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2019 NFL Draft: Could this be the best defensive line class ever?

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The 2018 quarterback draft class was advertised as one of the top groups of prospects ever at that position. Five signal-callers wound up being selected in the first round, and all of them logged ample time as rookie starters. Now we'll see just how successful this quintet ends up becoming.

While passers Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock and Kyler Murray are getting love from draft evaluators this year, it's the immense talent along the defensive line that's generating talk of historical greatness.

The 2019 D-line class features at least eight edge players with first-round potential, based on their production in college and/or the agility they showed at the NFL Scouting Combine. Josh Allen, Nick Bosa, Brian Burns, Clelin Ferrell, Rashan Gary, Jachai Polite, Montez Sweat and even Louisiana Tech star Jaylon Ferguson (who nipped Allen by half a sack to be the nation's leader in the category last fall with 17.5) could end up in the first round, similar to the 2017 class, where eight edge rushers came off the board on Thursday night. Allen, Bosa, Burns, Gary and Sweat (assuming his heart condition poses no threat to his career) make up the best top tier of edge prospects since 2011 (more on that group below), rivaling the top five from that year in the lethal combination of size, agility and athleticism. If Burns continues to gain mass and Gary uses his athletic gifts to become more consistently productive than he was in college, then they could join the other elite prospects -- and several more top-100 value picks like (Joe Jackson, Shareef Miller and Chase Winovich, to name a few) -- as one of the most productive edge groups of the past 50 years.

And the defensive tackle class does not take a back seat to the edge rushers. First-round candidates Jerry Tillery, Christian Wilkins and Quinnen Williams confirmed their stellar movement skills at the combine -- and Dexter Lawrence put in some good work in Indianapolis before suffering a minor quad strain. Ed Oliver chose to only participate in certain combine exercises, while Jeffery Simmons wasn't invited to Indy (due to a prior incident involving violence, though he's also recovering from a torn ACL). Still, both of them are prime Round 1 prospects. Arizona State product Renell Wren is a dark-horse candidate for the opening stanza, due to his length and underrated agility. If six of those talented prospects are selected on Thursday night, it would tie for the most defensive tackles taken in any initial round in draft history (joining 2001 and 2003).

I've compared this overall D-line group to the 2011 class, but how does it match up with other top-notch DL classes? Below, I've listed the top five D-line classes in the Common Draft Era, which began in 1967 to prevent teams from the rival AFL and NFL from fighting over the same players (the leagues officially merged in 1970).

I believe the 2019 class has an excellent shot to make this list in five or six years. Scouts expect Bosa to be one of the top 4-3 base ends in the league in short order, and I suspect Allen and Sweat could become elite sack masters sooner than later. Williams' quickness off the snap and elite athleticism give him a chance to star immediately for his new team. Wilkins' versatility and popularity in the locker room will earn him many Pro Bowl nods. And despite question marks about Oliver and Simmons, at least one of them will likely become someone opponents will have to account for on every snap.

It is folly to project players as Hall of Famers before they've even lined up for one down in the NFL, but it is reasonable to say there are at least three prospects in this class with the potential to reach lofty heights. Add in good depth across the line, and there's every reason to believe this could be one of the best defensive line draft classes ever.

NOTE: Because of variance in defensive schemes, I include rush linebackers as defensive linemen.

*Denotes Hall of Fame inductee.

5) 1968

Notables: Elvin Bethea*, Larry Cole, Curley Culp*, Tommy Hart, Claude Humphrey*.

The 1968 draft class is one of the best ever -- not just up front on defense. Bethea, Culp and Humphrey are among the eight members of the Hall of Fame from this draft. Bethea spent 16 seasons with the Houston Oilers, winning on the edge consistently with power and speed. Culp was a dominant interior presence for Kansas City and Houston through the 1970s, making six Pro Bowls during his 14-year career. Humphrey was the only first-round pick of the trio, earning six Pro Bowl trips with the Falcons before heading to Philadelphia in 1979. He made the Super Bowl with the Eagles in the 1980 season. Cole and Hart were late-round picks (16th and 10th, respectively) and aren't well-known among younger NFL fans, but they both started in the league for more than a decade. Cole was a big part of the Cowboys' success on defense in the early '70s, while Hart was a stalwart on the line for the 49ers.

4) 2011

Notables: Jurrell Casey, Marcell Dareus, Cameron Hayward, Justin Houston, Cameron Jordan, Ryan Kerrigan, Von Miller, Robert Quinn, J.J. Watt, Muhammad Wilkerson.

We're only halfway through the story here, but I think this will probably be known as one of the top draft classes ever. Miller and Watt are likely Hall of Famers, with both poised to reach the 100-sack mark in 2019. Watt is a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year who could have easily won it again in 2018. Miller has hit the double-digit sack mark in seven of eight seasons and earned the Super Bowl 50 MVP. Casey, Houston, Jordan and Kerrigan have all been named to four Pro Bowls -- and they're not done yet. Add in the depth of Dareus, Heyward, Quinn and Wilkerson -- this is a class of defenders for the ages. Pass rusher Aldon Smith is not listed among the notables because, despite 33.5 sacks in first two years with the 49ers, he could not reach his potential due to various off-field incidents.

3) 1981

Notables: Hugh Green, Rickey Jackson*, E.J. Junior, Howie Long*, Dexter Manley, Lawrence Taylor*.

Taylor and Long by themselves would carry any class to this list. Taylor changed the game with his ability to surprise quarterbacks with his blind-side rushes. The eight-time first-team All-Pro simply known as "LT" was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and he won the NFL MVP award in 1986 on his way to leading the Giants to the first of two Super Bowl victories. Long dominated inside and outside for the Raiders for 13 seasons (achieving eight Pro Bowls), accumulating 84 career sacks and helping the then-L.A. Raiders win Super Bowl XVIII. Saints fans are familiar with sack artist Jackson, the third Hall of Famer on this list. He was a 15-year starter -- including 13 in New Orleans, where he totaled 115 of his 128 quarterback tackles in the backfield. Jackson earned a Super Bowl ring with the 49ers in the 1994 season. Manley played in three Super Bowls with Washington (winning two), posting 97.5 career sacks in 11 total NFL seasons. Green and Junior did not become superstars after being picked in the top 10 of the 1981 draft, but both made two Pro Bowls and started at least nine years in the league.

2) 1975

Notables: Robert Brazile*, Rubin Carter, Fred Dean*, Doug English, Mike Hartenstine, Gary Johnson, Louie Kelcher, Randy White*.

Brazile and White starred for years on the teams that drafted them. White controlled the line of scrimmage and made plays in the backfield consistently for the Cowboys, earning seven first-team All-Pro nods and the Super Bowl XII MVP award. Brazile was one of the first rush linebackers in the pro game, attacking quarterbacks before the sack was an official statistic. Dean was a terror on the edge for San Diego and San Francisco, receiving his Hall of Fame call after totaling nearly 100 career sacks unofficially. Hartenstine's tough-nosed play at defensive end is underappreciated now, but he was a strong presence on the Bears' defense for over a decade. The depth of the defensive tackle group in this class was strong, with English (Detroit), Johnson (San Diego) and Kelcher (San Diego) all earning at least three Pro Bowl honors and Carter considered one of Broncos' best defenders ever. The Chargers bulked up their front four in this draft like few other teams in history. Two other defensive linemen, Cleveland Elam (made two Pro Bowls with San Francisco) and Dave Pear (one Pro Bowl with Tampa Bay), are not listed above because injuries shortened their promising careers.

1) 1985

Notables: Ray Childress, Chris Doleman*, Simon Fletcher, Kevin Greene*, William Perry, Bruce Smith*.

This class includes two of the top sack artists in NFL history. Smith was a stalwart on the Bills team that hit four straight Super Bowls, racking up 200 sacks and eight first-team AP All-Pro nods. Doleman wreaked havoc in the backfield (150.5 sacks, eight Pro Bowls) for nine seasons in Minnesota before bringing down passers for Atlanta and San Francisco in the mid-1990s. Greene, the third Hall of Famer in the group, was not a top-five pick like Smith and Doleman, but rather a fifth-rounder. He played for the Los Angeles Rams for eight seasons, but really came to the forefront (or, rather, a three-front) as a rush linebacker for Pittsburgh, Carolina and San Francisco, accumulating 160 career sacks. Childress and "Refrigerator" Perry both made their impacts in the middle of their respective Houston and Chicago defenses -- Perry's contributions as a rookie nine-game starter on the great Bears team will not ever be forgotten in the Windy City. Fletcher was a big factor as a linebacker in Denver's 3-4 scheme (97.5 career sacks) who started his final 140 games with the team.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @chad_reuter.

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