What makes a great draft?
It starts with great players, or course. And players must be plural: Selecting a Hall of Famer is a great pick, but a great draft brings in several starters, a Pro Bowler or two and maybe some useful reserves. A great draft doesn't have to lead to a Super Bowl in a few years, but that sure helps. At the very least, a great draft turns a team into a perennial contender, starts the clock on a success cycle, pushes a good team over the edge of greatness or turns a franchise's fortunes around.
The greatest draft in history was executed by the Steelers in 1974: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, four-of-a-kind Hall of Famers dealt in one hand. That draft may never be challenged. The Cowboys' 1989 draft is a good contender for second place: Troy Aikman, Daryl Johnston, Tony Tolbert, Mark Stepnoski, a big chunk of the core of three Super Bowl winners. If we listed the greatest drafts in history, we would spend the whole article discussing these great teams of yesteryear. It might be fun, but it wouldn't be fair to modern teams, and everyone knows that the countdown ends by slamming into a Steel Curtain.
So let's list the best drafts of the last decade instead. It may take three-to-five years to truly evaluate a draft, but we can make some educated guesses about recent efforts. Once we get back to 2008 or so, we get a great look at some brilliant performances by modern front offices. These are the drafts that produced today's champions and tomorrow's grainy documentaries, so they deserve a countdown all their own.
(Note: Players listed in order of success, roughly.)
10. Green Bay Packers, 2009
The Players: Clay Matthews (1st round); B.J. Raji (1st round); T.J. Lang (4th round); Brad Jones (7th round).
The Verdict: No general manager in the NFL is better at scouring the waiver wires than Ted Thompson. As a drafter, however, Thompson is more like baseball's Adam Dunn: enough home runs to be productive, but lots and lots of strikeouts.
Thompson hit two home runs with his first two picks in 2009. Matthews is one of the best defenders in the NFL, and Raji's play at nose tackle is the steadying influence on the Packers' complicated defense. Matthews and Raji put Aaron Rodgers and the Packers over the top with a Super Bowl victory, but other picks from this draft have borne fruit recently. Lang and Jones, bit players early in their careers, are now starters for still-great Packers teams. A few other players from this draft, like guard Jamon Meredith and defender Jarius Wynn, have become starters for other teams. Maybe Thompson hits more singles than we give him credit for.
9. Tie: Indianapolis Colts, 2012; Seattle Seahawks, 2012
The Players: Russell Wilson (3rd round); Bobby Wagner (2nd round); Bruce Irwin (1st round); Robert Turbin (4th round) for the Seahawks. Andrew Luck (1st round); T.Y. Hilton (3rd round); Dwayne Allen (3rd round); Coby Fleener (2nd round); Vick Ballard (5th round) for the Colts.
The Verdict: Maybe we will look back at this selection in four years and laugh at our premature conclusion. On second thought, no we won't. These are two obviously superlative hauls anchored by great quarterback prospects. The Colts essentially drafted a starting skill-position offense good enough to reach the playoffs in their rookie season. The Seahawks picked up their starting quarterback for the next decade or so AFTER picking two defenders with Pro Bowl potential (one of whom, Wagner, could easily have made it last year). Even after the dust and hype settles, these two drafts will define these franchises for years to come, in a good way.
What about the Redskins? They picked up Robert Griffin and Alfred Morris, but not much else, and they had no second-round pick. If Morris becomes one of those Mike Shanahan one-year running backs, the 2012 draft could come down to Griffin and spare change. One player does not a draft make. Put another way: The Ravens draft in 2008 netted Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, but that did not make this list because they did not get much else. If a QB-RB tandem that wins a Super Bowl doesn't make the cut, a QB-RB tandem with one playoff appearance should not, either.
8. New England Patriots, 2003
The Players: Dan Koppen (5th round); Asante Samuel (4th round); Ty Warren (1st round); Tully Banta-Cain (7th round); Eugene Wilson (2nd round).
The Verdict: The Patriots were not built on any one great draft. Even when they discovered Tom Brady in the sixth round in 2000, it was after they "discovered" the likes of Dave Stachelski and Jeff Marriott in previous rounds. With all of their draft-night trading, a lineup that is usually hard to crack, and a preference for signing free agents instead of drafting at positions like wide receiver, the Patriots emerge from the typical draft with one quality starter and perhaps a role player or two.
The 2003 draft was an exception. The Patriots got an immediate Super Bowl-capable starting center in Koppen; a safety who would start for two Super Bowl teams (and come off the bench for a third) in Wilson; another defensive fixture in Warren; an enigmatic but often brilliant starting cornerback in Samuel; and a valuable reserve in Banta-Cain. Before the 2003 draft, the Patriots could easily have become one-and-done champions, unable to recapture the magic of 2001. This draft fleshed out the starting lineups of what became a legendary team.
7. Denver Broncos, 2006
The Players: Jay Cutler (1st round), Brandon Marshall (4th round); Elvis Dumervil (4th round); Chris Kuper (5th round); Tony Scheffler (2nd round); Domenik Hixon (4th round).
The Verdict: The Dumervil Fax Massacre of 2013 was emblematic of this draft: a Super Bowl opportunity squandered for ridiculous reasons. Say what you will about Cutler, but he led the Bears to the NFC Championship game while the Broncos went 4-12 behind Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow. Marshall can be a handful too, but not as much a handful as Josh McDaniels, the head coach/boy emperor who traded away most of the Broncos resources just to assert his authority.
Scheffler remains a productive role player, but for another team. The Broncos gave up on Hixon before he became a medical case file; the oft-injured receiver/returner played a major part in the Giants 2007 Super Bowl run and has been part of the perennial contenders, shuttling from the PUP list to the lineup, ever since. Only Kuper and Dumervil remained in Denver last year, and Kuper better watch out for malfunctioning mimeographs or faulty answering machines. Few teams have drafted as well as the Broncos in 2006 and gotten so little in return.
6. Indianapolis Colts, 2003
The Players: Robert Mathis (5th round); Dallas Clark (1st round); Cato June (6th round); Mike Doss (2nd round).
The Verdict: Peyton Manning, Dwight Freeney and Marvin Harrison made the Colts a playoff team. This draft made them a Super Bowl team. Mathis gave Tony Dungy's conservative defense the two-pronged pass rush (with Freeney) it needed from the defensive line. Clark joined Marcus Pollard to give Manning multiple options from a two-tight end set. June, a speedy coverage linebacker perfect for Dungy's system, made the Pro Bowl and started in the Super Bowl. Doss was an injury case who started for a few seasons. Colts draft productivity fell off sharply after 2003, but Mathis and Clark provided an influx of greatness that helped Manning and the others stave off the effects of front-office dry mouth for half a decade.
5. Arizona Cardinals, 2004
The Players: Larry Fitzgerald (1st round); Darnell Dockett (3rd round); Karlos Dansby (2nd round); Antonio Smith (5th round).
The Verdict: The Cardinals had endured nine losing seasons in 10 years entering the 2004 draft. A few seasons after this draft, they made the playoffs twice and Super Bowl once. Fitzgerald, Dockett, Dansby and Smith all started on the Super Bowl team; Smith was gone, but Dockett reached the Pro Bowl, when the Cardinals went 10-6 the following year.
This draft may stick out a little too far because of the flatness surrounding it, but Fitzgerald and Dockett remain two of the most important people in the Cardinals organization a decade later, while Dansby and Smith were still starters last year.
4. Tie: San Diego Chargers 2004; San Diego Chargers 2005
The Players: Philip Rivers (1st round); Shaun Phillips (4th round); Michael Turner (5th round); Nick Hardwick (3rd round); Igor Olshansky (2nd round); Nate Kaeding (3rd round) in 2004. Vincent Jackson (2nd round); Shawne Merriman (1st round); Darren Sproles (3rd round); Luis Castillo (1st round) in 2005.
The Verdict: Just a few years ago, the Chargers were perennial challengers to the Patriots, Steelers and Colts in the AFC. They had 14-2, 13-3 and 12-4 seasons, and they were often a crazy play or two away from the Super Bowl, or at least the conference title. Those great, frustrating teams were forged in these two drafts.
The Chargers actually drafted Eli Manning and traded for Rivers, but you get the idea. The Chargers acquired a franchise quarterback, two outstanding pass rushers in Merriman and Phillips, a playoff-caliber center in Hardwick, two very good 3-4 linemen in Castillo and Olshansky, a productive receiver in Jackson, a kicker in Kaeding and more running back talent than they had any use for in Sproles and Turner. This was a court worthy of Camelot, and for years this group (plus some earlier arrivals like Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson) concealed the fact that Chargers drafts stopped being fruitful in 2007 (just when Marty Schottenheimer left. Hmmm….), Norv Turner brought nothing to the round table but good vibes and A.J. Smith had a quick trigger finger when it came to blowing up contract negotiations.
There is almost nothing left of these two great drafts in San Diego, and little to show for them. In another universe, Kaeding made an overtime field goal, Marlon McCree never fumbled and the Chargers went to a Super Bowl or two.
3. New Orleans Saints, 2006
The Players: Jahri Evans (4th round); Marques Colston (7th round); Roman Harper (2nd round); Reggie Bush (1st round); Zach Strief (7th round); Rob Ninkovich (5th round).
The Verdict: For years, the brilliance of this draft was obscured by Reggie Bush, a staple of All-Time Bust lists even as he racked up 2,000 all-purpose yards per season for a perennial playoff team and scored three playoff touchdowns during a Super Bowl run. Bush never lived up to the hype, and he aroused a peculiar hatred in many fans and almost every sports-talk host. But two productive seasons as a starter for the Dolphins (and a quieter lifestyle) cast his early career in a different light. NFL Films documentaries will remember him as the brash, electrifying boom-or-bust player, and his slow-motion touchdowns will survive everything that Colin Cowherd ever said about him.
Now that Bush is no longer a pariah, it is clear that the Saints drafted the best guard of this generation in Evans, a dependable lineman in Strief, a unique weapon in the secondary in Harper, an exceptional possession receiver in Colston and a solid pass rusher in Ninkovich. All but Ninkovich contributed to the Super Bowl run and most of the excellent seasons that surrounded it. Oh yes, they also got a runner-receiver-return man who helped a little.
2. Atlanta Falcons, 2008
The Players: Matt Ryan (1st round); Sam Baker (1st round); Kroy Biermann (5th round); Curtis Lofton (2nd round); Thomas DeCoud (3rd round); Harry Douglas (3rd round).
The Verdict: One reason we often say that it takes five years to evaluate a draft is that a lot of dust can settle, even after those second or third years. This time last year, Baker looked like he was on his way out of the league, Lofton was in New Orleans, DeCoud was an ordinary starter and Biermann was little more than a reality-television paramour. In 2012, Baker rebounded and reclaimed his starting job at left tackle (he was not spectacular, but he got the job done), DeCoud had six interceptions and Biermann reinvented himself as a multi-purpose zone-blitz defensive end. Ryan remains the constant, a franchise quarterback just a whisker below superstar status, with Douglas pitching in as a slot receiver and return man.
You can criticize Ryan and the Falcons for not reaching the Super Bowl if you like, but you need to remember where they were before this draft: trapped between Michael Vick's rock and Bobby Petrino's hard place, a franchise that made you queasy to think about. This draft has kept them in Super Bowl contention since the day it was completed.
1. Dallas Cowboys, 2005
The Players: DeMarcus Ware (1st round); Jay Ratliff (7th round); Marcus Spears (1nd round); Chris Canty (4th round); Marion Barber (4th round), Kevin Burnett (2nd round).
The Verdict: The Cowboys drafted the nucleus of a Super Bowl team in 2005. They just never got around to drafting ribosomes, mitochondria or an endoplasmic reticulum to support that nucleus. Ware and Ratliff remained the core of their front seven through last year, with Spears easing into a supporting role after years as a starter. Burnett and Canty are still NFL starters. Barber was a very good multi-purpose running back from 2005 through 2009 but faded quickly.
Add in Jason Witten and Tony Romo (both acquired in 2003), and this draft tells the story of roughly a decade of Cowboys football. Ware and company helped the Cowboys to 13-win seasons and numerous playoff berths, and they still keep the team anchored around .500 and competitive. But Bill Parcells stopped running Cowboys drafts one year after this masterpiece, and the Cowboys started looking like a sitcom that was out of ideas by 2010, when some of these players had moved on and others had peaked. Like the Chargers, the Cowboys reached the Super Bowl thanks to these players in a parallel universe. Maybe they even faced each other.
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Some honorable mentions: 2011 Bengals (A.J. Green, Andy Dalton); 2006 Bengals (Domata Peko, Andrew Whitworth, Johnathan Joseph); 2008 Ravens (Flacco and Rice); 2006 Texans (Mario Williams, Owen Daniels, Eric Winston, DeMeco Ryans); 2008 Chiefs (Jamaal Charles, Glenn Dorsey, Various Brandons; similar to the 2006 Broncos draft ruined by loopy coaching); 2012 Redskins. Think I left someone out? Let me know!