The 2021 NFL Draft class will attempt to make it a historic haul over the next several years. Here are the groups the newest rookies will be measured against. Judged on Hall of Famers or Canton-bound players, All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors, and overall impact, here are the greatest NFL draft classes.
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Though early, potential Hall of Famers abound here — from Jalen Ramsey to Joey Bosa to Michael Thomas to Derrick Henry to Tyreek Hill. Those trajectories are not certain, but several teams built contenders in this draft. The Cowboys jump out, with Dak Prescott (pick No. 135) one of this period’s premier values and Ezekiel Elliott a two-time rushing champ. Chris Jones became the Chiefs’ defensive ace, while standout tackles Ronnie Stanley, Laremy Tunsil — post-gasmask, which changed this draft — and Jack Conklin proving quite valuable. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz’s second acts will help shape this class’s legacy.
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Three years before Vince Lombardi began to alter Green Bay forever, the Packers gave him foundational pieces. Lombardi’s QB (Bart Starr) and the player he called the finest he coached (right tackle Forrest Gregg) were in this Packers class. Future Packer great Willie Davis was in Cleveland’s, but the Hall of Fame D-end wound up in Green Bay via trade. A third-round pick, linebacker Sam Huff, led an immediate Giants turnaround. Colts first-round do-everything weapon Lenny Moore helped stop a New York dynasty soon after. Not as deep as most of the drafts on this list, 1956’s included too many midcentury mainstays to ignore.
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This draft does not offer tremendous depth, but its first-round set up contenders and will greenlight a few Canton speeches. After the Raiders’ JaMarcus Russell misstep, two other moribund franchises — the Lions and Browns — drafted Hall of Famers Calvin Johnson and Joe Thomas. Later in the top 10, Adrian Peterson set up shop in Minnesota. Darrelle Revis, Marshawn Lynch, and Patrick Willis are not Hall locks, but they anchored Super Bowl units and were the best or among the best at their jobs for many years. Marshal Yanda (Round 3) veered onto the Canton path later, and few modern safeties outdid Eric Weddle (Round 2).
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The 1989 draft receives far more acclaim, but 1988’s Hall of Fame count (five) matches that storied class’. Arguably the best receiver draft ever also included Hall of Fame O-linemen Randall McDaniel (Round 1, Vikings) and Dermontti Dawson (Round 2, Steelers). Thurman Thomas — the eighth running back picked — came a long way from sleeping while waiting for his selection (40th overall), and before Carl Peterson drafted Derrick Thomas, the prior Chiefs regime traded up for sack sidekick Neil Smith at No. 2. The Eagles may have made out the best here, beginning their draft with Pro Bowl tight end Keith Jackson and Pro Bowl corner Eric Allen.
Five Hall of Famers went in this draft’s first 14 picks. Famed pass rusher Gino Marchetti was the lowest such selection (14th to the Colts), while the soon-defunct Dallas Texans (not the Chiefs version) chose center Les Richter — later a longtime Ram — second. The Chicago Cardinals chose superstar back Ollie Matson at No. 3, while fellow Canton-bound runners — Hugh McElhenny (49ers) and Frank Gifford (Giants) — joined him in playing into the mid-1960s. Despite not making first- or second-round picks, the Lions came away winners. They formed an elite secondary — with Hall of Famer Yale Lary and Pro Bowler Jim David — to help turn the tide in their Browns rivalry.
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Weeks before a new Dallas Texans iteration became the Chiefs, their future Hall of Famer-fueled defenses received two early pieces. Then-Dallas took Buck Buchanan first overall in the third AFL draft and added superstar linebacker Bobby Bell in Round 7. The NFL’s event also included Bell and Buchanan, but the likes of John Mackey — who joined Bell on the All-Century team — and Packer linebacker Dave Robinson accepted NFL offers. Two linebacking Lee Roys — Jordan and Caffey, “Ice Bowl” adversaries — were part of this two-draft class, as was Bills 24th-round QB-turned-Raiders Super Bowl starter Daryle Lamonica.
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The first draft to begin with three quarterbacks (Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning, Dan Pastorini) produced two MVPs in later-round passers — Ken Anderson (1981) and Joe Theismann (1983). The third- and fourth-round picks made this one of the best QB drafts. Not big on first-round picks in this era, Washington later wound up with Theismann (a Dolphins pick) and John Riggins (Jets, Round 1). The Steelers used second-, fourth- and 11th-round picks to add Super Bowl starters Jack Ham, Dwight White, and Mike Wagner. Ham and Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood (Round 1) became two of the great defenders in NFL history.
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Infamously beginning with the Eli Manning-Philip Rivers NBA-style switcheroo , the ’04 draft made a sizable imprint on the modern quarterback position. This draft’s Manning-Rivers-Ben Roethlisberger trio bolstered a storied group that became the deepest in the position’s history. Larry Fitzgerald (third overall) gave the Cardinals nearly two decades of reliability. Jared Allen ended up with the most All-Pros (four) from this class, though Washington first-rounder Sean Taylor had that kind of career in front of him. Patriots interior force Vince Wilfork and Tom Coughlin’s son-in-law guard, Chris Snee, faced off in multiple Super Bowls as well.
Bill Belichick’s TV persona spent time discussing three 1953 draftees, with Lions linebacker Joe Schmidt, Bears defensive end Doug Atkins and Giants left tackle Roosevelt Brown making the All-Century team. Chosen in Round 27, Brown is one of the great picks in NFL history. Atkins, a first-rounder, was originally a Browns pick; the Bears landed him in a 1955 trade. The 49ers acquired Hall of Famer Bob St. Clair, who later blocked for Steelers pick and future “Million Dollar Backfield” member John Henry Johnson in San Francisco. Lions 22nd-rounder Pete Retzlaff helped the Eagles win a title over the Packers, who drafted the oldest of Vince Lombardi’s Hall of Famers (center Jim Ringo) in Round 7.
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Were it not for this draft, Sandra Bullock’s 2010 Oscar may have gone elsewhere. The Rams and Seahawks’ Orlando Pace and Walter Jones joined Jonathan Ogden and Tony Boselli in crafting the premier era for blindside blockers . Football’s most prolific tight end, Tony Gonzalez, went to the Chiefs at No. 13, while the Dolphins found fellow Canton inductee Jason Taylor in Round 3. Tiki Barber (Round 2) received a call before Ronde (Round 3); fellow high running back picks Warrick Dunn and Corey Dillon justified their draft slots as well. One first-round QB (would-be Steve Young successor Jim Druckenmiller) emerged; second-rounder Jake Plummer did his best to salvage an unremarkable passer group.
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This draft burned several teams early, chiefly the Browns (Trent Richardson) and Jaguars (Justin Blackmon). But it unearthed prime talent later. Russell Wilson, the 2010s’ top two off-ball linebackers (Bobby Wagner, Luke Kuechly), the decade’s best non-Aaron Donald D-tackle (Fletcher Cox), and cornerstone Patriot linebacker Dont’a Hightower entered the NFL in 2012. Among the draft’s 15 All-Pros, first-rounders Chandler Jones and Stephon Gilmore bloomed late; Ryan Tannehill’s mid-career rise was more stunning. Add in Super Bowl essentials Lavonte David and Mitchell Schwartz and this draft is not as far off 2011’s revered group as it seems.
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The best player in Jets history (Don Maynard), arguably the best guard ever (Jim Parker), and the most dominant player in NFL annals (Jim Brown) arrived via this November 1956 event. Brown somehow went sixth overall. Hall of Famers Paul Hornung (first) and Len Dawson (fifth) went earlier; the Steelers gave up on the future Chiefs QB after three years. The Browns drafted two Hall of Fame linemen — Brown and Leroy Kelly escort Gene Hickerson and Henry Jordan, whom Vince Lombardi stole in a 1959 trade — while the Eagles nabbed Sonny Jurgensen in Round 4. Jurgensen, Dawson, and 49ers No. 3 overall pick John Brodie, a future MVP, played a combined 54 seasons.
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The first of Chuck Noll’s Steelers drafts launched the Steel Curtain when small-school D-linemen Joe Greene (North Texas) and L.C. Greenwood (Arkansas Pine-Pluff) went to Pittsburgh. The first- and 10th-rounders combined for 16 Pro Bowls. The Dolphins’ famed 1970s run game received a boost, with Mercury Morris and Pro Bowl guard Bob Keuchenberg going in Rounds 3 and 4. Buffalo did the most to bolster its run game, beginning the draft with O.J. Simpson. Fellow MVP running back Larry Brown (Washington) went seven rounds later, while Colts pick and future Raider icon Ted Hendricks came off the board in Round 2.
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Much to the chagrin of despondent Jets fans, Warren Sapp panned out and wound up in the Hall of Fame. So did GM Rich McKay’s second Buccaneers pick, Derrick Brooks. This Saturday led to the Bucs’ escape from the NFL’s basement. Running backs Curtis Martin (Round 3) and Terrell Davis (Round 6) followed the two to Canton. Davis and Tony Boselli — the Jaguars’ first draftee — packed plenty into abbreviated careers. Ty Law remained elite through Bill Belichick’s second Patriots go-round. And while Steve McNair (No. 3 overall) and Kordell Stewart (Round 2) are not among this draft’s 12 All-Pros, both electric QBs played a big role in AFC Super Bowl pursuits.
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Despite the USFL still being in business, this draft featured 15 All-Pros, five Hall of Famers, and three of the top five sack artists in league history. In Bruce Smith (first overall) and Chris Doleman (fourth), the Bills and Vikings found their QB terrors early. Kevin Greene went in the fifth round to the Rams. This D-line-rich draft also included No. 3 overall pick Ray Childress, a longtime Oilers centerpiece . The 49ers’ 12-spot jump, via the Patriots, headlined this draft, however. It gave the defending champions Jerry Rice, who factored into the next three 49ers Super Bowl parades. The rebuilding Bills also found Andre Reed in Round 4.
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The Raiders’ first-round pick (wideout Eldridge Dickey) did not pan out; their next two did. Art Shell joined Jim Otto and Gene Upshaw to form one of the NFL’s great O-lines, protecting third-rounder and future MVP Ken Stabler in the 1970s. Oakland also added feared safety George Atkinson in Round 7, further building its contender core. Three of this draft’s top 10 — tackle Ron Yary (Vikings, No. 1), defensive end Claude Humphrey (Falcons, No. 3), and fullback Larry Csonka (Dolphins, No. 8) — ended up in Canton. So did D-tackle Curley Culp, a second-rounder the Broncos traded to the Chiefs within months.
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This draft shaped the NFL in the ’80s, sending the centerpieces of three Super Bowl defenses to their respective cities. The Giants took Lawrence Taylor second overall (behind running back George Rogers, who went to the Saints), six picks ahead of the 49ers’ Ronnie Lott pick. The Bears added Mike Singletary in Round 2. Combined All-Pros: 21; rings: seven. The 49ers built their secondary in this draft, adding two Lott wingmen — Dwight Hicks and Carlton Williamson — as well. The Saints’ “Dome Patrol” linebacking crew received its first piece in Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson, while Howie Long and two flagship Hogs — Russ Grimm and Mark May — went to future Super Bowl teams as well.
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A low-key monster draft. The Legion of Boom arrived here, with Pete Carroll and John Schneider nailing their first draft (Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor). While Denver coach/de facto GM Josh McDaniels traded up for Tim Tebow, he helped lead Peyton Manning to town by drafting Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. The first primetime draft proved deep at D-tackle; Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, and Geno Atkins have 19 combined Pro Bowls. The Patriots set up their second peak by taking Rob Gronkowski in the second round, while other All-Pros-turned-Tom Brady Tampa support staffers — Antonio Brown, Jason Pierre-Paul — were in this class as well.
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A legendary top five set the table for four celebrated careers. The Cowboys (Troy Aikman), Lions (Barry Sanders), Chiefs (Derrick Thomas), and Falcons (Deion Sanders) landed Hall of Famers, with the Packers (Tony Mandarich) whiffing at No. 2 overall. The ’89 first-round also sent Hall-destined safety Steve Atwater to Denver and electric all-purpose threat Eric Metcalf to Cleveland. Jimmy Johnson’s first Cowboys draft later included center Mark Stepnoski and Steve Wisniewski, though the team — in NBA fashion — traded the future Pro Bowl guard to the Raiders after the pick. This led to Dallas drafting Darryl Johnston.
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The Ravens’ first draft brought foundational cogs Jonathan Ogden (No. 4 overall) and Ray Lewis (No. 26). The Browns acquired the Lewis pick in 1995 but set up the Ravens instead. The Colts also benefited from a weird trade , leading to Marvin Harrison. This trio appears on the All-Century team; Terrell Owens (Round 3) probably should have. These four were among this draft’s 17 All-Pros. Also here: Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins, Zach Thomas, Mike Alstott, Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson and Eddie George. This draft keyed the Ravens, Patriots (Lawyer Milloy), and Bucs’ early-2000s championships, with the latter later trading for Cardinals No. 3 overall pick Simeon Rice.
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The first year the AFL held a draft featured a loaded class for which to vie. Of the eight Hall of Famers here, seven chose the NFL. Only Bills guard Billy Shaw opted for the new league. The Cowboys, who chose Shaw, did well anyway. Arguably their greatest player, defensive tackle Bob Lilly, joined the second-year franchise in Round 1. Mike Ditka (Round 1) and Herb Adderley (Round 1) wound up in Dallas after impact runs in Chicago and Green Bay, respectively. Stalwart cornerback Jimmy Johnson went to the 49ers at No. 6, while the Vikings found Fran Tarkenton in the third round. The Rams won the value prize here, taking Mississippi Valley State’s Deacon Jones in the 14th.
The AFL and NFL remained separate leagues throughout the 1960s, but this year introduced the common draft. It ignited Super Bowl runs. All-Century-teamers Alan Page (Vikings), Gene Upshaw (Raiders) and Willie Lanier (Chiefs) catalyzed revered units, while the Dolphins’ top pick became Hall of Famer Bob Griese. The Dallas scouting machine revved in high gear, identifying ex-college hoops standout Rayfield Wright in Round 7. Wright became a Hall of Fame tackle. Safety Ken Houston (Houston), cornerback Lem Barney (Detroit), and running back Floyd Little (Denver) did not make it to Super Bowls; they did make it to Canton.
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This class did plenty to shape the modern NFL. The top five might not quite be 1989-caliber, but Cam Newton-Von Miller-Marcell Dareus-A.J. Green-Patrick Peterson is up there. The Falcons’ 17-spot trade-up for Julio Jones (No. 6) worked out well too. Miller, Jones and J.J. Watt (No. 11) are Canton locks . Others will be considered. The Cowboys, Saints, and Steelers are still reaping the benefits from their first-round picks — Tyron Smith, Cam Jordan, Cam Heyward — while the Seahawks continued to set up their Super Bowl nucleus by taking K.J. Wright in Round 3 and Richard Sherman in Round 5. Almost no class can match 2011’s combination of high-end talent and depth, and upside remains.
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No draft matches this one’s Canton representation. Ten Hall of Famers came from 1964’s two-draft setup. All 10 chose the NFL. A third of the top 18 picks went to the Hall, with the Browns, Cowboys, and Vikings making big additions. Paul Warfield and Leroy Kelly anchored the post-Jim Brown Browns; Warfield’s Miami arrival later accelerated the Dolphins’ rise. Dallas’ cutting-edge scouting gave the team standout DB Mel Renfro in Round 2, Olympic 100 champ Bob Hayes in Round 7, and Heisman winner-turned-naval officer Roger Staubach three rounds later. Washington added wideout Charley Taylor, while its Paul Krause pick ended up benefiting Minnesota, which continued to build its future Super Bowl nucleus with D-end Carl Eller.
You have probably heard about 1983’s QBs and the trade that sent top pick John Elway to Denver, but beyond the Elway-Jim Kelly-Dan Marino troika, the ’83 first-round housed four more Hall of Famers. Eric Dickerson (No. 2 overall) remains atop the single-season rushing list; Bruce Matthews and Darrell Green played into the 2000s; Jimbo Covert helped Walter Payton to post-30 accolades. The class’ other Canton inductee, Bears eighth-rounder Richard Dent, led a historic pass rush. But the class included numerous long-term starters — from Roger Craig to Mark Clayton to Charles Mann. With a record five All-Century players, this draft did the most to build the modern NFL’s unrivaled foundation.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.