Any discussion of the greatest draft classes in NFL history starts with the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers group that features four Hall of Famers in Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.
Brooks: Luck vs. Kaepernick
Andrew Luck and Colin
Kaepernick are emerging stars. Which QB is better? Bucky Brooks' pick might surprise you. **More ...**
Among NFL draft hauls over the past three decades, though, last year's Indianapolis Colts class stands out. According to NFL Network's research department, the 55 games started by Colts draft picks were second only to the 2010 New England Patriots (Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Devin McCourty and Brandon Spikes) for most by a playoff team over the same time span.
For long-term impact, the Colts' class could rival the 1995 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks) and 1996Baltimore Ravens (Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis).
It all starts at quarterback, the one position so vitally important that Vince Lombardi deemed its glaring imbalance the only factor preventing football from being the perfect team game.
No NFL quarterback attempted more passes of 20-plus yards than Andrew Luck in 2012, according to ProFootballFocus.com. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft was second only to Matthew Stafford in dropbacks and first by a wide margin in dropbacks under pressure. Luck also led the NFL in plays in which he was hit, hurried or sacked.
Which first-year players should you target for your fantasy roster? Michael Fabiano reveals his top 10 rookies for 2013. More ...
What do those stats mean? Despite awful pass protection, Luck still was entrusted with making the most difficult throws in the league. Unlike Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, Luck was outfitted with neither training wheels nor a gimmicky offense. I've never seen a rookie quarterback with Luck's combination of superior pocket presence, ideal size, physical toughness and movement with purpose.
NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell believes Luck is arguably the most physically gifted quarterback in the league and soon will be a consensus top-three NFL quarterback. I don't think it's hyperbole to suggest that Luck boasts all the tangibles and intangibles to join the discussion for greatest of all time in a best-case career scenario.
Outside of Luck, the most impressive Colts rookie on film was tight end Dwayne Allen. A future Pro Bowl selection, the third-round draft pick might be the AFC's premier tight end as soon as this season if Rob Gronkowski and Heath Miller struggle to return from major surgeries. Allen is big, fast, has strong hands and uses his body well in traffic. There aren't many NFL tight ends offering Allen's run-after-catch ability, as evidenced by this 40-yard screen play.
Second-round draft pick Coby Fleener's rookie season was a mild disappointment, due in large part to a midseason shoulder injury. Fleener doesn't play with the physicality of Allen, but Fleener is a more natural receiver capable of making plays down the field. Don't be surprised if he doubles his 26 catches from a year ago in his Stanford coordinator's offense.
The offense's wild card is speedster T.Y. Hilton. Far from a one-dimensional vertical threat, the third-round draft pick often was used on bubble screens and slants to take advantage of his homerun-hitting ability after the catch. After easing into the offense in the first two months, Hilton averaged 75 yards to Reggie Wayne's 79 from Week 9 through the end of the season. This 70-yard touchdown shows not just Luck's incredible accuracy but also Hilton's ability to take the top off a defense if granted just a sliver of space. Will we continue to see those splash plays without Bruce Arians' aggressive downfield attack?
By the end of last season, Arians had taken to calling running back Vick Ballard a "poor man's Edgerrin James." Emerging as a reliable three-down back down the stretch, fifth-round draft pick Ballard showed no weaknesses beyond a lack of big-play ability. He's expected to team with Ahmad Bradshaw in a tandem attack this season.
Don't sleep on fifth-round draft pick Josh Chapman, a nose tackle who essentially redshirted last season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus. Dubbed "TNT" -- short for "Thug in the Trenches" -- by veteran pass rusher Robert Mathis, Chapman was one of the premier run-stoppers in college football before the knee injury.
By my count, this group contains one future Hall of Fame quarterback (Luck), a blue chip tight end (Allen), two potential red chip weapons (Hilton, Fleener), a solid starter (Ballard), a defensive wild card (Chapman) and a valuable reserve/special teamer (sixth-round draft pick LaVon Brazill).
The 2012 Colts class won't match the 1974 Steelers class in Hall of Famers, but it will be interesting to watch the yardage pile up over the next decade if they stick together beyond their rookie contracts. My research turned up no better collection of skill-position talent from one draft.