The NFL Draft has become an annual media event all on its own, but do not let the hype overshadow just how important drafts are for teams. A club that hits on even one draft puts itself in a position to contend for multiple years down the road. Great draft classes have, in the past, produced Hall-of-Famers and world champions.
Teams that routinely miss, however, usually find themselves picking at the top of draft orders most springs. The NFL is gracious like that.
Note: The classes referenced here come from this NFL.com piece
10. Chicago Bears, 1965
When does a draft get made by just two picks? The answer is when those two picks are used to take Hall of Fame talent. Linebacker Dick Butkus and running back Gale Sayers aren’t just two phenomenal players. They were two of the all-time greats at their positions.
Butkus made every Pro Bowl from 1965 through 1972, and he was a five-time first-team All-Pro. He is a member of All-1960s and All-1970s Teams. Sayers was a five-time first-team All-Pro, and he led the NFL in all-purpose yards on three occasions.
9. Buffalo Bills, 1985
Buffalo entered the spring of ’85 with 16 – count ’em – 16 total draft picks. The Bills had two first-round selections, and they possessed six selections in the first 63 picks of the draft.
Those picks were not wasted. Bruce Smith, arguably the greatest defensive end in the history of pro football, was taken first overall. Wide receiver Andre Reed, who was recently voted into the Hall of Fame, was located in the fourth round. Frank Reich, who famously orchestrated “The Comeback,” was a third-round selection.
How isn’t this draft class higher up the list? Those Bills teams went 0-4 in four straight Super Bowl appearances. The 1990 Bills could be the best team in NFL history to not win a championship.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1995
The Buccaneers have, for much of the franchise’s existence, been known for losing. That was the case in the first half of the 90s, but the team’s ’95 draft played a big part in turning that all around. Tampa Bay used picks 12 and 28 overall to acquire what would be cornerstones to a championship defense.
Defensive tackle Warren Sapp won the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 1999. He was named to seven Pro Bowls, and he was a four-time first-team All Pro. Linebacker Derrick Brooks made every Pro Bowl from 1997 through 2006. He was a five-time first-team All-Pro, and Brooks won the 2002 NFL AP Defensive Player of the Year Award. Both have been elected into the Hall of Fame, and both were members of the Tampa Bay team that won Super Bowl XXXVII.
7. Chicago Bears, 1983
Chicago’s 1983 draft class is one of the more underrated classes in NFL history. The Bears avoided the QB hype and instead grabbed tackle Jimbo Covert, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame First Team All-1980s Team. Safety Dave Duerson, taken in the third round, made four straight Pro Bowls.
Chicago’s biggest hit of the ’83 Draft came all the way down in round eight when the club selected defensive end Richard Dent. Dent, like Duerson, made it to four Pro Bowl squads, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011. Dent was also a member of that all-time great Chicago defense that helped the team win Super Bowl XX.
6. Baltimore Ravens, 1996
Then Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell broke Cleveland hearts when he announced that he would be moving the franchise to Baltimore following the 1995 NFL regular season. As if that wasn’t bad enough for those who supported the Browns for their entire lives, the knife was twisted even deeper by the Ravens grabbing two incredible players in the first round of the ’96 NFL Draft.
Jonathan Ogden was perhaps the best offensive lineman in all of pro football for a decade. He made it to every Pro Bowl from 1997 through 2007. Ray Lewis, chosen via the No. 26 pick of this draft, is undeniably one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history. Lewis did it all in his career, winning two Defensive Player of the Year Awards and also being part of two rosters that won Super Bowl championships.
The Browns, meanwhile, still have never made it to a single Super Bowl.
5. Washington Redskins, 1981
For whatever reasons, it often gets lost in football discussions that the Redskins did win three Super Bowl titles from 1982 through 1991. Washington found a Pro Bowl tackle in Mark May in the first round of the ’81 Draft. Guard Russ Grimm, taken in the third round, was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
Grimm is a great get at any point of a draft, but defensive tackle Darryl Grant was just as good a value pick for the Redskins. Grant, taken with the 231st pick, started in 109 regular season games for the ‘Skins, and he appeared in over 140 total meaningful contests. He is largely remembered for taking an interception to the house in the 1982 NFC Championship Game.
4. Green Bay Packers, 1958
The Packers didn’t win a single championship in the 50s. Then, a year before an assistant for the New York Giants named Vince Lombardi became Green Bay head coach, the Packers picked up what would be several pieces to championship teams. The highlights of this Green Bay class were second-round selection fullback Jim Taylor, and third-round pick linebacker Ray Nitschke. Both are enshrined in Canton.
It was what those two, as well as the other members of the draft class, accomplished as a unit that lands the Packers so high in this list. Green Bay won five championships from 1961 through 1967, and the club won the first ever two Super Bowl championships.
3. San Francisco 49ers, 1986
The 49ers pulled off some wheeling and dealing before the ’86 Draft, eventually acquiring 14 total picks. Eight of the players taken by San Francisco in this draft made Super Bowl starts for the club. The Niners completed successful back-to-back Super Bowl runs in 1988 and 1989, and the team added another trophy to the mantle via a Super Bowl XXIX victory.
The ’86 NFL Draft is, as of the posting of this piece, responsible for zero Hall of Fame players. It was, however, a very important draft for San Francisco. Among the players taken were wide receiver John Taylor (76th overall), who was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Second Team All-1980s Team, and fourth-round pick defensive end Charles Haley. Haley made it to five Pro Bowls in his career.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers, 1974
One could easily argue that this is the single greatest NFL Draft class in history. Wide receiver Lynn Swann, taken with the 21st pick, is in the Hall of Fame. Second-round selection linebacker Jack Lambert is in the Hall of Fame. Wide receiver John Stallworth, found in the fourth round, is in the Hall of Fame. Center Mike Webster, grabbed via pick No. 125 overall, is in the Hall of Fame.
You get my point.
Those players achieved more than just personal successes. The Steelers would, following this draft, go on to be the team of the 70s. Pittsburgh won four Super Bowl titles in the final six years of the decade.
1. Dallas Cowboys, 1991-92
The NFL.com story links these two Dallas draft classes together, and thus the combined results make it atop this list. Head coach Jimmy Johnson had a knack for stockpiling picks, and that is exactly what he did these two years. The Cowboys had five first-round picks and 33 selections in total for these two drafts, and over a third of the players taken (9) became starters for Dallas.
It proved to be a successful strategy. Dallas made the postseason every year from 1992-1996. The Cowboys went on to win Super Bowl XXVII, Super Bowl, XXVIII, and Super Bowl XXX.
“America’s Team” has not since won it all.