What is the best NFL Draft class ever? The annual NFL Draft delivers a new wave of players into the National Football League, featuring everything from future Hall of Famers to some of the greatest draft busts of all-time. It leads to the familiar debate over the best NFL Draft classes ever.
In this exercise, we’re not focused on the draft haul of a specific team. While the Los Angeles Chargers (2001), Baltimore Ravens (1996 and 2018), Arizona Cardinals (2004), New Orleans Saints (2017) and Seattle Seahawks (2010) have some of the individual best NFL Draft classes ever, our focus is on the entire draft.
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A variety of factors play into evaluating the best NFL Draft class ever. The number of inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame plays a massive role, along with Super Bowl rings, Pro Bowl selections and representation among the highest-paid NFL players. In one case on our list, projections for current players also factor in.
Let’s dive into the best NFL Draft classes ever.
Ranking 10 best NFL Draft classes ever
10. 2020 NFL Draft
- Notable Selections: Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Jefferson, Tristan Wirfs, CeeDee Lamb, Andrew Thomas, Tee Higgins, Kyle Dugger, Jonathan Taylor, Jalen Hurts
It will certainly be viewed as a controversial selection to call the 2020 NFL Draft one of the best draft classes ever. Plenty of great classes have come before it and delivered current members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Our argument for the 2020 NFL Draft class centers on projections based on how so many of the players picked in 2020 have already performed.
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We’ll start with the quarterbacks. Joe Burrow is already the most accomplished quarterback in Cincinnati Bengals history and on pace for a Hall of Fame career with multiple NFL records on his resume. Jalen Hurts, the 53rd overall pick, is one of the highest-paid NFL quarterbacks and took the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl. Tua Tagovailoa can play at an MVP-caliber level when healthy and Justin Herbert is a top-five quarterback. While it’s not on the 1983 level (John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly), the 2020 quarterback class is on pace to be one of the all-time greats.
While quarterbacks are the most recognized characteristic of a great draft class, the 2020 group offers a lot more. Justin Jefferson is breaking Randy Moss’ records seemingly every season, well on his way to becoming an all-time great. Andrew Thomas is one of the best left tackles in the NFL, CeeDee Lamb is becoming a perennial Pro Bowl selection, while Trevon Diggs, Jonathan Taylor and Tristan Wirfs each have first-team All-Pro selections.
Add in impact players with Pro Bowl selections (Antoine Winfield Jr, Chase Young, Jonah Jackson, Tyler Biadasz and Devin Duvernay) paired with long-term starters (Darnell Mooney, Derrick Brown, AJ Terrell, Alex High Smith, Jeremy Chinn, Brandon Aiyuk and Michael Pittman Jr.), you have a class that is shaping up to be one of the all-time greats.
9. 1985 NFL Draft
- Notable Selections: Jerry Rice, Bruce Smith, Randall Cunningham, Kevin Greene, Andre Reed, Herschel Walker, Lomas Brown, Chris Doleman, Ray Childress, Steve Tasker
Jerry Rice, the best wide receiver in NFL history, was drafted with the 16th overall pick in 1985. Naturally, boasting one of the best players ever isn’t the only reason why the 1985 NFL Draft holds a reputation as one of the best NFL Draft classes ever.
The 1985 draft class features the all-time leader in receiving yards (22,895) and touchdowns (197) along with the all-time NFL leader in sacks (200, Bruce Smith). Go beyond the two all-time greats and you still have Hall of Fame inductees Chris Doleman, Andre Reed and Kevin Greene. In addition, nine players earned at least five Pro Bowl selections and 29 players started at least eight seasons in the NFL.
8. 2001 NFL Draft
- Notable Selections: Drew Brees, LaDainian Tomlinson, Reggie Wayne, Steve Hutchinson, Steve Smith Sr., Michael Vick, Chad Johnson, Matt Light, Justin Smith, Richard Seymour
While the best NFL Draft classes ever feature a lot of generational talents, it’s not often one team lands two of them. The Chargers drafted running back LaDainian Tomlinson with the fifth overall pick then took Drew Brees with the first pick in the second round. While drafting the two best players from the 2001 NFL Draft didn’t work out perfectly for the Chargers, this is still a draft class that must be remembered in NFL history.
Three players from the 2001 NFL Draft (Tomlinson, Steve Hutchinson and Richard Seymour) and the future inductions for Brees and Reggie Wayne would put five into Canton, Ohio. Michael Vick, the No. 1 overall pick, was a league-changing talent who changed the future of football. Meanwhile, Steve Smith Sr., Adrian Wilson, Chad Johnson, Justin Smith and Casey Hampton are among the perennial Pro Bowl selections who dominated the league for years.
7. 2004 NFL Draft
- Notable Selections: Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Jared Allen, Larry Fitzgerald, Vince Wilfork, Karlos Dansby, Steven Jackson, Chris Snee, Darnell Dockett
The 2004 NFL Draft is well-known for a variety of reasons. Among them, Eli Manning refused to play for the Chargers. While they drafted him with the first overall pick, he was traded to the New York Giants for Philip Rivers (fourth pick) along with a third-round pick and a 2005 first-round selection. New York got two Super Bowls out of it, while Rivers thrived in San Diego.
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Nine players from the 2004 NFL Draft earned at least one first-team All-Pro selection during their careers, including Michael Turner, Chris Snee, Shawn Andrews and Bob Sanders. While no player drafted in 2004 has made the Pro Football Hall of Fame yet, that will change in the coming years. Ben Roethlisberger, Manning, Larry Fitzgerald and Jared Allen will all be inducted. When you add in Vince Wilfork, DeAngelo Hall, Steven Jackson, Karlos Dansby and Darnell Dockett, this class provides the depth necessary to be one of the 10 best in NFL history.
6. 1989 NFL Draft
- Notable Selections: Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, Deion Sanders, Steve Atwater, Steve Wisniewski, Andre Rison, Carnell Lake, Jerry Fontenot, Mark Schlereth
NFL teams head into the draft hoping to land a high-end player who can be one of the best at his position for several years. In the 1989 NFL Draft, four of the teams with top-five picks landed future inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
While the Green Bay Packers whiffed with Tony Mandarich, it was to the benefit of everyone behind then. The Detroit Lions (Barry Sanders), Kansas City Chiefs (Derrick Thomas) and Atlanta Falcons (Deion Sanders) landed some of the most dominant and unstoppable players at their respective positions. Later in the first round, Denver landed Hall of Fame safety Steve Atwater.
Beyond the five draftees who later received gold jackets, the 1989 NFL Draft also features a few multi-year difference makers. Steve Wisniewski started 206 games with the Raiders, Carnell Lake generated 31 turnovers with 25 sacks, Andre Rison finished with 10,205 receiving yards and Mark Stepnoski started 13 total NFL seasons with both the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans.
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5. 1996 NFL Draft
- Notable Selections: Ray Lewis, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Zach Thomas, Brian Dawkins, Jonathan Ogden, Keyshawn Johnson, La’Roi Glover, Simeon Rice, Willie Anderson
Not only is the 1996 NFL Draft one of the best in history, it’s also one of the biggest reasons why Ozzie Newsome became an all-time great. In his first season as the Baltimore Ravens’ executive vice president, Newsome spent the fourth overall pick on offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and the 26th selection on linebacker Ray Lewis. Two Hall of Famers with two picks, not a bad haul.
The first round of the 1996 NFL Draft delivered three Hall of Famers, including Marvin Harrison (19th overall pick). What makes it one of the best NFL Draft classes ever is the depth and value found throughout the rounds. Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins was selected 61st overall by the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers land Terrell Owens with the 89th overall selection and then Zach Thomas fell to the Miami Dolphins with the 154th pick. . In total, there were six Hall of Famers in the 1996 NFL Draft.
We also have to highlight some of the players who didn’t make the Hall of Fame, but delivered excellent careers. Tedy Burschi (three-time Super Bowl champion), Simeon Rice (122 sacks), Lawyer Milloy, Terry Glenn, Amani Toomer, Joe Horn, Keyshawn Johnson (10,571 receiving yards), Willie Anderson and La’Roi Glover (83.5 sacks) were all part of this group, too.
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4. 1957 NFL Draft
- Notable Selections: Len Dawson, Jim Brown, Paul Hornung, Sonny Jurgensen, Don Maynard, Henry Jordan, Jim Parker, Gene Hickerson, John Brodie, Jack Kemp, Tommy McDonald
The 1957 NFL Draft made nine Hall of Famers, making it one of the best draft classes in NFL history. While the top-five picks might not be on the same tier as the 1959 class, 1957 makes up for it with its depth of talent and an abundance of Hall of Famers drafted in the later rounds.
Paul Horning, the No. 1 pick in the 1957 NFL Draft, exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations as one of the best Green Bay Packers players ever. A few picks later, Len Dawson was drafted fifth overall and the Cleveland Browns followed that up by landing Jim Brown.
This is certainly one of the best draft classes ever because of the nine Hall of Famers – Hornung, Dawson, Brown, Jim Parker, Tommy McDonald, Sonny Jurgensen, Henry Jordan, Gene Hickerson and Don Maynard – among the most in NFL history. Add in quarterback John Brodie (214 passing touchdowns), Jack Kemp and Jack Pardee, you’ve got a draft class that is an integral part of NFL history.
3. 1981 NFL Draft
- Notable Selections: Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Ronnie Lott, Howie Long, Rickey Jackson, Russ Grimm, James Brooks, Kenny Easley, Cris Collinsworth, Dennis Smith
The 1981 NFL Draft is known for having the best collection of defensive talent in NFL history. Lawrence Taylor, the best pass rusher ever, lived up to his selection as the second overall pick. Beyond Taylor, you could build one of the best NFL defenses ever with just a few of the standouts in this class.
There were seven Hall of Famers drafted in 1981. Taylor (142 sacks), safety Kenny Easley (32 interceptions, 1984 Defensive Player of the Year) and Ronnie Lott (four-time Super Bowl champion) headline the first-round selections. Dive further into the 1981 NFL Draft and you’ll find it also features Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long (91.5 sacks) and linebacker Mike Singletary. Furthermore, Hall of Fame guard Russ Grimm (69th overall pick) and linebacker Rickey Jackson (136 sacks, 51st overall pick) were also welcomed to the NFL in 1981.
While there is a talent drop-off after that, the 1981 NFL Draft can still claim that 32 of its selections earned at least one Pro Bowl selection and 12 were named first-team All-Pro at least once. Not bad for the best defensive NFL Draft class ever.
2. 1964 NFL Draft
- Notable Selections: Roger Staubach, Bob Hayes, Dave Wilcox, Carl Eller, Paul Krause, Mel Renfro, Charly Taylor, Bob Brown, Paul Warfield, Jon Morris, Gary Larsen, Len Hauss
If even a few players from an NFL Draft class make it into the Hall of Fame, that’s an outstanding accomplishment. While several on our list delivered five-plus inductees, the 1964 NFL Draft reached double figures.
Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Bob Brown (seven consecutive All-Pro selections) and Washington Commanders utility player Charley Taylor (10,598 scrimmage yards and 90 total touchdowns) were taken second and third overall. Shortly after, the Minnesota Vikings landed Hall of Fame pass rusher Carl Eller (133.5) sacks with the sixth overall pick. From picks 22-28, another three Hall of Famers (Paul Warfield, Mel Renfro, Paul Krause) were drafted.
One of the biggest NFL Draft steals ever, Roger Staubach, wasn’t picked until the 10th round with the 129th overall pick. He wasn’t the only legend taken after pick 100, with Leroy Kelly (110th overall taken late in the 1964 NFL Draft. Throw in Bob Hayes (88th overall) and Dave Wilcox (29th overall), it’s a staggering number of essential figures in NFL history.
There are 10 Hall of Famers in the 1964 NFL Draft class, the most ever. Even if you don’t include those with a bust in Canton, Ohio, several players either came fairly close or at least made the Pro Bowl. Len Hauss dominated at center for more than a decade, earning five Pro Bowl nods and fellow center Jon Morris received seven Pro Bowl selections of his own. Beyond the big names, this class also features Wally Hilgenberg, Gary Larsen and Dan Conners.
1. 1983 NFL Draft – Best NFL Draft class ever
- Notable Selections: John Elway, Eric Dickerson, Dan Marino, Bruce Matthews, Jim Kelly, Darrell Green, Richard Dent, Roger Craig, Henry Ellard, Ken O’Brien, Karl Mecklenburg
The 1983 NFL Draft is the best NFL Draft class ever. While it doesn’t match the NFL record for the most Hall of Fame inductees from a single draft, the 1983 class makes up for it because of the importance of quarterbacks in NFL history.
It starts with Dan Marino (27th overall) and John Elway (1st overall pick), two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Going beyond two of the most skilled passers in the history of football, the first round also included the second-best offensive lineman in NFL history (Bruce Matthews, 9th overall) and iconic running back Eric Dickerson (2nd overall).
That’s certainly not all the 1983 NFL Draft provided for football fans. Jim Kelly (14th overall pick) is one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history to never win a Super Bowl. Richard Dent (203rd overall pick), recorded 137.5 sacks and won two Super Bowls in his Hall of Fame career, too. Rounding out the Hall of Famers, Darrel Green (28th overall pick) and Jimbo Cobert also make up this class.
Finally, the 1983 NFL Draft saw 41 players earn Pro Bowl selections and 33 of those achieved the honor at least twice. Add in the fact that 22 players became starters for a decade-plus, not even including stars such as Roger Craig and Ken O’Brien and you have the best NFL Draft class ever.