The top 10 NFL draft classes

With the NFL draft on tap next week, what better time to review the top 10 drafts in NFL history.

Players are ultimately judged by election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and that’s the main criteria for this exercise. It’s difficult to rate and rank recent drafts, since many of those players – at least the good ones – are still active and years from Hall of Fame eligibility. Here’s the SL top 10:

1. 1957 – Green Bay selected Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung of Notre Dame with the first overall pick. Len Dawson (5th), Jimmy Brown (6th), right, and Jim Parker (8th) were also first rounders and Hall of Famers. In all, eight eventual Hall of Famers were picked, including Tommy McDonald in the third round, Sonny Jurgensen in the fourth, Henry Jordan in the fifth and Gene Hickerson in the seventh. Cleveland had three Hall of Fame picks in Brown, generally considered the best running back in history, Jordan, a defensive tackle, and Hickerson, who played offensive guard. Jordan played two years with the Browns before being traded to the Packers. Jon Arnett, John Brodie and Ron Kramer, standouts in their own right, were the second, third and fourth overall selections.

2. 1967 – This class also had eight Hall of Famers, four of them — Bob Griese, Floyd Little, Alan Page and Gene Upshaw – going in the first round. Ken Houston, Willie Lanier, Lem Barney and Rayfield Wright were the other HOFers in this draft class. Bubba Smith was the first overall pick, and other notables included Gene Washington, John Gilliam and Rick Volk. The classes of 1957 and 1967 have more Hall of Fame inductees than any others in NFL history.

3. 1983 – The greatest quarterback class ever. Hall of Famers John Elway, #1 overall, Jim Kelly (14th) and Dan Marino (27th) were all drafted in the first round, along with Todd Blackledge (7th), Tony Eason (15th) and Ken O’Brien (27th). HOFers Eric Dickerson (2nd), Bruce Matthews (9th) and Darnell Green,(28th) were also drafted in the first round. In total, a record six Hall of Famers were picked in round one. Richard Dent, another Hall of Famer, went in the eighth round.

4. 1974 – Pittsburgh built a dynasty with this draft, as wide receiver Lynn Swann (1st round), left, linebacker Jack Lambert (2nd), wide receiver John Stallworth (4th) and center Mike Webster (5th) were all eventually enshrined in Canton. Dave Casper of Oakland was drafted in the second round.

5. 1968: There weren’t a ton of iconic stats in this class, but there were six Hall of Famers – Elvin Bethea, Art Shell, Ron Yary, Charlie Sanders, Curley Culp and Larry Csonka. Ron Yary was the first overall pick, and Ken Stabler, Claude Humphrey and Harold Jackson were also 1968 class members.

6. 1981 – The Giants picked linebacker Lawrence Taylor second overall after the Saints selected running back George Rogers. Taylor and San Francisco first round pick safety Ronnie Lott were Hall of Famers, along with defenders Mike Singletary, Howie Long and Rickey Jackson, all picked in round two, and offensive guard Russ Grimm, a third-round selection. Perhaps the greatest defensive draft class ever.

7. 1989 – This top-heavy draft saw four Hall of Fame players selected in the first five picks – Troy Aikman (1st), Barry Sanders (3rd), Derrick Thomas (4th) and Deion Sanders (5th). Lem Barney and Willie Lanier, both second-round selections, are now enshrined in Canton as well.

8. 1964 – Bob Brown, Charley Taylor, Carl Eller and Paul Warfield were drafted in round one, Mel Renfro and Paul Krause in round two.

1952 – Les Richter, Ollie Matson, Huge McElheney and Frank Gifford were first-round selections and Gino Marchetti, right, was the first pick in round two. Marchetti and Matson played together at the University of San Francisco in 1951 before the Dons dropped football. A third member of that team, offensive tackle Bob St. Clair who passed away this week, was drafted in 1953. No other college football team ever had three future Pro Football Hall of Famers on the roster at the same time.

10. 1961 – Mike Ditka, Jimmy Johnson, Herb Adderley and Bob Lilly all went in the first round. Scrambling quarterback Fran Tarkenton was top pick in round three.

Recent vintage drafts

1992 – Four Hall of Famers were drafted — Willie Roaf and Jerome Bettis in round one, Michael Strahan in round two and Will Shields in round three.

1995 – Tampa Bay had two HOF picks in the first round, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. Running back Curtis Martin went to New England in round three.

1998 – Peyton Manning was the first overall pick by Indianapolis. Charles Woodson went number four overall. Ryan Leaf, number two overall, was a huge bust.

2004 – Eli Manning went first overall to San Diego, then was shipped to the Giants for Philip Rivers. A third quarterback, Ben Rothelsberger, went 11th overall to Pittsburgh.

2007 – Some solid first round picks, including Calvin Johnson (2nd overall), Joe Thomas (3rd), Adrian Peterson (7th) and Marshawn Lynch (12th). All have worked out good. The first overall pick JaMarcus Russell by Oakland — not so good.

2011 – Cam Newton (1st), AJ Green (4th), Julio Jones (6th) and JJ Watt (11th) were starry first-round picks in this class.

The first draft

The first NFL draft was held in 1936. Hall of Fame tackle Joe Stydahar was picked by the Bears in the first round, #6 overall. Alphonse “Tuffy” Leemans (2nd round), Wayne Millner Boston Redskins (8th) and Dan Fortmann (9th) were the other future Hall of Famers from this inaugural class.

The first overall pick that year was Jay Berwanger, the University of Chicago halfback and winner of the first Heisman Trophy. Berwanger was picked by the Eagles, who traded his rights to the Bears. However owner and coach George Halas could not convince Berwanger to sign with Chicago. He reputedly wanted $1,000 per game.

Berwanger later expressed regret that he did not accept Halas’ offer. After graduating, Berwanger worked briefly as a sportswriter (reputedly he wrote one of the first blogs) and later became a manufacturer of plastic car parts. He was very modest about the Heisman, and used the trophy as a doorstop in his library.

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Don’t Forget Your Playbook: Glory Days

Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas scrambles against Giants in 1959 NFL championship game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Colts won, 31-16.

It was 1959, the caboose of the 1950s, a simpler time in a different world. President Eisenhower was finishing out his second term, the Barbie Doll was launched, and Castro was running wild in Cuba.

Pro football was a simple game in 1959. A dozen teams in the NFL played 12 games apiece. The AFL was still a dream away.

No playoffs. No Super Bowl. One championship game.

In a rematch of their “greatest game” in the 1958 NFL title game, the Colts were looking to defend their championship against the New York Giants in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.

Two days after Christmas, in the midst of a tight defensive battle, Giants wide receiver Kyle Rote suffered an apparent concussion. His replacement was Joe Biscaha, a 27th round draft out of the University of Richmond.

Almost A Touchdown
“Near the end of the first half, (Giants quarterback Charlie) Conerly tried to connect   with me on a corner route, but slightly overthrew the pass and I cou022_22ldn’t quite make the catch, even with a diving attempt,” Biscaha, right, recalls more than 50 years year. “If completed. it would have resulted in a touchdown, but it unfortunately fell incomplete in the Colts end zone.

“I continued to play in the third quarter without making any significant contributions to our efforts, and was later replaced by a somewhat ‘foggy’ Rote during the fourth quarter. The Colts had trailed throughout the game by a 9-7 score but eventually scored 24 points in the final quarter to defeat us, 31-16.”

It was the second straight title for the Colts, who beat the Giants 23-17 in a memorable overtime classic to win the 1958 championship.

“In our post-game locker room there was disappointment, but there were also words of encouragement exchanged,” said Biscaha. “And even Charlie Conerly commented to me on the overthrown pass that ‘we almost had one.’.

“Given the fact that he had thrown my way and even had spoken to me, I had felt as though I would be a part of the Giants plans for the coming year. We returned to New York by train that same evening amidst local friends and fans sharing many drinks in commiseration of the loss.”

That would be the last game of Biscaha’s Giants career. When he signed with the Giants he went from $25 a month laundry money at Richmond (part of a football scholarship) to a $7,500 contract.

In eight games that year, he caught one pass for five yards and recovered a fumble.

Playing in The Original AFL
Biscaha failed to make the Giants roster in 1960. He was substitute teaching and making about $100 a week when the Boston (now New England) Patriots of the AFL offered him $4,500 for the last month and a half of the season. So Joe played for that first Patriots team in the AFL’s inaugural season, calling the Kenmore Station Hotel on Commonwealth Avenue home.

“The head coach was Lou Saban, a former Cleveland Brown, who seemed to have been influenced in the ‘General George Patton mentality,'” Biscaha recalled, “while my position coach was Mike Holovak, a likable gentleman from the Boston College coaching background. It seemed like most of the players were from a Boston College or Syracuse (1959 championship team) playing pedigree.

“I was being tried out as a wide receiver and needed to learn the skills to compete against the bump and run techniques utilized by the AFL defensive backs. Having played with the Giants as primarily a tight end, those were skills that I never had to acquire.”

In September of 1961 Biscaha, realizing his playing days were over after a tryout with the New York Titans (now Jets), “signed a teaching contract with the Paterson (NJ) School District for $4,500 for the year and got  $400 more to assist in coaching football.”

His teaching career continued for more than 25 years and was highlighted by three New Jersey State Championship seasons, 1975,1979 and 1980, at Passaic Valley High School, as well as numerous coaching honors. After an eight-year retirement from education, while working in financial services, he returned to serve ten years as a school administrator at Passaic County Technical Institute until his retirement in 2005.

More than 50 years later, he wonders if his career might have taken a different path if Conerly, the NFL MVP in 1959, had not overthrown him in the end zone. “Had I caught that pass would my life have turned out differently?”

Joe’s blog is called “don’t forget to bring your playbook,” a commonly used expression players heard when they were about to be cut. Postings on the blog include his childhood experiences and memories of his pro football career and beyond.


Hometown Heroes: The Best of White Plains

Former Washington Redskin and Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Art Monk is the best athlete ever to come out of White Plains.

I was born and raised in White Plains, New York, 27 miles north of midtown Manhattan, the county seat of Westchester, famous for a Revolutionary War skirmish against the British in 1776. The oldest of four, I lived within walking distance of 11 first cousins, my grandparents and dozens of friends. It was a great place to grow up.

Of all the athletes to come out of White Plains, Art Monk was undoubtedly the best. Monk, the wide receiver who played most of his career with the Washington Redskins, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year,

A product of White Plains High School and Syracuse University, Monk was drafted in the first round of the 1980 NFL draft by the Redskins. During his 14 years in Washington, the Redskins won three Super Bowls. Monk’s 940 career receptions ranks eight on the all-time NFL list.

Monk’s best season was 1984, when had led the league with 106 receptions, at that time an NFL record. The three-time Pro Bowler finished his career with 68 touchdowns and 12,271 yards receiving.

Here is the SportsLifer list:

The Top 10 Best Athletes from White Plains

 1. Art Monk — In addition to the above, he is also a distant relative of jazz pioneer Thelonious Monk

2. Larry James — A double medalist at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, James won a gold medal running the third leg on the US 4x400m relay team. That team set a world record of 2:56.16 seconds that lasted until 1992. James, left, handing off to Lee Evans, also won a silver medal in the 400m at the Mexico City games. As a collegian at Villanova University, James won the NCAA 440-yard title in 1970, and three indoor crowns at that distance in 1968, 1969 and 1970.

3. Dick Nolan — Joined the New York Giants as a defensive back in 1954 after a collegiate career at Maryland. A member of the 1956 Giants team that won the NFL championship, he had 28 interceptions in a nine-year career, including six in his rookie season. Later went on to coach the 49ers and Saints.

4. Jim Turnesa — One of seven famous golfing brothers, Jim was the only one to win a major championship, the 1952 PGA Championship, beating Chick Harbert 1-up in the match-play final. He was also a member of the 1953 Ryder Cup team.

5. Bob Hyland — Born and raised in White Plains and a graduate of Archbishop Stepinac High School, Hyland was an All-America offensive lineman at Boston College. He was drafted in the first round (ninth overall) by the Packers in 1967, and was a member of Green Bay’s second Super Bowl champion in his rookie season. Hyland played for four teams during his 11-year NFL career. His popular White Plains establishment, The Sports Page, was one of America’s first sports bars.

6. Sal Yvars — A catcher with the New York Giants and later the St. Louis Cardinals, he played eight years in the majors from 1947 to 1954. A .244 career hitter, Yvars best year was 1951 when he hit .317 for the Giants, who win the National League pennant on Bobby Thomson’s miracle home run.

7. Mal Graham — A first-round draft pick of the Celtics in 1967, this NYU product played two seasons and won two titles with Boston. Graham, pictured top row, right, with the 1968-69 Celtics, averaged 4.7 points per game. He is currently a judge with the Massachusetts Court of Appeals.

8. Jay Saldi — Tight end, he played his college ball at South Carolina before going to the Dallas Cowboys in 1976. Saldi played for seven seasons with Dallas, and was a member of the Cowboys team that won Super Bowl XII. His best year was 1980, when he had 25 receptions for 311 yards. He wound up his nine-year career with the Chicago Bears.

9. Marty Conlon –  A Stepinac graduate who later played at Providence College, Conlon played with seven different teams in a nine-year NBA career.The 6-10 center averaged 6.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.

10. Willie Turnesa — Another of the famous Turnesa brothers and a graduate of Holy Cross College, Willie won U.S. Amateur titles in 1938 and 1948 and the British Amateur in 1947.

White Plains Reserves

Eric Ogbogu – Graduated from Maryland in 1998 and played seven seasons with the Jets, Bengals and Cowboys as a defensive end.

Art Schult — A reserve outfielder with the 1953 Yankee squad that won a fifth straight World Series. Schult hit .264 lifetime in a career that spanned five years and four different teams.

Channing Frye — Born in White Plains, his family later moved to Arizona, Frye was a top draft pick of the New York Knicks in 2005 and averaged a career best 12.5 points a game as a rookie. The forward-center now plays for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Grover “Deacon” Jones — Not to be confused with the NFL Hall of Fame defensive end, Jones joined the Chicago White Sox in 1962. The first baseman played three years and posted a .286 lifetime batting average.


Sorry T.S., April Is Best Month for Sports

T.S. Eliot knew how to write, but sports wasn’t his strong suit.

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. “

— T.S Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922

Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot, the American-British poet, playwright and critic, may have been a member of the Literature Hall of Fame, but he didn’t know sports.

With apologies to old T.S., April is America’s best month for sports.

April, the rites of passage, the season of rebirth, where Opening Day signals the start of another baseball season.

April has the pageantry of the Masters, from Augusta National, the most beautiful golf course in the world.

Both the NBA and NHL playoffs begin in April, the second season for 32 basketball and hockey teams.

The NCAA Tournament may be heralded as March Madness, but the Final Four is an April event.

And finally there’s the NFL draft, one of the most popular dates on the NFL calendar outside of the Super Bowl.

What other months challenge April?

June has the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup, the U.S. Open, and the Belmont Stakes, last leg in horse racing’s Triple Crown.

October has the World Series, and peak activity in college and pro football to go with Fall foliage.

And February has the Super Bowl, the single biggest day in American sports, and the Daytona 500.

Give me April every time.


Even at #1, NFL Draft No Sure Thing

In many ways, the NFL draft is a crapshoot. Sure, you roll the dice with a sixth or seventh round pick, or take a chance on a third-round wide receiver from some small college. But even the #1 overall pick can be a risk.

Since the draft was initiated in 1936, that top pick has carried a lot of weight…a ton of expectations…and yet things haven’t always worked out as expected.

Take the 1936 draft for example. Jay Berwanger,  the first Heisman Trophy winner, was the first player drafted by the NFL. The Philadelphia Eagles had the selection, then traded Berwanger’s rights to the Chicago Bears after he claimed he had no interest in playing for the Eagles.

Berwanger had no interest in playing for the Bears either. After graduating from the University of Chicago, Berwanger became a sportswriter and later a manufacturer of plastic car parts.

Berwanger wasn’t the only #1 bust. For every Peyton Manning or John Elway there’s a Jeff George or Tim Coach. For every OJ Simpson….whoops, bad example, let’s use Earl Campbell… there’s a Kii-Jana Carter. You remember him, running back out of Penn State who the Bengals drafted first in the 1995 draft. He hurt his knee in the third carry of his first preseason game and was never the same.

There have been 11 NFL Hall of Famers drafted #1 overall — from Bill Dudley in 1942 to Troy Aikman in 1989. And then there are the likes of Gary Glick, Randy Duncan or Terry Baker, and more recently Steve Emtman, Russell Maryland, and Courtney Brown. Oh, and don’t forget Michael Vick.

Jake Long, here’s wishing you the best.