Top NFL Drafts of the Modern Era

[Editor’s Note: I want to welcome Washington, D.C.-based Ezra Troy as one of our new staff writer for  With school closing out in the DC area, Ezra will be a growing presence on the site this summer.  He brings not only solid sports knowledge, he has a particular passion for baseball and analytics.  As this piece illustrates, Ezra is willing to dig in and do the research, not just foist opinions aimlessly like some sports variant of Donald Trump on Fox and Friends.  The research here speaks for itself.  Welcome, Ezra!] 

In honor of last month’s NFL Draft, here is a look back at the five greatest and most impactful draft classes (in chronological order) since the storied 1983 class (with the 1983 class also thrown in).



Hall of Famers – 7 

Pro Bowlers – 41

With Pro Bowlers and Hall of Famers from its number one pick (John Elway), to its second to last (Anthony Carter – 3-time Pro Bowler), this draft was stacked. With six quarterbacks selected in the first round (Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien and Dan Marino), this draft set the record for most quarterbacks taken in the first round. There were six Hall of Famers (Elway, Eric Dickerson, Bruce Mathews, Kelly, Marino and Darrell Green) selected in the first round as well. From a loaded first round to a Hall of Famer picked in the eighth round (Richard Dent), this draft set the balance of power in the NFL for years to come.

Hall of Famers: John Elway, Eric Dickerson, Bruce Matthews, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Darrell Green and Richard Dent

Notable undrafted players: Brian Sochia, Mark Tuinei and Bill Bates


I. 1985:

Hall of Famers – 5

Pro Bowlers – 31

Just two years after the league – shaping draft of 1983, the draft of 1985 produced many impactful players. Bruce Smith (all – time NFL sack leader), Jerry Rice (Most career receiving yards and receiving touchdowns) and Andre Reed (ninth all time in career receptions and eleventh in receiving touchdowns) were all selections in this draft. With the picks of Smith and Reed (and Kelly in 1983) the Buffalo Bills shaped their franchise for their run of four straight super bowls in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. (The Bills also signed Scottie Norwood, the kicker who missed the super bowl winning field goal in 1990, as a undrafted free agent in this draft).

Hall of Famers: Bruce Smith, Chris Doleman, Jerry Rice, Andre Reed and Kevin Greene
Notable undrafted players: Scottie Norwood, Eugene Robinson and Greg Kragen

II. 1996

Hall of Famers – 2

Pro Bowlers – 34

Although only two players (so far) have made the Hall of Fame, there are certainly more to come. Jonathan Ogden and Marvin Harrison have already made the Hall of Fame, but Ray Lewis and Brian Dawkins are sure to follow. This draft ushered in the next generation of great wide receivers. Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn, Eddie Kennison, Eric Moulds, Bobby Engram, Terrell Owens, Muhsin Muhammad, Amani Toomer, Jermaine Lewis, Joe Horn and Harrison were all selected in this draft. The Ravens made the most of their two first round picks, selecting Ogden and Ray Lewis, two all time greats that would lead them on the way to a Super Bowl win over the Giants just four years later. Another important kicker, Adam Vinatieri, who would make two Super Bowl winning field goals, was also an undrafted free agent in this draft.

Hall of Famers: Jonathan Ogden and Marvin Harrison
Notable undrafted players: Adam Vinatieri, Casey Wiegmann and Larry Izzo

III. 2004

Hall of Famers – 0

Pro Bowlers – 31

Although this draft is known for the three star quarterbacks selected in the first round (Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers), this draft also produced some of the top defensive players to play the game this century. Sean Taylor, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jason Babin, Jared Allen, Deangelo Hall, Vince Wilfork, Bob Sanders, Shaun Phillips and Darnell Dockett were all selections in this draft. This draft also produced Larry Fitzgerald, Wes Welker (undrafted), Jason Peters (undrafted) and Steven Jackson. This draft had many stars on all sides of the ball, some of whom are still stars today, twelve years later.

Hall of Famers: none
Notable undrafted players: Wes Welker and Jason Peters

IV. 2007

Hall of Famers – 0

Pro Bowlers – 33

Although this draft is known for it’s number one overall bust, Jamarcus Russell, four of the top fifteen draft picks were or still are the best player at their position today. Calvin Johnson (number 2), Joe Thomas (number 3), Adrian Peterson (number 7), Darrelle Revis (number 14). Along with these four all – time greats, Patrick Willis, Marshawn Lynch, Joe Staley, Paul Posluszny and Greg Olsen were all selected in this draft. Half of the players picked in the first round made Pro Bowls and a few still star in the NFL today (with many retiring in the past two years).

Hall of Famers: none
Notable undrafted players: Eric Weems and Matt Overton


V. 2011

Hall of Famers – 0

Pro Bowlers – 26

Think of a star in the NFL today. JJ Watt, Von Miller, Cam Newton, AJ Green, Patrick Peterson and Julio Jones. All these stars were picked in the first 11 picks of the 2011 NFL Draft. Along with these six, Tyron Smith, Aldon Smith and Marcell Dareus were picked in the top eleven and have all made Pro Bowls. The only two players in that top eleven who didn’t make a Pro Bowl: Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker. The list doesn’t stop there. Robert Quinn, Mike Pouncey, Muhammad Wilkerson, Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Jordan and Mark Ingram were all also picked in the first round. But that’s not all. Players drafted after the first round include Andy Dalton (second round), Randall Cobb (second round), Justin Houston (third round), Demarco Murray (third round), Jurrell Casey (third round), Richard Sherman (fifth round) and Jason Kelce (sixth round). Chris Harris, one of the top corners in the league, was taken as an undrafted free agent. This draft produced many stars of this decade, many of whom will go on to break records and make the Hall of Fame.

Hall of Famers: none
Notable undrafted players: Chris Harris, and Dan Bailey

Ezra Troy

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2 comments on “Top NFL Drafts of the Modern Era
  1. Sturges says:

    I liked this piece. It was a deep look into some important drafts. The one thing about the NFL is that they historically have had a lot more parity than the other leagues. Their early innovations and rules around salary cap and revenue sharing made the draft really important.

  2. DT says:

    Ezra, nice piece. The ’83 draft was incredible. I am a Chiefs fan. You were nice not to mention Tood Blackledge, the seventh selection overall. He was a complete disaster, in a QB-rich draft that we will likely won’t see again anytime soon.

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