Boom or bust: Ranking the three best and three worst NFL drafts of all time

Boom or bust: Ranking the three best and three worst NFL drafts of all time

Photo Credits: JOELLE TAHTA / AGGIE

A look back while the 2020 draft dominates amid global sports shutdown

The 2020 NFL Draft was held from April 23–25, and the anticipation going into it was the biggest it had been in years. Originally scheduled to be held in Las Vegas, the draft was forced to move to a virtual format due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This made the NFL’s job a lot harder, as each organization’s coaching and management staff now had to interview and scout players from afar, further testing their football intelligence. 

The top two picks, held by the Cincinnati Bengals and the Washington Redskins, respectively, were seen as locks, and they picked the players everyone expected. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow went first overall to the Bengals and Ohio State defensive end Chase Young went right after him. From there on out, much of the picks were generally unknown. But in the end, there were no major surprises, as in years past. 

Heading into the draft, there was a strong belief that there might be many trades executed, specifically in the top 10. That belief, however, proved to be false as a trade did not take place until the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded up one spot with the San Francisco 49ers. 

There were three quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 and four total in the first round. The 2020 draft class was also regarded as having one of the deepest wide receiver classes in history, and it seemed many teams agreed. Six receivers were drafted in the first round and, by the end of the second round, a total of 13 were off the board. 

Perhaps the biggest surprises of the draft involved the quarterbacks. The Green Bay Packers traded up four spots to number 26 and drafted Utah State gunslinger Jordan Love. Green Bay already has an all-pro starting quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, so spending the team’s valuable first round pick on Love indicated that the franchise is looking toward the future. Rodgers, 36, signed a four-year, $134 million extension with the team in August 2018, so the pick has many thinking that the Packers are beginning to prepare for life after Rodgers. 

Speaking of big money quarterbacks, another shocker in this draft came from Philadelphia, as the Eagles selected Heisman finalist and Oklahoma Sooner quarterback Jalen Hurts with the 53rd pick. This came as a surprise to many, as the team had just given its former number two pick and current starting quarterback Carson Wentz a four-year, $128 million extension before the past season. Wentz, 27, however, has had an extensive injury history, so the Eagles’ approach makes sense. Still, it is surprising that Philadelphia chose a backup with such a high pick with more pressing needs still available. 

Even given the strange circumstances and different format, the draft gave sports fans something new to look forward to for the first time in a while. The thirst for sports showed, as the NFL Draft shattered the all-time viewership on the first night. Up 37% from last year’s telecast, the draft averaged 15.6 million viewers on the first night and peaked at 19.6 million. The combined ESPN-NFL Network broadcast made it feel similar to years past and served as an escape during these sports-less times. 

There are usually great players that come out of every draft, but some classes are loaded while others have players that are out of the league in three years. For this year’s class, it’s still too early to judge. But since it is draft season, The Aggie decided to rank the three best and three worst NFL drafts of all time.

The Busts

2009

In terms of recent NFL Drafts, 2009 stands out because, although there were some players that turned out to be solid pros, there were a large number of high picks that just didn’t pan out. 

After Matthew Stafford was taken at number one by the Detroit Lions, the St. Louis Rams drafted offensive tackle Jason Smith out of Baylor who would play a total of 26 games in his career. That seemed to be the theme, as 23 of the 32 players drafted in the first round did not sign a second contract with the team they were drafted by. Only 11 players from the first round and 27 players overall have been selected to the Pro Bowl in their careers. 

Aside from Stafford, the 2009 class did produce other notable players like Brian Orakpo, Julian Edelman, Clay Matthews, LeSean McCoy and Malcolm Jenkins, but never to the magnitude of a superstar or even potential Hall of Famer. It was a forgettable draft that produced minimal talent, and it is the worst draft since the turn of the century.

1991

The 1991 NFL draft produced one of the best quarterbacks ever in Brett Favre, who went on to make the Hall of Fame after a career that saw him win three consecutive NFL Most Valuable Player awards from 1995–1997 and a Super Bowl title. Defensive back Aeneas Williams, drafted in the third round by the Phoenix Cardinals, also went on to have a Hall of Fame. 

Aside from those two players, there was very little elite talent. Others went on to become nice depth players, but with the draft being overshadowed by Favre’s selection at 33 overall, no one notices that it was one of the most forgettable draft classes ever. 

1992

In 1992, the Indianapolis Colts held the top two picks in the draft after a fortunate trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two years prior — an unprecedented circumstance that had never occured in any major sport — but it could not have been a worse year for them to get them. The talent pool was limited going into the draft, and the Colts selected defensive tackle Steve Emtman and linebacker Quentin Coryatt. Neither player would ever make a Pro Bowl and both had forgettable careers. 

That was basically the theme of the entire draft, as the 1992 class never produced a Hall of Fame player or anyone who even came close. There were only two players in the first round that made All-Pro teams, and to this day it remains the only draft class with none of its members in Canton. Although it did produce players like Troy Vincent, Jimmy Smith and Darren Woodson, who all went on to have successful careers, it will be hard to ever duplicate how bad that draft was. 

The Best

1996

It feels like 1996 was a great year for both the NFL and the NBA when it came to the draft. On the NFL’s side, this draft produced some of the best players of all time in a variety of positions. 

This was the last draft where a quarterback was not taken in the first round, but that did not mean there were no impact players taken. There are currently five Hall of Famers from that class, including the Baltimore Ravens duo of Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden, and other all-time greats like Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens and Brian Dawkins, who will all go down as some of the best at their respective positions. 

Even after these legendary players, there were other notable players, like Keyshawn Johnson, Eddie George, Mike Alstott, Lawyer Milloy and Tedy Bruschi, who won’t make the Hall of Fame but still had great careers. Overall, the 1996 draft will go down as one of the most legendary drafts of all time. 

1981

The 1981 draft was great in general, but it is difficult to surpass from a defensive standpoint. It possesses seven Hall of Famers, six of whom were on the defensive side of the ball. Lawrence Taylor, Ronnie Lott, Mike Singletary, Howie Long, Kenny Easley, Russ Grimm and Rickey Jackson are all in Canton, with Grimm being the lone offensive player from this list. 

It was a star-studded defensive class, but the overall draft was also a successful one, as it had 32 Pro Bowlers. E.J. Junior, Dennis Smith, Eric Wright and Dexter Manley were all also a part of this class. Taylor and Singletary are now regarded as among the NFL’s most iconic stars in history, and when reflecting back to this class, it is hard to see any year ever passing this defensive masterpiece. 

1983

When looking back at the history of NFL drafts, the near-unanimous pick as the holy grail of draft classes is the 1983 draft. It is almost impossible to replicate the amount of talent and game-changers that were a part of this one draft. 

It is by far the greatest quarterback class ever with John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and UC Davis’ own Ken O’Brien all drafted in the first round. It had one of the greatest running backs of all time in Eric Dickerson and defensive greats like Darnell Green and 203rd overall pick Richard Dent. Add the likes of Jimbo Covert and Bruce Matthews, there are a total of eight Hall of Famers and 42 Pro Bowlers (including 26 who made multiple Pro Bowls) in the class of 1983. When the draft comes around every year, there will almost surely be a mention to the historic class of 1983. It truly is a “who’s who” of NFL history.

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org