On draft night (or day, as it used to be), classes looked like freshly fallen snow. So pure, so still, so beautiful. Then, about two weeks into the preseason it looks like that buildup you get on the side of the highway that doesn't melt for six weeks. Every pick looks good on draft night. It takes a few years to evaluate how those picks look as a whole, however. We've gone back to look at the past 25 to rank every draft class, from best to worst. How will 2016 be? Well, it can't possibly be any worse than our last-place finisher.
1st - 1996/No. 1 pick: Keyshawn Johnson/Top player: Ray Lewis/All-Pro selection: 43
As luck, and the sheer happenstance of space and time, should have it, we're at the 20th anniversary of the best draft class in modern times. And while the rest of this list was puzzled over, debated and had classes moved around like pieces on a chess board, figuring out No. 1 was as easy as it gets. Jonathan Ogden is in the Hall of Fame. Ray Lewis will be there soon. Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison should be close by. (And maybe even Brian Dawkins too.) Overall, 24 players selected spent a decade or more as an NFL starter, the top number of the past 25 years. On that list, not all were superstars (Muhsin Muhammad, Jon Runyan, Walt Harris, La'Roi Glover, Simeon Rice, Tedy Bruschi, Amani Toomer) but each was a solid NFL players who made good on their draft promise.
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2nd - 2011/No. 1 pick: Cam Newton/Top player: J.J. Watt/All-Pro selections: 20
3rd - 2010/No. 1 pick: Sam Bradford/Top player: Rob Gronkowski/All-Pro selections: 26
Two classes in and we're already playing guessing games. Is it recency bias that has 2010 and 2011, the two classes where players are now hitting their primes, as No. 2 and No. 3 on this list? I don't think so, now with Watt, Newton, Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, Von Miller and a number of Smiths leading the charge for 2011 (so much so that in a decade it's possible this could be our No. 1 class) and a stacked 2010 class that you could throw a dart at and you'd likely hit a starter, if not a star. Gronk, Ndamukung Suh, Geno Atkins, Earl Thomas, NaVorro Bowman, Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Trent Williams, Dez Bryant, Jimmy Graham, Jason Pierre-Paul, Kam Chancellor, Joe Haden, Eric Berry and the list goes on.
4th - 1998/No. 1 pick: Peyton Manning/Top player: Peyton Manning/All-Pro selections: 27
Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson, Randy Moss: I'll take 1998's Big Three, give you any other draft, and be quite happy. This is the only class with which we Beyond them though, the whole of the draft isn't much to look at: Nos. 2, 3 and 5 were busts (Ryan Leaf, Andre Wadsworth and Curtis Enis), but there was some nice depth with Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Matt Hasselbeck, Fred Taylor and Flozell Adams.
5th - 2007/No. 1 pick: JaMarcus Russell/Top player: Darrelle Revis/All-Pro selections: 33
Maybe the most top-heavy draft on the list. The five best players all went between No. 2 and No. 14 in the draft (Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis and Revis) yet beyond that, there's not much to boast on. To beast on, yes, as Marshawn Lynch went No. 12 to the Bills. And, no, we didn't think the JaMarcus Russell draft would rank so high either.
6th - 2001/No. 1 pick: Michael Vick/Top player: Steve Hutchinson/All-Pro selections: 22
A year with Michael Vick near the top? Really? Well, first you have to remember how electrifying the Michael Vick of old used to be. (Remember when he brought Atlanta to Lambeau and scored the first visiting win ever there in the playoffs? It felt like football changed that day. It did not.) But this is about far more than the top player. Nine of the first 13 picks made Pro Bowls. There were a total of 13 All-Pro selections in the first round and 10 more in the second and third.
7th - 1993/No. 1 pick: Drew Bledsoe/Top player: Michael Strahan/All-Pro selections: 22
Though Kelly Ripa might disagree, the '93 draft class, with its four Hall of Famers, is clearly one of the best of the last 25 years. In addition to Strahan there was Willie Roaf, Jerome Bettis, Chad Brown, Will Shields, John Lynch, Lorenzo Neal, Dana Stubblefield and Jessie Armstead - a group of guys who were never superstars, just those lunchpail types that John Madden loved so much. Add in a group of decent, longtime QBS - Bledsoe, Mark Brunell and Trent Green - and you've got yourself a pretty good year.
8th - 2003/No. 1 pick: Carson Palmer/Top player: Kevin Williams/All-Pro selections: 25
This is the first year since we started in 1991 where, at the moment, some of the best players are currently active. For instance, there are only four active players from the 2002 draft. Five of the top 10 picks in 2003 are still playing and many more beyond that. Needless to say, the list is impressive: Palmer, Andre Johnson, Terence Newman, Kevin Williams and Terrell Suggs. Throw in Jason Witten, Lance Briggs, Troy Poamalu, Asante Samuel, Peanut Tillman, Nnamdi Asomugha this is a draft that was as good at the top as it was the middle.
9th - 1995/No. 1 pick: Ki-Jana Carter/Top player: Derrick Brooks/All-Pro selections: 25
Tampa made the best of this draft, grabbing two players that would be the backbone of a defense that would win the Super Bowl seven years later. Brooks went No. 28 while Warren Sapp, who had fallen a bit due to the dreaded "character issues," proved himself to be a star who was nothing if not vigilant about jersey preparedness.
There were finds all over this draft. Tony Boselli went No. 2. Terrell Davis went No. 196. Steve McNair, Ty Law and Curtis Martin went in the middle. But, when everything is weighed, this is too top-heavy a bunch (three Hall of Famers at the moment and possibly for good, unless the voters let in Davis one day) to appear much higher.
10th - 1997/No. 1 pick: Orlando Pace/Top player: Walter Jones/All-Pro selections: 29
Neither Barber brother went in the first round, but both Tiki (No. 36) and Ronde (No. 66) were among the players taken in 1997 who had the best overall careers. That list also includes Jason Taylor, Tony Gonzalez and then a number of players taken up top: Pace (No. 1), Walter Jones (No. 6), James Farrior (No. 8) and Warrick Dunn (No. 12).
11th - 2012/No. 1 pick: Andrew Luck/Top player: Russell Wilson/All-Pro selections: 9
It's still so early to grade these guys and any draft with two top-tier quarterbacks (Wilson and Luck) is a fine one. But the rest of the list is of the "up in the air" or "could go either way" variety. At this point two of the five best picks look like they belong to the Panthers, who took Luke Kuechly at No. 9 and Josh Norman at No. 143, then went and got rid of it all (or half, I guess) for no good reason.
12th - 1994/No. 1 pick: Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson/Top player: Marshall Faulk/All-Pro selections: 20
Take your pick between Faulk and Larry Allen as to who was the best player coming out of the '94 draft. This was the sort of draft with a deep bench but not a lot of superstars: Kevin Mawae, Bryant Young, Issac Bruce, Aaron Glenn, Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinest, Jamal Anderson, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Garner and, of course, one-time Pro Bowler Gus Frerotte.
13th - 2002/No. 1 pick: David Carr/Top player: Ed Reed/All-Pro selections: 17
A defensive draft as four of the best players, at their peak, were all on the other side of the ball: Ed Reed, Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney and Albert Haynesworth. Wherever you want to rank Clinton Portis, Bryant McKinnie, Jeremy Shockey and Brian Westbrook among those four guys is up to you. But the fact remains: Other than those eight players, this draft was ugly - Cleveland Browns ugly.
14th - 2004/No. 1 pick: Eli Manning/Top player: Ben Roethlisberger/All-Pro selections: 15
This was the hardest year to rank. On one hand, the year of the quarterback (part II) has provided four Super Bowl rings but no All-Pro appearances. But in addition to Manning, Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers it's pretty much just Jared Allen, Vince Wilfork, Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby and Steven Jackson. We did bump this a spot because of the tragic, unfulfilled promise of No. 5 pick Sean Taylor, who would have likely moved this draft up two or three more spots himself.
15th - 2001/No. 1 pick: Courtney Brown/Top player: Tom Brady/All-Pro selections: 23
Guess who has the most All-Pro appearances from the draft class of 2001? Nope, not Tom Brady. Brian Urlacher? The former Bears linebacker has four to Brady's two, but he's not our answer. Punter Shane Lechler, taken in the fifth round (No. 142) by the Raiders, has six All-Pro nods. This is the same draft that saw Sebastian Janikowski go at No. 17. Overall though, 2001 suffers from its top-10 bust parade: Courtney Brown, LaVar Arrington, Peter Warrick, Corey Simon and Travis Taylor.
16th - 1991/No. 1 pick - Russell Maryland/Top player: Brett Favre/All-Pro selections: 22
Favre didn't go until pick No. 33 and the only other Hall of Famer from the class (Aeneas Williams) lasted until No. 59. The rest were fine players in those old Madden Sega games (Ben Coates being most people's favorite tight-end target) but had mostly forgettable careers. Except Leon Lett. His was memorable.
17th - 1999 draft/No. 1 pick: Tim Couch/Top player: Champ Bailey/All-Pro selections: 12
Only one player (Bailey) had more than one All-Pro selection. Even so, there still was a lot of "almost" greatness in this draft. Torry Holt, Donovan McNabb, Joey Porter, Daunte Culpepper, Ricky Williams, Jevon Kearse and Donald Driver each were at the top of the game for years.
18th - 2005 draft/No. 1 pick: Alex Smith/Top player: Aaron Rodgers/All-Pro selections: 19
DeMarcus Ware is the only other player taken in 2005 who will sniff the Hall of Fame. There are other good-to-great picks (Thomas Davis, Roddy White, Frank Gore and Logan Mankins) among them, but not a whole of guys to build your team around.
19th - 2006 draft/No. 1 pick: Mario Williams/Top player: Jahri Evans/All-Pro selections: 22
At least Aaron Rodgers and DeMarcus Ware will have Hall cases. In 2006, it just might be Devin Hester, assuming the voters deem the greatest returner in history worthy of Canton. Let's put it this way: According to one metric, Jay Cutler is the third best player of this draft.
20th - 2008 draft/No. 1 pick: Jake Long/Top player: Matt Ryan/All-Pro selections: 9
The top 10: Jake Long, Chris Long, Matt Ryan, Darren McFadden, Glenn Dorsey, Vernon Gholston, Sedrick Ellis, Derrick Harvey, Keith Rivers, Jerod Mayo. Total Pro Bowls: 9 and that's Pro Bowls, which is like kickball at recess - everybody gets picked eventually.
21st - 2009 draft/No. 1 pick: Matthew Stafford/Top player: Clay Matthews/All-Pro selections: 6
Wow, the last half of the aughts was a low tide for the NFL draft. If the NFL took apart every roster and put every player into a common pool for a redraft, I don't any player from 2009 would go in the first five rounds. Seriously. It's that bad, unless you're a really, really big fan of LeSean McCoy.
22nd - 2014/No. 1 pick: Jadeveon Clowney/Top player: Odell Beckham/All-Pro selections: 3
Too early to tell, but needless to say Johnny Manziel probably won't be shifting the curve.
23rd - 2013/No. 1 pick: Eric Fisher/Top player: Le'Veon Bell/All-Pro selections: 3
It's not too early to tell here. Remember that draft when you didn't know the name of any player taken in the top 10? You'll be shocked to know that things haven't worked out so well for them thus far, with the three best players having gone No. 29 (Cordarrelle Patterson), No. 48 (Le'Veon Bell) and No. 61 (Eddie Lacy), so far. If he stays healthy, Tyrann Mathieu could help the status of this class, big time.
24th - 2015/No. 1 pick: Jameis Winston/Top player: Marcus Peters/All-Pro selections: 1
If we were projecting, this group would be higher. But we don't know enough to do that. Here's what we do know: Winston and Marcus Mariota have the goods, Marcus Peters can star in Bob Sutton's Chiefs defense, Preston Smith could be the rare Redskins draft pick to break out and nothing Todd Gurley did in his rookie season made you think he won't be an NFL star. Or they could all stink in their sophomore seasons. Regardless, they're No. 24 because it's impossible for any class to be as bad as our last-place finisher.
25th - 1992/No. 1 pick: Steve Emtman/Top player: Darren Woodson/All-Pro selections: 8
All you need to know about this draft can be seen in 14 of the top 15 picks, starting at No. 1 and descending: Emtman, Quentin Coryatt, Sean Gilbert, Desmond Howard, Terrell Buckley, David Klinger, Troy Vincent, Bob Whitfield, Tommy Vardell, Ray Roberts, Leon Searcy, Marco Coleman, Eugene Chung, Derek Brown and Johnny Mitchell. Vincent is the only great player of the bunch. Sean Gilbert had a year or two, Desmond Howard was a fine returner, Bob Whitfield was a mainstay of Atlanta's offensive line for 15 years and Marco Coleman was a solid defender. But, take Vincent out of the equation and the the top 15 picks had no All-Pro selections, just five Pro Bowl appearances (from five different players) and eight played four years or less in the league. Eight of 14! The low rounds weren't much better, with the "best" player taken after the second round was Brad Johnson, who went No. 227.