryl Grant, Charlie Brown). Washington has not been a team that has relied heavily on the draft for success historically, but the 1981 class was part of the foundation for three Super Bowl appearances in the next six years. Russ Grimm leads the way
  19. Cincinnati Bengals, 2001 (Justin Smith, Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Rudi Johnson). Out of the ashes of a horrible decade, the Bengals drafted four starters that would be part of the return to the playoffs once Marvin Lewis became coach and Carson Palmer became the quarterback.
  20. Philadelphia Eagles, 1986 (Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, Keith Byars, Anthony Toney) Simmons and Joyner were drafted in the 8th and 9th rounds. Not a bad haul for two rounds that no longer exist.
  21. Denver Broncos, 1983 (John Elway, Karl Mecklenburg). Had a big debate between this and 1973, which was a much deeper draft led by Tom Jackson. But the addition of Mecklenburg, another of the iconic Broncos, along with Elway gives this the nod. (and yes, I know that Baltimore drafted Elway and he was traded shortly thereafter, but I am considering this as part of the draft class). Image (2) elway-and-the-three-amigos.jpg for post 64217
  22. New York Giants, 1984 (Carl Banks, William Roberts, Jeff Hostetler, Gary Reasons, Lionel Manuel). It’s interesting that the Giants have never really had a deep draft that included a Hall of Famer in the modern era. You have Eli and Snee (2004), LT and not much else (1981), and Strahan and Armstead (1993). So the nod goes to 1984, which added several key members of the Super Bowl teams, and probably had 4 of the top 25 players from that draft class.
  23. Green Bay Packers 2005 (Aaron Rodgers, Nick Collins, Brady Poppinga). The Packers have had some drafts with more good players, but when you get the best player in the draft at pick 24, and take a quarterback despite having Brett Favre, that makes the draft. Add in all pro safety Nick Collins.
  24. Indianapolis Colts, 2003 (Robert Mathis, Cato June, Dallas Clark). The Colts added an impact player almost every year starting with the Manning draft, but rarely did they have multiple top players, so the choice is 2003, which produced three pro bowlers. Robert Mathis was one of the best fifth round picks of the decade. June, picked in the 6th round, started at linebacker for several years, and Clark was a key part of the offense, catching 53 career TD passes.
  25. Houston Oilers, 1967 (Ken Houston, George Webster, Pete Barnes, Zeke Moore). Ken Houston made the pro bowl 12 times and is in the Hall of Fame, as a 9th round pick. George Webster was like Von Miller good, making first team all pro three times in his first three years, but had his career altered by a knee injury in 1970. Barnes and Moore were long time defensive starters.
  26. Detroit Lions, 1989 (Barry Sanders, Ray Crockett, Rodney Peete). One of, if not the best player in franchise history. A very good cornerback in the fourth round, and a guy who played quarterback for several years in the 7th round makes this the Lions entry. Barry Sanders
  27. Houston Texans, 2011 (J.J. Watt, Brooks Reed, Derek Newton). J.J. Watt makes this draft class anyway, but adding a starting right tackle in the 7th round and another defensive starter in Reed with the next pick made for a pretty good draft.
  28. Kansas City Chiefs, 2008 (Jamaal Charles, Branden Albert, Brandon Flowers, Brandon Carr, Glenn Dorsey). Set up by the Jared Allen trade, Kansas City had a bunch of draft picks. If Dorsey had been the star that was expected, this would have been a monster draft class that would have ranked much higher on this list.
  29. Cleveland Browns, 1978 (Clay Matthews, Ozzie Newsome). The Browns have drafted one Hall of Famer (Newsome) since 1967. Let that sink in. Joe Thomas will probably join him, but Thomas/Newsome/Matthews have been the three best draft picks, and two came in the same year.
  30. Carolina Panthers 2001 (Steve Smith, Kris Jenkins, Dan Morgan). Injuries cut short the careers of both Morgan and Jenkins, but each of the top three picks were selected to a pro bowl, and Steve Smith was one of the best receivers of the generation. Carolina Panthers v New Orleans Saints
  31. Atlanta Falcons, 2008 (Matt Ryan, Curtis Lofton, Thomas DeCoud, Harry Douglas, Sam Baker, Kroy Biermann). 2008 got Atlanta off to a good start, with a franchise quarterback, starters at middle linebacker, safety, and tackle, plus one of the best third receivers and a defensive lineman. After adding Julio Jones, though, they didn’t sustain draft success.
  32. Jacksonville Jaguars, 2002 (John Henderson, David Garrard, Akin Ayodele). The answer to this might be 2014 if Blake Bortles becomes a star, with also drafting Allen Robinson. But there are no clear cut options so for now we’ll go with the one that produced a starting quarterback in the mid-rounds to go with two-time pro bowl tackle Henderson.

[photos via USA Today Sports Images]


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