The NFL Draft is where hope springs eternal, and fans envision their team drafting multiple great players to turn the franchise around. The cold, hard truth is often more sobering. A relative small few classes turn out to be special. Here, we are going to go through the best of the best since 2000 to look at the top team drafts.
Now, there’s a good argument that, say, drafting Tom Brady in the 6th round makes what New England did in the 2000 draft one of the best. Quick, though, who was the next best player taken by the Patriots that year? (The answer: Greg Randall, who started 13 games at right tackle for the Patriots). It was a pretty bad one besides Brady. So while getting a franchise quarterback is notable, this list is looking at both quantity and quality and finding those teams that were able to get multiple good players.
Here are the selections:
#1 2004 San Diego
Notable Players: QB Philip Rivers, C Nick Hardwick, DE Shaun Phillips, RB Michael Turner, OT Shane Olivea, DT Igor Olshansky, PK Nate Kaeding
The 2004 Draft was loaded with top quarterbacks, and the Giants made the big trade with the Chargers to get Eli Manning. But San Diego absolutely dominated this draft by getting starters up and down, in addition to locking in their quarterback for over a decade.
The core of this group were rookies when the Chargers turned it around and made their first playoff appearance in nearly a decade, and were the center of a team that would reach the postseason in 5 of 6 years. Five of the players made at least one pro bowl (Turner’s came with Atlanta after backing up LaDainian Tomlinson) and six of them played in at least 100 NFL games.
#2 2006 New Orleans
Notable Players: OG Jahri Evans, WR Marques Colston, RB Reggie Bush, S Roman Harper, OT Zach Strief, LB Rob Ninkovich
Reggie Bush may be viewed as a disappointment as the
first second overall pick, but he was still a very productive player. And–along with signing Drew Brees–this draft class set the Saints up for a decade, especially on offense.
7th round picks rarely pan out, but this class produced both a lineman who started almost 100 NFL games (Strief) and a receiver who nearly reached 10,000 yards (Colston). Oh, and Jahri Evans was a four-time all-pro at guard, while Roman Harper was a pro bowler at safety. Rob Ninkovich played in only 3 games in New Orleans, but is a nice asterisk on this class, and went on to be a big part of the Patriots’ defenses.
#3 2012 Seattle
Notable Players: QB Russell Wilson, LB Bobby Wagner, DE Bruce Irvin, OL J.R. Sweezy, RB Robert Turbin
Russell Wilson in the 3rd round alone is a pretty solid draft, but adding another perennial pro bowler in Bobby Wagner makes the class, with Bruce Irvin also playing a role in the Seahawks’ run of 5 straight playoff appearances.
#4 2004 Arizona
Notable Players: WR Larry Fitzgerald, LB Karlos Dansby, DT Darnell Dockett, DE Antonio Smith
Larry Fitzgerald is still going strong after 14 seasons. Karlos Dansby started over 200 games, and you would win a lot of bar bets on him ever being a pro bowler (he’s never been selected) but he’s been a solid veteran. Darnell Dockett made three pro bowls and Antonio Smith also played for 13 seasons. This group were a big part of the best stretch of Cardinals football since World War II.
#5 2001 Cincinnati
Notable Players: DE Justin Smith, WR Chad Johnson, RB Rudi Johnson, WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh
Next up takes us to another franchise that had gone through a horrible stretch. The 2001 draft class was a big part of Cincinnati making its first playoff appearance in 15 years. It’s rare that you get two starting receivers and a starting running back from the same draft class, but that’s what the Bengals did when they took college teammates Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh out of Oregon State, and also took Rudi Johnson in the 4th round.
Justin Smith, meanwhile, had a 14-year career and made 5 pro bowls after leaving for San Francisco.
#6 2016 New Orleans
Notable Players: CB Marshon Lattimore, RB Alvin Kamara, OT Ryan Ramczyk, S Marcus Williams, LB Alex Anzalone
Where to put last year’s great rookie class for New Orleans? Well, they certainly made an impact as New Orleans rebounded to a NFC South title, and featured the best offensive and defensive rookie in the NFC. Who knows what the future holds, but it looks like the Saints got a starting running back, cornerback, tackle, and safety out of this draft. We’ll see who else emerges in future seasons.
#7 2000 NY Jets
Notable Players: DE John Abraham, DE Shaun Ellis, QB Chad Pennington, WR Laveraneus Coles, TE Anthony Becht
The 2000 offseason was a turbulent one for the New York Jets, after Bill Parcells left, and Bill Belichick spurned them. But the draft turned out okay and set the table for having five winning seasons over the next seven years.
The Jets had four first-round picks and hit on both Abraham and Ellis, while Chad Pennington was a great quarterback who had his career shortened by injuries. Laveraneus Coles had over 8,000 career receiving yards playing for the Jets and Washington.
#8 2005 Dallas
Notable Players: DE Demarcus Ware, DT Jay Ratliff, DE Chris Canty, RB Marion Barber III, DE Marcus Spears, LB Kevin Burnett
Dallas took a future Hall of Famer with the first pick in Ware, got a late round gem with Jay Ratliff in the 7th round, and in between drafted several solid defensive players and a battering ram of a running back in Marion Barber.
#9 2010 Pittsburgh – WR Antonio Brown, C Maurkice Pouncey, WR Emmanuel Sanders, LB Jason Worilds
The best wide receiver of this generation was drafted in the 6th round, and the Steelers also took Maurkice Pouncey, who has made pro bowls in the 1st round. Emmanuel Sanders was also a pretty good third-round pick. This class would have been higher if it had gotten anything out of the four picks in the 4th and 5th rounds.
#10 2007 San Francisco
Notable Players: LB Patrick Willis, OT Joe Staley, S Dashon Goldson, DE Ray McDonald, CB Tarrell Brown
As is often the case with these top classes, they laid the groundwork for notable successful periods for the franchise. It would take a few more years and the arrival of Jim Harbaugh, but the 2007 class was a key part of the run to three straight NFC title games. Patrick Willis and Joe Staley combined for 13 pro bowl appearances, and five players played in at least 100 NFL games.
HONORABLE MENTION: 2001 Chargers, 2012 Eagles, 2001 Colts, 2000 Packers, 2003 Cowboys, 2016 Cowboys, 2013 Lions, 2008 Chiefs