The greatest of all time

The Top 10 draft classes of the common draft era


Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

The 2011 draft, containing stars like quarterback Cam Newton, edge Von Miller and defensive end J.J. Watt all found their new homes after their historic college careers. Miller would become a two time Super Bowl champion, Newton the 2015 league MVP and Watt tied for the most Defensive Player of the Year awards with Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor, all with three to their name.

Logan Moseley, Striv Co-Executive Producer

With the 2022 National Football League (NFL) draft coming up from April 28-30, I figured this would be the perfect time to put on my NFL Historian hat for a bit and take a deep dive into the previous 54 drafts, starting from the NFL-AFL merger in 1966. To help, I will be using Pro Football Reference

First, here are a few “Honorable Mentions” for being important drafts shaping the NFL and a quick story to why that is:

  • 1967 (first draft since the NFL-AFL merger)
  • 1994 (first draft that followed the now modern day seven round draft)
  • 1995 (first selections for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers, and the first expansion teams to have near immediate success following their entrance into the NFL)
  • 2000 (Tom Brady)
  • 2002 (first draft for the expansion Houston Texans, the 32nd and final team to join the NFL)

10)- 1989 NFL draft

The 1989 draft class is one of the few draft classes that produced stars right away, with four of the class’s five Hall of Famers in the first five picks. Quarterback Troy Aikman (first), running back Barry Sanders (third), linebacker Derrick Thomas (fourth) and defensive back Deion Sanders (fifth). The rest of the class was somewhat underwhelming, but those four players alone put this class in the top 10 of all time.


9)- 2001 NFL draft

The first draft to make the list from the 2000s is the 2001 draft, with offense thriving with future superstars. While the first pick in the draft, quarterback Michael Vick hasn’t made the HOF and likely won’t, picks five and six produced to canton-bound players in running back LaDanien Tomlinson and defensive end Richard Seymour. Later round steals include quarterback Drew Brees and wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.


8)- 2004 NFL draft

Quite possibly the greatest quarterback draft class of all time, and the weirdest draft day storylines, the 2004 draft is the draft that shaped most of our childhoods. Quarterback Eli Manning went first overall to the then-San Diego Chargers, but was a Charger for 45 minutes, as he was traded to the New York Giants in a crazy series of events highlighted here. Other studs to come out of this draft included quarterbacks Phillip Rivers, Ben Roethlisburger and Matt Schuab, the late safety Sean Taylor, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and nose tackle Vince Wilfork. When we see who will make Canton from this class in a few years, the 2004 draft will go down as one of the best of all time.


7)- 2007 NFL draft

This selection is somewhat ironic, as the 2007 draft’s first overall pick, quarterback JaMarcus Russell, is in talks for the biggest draft bust in NFL history. The next pick turned into one of the newest Canton inductees, wide receiver Calvin Johnson. The following selection was future HOF tackle Joe Thomas, and at seven was future Most Valuable Player running back Adrian Peterson. This class also had many fan favorites, like running back Marshawn Lynch, linebacker Patrick Willis, Nebraska alum Adam Carriker and Super Bowl Champion Safety Eric Weddle.


6)- 1981 NFL draft

The 1981 draft is memorable for many reasons. First, the last defensive player to win the MVP award was selected second overall, linebacker Lawerence Taylor. Besides Taylor, legendary defensive players like safety Ronnie Lott, defensive back Kenny Easley, linebacker Mike Singletary, and defensive end Howie Long, the father of future players Chris and Kyle Long, all were picked later in the draft. In total, seven players wound up in Canton, six of whom were defensive players.


5)- 1995 NFL draft

Here’s a pleasant little surprise; not only is the 1995 draft extremely important to the league’s future success, it also was a stacked draft class. Carolina won the first pick in a coin toss, but then traded to Cincinnati, who would select Penn St. running back Ki-Jana Carter. While he became a bust due to injury, the next player drafted was offensive tackle Tony Boselli, who should wind up in the Hall of Fame. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also would luck out in this draft, as both defenseman Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks would win a Super Bowl in Tampa. 


4)- 2018 NFL draft

For one of the higher-up spots I did want to include a much newer draft class, and the 2018 draft is the perfect draft to put on this list. Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round, including 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson at pick 32. Other stars of the league include quarterback Josh Allen, running back Nick Chubb, offensive guard Quenton Nelson, safety Derwin James and the homegrown Millard West talent, defensive tackle Harrison Phillips. With their careers still young and many about to enter their prime years, this draft class has the potential to carve out great careers. 


3)- 2014 NFL draft

You know a draft class is top tier when the first three wide receivers off the board won back to back to back super bowls (Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr.). You also know a draft class is stacked when the three time defensive player of the year Aaron Donald is in this draft class. Besides this draft being one of the most fun to watch with headliners like quarterback Johnny “Football” Manziel, linebacker Khalil Mack, and possibly the most consistent wide receiver of all time in Brandin Cooks. This class is full of star players, fan favorites and former Nebraska wide receiver Quincy Enunwa. Almost 10 years into these players careers, many will go down as some of the best of all time.


2)- 1983 NFL draft

While 1983 may have been the year of the pig, the draft was the year of the quarterback. John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and future Super Bowl winning coach Gary Kubiak all were drafted in this year. Somehow, the Rookie of the Year went to Eric Dickerson instead of any of the first round QBs. Also selected was HOF tackle Jimbo Covert and defensive back Darrell Green. Many people see this draft as the greatest of all time for the overall depth, and while I agree that it is up there, there is just one draft class that seems unbeatable…


1)- 2011 NFL draft

Of the top 10 selections, eight are still active in the NFL, and 20 of the 32 first round picks are still in the league. This draft class could have been even greater if quarterback Andrew Luck came out of college early, but that is the least of the concerns. Quarterback Cam Newton was the MVP in 2015, and the next pick linebacker Von Miller won Super Bowl MVP the same year against Newton’s Panthers. Edge J.J. Watt is a three time defensive player of the year. Wide receivers A.J. Green and Julio Jones combined for 23,608 yards. All of those players were taken in just the first round. Infact, this draft class is one of the few draft classes to have an active player taken from every single round, and up until fullback Patrick DiMarco’s retirement, an undrafted free agent as well. The resume speaks for itself, and the 2011 NFL draft class is the greatest of all time.