Zion Williamson is going to be a legend. The first overall pick in the NBA draft is going to be great right away. And it won't take him long to graduate from great to iconic.
Williamson's entrance to the NBA last week got me to thinking: Who would be at the head of the class in each of the past nine NFL drafts? If you examined each class from 2011 to 2019, who would stand out as the best player picked?
With the latest edition of The Schein Nine, I present the best member of each of the last nine draft classes. (Spoiler: 2012 kept me up for a long time.)
NOTE: These players are not ranked from 1 to 9; rather, I simply picked the best player from each class, with classes presented in chronological order.
2011: J.J. Watt, DT, Houston Texans
Drafted: Round 1, No. 11 overall.
I would make the case that this class is shaping up to be an all-timer. I've long argued that Bengals receiver A.J. Green (drafted No. 4 overall) is Hall of Fame worthy -- and he's the second-best receiver in this class, behind the freak that is Atlanta's Julio Jones (No. 6 overall). The Broncos' Von Miller (No. 2 overall) is a dominant, game-changing pass rusher. First overall pick Cam Newton has won an MVP as the Panthers' quarterback. Cornerback Richard Sherman (selected by Seattle in Round 5 at No. 154) is headed to Canton as a star, the longtime leader and face of a dominant Seahawks defense.
But Watt is the headliner. Yes, even taking into account the time lost to injury (Watt missed 24 games in 2016 and '17 because of back issues and a left tibial plateau fracture), we're talking about a special, unstoppable, game-changing, well-rounded, historically outstanding talent. From 2012 to '15, Watt made first-team All-Pro four straight times and recorded 69.0 sacks, 18.5 more than anyone else in the NFL in that span; in the first five years of his career, he piled up 74.5 sacks, second most in a player's first five seasons, behind only Reggie White (81.0). And the 30-year-old got back on track last season, finishing second in the NFL with 16.0 sacks. Watt is worthy of consideration as an all-time great defender, not just from this special class.
2012: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
Drafted: Round 3, No. 75 overall.
But Wilson's had a better career thus far than Luck. The results speak for themselves: Wilson has started 16 games in each of his seven NFL seasons, compiling 75 regular-season QB wins (more than anyone else in that span besides Tom Brady) and capturing a Lombardi Trophy, while Luck missed nine games in 2015 and all of 2017, putting together a 53-33 career record (plus a 4-4 playoff mark, never advancing beyond the AFC title game). It's amazing to remember the Seahawks landed Wilson after 74 other NFL players were already drafted.
2013: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
Drafted: Round 1, No. 27 overall
I've been making the case that Hopkins is the best receiver in the NFL. Now, you could argue that classmates Le'Veon Bell (now with the Jets, picked in the second round by the Steelers) and Travis Kelce (chosen in Round 3 by the Chiefs) are the best running back and tight end, respectively. But Bell missed all of 2018 as part of a contract dispute with Pittsburgh, and Hopkins is just too special, outpacing Kelce in catches (by 118) and yardage (2,201). Don't forget the here come the clowns rotation at quarterback Hopkins had to work with for most of his career in Houston, before Deshaun Watson took over in 2017. From 2013 to '16, Texans quarterbacks combined for a passer rating of 79.4, 28th worst in the NFL over that span -- and still, Hopkins posted the sixth-most receiving yards (4,487) in that time. Last season, Hopkins caught 115 balls for 1,572 yards (a career high) and 11 touchdowns. Like I said: special!
2014: Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
Drafted: Round 1, No. 13 overall.
With all due respect to pass-rushing great Khalil Mack (now with the Bears, picked fifth overall by the Raiders), receiver Mike Evans (picked seventh overall by the Buccaneers), receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (now with the Browns, taken 12th overall by the Giants) and guard Zack Martin (picked 16th overall by the Cowboys), this one was easy. When it's all said and done, the league might have to name the Defensive Player of the Year award after Donald, who's won it the past two years (in addition to being the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014). Donald is an unstoppable, tone-setting, game-changing force in the middle of the defensive line for the Rams. He posted 20.5 sacks last season, more in one year than any other interior defender in NFL history. The four-time All-Pro is special, mesmerizing and a joy to watch.
2015: Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Drafted: Round 1, No. 10 overall.
This class is tricky -- and relatively weak. We are still waiting for quarterbacks Jameis Winston (taken first overall by the Buccaneers) and Marcus Mariota (picked second overall by the Titans) to truly arrive as starters in the NFL. You can make the case that running back David Johnson (taken in Round 3 by the Cardinals) will get back in this conversation; two years removed from a 2,118-scrimmage yard campaign in 2016, Johnson missed all but one game in 2017 with a wrist injury and struggled to make an impact in 2018, but now he's healthy and working with a new coach in Kliff Kingsbury. You could also argue that receiver Amari Cooper (picked fourth overall by the Raiders) will shine moving forward in Dallas, considering the numbers he put up (725 yards and six scores in nine games) after being traded to the Cowboys last October. And I love Chargers running back Melvin Gordon (Round 1, No. 15 overall).
But no player, not even Johnson, has been able to stay at the highest point reached by Gurley. A knee issue seemed to limit him last season, but when Gurley is healthy, he plays like an MVP. In the four seasons since he entered the NFL, no one has more rushing yards (4,547), scrimmage yards (6,430), total touchdowns (56) or touches (1,229) than Gurley.
2016: Michael Thomas, receiver, Saints
Drafted: Round 2, No. 47 overall.
I love Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (No. 2 overall) -- that's been well-documented. And I am so impressed with quarterback Jared Goff (first overall) under Rams coach Sean McVay. Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey (No. 5 overall) is great, at least when he's focused on football and not running commentary. Chargers pass rusher Joey Bosa (No. 3 overall) is stellar when healthy, but he's only appeared in 35 of 48 possible career games. The choice here came down to Thomas and Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (No. 4 overall). As the driving force of Dallas' offense, Elliott is special, but based upon sheer productivity in the last three years, Thomas is at the head of the class. He has 321 career receptions, the most ever by any player in the first three years of his career. And 3,787 receiving yards (fourth most in a player's first three seasons). Oh, and 23 touchdowns. General manager Mickey Loomis could be arrested for stealing Thomas at pick No. 47.
2017: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Drafted: Round 1, No. 10 overall.
Versatile Saints running back Alvin Kamara is the steal of this class, becoming a megastar after being picked at No. 67 (in Round 3). Browns pass rusher Myles Garrett (No. 1 overall) can play. Jets safety Jamal Adams (No. 6 overall) is terrific. Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (No. 12 overall) has a knack.
Mahomes, meanwhile, sat on the bench behind Alex Smith for most of his rookie season -- and yet, he's the top player of this class, and it's not even close. Mahomes' MVP campaign of 2018 was an all-timer. He threw for 50 touchdown passes against just 12 picks and over 5,000 yards while leading the Chiefs to the AFC West title, falling short of the Super Bowl because of an offsides call (thanks, Dee Ford). Mahomes is amazing, and he hasn't even gotten started. His talent and smarts are off the charts. And with his flair and improvisational skills (no-look passes, anyone?), Mahomes has become the greatest show in all of sports.
2018: Quenton Nelson, LG, Indianapolis Colts
Drafted: Round 1, No. 6 overall.
How about this class? Consider that I voted for Nelson, Giants running back Saquon Barkley (No. 2 overall), Chargers safety Derwin James (No. 17 overall), Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (No. 19 overall) and Colts linebacker Darius Leonard (Round 2, No. 36 overall) to be first-team All-Pros -- as rookies! Nelson, James and Leonard won the honor, while Leonard was also the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (No. 1 overall) could've easily been Offensive Rookie of the Year instead of Barkley. And I still think the other quarterbacks selected in the first round -- the Jets' Sam Darnold (No. 3 overall), the Bills' Josh Allen (No. 7), the Ravens' Lamar Jackson (No. 32) and No. 10 overall choice Josh Rosen (now with the Dolphins but drafted by the Cardinals) -- have greatness attached.
But here's my early prediction for Nelson: He'll be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And I'm not just overreacting to a rookie year in which he gave Colts QB Andrew Luck time; this is consistent with a prediction for him that a GM gave me when Nelson was coming out of Notre Dame. It's only been a year, but Nelson has shown he has the physical and mental tools to become one of the best offensive guards to ever play in the NFL. What a steal by GM Chris Ballard, nabbing a building block like that after five other players had already come off the board.
2019: Quinnen Williams, DT, New York Jets
Drafted: Round 1, No. 3 overall.
This is a sheer projection, obviously, as no one drafted in 2019 has been on the field for a meaningful snap yet. I love 49ers pass rusher Nick Bosa (No. 2 overall), and I really like quarterback Kyler Murray (No. 1 overall) in new Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury's offense. But before the draft, I called for the Jets to pounce on Williams -- who had been, as I wrote then, pegged by my friend and CBS Sports Network colleague Aaron Taylor as the defensive equivalent of none other than Quenton Nelson -- were he to become available to them with the third overall choice. Now, Williams gets to join a defense that also includes studs like Leonard Williams, C.J. Mosley and Jamal Adams. The Alabama product is the surest thing in the Class of 2019.