Ranking the greatest NFL draft classes originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
It’s deal-making season for NFL general managers, and the draft is just the next thing on their laundry list.
After weeks of the NFL combine and Pro Day clinics, the 2023 NFL Draft is upon us and expert opinion will finally be put to use as each team looks to secure the necessary pieces to contend for a Super Bowl. Depending on the strength of the group, teams could gamble everything tonight to score a shot at the cream of the crop.
Just like choosing an exceptional first-round draft pick, determining the quality of a draft class is up for debate, with some showing preference to star power, while others give weight to the overall depth of a class.
Get Boston local news, weather forecasts, lifestyle and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Boston’s newsletters.
Only time can tell how a draft class will truly age, but that won’t keep fans and pundits alike from weighing in with early evaluations on where a class ranks in NFL history.
Tune in to this year’s draft to see how the 2023 class measures up.
Super Bowl MVPs: None
Hall of Famers: 6 - O.J. Simpson, Joe Greene, Ted Hendricks, Charlie Joiner, Roger Wehrli and Ken Riley
Super Bowl MVPs: None
Hall of Famers: 5 - Bruce Smith, Jerry Rice, Chris Doleman, Andre Reed and Kevin Greene
Super Bowl MVPs: 2 - Patrick Mahomes (Super Bowls LIV and LVII) and Cooper Kupp (Super Bowl LVI)
Hall of Famers: Not eligible (must be retired for at least five years)
Super Bowl MVPs: 3 - Joe Montana (Super Bowls XVI, XIX and XXIV), Phil Simms (Super Bowl XXI) and Ottis Anderson (Super Bowl XXV)
Hall of Famers: 3 - Kellen Winslow, Joe Montana and Dan Hampton
Super Bowl MVPs: 2 - Hines Ward (Super Bowl XL) and Peyton Manning (Super Bowl XLI)
Hall of Famers: 4 - Randy Moss, Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson and Alan Faneca
What are the best NFL draft classes of all time?
Super Bowl MVPs: 1 - Eli Manning (Super Bowls XLVI and XLII)
Hall of Famers: None
I’m hesitant to start this list out with a draft class north of 2000, but the name recognition among this group simply can’t be ignored.
This was the year of the quarterback – Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger all gone by the 11th pick. The first round also included Larry Fitzgerald and the late Sean Taylor. But talent wasn’t exclusive to the top of the draft. The 2004 class featured an impressive group of undrafted players such as Wes Welker and Jason Peters, both of whom were named to the Pro Bowl multiple times.
Super Bowl MVPs: 2 - Malcolm Smith (Super Bowl XLVIII) and Von Miller (Super Bowl 50)
Hall of Famers: None
Recency bias aside, the 2011 NFL Draft is generally considered to be the best of the last two decades. Cam Newton – coming off a Heisman victory at Auburn – headlined this group as the No. 1 overall pick, but the accolades didn’t stop there.
Von Miller, the No. 2 pick, has two Super Bowl rings and was named MVP for his effort with the Broncos in Super Bowl 50. A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson and Julio Jones -- selected fourth through sixth -- have earned Pro Bowl honors a combined 22 times. For perspective, three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt didn’t even crack the top-10 in this class.
Super Bowl MVPs: 1 - Larry Csonka (Super Bowl VIII)
Hall of Famers: 8 - Larry Csonka, Art Shell, Ron Yary, Elvin Bethea, Charlie Sanders, Curley Culp, Claude Humphrey and Ken Stabler
The 1968 NFL Draft was the second joint draft between the NFL and AFL, and it certainly helped establish a tradition of excellence between the two leagues. It featured eight Hall of Famers -- all taken in the first three rounds -- and a host of athletes that left their footprint on the league, including Curley Culp and Ron Yary.
Super Bowl MVPs: 2 - John Riggins (Super Bowl XVII) and Jim Plunkett (Super Bowl XV)
Hall of Famers: 5 - Jack Ham, John Riggins, Dan Dierdorf, Jack Youngblood and Harold Carmichael
1971 was the original “Year of the Quarterback,” but few could predict how the legacy of this draft class would play out.
The draft opened with three straight quarterback selections: Two-time Super Bowl champion Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning – whose surname needs no explanation -- and Dan Pastorini. Later in the fourth round, the Miami Dolphins took Joe Theismann off the board. All experienced varying degrees of success in the league, but none of them are enshrined in Canton.
Despite that, this draft class still mounted an impressive resume on the field. Those four quarterbacks combined for 93,514 career passing yards and all recorded over 100 passing touchdowns. Meanwhile, John Riggins rushed for 11,352 yards and 104 touchdowns to earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame. On the defensive end, Jack Youngblood led the way, recording double-digit sacks in eight of his 14 seasons.
Super Bowl MVPs: 1 - Troy Aikman (Super Bowl XXVII)
Hall of Famers: 5 - Barry Sanders, Troy Aikman, Derrick Thomas, Deion Sanders and Steve Atwater
What this class lacked in depth, it made up for in star power. Aikman’s three Super Bowl rings and Barry Sanders’ five seasons with at least 1,500 rushing yards are just a few of the highlights that make this class so great.
This class makes a strong bid for the best first round in NFL history, with four of the top-five picks making it to the Hall of Fame. No. 2 overall pick Tony Mandarich is considered to be one of the biggest busts in draft history, in part because of the incredible careers that surrounded him on the list.
Super Bowl MVPs: None
Hall of Famers: 10 - Ken Houston, Willie Lanier, Gene Upshaw, Alan Page, Bob Griese, Jan Stenerud, Lem Barney, Larry Little, Rayfield Wright and Floyd Little
The 1967 draft was so dominated by Michigan State, the NFL might as well have held it in East Lansing. The Spartans, coming off a No. 2 finish in the AP and coaches polls, accounted for four of the top-eight picks.
However, despite the impressive start for the Spartans, the real talent from this draft came elsewhere. The 10 Hall of Famers this class produced trail only the 1964 draft, and names such as Gene Upshaw and Bob Griese put this class in elite company.
The accomplishments of this class extended beyond the football field, stretching from the basketball court to the court house.
Hall of Famer Alan Page went on to earn his law degree and serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the last pick of the draft -- known as “Mr. Irrelevant” -- went to Jimmy Walker, a two-time All-Star who wrapped his NBA career with 11,655 points. One of the biggest surprises from this list is Pat Riley -- yes, the same Pat Riley who has 10 NBA titles to his name and currently serves as president of the Miami Heat. Neither Walker nor Riley ever competed in the NFL but both made their mark on the sports world.
Super Bowl MVPs: None
Hall of Famers: 7 - Mike Singletary, Lawrence Taylor, Ronnie Lott, Howie Long, Rickey Jackson, Russ Grimm and Kenny Easley
The 1981 draft was the epitome of a stacked class from top to bottom. While the first round had no shortage of stars, including Lawrence Taylor, Kenny Easley and Ronnie Lott, the real accomplishment of this class was the complete talent through all 12 rounds. Much like the 2004 group, the 1981 class saw a number of talented players going undrafted, including six-time Pro-Bowler Deron Cherry and three-time Super Bowl champion Joe Jacoby.
Super Bowl MVPs: 1 - Len Dawson (Super Bowl IV)
Hall of Famers: 9 - Jim Brown, Jim Parker, Sonny Jurgensen, Paul Hornung, Len Dawson, Don Maynard, Henry Jordan, Tommy McDonald and Gene Hickerson
Offense was the name of the game in 1957.
Paul Hornung led the group as a fullback, halfback and quarterback combo out of Notre Dame.
No. 3 overall pick John Brodie and No. 43 overall pick Sonny Jurgensen have over 31,000 passing yards, putting both of them among the top 50 in NFL history. The fifth, sixth and eighth picks -- quarterback Len Dawson, fullback Jim Brown and offensive tackle Jim Parker -- each have an NFL championship to their name and are all in the Hall of Fame. Thus, the legend of the 1957 class was born.
Super Bowl MVPs: 1 - Roger Staubach (Super Bowl VI)
Hall of Famers: 10 - Bob Brown, Charley Taylor, Carl Eller, Paul Warfield, Mel Renfro, Paul Krause, Dave Wilcox, Bob Hayes, Leroy Kelly and Roger Staubach
It’s hard to argue with the record-tying 10 yellow jackets that belong to the 1964 class. They left an indelible mark on the league and were some of the original architects responsible for propelling the NFL into the massive popularity it shares today.
Even more impressive are how many players probably could be in the Hall of Fame -- Dave Parks (5,619 receiving yards), Bill Munson (12,896 passing yards), Pete Beathard (8,176 passing yards and 680 rushing yards) and Jack Concannon (6,270 passing yards) are just a few that come to mind.
Denying this group the top spot might ruffle some feathers among Hall of Fame hardliners, but that doesn’t take away from their accomplishments.
Super Bowl MVPs: 2 - Richard Dent (Super Bowl XX) and John Elway (Super Bowl XXXIII)
Hall of Famers: 8 - Eric Dickerson, Jim Kelly, John Elway, Dan Marino, Bruce Matthews, Darrell Green, Richard Dent and Jimbo Covert
The first-round haul of the 1983 draft puts this class in a league of its own.
The Baltimore Colts kicked things off by taking Stanford quarterback John Elway with the No. 1 overall pick, followed by five other first-round quarterback selections, including Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. In the record books, Elway and Marino sit 12th and eighth, respectively, in total career passing yards while Elway added 3,407 rushing yards throughout his career, good for 11th among quarterbacks.
Just behind Elway was Eric Dickerson, the six-time Pro Bowler who led the league in rushing yards for four seasons. Rounding out the first round was an unstoppable secondary unit featuring Terry Kinard, Joey Browner, Gill Byrd and Hall of Famer Darrell Green.
This class had every dimension of success -- depth, star power, record and rings.