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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Heisman Trophy no guarantee of NFL stardom

Jim Brown, perhaps the greatest running back in NFL history, did not win a Heisman.

Winning the  Heisman Trophy is a  tremendous honor. It may be the most important individual award in sports — certainly at the collegiate level. Yet it hardly guarantees a seat at the NFL head table.

Consider this — what do Jimmy Brown, Joe Montana, below right, Johnny Unitas, Walter Payton and Peyton Manning have in common? None of them won a Heisman Trophy. Neither did Jerry Rice or Lawrence Taylor or Reggie White.

All of them are listed in the top 10 of the NFL Network’s 100 greatest players in NFL history, a list compiled by a blue ribbon panel of current and former NFL coaches, players, executives, and media.

The first Heisman Trophy winner on the NFL top 100 list was 1988 winner Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State, ranked 17th. Only five others on that list were Heisman Trophy winners:

40. OJ Simpson (USC, 1968)
46. Roger Staubach (Navy, 1963)
55. Earl Campbell (Texas, 1977)
77. Tony Dorsett (Pitt, 1976)
85. Marcus Allen (USC, 1981)

Only eight of the 78 Heisman winners are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – the six above plus Doak Walker (SMU, 1948) and Paul Hornung (Notre Dame. 1956)

A total of 19 Heisman winners were the first pick in the NFL draft, including the first winner — halfback Jack Berwanger of the University of Chicago, the first player to be drafted by the NFL in its inaugural draft in 1936. Traded from the Eagles to the Bears, Berwanger opted not to sign in order to preserver his amateur status and compete for a spot on the US Olympic team in the decathlon.

And since 1986, only three Heisman Trophy winners were number one picks in the NFL draft — Carson Palmer of USC in 2002, Sam Bradford of Oklahoma in 2008 and Cam Newton of Aubun in 2010.

Only three Super Bowl MVPs were Heisman winners — Staubach, Allen and Jim Plunkett, the only quarterback to start and win two Super Bowls and not make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Perhaps one day recent Heisman winners like Cam Newton (Auburn, 2010) and Robert Griffin III (Baylor 2011) will gain NFL immortality. And this year’s winner, Johnny Manziel (Johnny Football) from Texas A&M, is just a freshman. But it’s still way too early to make that call.


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.