One draft can change everything.
For all the white noise surrounding free agency, history shows that Super Bowl champions and burgeoning dynasties are constructed in April with the right people picking the right college prospects.
Jimmy Johnson's Dallas Cowboys set the table for a dominating run in the 1990s with a four-year draft haul that still stands out as a textbook case study on how to construct a roster. Major acquisitions included:
1989:Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, center Mark Stepnoski, fullback Daryl Johnston and defensive end Tony Tolbert. (Dallas also drafted quarterback Steve Walsh in the supplemental draft -- a controversial move -- before trading him to the Saints in 1990 for first- and third-round picks in 1991 and a second-rounder in 1992.)
1990:Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, defensive tackle Jimmie Jones and defensive back Kenneth Gant.
1991: Defensive tackle Russell Maryland, receiver Alvin Harper, linebacker Dixon Edwards, offensive tackle Erik Williams and defensive tackle Leon Lett.
1992: Defensive backs Kevin Smith and Darren Woodson and linebacker Robert Jones.
Stacking drafts in this fashion is incredibly challenging for even the brightest of front offices. One top-shelf haul can light the spark, though, which brings us to last year's marvelous work by the New Orleans Saints.
On the heels of back-to-back-to-back 7-9 campaigns, coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis struck gold by drafting cornerback Marshon Lattimore with the 11th pick in the first round before using the 32nd pick -- acquired from the Patriots in the Brandin Cooks trade -- to land offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk.
Lattimore went on to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, while Kamara, one of the most exciting players league-wide, ran away with Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, making New Orleans the first team to earn both awards in one campaign since running back Mel Farr and cornerback Lem Barney did it for the Lions way back in 1967.
There's no way the Saints go 11-5 and earn their first playoff berth since 2013 without the help of this extraordinary draft class. If Payton and Loomis can do it again, the ceiling for New Orleans becomes a fascination.
Apologies. This was a meandering intro, but it's our way of kicking off today's look at how one bullseye draft can change everything for a franchise, its city and the fans who live and die with their teams.
Without further ado, let's take a look at (my take on) the top 10 draft classes of the past 25 years.
NOTE 1: Despite the 2017 Saints class' promise after one season, we're leaving that group off this list until Father Time takes us further down the road.
NOTE 2: Because I'm certain some of you will hotly disagree with this list, here is where I gently remind kind readers that any typewriter, personal computer, iMac, iPhone or spiral-bound notebook with a ballpoint pen are your avenue toward creating an iron-clad list of your own.
1) 1996 Baltimore Ravens
Notable picks: OT Jonathan Ogden, LB Ray Lewis, DB DeRon Jenkins, WR Jermaine Lewis.
Ozzie Newsome's first two picks as general manager of the newly minted Baltimore Ravens doubled as a pair of epic grand slams, with Ogden and Lewis finishing their storied careers as shoo-in Hall of Famers.
As then-coach of the Browns, Belichick shipped Cleveland's 1995 first-round pick to the Niners in exchange for a package that included San Francisco's first-rounder in 1996, which ultimately netted Lewis at No. 26 overall.
As part of Cleveland's front office, Newsome long had Lewis on his radar. So did Belichick, who personally scouted the linebacker before the 1996 draft as part of New England's coaching staff under Bill Parcells.
Instead of a Cleveland team run by Belichick and Newsome, the Browns were scattered to the wind by owner Art Modell. From those inglorious ashes rose the Ravens, with Ozzie -- the former Cleveland tight end -- as their unquestioned leader. What Newsome did with that first Baltimore draft set the table for decades of future success.
2) 1995 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Notable picks: DT Warren Sapp, LB Derrick Brooks.
Seven years before the long-sucking Bucs authored a Super Bowl win under Jon Gruden, the team's defensive identity was cemented with a pair of pristine first-round selections. Sapp and Brooks both went on to Hall of Fame careers that peaked under Gruden's watch, but Chucky had nothing to do with drafting them. The credit goes to then-Bucs coach Sam Wyche and his general manager, Rich McKay, who deeply researched Sapp's off-the-field issues before snatching him with the 12th overall pick. Brooks was a far-less-controversial selection at No. 28, but Wyche made it clear, in a piece for PewterReport.com, that Tampa was stunned to acquire him: "We didn't think he was going to be there ... so that's why we jumped at the chance to select him."
3) 2004 San Diego Chargers
Notable picks: QB Philip Rivers, DE Igor Olshansky, K Nate Kaeding, C Nick Hardwick, DE Shaun Phillips, RB Michael Turner.
Triggering one of the juiciest trades in league lore, the Chargers selected Eli Manning with the first overall pick. Thing is, Eli didn't want to play for San Diego, with his agent, Tom Condon, telling the Chargers that Manning would sit out the entire 2004 season if they chose him. Instead of caving in, Bolts general manager A.J. Smith grabbed Manning and waited for the Giants -- Eli's preferred landing spot -- to pick Rivers. San Diego then shipped Manning to Big Blue for a 2004 third-rounder, used on Kaeding, plus 2005 first- and fifth-round picks. The back-to-back drafts generated a flock of productive '04 starters, pass rusher Shawne Merriman in '05, and a quarterback in Rivers who is Manning's equal in every possible way.
4 & 5) 2010/2012 Seattle Seahawks
Under coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, the Seahawks have earned a reputation for approaching the draft in a style all their own. The results speak for themselves, with Seattle forming the Legion of Boom in rapid-fire fashion by selecting Thomas, Chancellor and Thurmond in 2010. Richard Sherman came one year later before the 'Hawks padded their secondary with Jeremy Lane in 2012. Irvin's first-round selection surprised people in that same draft, as did the team's faith in quarterback Russell Wilson. While clubs dinged Wilson for his non-prototypical stature, Schneider pushed hard for the uber-athletic passer, a show of faith that changed the franchise forever.
6) 1995 New England Patriots
Notable picks: CB Ty Law, LB Ted Johnson, RB Curtis Martin, DB Jimmy Hitchcock, C Dave Wohlabaugh.
As with the Seahawks above and the Steelers below, rock-solid drafts often trigger a Super Bowl berth. One year before playing the Packers in the championship, Bill Parcells pieced together a draft that produced a Hall of Fame runner in Martin and a secondary wizard in Law, who arguably should be in Canton. The duo combined to play 371 games, while Johnson (125 games), Hitchcock (101) and Wohlabaugh (128) went on to long, successful careers.
7) 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers
One year after drafting deep-threat Mike Wallace, the Steelers found a true wideout for the ages. A blinding steal in the sixth round, Brown has morphed into a bona fide MVP candidate and the heart of Pittsburgh's offense. With the Steelers also finding Sanders in Round 3, Pittsburgh's front-office folks earned their reputation as magicians when it comes to scouting receivers. Pouncey, meanwhile, is a six-time Pro Bowler, while Worilds was a valuable and sought-after pass rusher before his stunning retirement from football in 2015.
8) 2007 San Francisco 49ers
Notable picks: LB Patrick Willis, OT Joe Staley, DE Ray McDonald, S Dashon Goldson, CB Tarell Brown.
Scot McCloughan. His name belongs all over this list. The talented scout was lodged in Seattle as a senior personnel executive during those celebrated drafts of 2010 and '12. He also served as San Francisco's VP of player personnel during a 2007 selection process that helped set the table for future Niners glory. Willis operated as a seven-time Pro Bowler before retiring in 2015. Staley remains locked in at left tackle for the Niners, while McDonald, Goldson and Brown combined to play 296 games for the franchise.
9) 2004 Arizona Cardinals
Cardinals fans can point to this draft as the turning point for a franchise that suffered through years of obscurity and heartbreak. Future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald has become the most iconic player in team history, still going strong after 14 seasons. Dansby logged eight productive years in Arizona, sandwiched around stints in Miami, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Dockett gave the team 158 games before calling it quits in 2014, while Smith was a key part of the Cardinals' defense for half a decade before taking off to play elsewhere until 2016.
10) 2014 Oakland Raiders
If it's premature to pick a class from the past few seasons, Oakland's crew from 2014 looms as an exception. Mack is a raging star -- and worth every bit of the mega-bucks extension he's about to sign with the Silver and Black. Carr wasn't himself in 2017, but he's one year removed from a legitimate run at MVP and now finds himself under the watch of Jon Gruden. Jackson and Ellis have been constant fixtures in the lineup, while Carrie gave the team 36 starts before moving on to the Browns. Gruden would be wise to keep general manager Reggie McKenzie in house for years to come.
2006 New Orleans Saints: RB Reggie Bush, S Roman Harper, OG Jahri Evans, DE Rob Ninkovich, OT Zach Strief, WR Marques Colston.
2000 New York Jets: DE Shaun Ellis, DE John Abraham, QB Chad Pennington, TE Anthony Becht, WR Laveranues Coles.
2005 Dallas Cowboys: OLB Demarcus Ware, DE Marcus Spears, LB Kevin Burnett, RB Marion Barber III, DE Chris Canty, DT Jay Ratliff.