The Greatest Draft Classes in NFL History

Paul ThelenContributor IIApril 18, 2013

The Greatest Draft Classes in NFL History

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    Which NFL draft class is the greatest in history?

    With the 2013 NFL draft only a week away, it seems as good a time as any to fire up some debate by identifying the ten greatest draft classes of all time.

    Whenever a list is compiled that ranks the "greatest" at any one particular thing, subjectivity is difficult to avoid, which ultimately can weaken the list altogether.

    It is for this reason, that on this list, the ranking will be based on statistical measure and will distance itself from subjectivity as much as possible.

    But how can statistics measure the greatness of a draft class?

    To nominalize the arguments, I’ve decided to create the "Greatness Score."

    Here is how is breaks down.

    For any Hall of Fame player drafted in a particular class: Four points.

    For any non-Hall of Fame player who was elected to multiple Pro Bowls in a particular class: Two points.

    For any player named to a Pro Bowl in a particular class: One point.

    Combine all the numbers and you have each Greatness Score.

    How did it play out?

Honorable Mentions

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    Before we unveil the top 10, let's pay brief respect to the classes that just missed the cut.

    1979

    Greatness Score: 46

    Hall of Famers: Joe Montana, Kellen Winslow and Dan Hampton.

    Notables: Phil Simms, Otis Anderson, Dwight Clark and Mark Gastineau

    First Overall Pick: Tom Cousineau

    The class of 1979 has three great Hall of Famers and arguably the greatest quarterback of all time in Joe Montana.

    Lack of depth is where this class missed the cut—only 13 non-Hall of Fame players were elected to multiple Pro Bowls 

    1974

    Greatness Score: 47

    Hall of Famers: Jack Lambert, Mike Webster, Dave Casper, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann.

    Notables: Ed "Too Tall" Jones—who should be in the HOF—Matt Blair and Danny White

    First Overall Pick: Ed "Too Tall" Jones

    1974 is a top-heavy class with five Hall of Fame inductees. Ultimately, the depth was it’s undoing, falling just one point shy of making the list.

No. 10: The Class of 1989

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    Greatness Score: 48

    Hall of Famers: Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, Deion Sanders and Troy Aikman

    Notables: Steve Atwater, Steve Wisniewski, Andre Rison and Eric Metcalf.

    First Overall Pick: Troy Aikman

    After Aikman went first and Tony Mandarich second, here is how the top five unfolded: No. 3 Barry Sanders, No. 4 Derrick Thomas and No. 5 Deion Sanders. It does not get a whole lot better than that.

    Throw in Andre Rison (22nd overall) and Steve Atwater (20th overall) and 1989 might have the best first-round in NFL history.

No. 9: The Class of 1971

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    Greatness Score: 49

    Hall of Famers: Jack Ham, Jack Youngblood, Dan Dierdorf and John Riggins.

    Notables: Archie Manning, Ken Anderson, Isiah Robertson, Jack Tatum and Joe Theismann.

    First Overall Pick: Jim Plunkett.

    The 1971 NFL draft was a real solid draft top to bottom and was a really strong class of quarterbacks.

    There was strong value at the top as the first three picks were all QBs who endured longevity in Plunkett, Manning and Dan Pastorini, but also 1971 had QB depth in later rounds with Anderson (third round) and Theismann (fourth round).

No. 8: The Class of 1985

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    Greatness Score: 54

    Hall Of Famers: Jerry Rice, Bruce Smith and Chris Doleman.

    Notables: Lomas Brown, Andre Reed, Steve Tasker, Herschel Walker, Randall Cunningham and Doug Flutie.

    First Overall Pick: Bruce Smith 

    1985 boasts the greatest receiver of all-time, you can argue that it has the greatest defensive end and also possesses two of the most entertaining QBs in NFL history in Cunningham and Flutie.

    1985 was a deep class that featured late-round value: Andre Reed (fourth round), Kevin Greene (fifth round), Steve Tasker (ninth round) and Jay Novacek (sixth round).

No. 7: The Class of 1996

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    Greatness Score: 55

    Hall of Famers: Jonathan Ogden

    Notables: Ray Lewis, Marvin Harrison, Brian Dawkins, Zach Thomas, Mike Alstott, Terrell Owens and Eddie George.

    First Overall Pick: Keyshawn Johnson

    The 1996 draft is only going to climb up this list in the future as Ray Lewis is an absolute lock for Canton, and Harrison, Owens, Thomas and Dawkins have good odds in joining him.

    This class is famous for its incredible crop of wide receivers, having eight different receivers getting elected to the Pro Bowl—seven of which were elected to multiple.

    Deep with greatness and rich in characters as Ray Lewis, Keyshawn Johnson and Terrell Owens each delivered a multitude of press conference gems over their careers. For an unbelievable receiving class, 1996 was a stinker on quarterbacks—the most notable being Tony Banks.

No. 6: The Class of 1993

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    Greatness Score: 59

    Hall of Famers: Willie Roaf

    Notables: John Lynch, Will Shields, Michael Strahan, Jerome Bettis, Drew Bledsoe, Mark Brunell and Jason Elam.

    First Overall Pick: Drew Bledsoe

    For what the 1993 class lacks in star power it compensates in depth as it has the second most multi-Pro Bowl players with 23. This class could climb in the future as John Lynch and Michael Strahan should warrant Hall of Fame consideration. 

    1993 had some busts at the top of the first round—Rick Mirer was the second overall pick—but had some real late-round steals—Mark Brunell (fifth round), Jessie Armstead (eighth round) and Trent Green (eigth round).

No. 5: The Class of 1981

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    Greatness Score: 64

    Hall of Famers: Lawrence Taylor, Ronnie Lott, Mike Singletary, Howie Long, Rickey Jackson and Russ Grimm

    Notables: Dennis Smith, James Brooks and Cris Collinsworth

    First Overall Pick: George Rogers

    It will be very difficult for a draft class to ever surpass 1981 from a defensive standpoint. 

    Of its six players enshrined in Canton, five played on defense.

    Singletary and Taylor are two of the NFL’s most iconic players and Ronnie Lott was the face of the San Francisco 49ers defense during their 1980’s domination.

    This star-studded class had both immediate impact and longevity.

    However, the defensive legends in this class could have used some help from their offensive classmates but still lives on as one of the greatest draft classes ever.

Tied for No. 3: The Class of 1968

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    Greatness Score: 65

    Hall of Famers: Elvin Bethea, Art Shell, Ron Yary, Charlie Sanders, Curley Culp and Larry Csonka

    Notables: Ken Stabler, Claude Humphrey and Harold Jackson

    First Overall Pick: Ron Yary

    Not a ton of iconic stars in this class but 1968 reps six Hall of Famers and a deep roster of players who endured strong, consistent careers.

    This class values the big men, as five of its six enshrined members lined up with their hands in the dirt.

    Ken Stabler is a criminally underrated quarterback. The lefty was by far the best QB in this class, and one of the better of his era. 

Tied for No. 3: The Class of 1967

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    Greatness Score: 65

    Hall of Famers: Ken Houston, Alan Page, Bob Griese, Willie Lanier, Gene Upshaw, Lem Barney, Rayfield Wright and Floyd Little

    Notables: Gene Washington, John Gilliam and Rick Volk

    First Overall Pick: Bubba Smith

    The class of 1967 has more Hall of Fame inductees than any other class in NFL history. 

    This draft had value from top to bottom, as Griese went fourth overall and 12-time Pro Bowler Ken Houston was the 214th overall pick.

    Certainly a top-heavy class, 1967 comes in tied for third largely because of its Hall of Fame density.

No. 2: The Class of 1969

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    Greatness Score: 66

    Hall of Famers: Joe Greene, Ted Hendricks, Roger Wehrli, O.J. Simpson, Charlie Joiner.

    Notables: George Kunz, L.C. Greenwood and Mercury Morris.

    First Overall Pick: O.J. Simpson

    This class doesn’t lack stars, as O.J. Simpson and "Mean" Joe Greene are two iconic and transcending talents. This class was deep at running back as Simpson, the vociferous Mercury Morris, Larry Brown, Calvin Hill and Ron Johnson were all elected to multiple Pro Bowls.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers really won the 1969 draft, as they took Greene in the first round, Jon Kolb in the third round and L.C. Greenwood in the tenth round.

    All three players were instrumental to the Steelers dominance in the 1970’s.

No. 1: The Class of 1983

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    Greatness Score: 88

    Hall of Famers: Bruce Matthews, John Elway, Dan Marino, Darrell Green, Eric Dickerson, Jim Kelly and Richard Dent.

    Notables: Chris Hinton, Joey Browner, Karl Mecklenburg, Mark Clayton and Roger Craig.

    First Overall Pick: John Elway

    No, that is not a typo the 1983 class really scored an 88.

    This class has it all. It is the unanimous greatest quarterback class ever with Elway, Marino, Kelly and Ken O’Brien. It features Bruce Matthews and his 14 Pro Bowl appearances and defensive studs in Mecklenburg, Green and Dent.

    Oh yeah, and one of the best running backs in NFL history—Eric Dickerson.

    The class of 1983 has 26 non-Hall of Fame players who were elected to multiple Pro Bowls, the most in NFL history.

    A truly deep draft, 1983 has late-round value in Richard Dent (eighth round), Mark Clayton (eighth round) and Karl Mecklenburg (12th round).

    It’s very difficult to imagine another draft ever surpassing 1983 as it is, beyond argument, the greatest ever.