The 2023 NFL Draft class doesn’t appear to be as strong at certain positions as in years past. But could a run of players fatefully meet with a team during the draft process to create one of the best classes ever? While it’s unlikely, it is not impossible. But what are the best NFL draft classes of all time? Which teams have struck gold in the draft process over time?
One team drafted four Hall of Famers and built a dynasty. Another found a Hall of Fame pass rusher in the eighth round. A third team drafted five super high-caliber starters, another starter, and ended their draft with a solid contributor. Some teams had advantages over others because there used to be more rounds in the draft.
But one team rules over them all — and likely always will.
What Was the Best NFL Draft Class of All Time?
The 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers draft is and likely always will be the greatest draft in league history. Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, and Mike Webster would all go on to be Pro Football Hall of Famers.
The quartet won four Super Bowls. There are 13 All-Pros between the group. Aside from Hines Ward and the ever-controversial Antonio Brown, Stallworth and Swann are largely referred to as two of the team’s top four wide receivers in the franchise’s history.
Meanwhile, Lambert is one of the greatest linebackers in the history of the sport, and NFL Films ranked him the 29th-best player of all time when they ran their top 100 series back in 2016. In 2012, Bleacher Report ranked Webster the best center of all time, while in 2017, Gil Brandt ranked him as the sixth-best center ever.
It’s unlikely a team ever replicates this draft success.
Ranking the Best NFL Draft Classes Nos. 2-10
2) 1986 San Francisco 49ers
Like a no-skips album, the 1986 49ers class dropped banger after banger. Charles Haley, Steve Wallace, Don Griffin, John Taylor, Tim McKyer, Tom Rathman, Kevin Fagan, and Larry Roberts all contributed in a meaningful way to the Super Bowl victories in 1989 and 1990.
Nobody aside from Tom Brady has more championships as a player than Haley, who is also a Hall of Famer, which helped propel this draft over the third-ranked team, which is devoid of Hall of Fame talent.
3) 1991 Dallas Cowboys
Jimmy Johnson and the Dallas Cowboys won two Super Bowls together, with Dallas winning a third because of their ability to draft. It’s the sole reason why Jerry Jones continues to be one-dimensional in the offseason, opting to build through the draft and practically the draft alone. It’s how they won before.
It could be fair to argue for Dallas, and for many drafts, that because they hit on the QB in 1989 that that’s the best class they had. For instance, the Patriots 2000 draft class could be considered the best ever. It directly, through Brady, led them to six Super Bowls.
But we’re looking more at the quality of the quantity in these rankings because who wants another QB show?
The 1992 class in Dallas is a consideration as well, but 91 edges it out, mostly because Dallas never got to see Jimmy Smith’s greatness with a star on his helmet. Russell Maryland, Alvin Harper, Erik Williams, Leon Lett, Dixon Edwards, and Larry Brown all made massive marks that propelled the Cowboys to their three Super Bowls in four seasons.
4) 2017 New Orleans Saints
While this selection may be controversial, think of it as the Joe Montana of classes. It may not be the most talented, but it never lost the big game. The 1986 49ers class is outstanding, but the 2017 Saints draft class has zero misses. Every single player has become an NFL contributor.
Six of the seven draftees went on to make great money on second contracts, while Al-Quadin Muhammad has quietly been a good rotational piece for the Colts the past few seasons before heading to Chicago for 2023.
Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, Alexander Anzalone, and Trey Hendrickson. That is quite the conglomeration of talent.
Lattimore remains one of the best cornerbacks in the game. Ramczyk has long been a fantastic right tackle, and at one time, Williams was one of the best true free safeties in football. Kamara’s accolades as a runner go without saying. Meanwhile, Hendrickson contributed at the end of his rookie deal and parlayed that into a massive deal with Cincinnati, where he showed he’s one of the most productive pass rushers in the entire NFL.
5) 1965 Chicago Bears
The two Bears’ first-round picks in 1965 became Hall of Fame players. Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers make this class legendary by themselves. However, they’re not the only contributors from the class.
Dick Gordon (WR) and Frank Cornish (DT) also contributed in meaningful ways, although that Bears unit never had playoff success. Butkus is one of the greatest linebackers of all time as a five-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler. Meanwhile, Sayers led the league in rushing twice and was an All-Pro five times in his career.
6) 1996 Baltimore Ravens
Drafting Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden in the same year is enough to get this Ravens class on the list. Lewis is arguably the greatest linebacker in NFL history, and Ogden is one of the best tackles in league history as well.
Both players would go on to win the Super Bowl in 2000, and Lewis was also part of the 2012 championship season, although he only played in six games.
Second-round pick DeRon Jenkins was a solid contributor until going to San Diego in 2000. Meanwhile, fifth-round pick Jermaine Lewis ended up an All-Pro return man, accumulating six punt return touchdowns in his career while leading the league in punt return average twice.
7) 1985 Buffalo Bills
Like the Ravens, the 1985 Bills draft resulted in two Hall of Famers and a third player that contributed decently to the franchise for a while. Obviously, the difference is, the Buffalo Bills have never won a championship.
Bruce Smith is the league’s most prolific quarterback sacker ever. He’s not seen as the best pass rusher ever by most because Lawrence Taylor happened, but Smith’s longevity and consistency have never been matched. Smith was the DPOY twice, has eight All-Pro nods, and was part of the 80s and 90s Hall of Fame teams.
Andre Reed, meanwhile, was a seven-time Pro Bowler with as many 900-yard seasons.
8) 1992 Dallas Cowboys
Second-round pick Darren Woodson isn’t a Hall of Famer, but his time with the Cowboys during their Super Bowl run might be the most illustrious after the big three.
The linebacker-turned-strong safety made three consecutive All-Pro teams from 1994-1996 and made the Pro Bowl in those seasons and the following two. Robert Jones started at inside linebacker for Dallas during their Super Bowl runs, as did Kevin Smith as a defensive back.
Jimmy Smith led the league in receptions once and nine 1,000-yard seasons in 10 years, but he did all of his damage as a Jacksonville Jaguar. The 1992 Cowboys are one of the greatest teams ever.
9) 2010 Seattle Seahawks
Few non-QB entities in the modern game are able to withstand the test of time. But the Legion of Boom will be one of those things that persist. The Seahawks drafted both safeties that patrolled the middle of the field in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Earl Thomas was a first-round pick, and Kam Chancellor went in Round 5. Those two safeties terrified opposing receivers and quarterbacks until about 2015. Golden Tate was a solid receiver for Seattle and helped propel them to a Super Bowl victory in 2013 before heading off to Detroit. Russell Okung was much maligned at times, but he had one Pro Bowl season with Seattle in 2012.
10) 1995 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp are both in the Hall of Fame. We can ignore the rest of the draft, and they remain in the top 10, simply off the backs of those two players.
Both players were All-Pros in 2002 when the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, largely on the back of their incredible defense. In fact, that defense is widely considered one of the best in NFL history.
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