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Five best NFL draft classes of last 25 years


While we await the NFL debut of the 2015 draft class, let's take a look at the best NFL draft classes -- in totality, not by team -- of the last 25 years (1990-2014). This is an unscientific estimation of the greatest draft classes of the last quarter century, using elite talent, Pro Bowl/All-Pro selections and impact on the game to help determine the order.

1. 2001

» Complete draft class
» Pro Football Hall of Famers: None
» On the road to Canton: LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve Hutchinson, Drew Brees
» Other notable stars:Michael Vick, Justin Smith, Richard Seymour, Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne, Todd Heap, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Chad Johnson, Kris Jenkins, Matt Light, Shaun Rogers, Adrian Wilson, Steve Smith
» Number of players who made at least one Pro Bowl: 34
» First-rounders who made at least one Pro Bowl: 17

An aggressive trade by the Atlanta Falcons for the No. 1 overall draft selection kicked off a draft that delivered two future Pro Football Hall of Famers to the San Diego Chargers. After dealing the first overall pick to the Falcons, who selected quarterback Michael Vick, the Chargers selected running back LaDainain Tomlinson at No. 5. At the top of the second round, the Chargers were fortunate enough to have Drew Brees fall to pick No. 32. Tomlinson turned into the NFL's premier running back for the next decade -- he broke Paul Hornung's 46-year-old single-season scoring record in 2006. Brees signed as a free agent with New Orleans in 2006 and was MVP of the Saints' Super Bowl XLIV win.

Vick, meanwhile, was arguably the game's most exciting player before a suspension in 2007 derailed his career. Vick rebounded in 2010 to become the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

Look beyond the groundbreaking trade, and you see a myriad of quality players. Steve Hutchinson had the reputation of being the best interior offensive lineman in football during his playing career. The 2001 draft class produced a host of top-flight receivers. Reggie Wayne and Steve Smith will generate spirited debate among voters when it comes time for Hall of Fame consideration. Behind Wayne and Smith are an abundance of players with hall-of-very-good distinction. That second tier of exceptional players -- some of whom are still in the league all these years later -- is what separates this draft class from the others.

2. 2007

» Complete draft class
» Pro Football Hall of Famers: None
» On the road to Canton:Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Darrelle Revis
» Other notable stars:Marshawn Lynch, Jon Beason, Joe Staley, Eric Weddle, Ryan Kalil, Jacoby Jones, Marshal Yanda
» Number of players who made at least one Pro Bowl: 33
» First-rounders who made at least one Pro Bowl: 16

A cavalcade of extraordinary talents followed the boondoggle that was the Oakland Raiders' selection of quarterback JaMarcus Russell at No. 1. Players that would arguably become (and in some cases still are) the best at their respective positions were all selected in the top half of the first round -- Calvin Johnson at No. 2, Joe Thomas at No. 3, Adrian Peterson at No. 7, Patrick Willis at No. 11 and Darrelle Revis at No. 14. That is five potential Hall of Fame players within 13 draft selections.

Marshawn Lynch was drafted by the Buffalo Bills, but had a career resurgence in Seattle, where he produced the "Beast Quake."Jacoby Jones, drafted by the Houston Texans, made a profound impact with his second NFL team, making twoseminal plays in the Baltimore Ravens' run to glory in Super Bowl XLVII.

3. 1996

» Complete draft class
» Pro Football Hall of Famers:Jonathan Ogden
» On the road to Canton: Ray Lewis, Marvin Harrison, Brian Dawkins, Terrell Owens
» Other notable stars: Keyshawn Johnson, Eddie George, Mike Alstott, Lawyer Milloy, Tedy Bruschi, Stephen Davis, Joe Horn, Zach Thomas, La'Roi Glover
» Number of players who made at least one Pro Bowl: 33
» First-rounders who made at least one Pro Bowl: 15

This is the last draft in which there was not a quarterback selected in the first round. Instead, the Baltimore Ravens built a perennial contender by drafting two future Hall of Famers (one who is already enshrined in Canton -- Jonathan Ogden -- and another who will be as soon as he's eligible -- Ray Lewis). The Ravens' 1996 draft class is in the discussion for best ever for a single team.

Well before the proliferation of the spread offense in college football and the massive emphasis on the passing game at all levels of the sport, the 1996 draft set a standard at the receiver position. Keyshawn Johnson went No. 1 overall to the New York Jets. Five receivers -- Johnson, Terry Glenn, Eddie Kennison, Marvin Harrison and Eric Moulds -- were selected in the first round and each turned into major contributors during their respective careers. This is amazing when you consider that selecting receivers that high in the draft is an absolute crapshoot. Harrison's 143-catch season in 2002 easily out-paces the second-highest total in NFL history -- Antonio Brown's 129 from 2014 -- and is a record that might never be broken.

Safety Brian Dawkins and wide receiver Terrell Owens were selected in the second and third rounds, respectively, and were arguably the best at their positions for much of their careers. Eddie George, meanwhile, was a workhorse running back for the Houston/Tennessee Oilers/Titans, helping lead the Titans to their only Super Bowl berth following the 1999 season.

In all, the 1996 draft class has earned the most combined Pro Bowls over the past 25 years with 115 total Pro Bowl selections.

4. 2004

» Complete draft class
» Pro Football Hall of Famers: None
» On the road to Canton:Ben Roethlisberger
» Other notable stars:Eli Manning, Larry Fitzgerald, Philip Rivers, Sean Taylor, Vince Wilfork, Steven Jackson, Bob Sanders, Darnell Dockett, Shaun Phillips, Jared Allen, Michael Turner, Jason Peters (undrafted), Wes Welker (undrafted)
» Number of players who made at least one Pro Bowl: 33
» First-rounders who made at least one Pro Bowl: 15

Like the 2001 draft before it, this draft was famous for another trade for the top overall pick involving the Chargers. This time, it was Eli Manning getting drafted by the Chargers and then traded to the New York Giants in exchange for Philip Rivers and three other picks. The Steelers' selection of Ben Roethlisberger made the 2004 draft the first in league history to produce two quarterbacks that each won multiple Super Bowls.

Seven of the first eight selections went on to become Pro Bowl players. The lone exception was Robert Gallery, who didn't live up to expectations after being taken at No. 2 overall by the Raiders.

Going undrafted in 2004 was Jason Peters, who is one of the top offensive tackles currently in the NFL. Also undrafted that year? Wide receiver Wes Welker, who went on to become one of Tom Brady's favorite targets during a healthy run in New England, where he led the NFL in receptions three times.

Like the 2001 draft before it, the 2004 draft class will produce some heated debates come time for Hall of Fame consideration. Strong cases will be made for Roethlisberger (three Super Bowl appearances with two wins), Manning (two Super Bowl wins), Larry Fitzgerald (one of the game's finest receivers), Philip Rivers (comprehensive statistical prowess), Vince Wilfork (one of the NFL's premier defensive tackles) and Jared Allen (one of the NFL's elite edge rushers). Sean Taylor was well on his way to greatness before his untimely death in 2007.

5. 2011

» Complete draft class
» Pro Football Hall of Famers: None
» On the road to Canton:J.J. Watt, Richard Sherman
» Other notable stars:Cam Newton, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, Tyron Smith, Robert Quinn, Ryan Kerrigan, Colin Kaepernick, Torrey Smith, Randall Cobb, Justin Houston, DeMarco Murray
» Number of players who made at least one Pro Bowl: 23
» First-rounders who made at least one Pro Bowl: 14

Although this draft occurred just four years ago, it is on the fast track toward becoming one of the best ever. J.J. Watt is the most disruptive defensive player of this era and has already collected two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards. Richard Sherman is among the league's finest shutdown cornerbacks.

The first seven selections in this draft have already earned at least one Pro Bowl selection. Eight of the first nine, 9 of the first 11 and 12 of the first 16 picks have all been Pro Bowl picks. Beyond that, the draft produced the 2014 rushing leader (DeMarco Murray) and sack leader (Justin Houston). Two of the game's most dangerous game-breaking receivers -- A.J. Green and Julio Jones -- were selected at No. 4 and No. 6 overall, respectively, with the Atlanta Falcons making a bold draft-day trade-up to get Jones.

Hurting this draft's chances at all-time excellence is the first-round quarterback class beyond Newton. Jake Locker (No. 8 to the Tennessee Titans) has already retired. Blaine Gabbert (No. 10 to the Jacksonville Jaguars) has been jettisoned by his original team and is seemingly relegated to backup status for the rest of his career. Christian Ponder (No. 12 to the Minnesota Vikings) has already been replaced by another first-round selection (Teddy Bridgewater in 2014).

Also considered:

1990: This draft produced four Pro Football Hall of Famers -- Cortez Kennedy, Junior Seau, Emmitt Smith and Shannon Sharpe -- and a fifth Hall of Famer who went undrafted -- John Randle. However, the quarterback class left more to be desired. After Jeff George went No. 1 overall to the Indianapolis Colts, the next most notable quarterback to be selected was Neil O'Donnell in Round 3 to the Steelers. Between those two quarterbacks, Andre Ware, Tommy Hodson and Peter Tom Willis were selected. Ware is considered one of the greatest draft busts, given he was coming off a Heisman Trophy-winning year. Still, this was a tough cut from the top five given that the league's all-time leading rusher, one of the all-time greatest tight ends and two of the best defensive players of their time were in this draft class.

1993: This draft has already produced four Hall of Famers (Willie Roaf, Jerome Bettis, Michael Strahan and Will Shields) with a possible fifth to come down the line (John Lynch). Quarterbacks went 1-2 with mixed results, as Drew Bledsoe helped lead the New England Patriots to Super Bowl XXXI, but Rick Mirer fell well short of the next Joe Montana-type hype with the Seattle Seahawks.

1995: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers built the core of their defense by using their two first-round selections on Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, making it two years in a row a team selected two future Hall of Famers in the first round (see Ravens in 1996 above). The New England Patriots took a Hall of Fame running back -- Curtis Martin -- in the third round. Other notable selections were quarterback Steve McNair to the Houston Oilers at No. 3 overall, and running back Terrell Davis to the Denver Broncos in the sixth round (No. 196 overall).

1998:Peyton Manning went No. 1 to the Indianapolis Colts and Ryan Leaf went No. 2 to the San Diego Chargers. The debate over which would have the better NFL career ended quickly. Randy Moss fell to No. 21 overall to the Minnesota Vikings and went on to have a rookie season for the ages and a career worthy of Canton. After becoming the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, Charles Woodson was selected No. 4 overall by the Oakland Raiders. Hines Ward was taken with the last pick in the third round by the Pittsburgh Steelers and he, too, could eventually wind up enshrined in Canton.

2003: Wide receiver Andre Johnson (first round), safety Troy Polamalu (first round) and tight end Jason Witten (third round) might each be elected for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Two of the NFL's top players at their respective positions, quarterback Tony Romo and tight end Antonio Gates, each went undrafted in 2003.

Follow Jim Reineking on Twitter @jimreineking.

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