The 2014 NFL Draft is just a few days away, marking the start of several hundred NFL careers and the end of players being known just for what college they played at. Chris Wesseling over at Around the League had a fantastic look at the best draft classes in AFC and NFC history, and that got College Football 24/7 wondering what the best college draft classes of all time look like.
Taking into account Hall of Fame careers, Pro Bowls, years as a starter, games played and overall depth (i.e. lack of busts), here's a stab at the best draft classes that all current Big Ten schools (and Maryland/Rutgers) produced. It's subjective, so feel free to disagree by stating your case in the comments.
Best draft class:1958 (Ray Nitschke, Bobby Mitchell)
Highest overall pick:Jeff George (1st overall, 1990)
Other top classes:1961, 1965, 2003, 2010
Best draft class:1945 (Pete Pihos, Bob Cowan))
Highest overall pick:Corby Davis (1st overall, 1938)
Other top classes:1944, 1988, 2011
Notable:Only seven times in school history have there been more than three Indiana players selected in the draft. The 1945 class produced a Hall of Famer in Pihos and a two-year pro in Cowan who managed to start 12 games and do a bit of everything for Cleveland.
Best draft class:1964 (Paul Krause, Mike Reilly, Wally Hilgenberg, Bob Sherman)
Highest overall pick:Randy Duncan (1st overall, 1959)
Other top classes:1982, 1983, 2004, 2010
Notable:Krause went to eight Pro Bowls and was named an All-Pro three times before finally winding up in the Hall of Fame. Hilgenberg moved around his first few years in the league before playing nearly a decade with the Vikings and making four trips to the Super Bowl. 1982 produced a Hall of Famer and a solid career in Green Bay's Ron Hallstrom, but the 1964 group gets the slight edge.
Best draft class:1975 (Randy White, Steve Mike-Mayer, Louis Carter, Walter White, Stan Rogers, Bob Avellini, Ken Schroy)
Highest overall pick:Randy White (2nd overall, 1975)
Other top classes:1953, 1984, 1985, 2006, 2011
Notable:The 2006 group with Vernon Davis and D'Qwell Jackson is limited by lack of depth but might develop into the best class of Terps with another few years in the league. White is obviously the headliner in 1975 and provides a big boost with his bust in Canton, a 1977 Super Bowl MVP and nine Pro Bowl appearances. Six players from the class ended up playing at least 50 games in the NFL, with Avellini probably the best known from his time in Chicago.
Other top classes:1978, 1995, 1996, 2001, 2007
Notable:A future Hall of Famer, Brady is obviously the headliner of the 2000 class even if he was an afterthought at the time. Jones was a well-known linebacker to NFC East fans and wound up starting 131 games over a nine-year career. Gold was the first of the group picked (in the second round) and made the Pro Bowl in 2001 and was a familiar face in Denver.
Best draft class:1973 (Billy Joe DuPree, Joe DeLamielleure, Brad Van Pelt, Gail Clark, Brian McConnell, Jim Nicholson)
Highest overall pick:Bubba Smith (1st overall, 1967)
Other top classes:1956, 1961, 1967, 1998, 2000
Notable:DeLamielleure wound up in the Hall of Fame and was named an All-Pro three times. DuPree was taken six picks earlier in first round and became one of the best tight ends of the 1970's as the Cowboys were going to the Super Bowl regularly. Van Pelt made the Pro Bowl five times as a member of the Giants' Crunch Bunch.
Best draft class:1964 (Carl Eller, Milt Sunde)
Highest overall pick:Ed Widseth (4th overall, 1937)
Other top classes:1950, 1963, 1966, 1968, 1974
Notable:Eller was one of the top picks in the draft in 1964 and certainly lived up to expectations by becoming the foundation of a tough Vikings defense that went to four Super Bowls. He went to the Pro Bowl six times, took home one defensive player of the year award and was voted into the Hall of Fame. Sunde started over 100 games for Minnesota as a guard and made the Pro Bowl once. The 1963 group was pretty good too with Hall of Famer Bobby Bell.
Best draft class:1984 (Irving Fryar, Dean Steinkuhler, Mike Rozier)
Highest overall pick:Sam Francis (1st overall, 1937) and Irving Fryar (1st overall 1984)
Other top classes:1961, 1964, 1983, 1997, 1998, 2001
Notable:The 1998 class certainly has a case with names such as Ahman Green, Grant Wistrom and late-round pick Eric Warfield, but the 1984 group had players who went to seven Pro Bowls and were all first-round picks. Fryar was the first receiver ever taken first overall and made five Pro Bowls over his career. Steinkuhler was perhaps best known for his work in college but played eight seasons with the Oilers at a high level. Rozier was taken in the supplemental draft in 1984 and made two Pro Bowls later that decade.
Best draft class:1944 (Otto Graham)
Highest overall pick:Otto Graham (4th overall, 1944) and Chris Hinton (4th overall, 1983)
Other top classes:1961, 1967, 2002, 2006
Best draft class:1997 (Orlando Pace, Shawn Springs, Rob Kelly, Ty Howard, Mike Vrabel, Nicky Sualua, Matt Finkes)
Highest overall pick:Tom Cousineau (1st overall, 1979), Dan Wilkinson (1st overall, 1994) and Orlando Pace (1st overall, 1997)
Other top classes:1959, 1961, 1964, 1971, 1975, 1995, 2004, 2006, 2009
Notable:This is one of the best schools in the country at producing NFL talent. The 1997 class holds the title for now, but the 2006 class could wind up being as good or better down the line. Pace will receive his invite to Canton shortly and was one of the cornerstones of the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" teams. Springs made it to the Pro Bowl early in his career but was a consistent presence in the secondary in Seattle and Washington for a dozen years. Kelly contributed to the Saints for four seasons, and Vrabel was an All-Pro who was a key part of the Patriots' defense while they were winning Super Bowls.
Best draft class:1980 (Bruce Clark, Matt Millen, Matt Suhey, Irv Pankey, Lance Mehl, Mike Guman, Tom Donovan)
Highest overall pick:Ki-Jana Carter (1st overall, 1995) and Courtney Brown (1st overall, 2000)
Other top classes:1982, 1984, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2003
Notable:Another program that stocked the NFL ranks, it's hard to find a more well-rounded class in Nittany Lions history. Seven of the eight players made more than 90 appearances in the league, and only ninth-round pick Donovan had a career shorter than eight years. Three players wound up in a Pro Bowl, and Millen, before his days as a general manager, was one of the most accomplished linebackers of the era, with four Super Bowl rings.
Highest overall pick:Four players were picked third overall (1966, 1969, 1970, 1986)
Other top classes:1957, 1967, 1973, 1986, 2004
Other top classes:2007, 2009, 2010
Notable:Rutgers hasn't had a ton of NFL draft success until recently, but the 2008 class certainly has the highest profile, thanks to Rice. The Ravens star has been to three Pro Bowls and, outside of his recent legal entanglement, has been one of the more popular players on a team that recently won the Super Bowl. Zuttah struggled a bit last year but has started 76 games over six seasons with Tampa Bay. Down the road, the 2010 class might overtake the 2008 class.
Best draft class:1985 (Al Toon, Richard Johnson, Darryl Sims, Scott Bergold, Dan Turk, Jeff Dellenbach, Gary Ellerson, Kevin Belcher, Ken Stills, Jim Melka)
Highest overall pick:Pat Harder (2nd overall, 1944)
Other top classes:1959, 1987, 2000, 2001, 2009, 2012
Notable:The 2012 class, mostly because of the success of Russell Wilson, could end up being the Badgers group with the most bang for NFL teams' buck. For now the 1985 group edges out 2000 and 2001 classes, thanks to five players turning into multi-year starters. Nobody was a breakout star, but consistency among the class helps keep it atop the ranks for Wisconsin.