For those who wonder how valuable a strong draft can be for a franchise, look at these 10 classes since 2012, when Seattle solidified what would become a Super Bowl champion and perennial contender. There even are some likely Hall of Famers scattered among impressive selections who became foundational pieces for their teams.
Indeed, the Dallas Cowboys had three special drafts classes (2014, 2016, 2020), while the New Orleans Saints (2013, 2017), Las Vegas/Oakland Raiders (2014, 2019), and Baltimore Ravens (2015, 2018) each had two.
Others in this Series:
- Each NFL Team’s Best Late-Round Draft Gem
- Best First-Round NFL Draft Picks for Each Team
- Every NFL Team’s Biggest First-Round Draft Mistake
- 10 Worst Classes Since 2012
- Nine Best Drafting Teams Since 2000
- Ranking No. 1 Overall Picks Since 2000
- Every NFL Team’s First-Round Bargains
Top Draft Classes
2012 Seattle Seahawks
Draft Picks (by round) First: Bruce Irvin, DE; Second: Bobby Wagner, LB; Third: Russell Wilson, QB; Fourth: Robert Turbin, RB; Jaye Howard, DT; Fifth: Korey Toomer, LB; Sixth: Jeremy Lane, DB; Winston Guy, DB; Seventh: J.R. Sweezy, DT; Greg Scrubbs, DE
Start with the 75th overall spot when Pete Carroll and John Schneider went for a supposedly undersized quarterback with a questionable arm in Russell Wilson. How did that work out for a decade? Wilson might have forced his way out of Seattle last year – coincidentally landing with the Broncos – but he built a Hall of Fame resume in the Pacific Northwest.
The team’s second-rounder was another potential Canton inductee, Bobby Wagner, possibly the top linebacker of his generation and a team leader. Defensive end Bruce Irvin, a dangerous if inconsistent pass rusher, was Seattle’s first pick (15th overall).
The Seahawks also got production out of such other choices as DB Jeremy Lane in the sixth round; OG J.R. Sweezy, a converted defensive lineman, in the seventh; and RB-special teamer Robert Turbin in the fourth.
2017 New Orleans Saints
Draft Picks (by round) First: Marshon Lattimore, CB; Ryan Ramczyk, OT; Second: Marcus Williams, S; Third: Alvin Kamara, RB; Alex Anzalone, LB; Trey Hendrickson, LB; Sixth: Al-Quadin Muhammad
It’s hard to imagine the Saints have had a more productive draft in their long history than they managed in ’17.
Both cornerback Marshon Lattimore, taken 11th overall, and offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk at the end of the first round, have been All-Pros. Lattimore was the Defensive Rookie of the Year, while third-rounder Alvin Kamara won the top offensive rookie honor and is among the most versatile running backs around. Safety Marcus Williams, a second-rounder, spent five productive seasons in Nawlins.
And two third-rounders, linebacker Alex Anzalone and defensive end Trey Hendrickson, have become key performers in Detroit and Cincinnati, respectively. Hendrickson helped the Bengals to the 2021 AFC title and is a two-time Pro Bowler.
2020 Cincinnati Bengals
Draft Picks (by round) First: Joe Burrow, QB; Second: Tee Higgins, WR; Third: Logan Wilson, LB; Fourth: Akeem Davis-Gaither, LB; Fifth: Khalid Kareem, DE; Sixth: Hakeem Adeniji, OT; Seventh: Markus Bailey, LB
Joe Burrow. Need we say more about the work the Cincinnati Bengals did in ’20? Maybe he isn’t on the level of Patrick Mahomes yet, but Burrow is as close as any NFL quarterback to the Kansas City Chiefs great and already has taken his team to a Super Bowl, nearly winning it.
Tee Higgins, selected to start the second round, would be a No. 1 wideout on many teams but is No. 2 here to Ja’Marr Chase. Linebacker Logan Wilson might be the most overlooked and underrated at his position in the NFL, a dynamic playmaker on a defense also unappreciated by many. Fellow linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither (fourth round) is a special-teams standout, as is final pick Markus Bailey. Sixth-rounder Hakeem Adeniji has gotten work at tackle and guard.
2018 Baltimore Ravens
Draft Picks (by round) First: Hayden Hurst, TE; Lamar Jackson, QB; Third: Orlando Brown Jr., OT; Mark Andrews, TE; Fourth: Anthony Averett, CB; Kenny Young, LB; Fifth: Jordan Lasley, WR; Sixth: DeShon Elliott, S; Greg Senat, OT; Bradley Bozeman, C; Seventh: Zach Sieler, DE
Although the Ravens have disappointed in the postseason, and have been plagued by injuries the past two seasons, their 2018 selections stand out among dozens of excellent picks through the years. It’s a tribute to former GM Ozzie Newsome and his staff.
The real prizes came after choosing tight end Hayden Hurst 25th overall. Lamar Jackson was chosen seven spots later to close out the first round, followed by tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and tight end Mark Andrews in the third round. The latter three have been All-Pros, with Jackson a league MVP and Andrews the top target in Baltimore.
2019 San Francisco 49ers
Draft Picks (by round) First: Nick Bosa, DE; Second: Deebo Samuel, WR; Third: Jalen Hurd, WR; Fourth: Mitch Wishnowsky, P; Fifth: Dre Greenlaw, LB; Sixth: Kaden Smith, TE; Justin Skule, OT; Tim Harris, CB
With two All-Pros at the top of this draft, the San Francisco 49ers exponentially advanced their turnaround. They even made the Super Bowl in the 2019 season with defensive end Nick Bosa, the second overall pick, and wide receiver Deebo Samuel (No. 36). Bosa, the Defensive Rookie of the Year, has made three Pro Bowls and was the NFL’s top defensive player last season. He’s the cornerstone of the league’s stingiest defense.
Samuel was a 2021 All-Pro and brings to the offense surpassing receiving skills and brilliant rushing on reverses and RPOs.
Meanwhile, the Niners also got their punter, Mitch Wishnowsky, in the fourth round, linebacker Dre Greenlaw in the fifth, and versatile offensive lineman Justin Skule (now with Tampa Bay) in the sixth.
2020 Dallas Cowboys
Draft Picks (by round) First: CeeDee Lamb, WR; Second: Trevon Diggs, CB; Third: Neville Gallimore, DT; Fourth: Reggie Robinson, CB; Tyler Biadasz, C; Fifth: Bradlee Anae, DE; Seventh: Ben DiNucci, QB
For fans who blast Jerry and Stephen Jones for their lack of draft prowess, take a closer look at the last decade for the Cowboys. The showcase draft is ’20, when two cornerstones of the current team were selected: wide receiver CeeDee Lamb at 17th overall — it’s still mystifying how he fell so far – and cornerback Trevon Diggs at No. 51. In an era of spectacular wideouts, Lamb is right there with the best. And the risk-taking Diggs, who led the NFL in interceptions in 2021 with 11, is already a two-time Pro Bowler.
2016 Tennessee Titans
Draft Picks (by round) First: Jack Conklin, OT; Second: Kevin Dodd, DE; Austin Johnson, NT; Derrick Henry, RB; Third: Kevin Byard, S; Fifth: Tajae Sharpe, WR; LeShaun Sims, CB; Sixth: Sebastian Tretola, G; Seventh: Aaron Wallace, LB; Kalan Reed, CB
Getting three building blocks in one swoop is about all a front office can hope for, and the Tennessee Titans did just that with running back Derrick Henry, safety Kevin Byard and offensive tackle Jack Conklin. Second-rounder Henry, of course, was the 2020 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, a 2,000-yard rusher, and has been the focal point of the Tennessee offense. Third-rounder Byard, a two-time All-Pro and a playmaker who led the league with eight interceptions in his second season, is as versatile as any safety and already has 27 picks.
Conklin was taken eighth overall to anchor the line, which he did when healthy for his first four seasons before leaving for Cleveland. He’s made two All-Pro squads. Nose tackle Austin Johnson, selected two spots ahead of Henry, was a rotational contributor for four seasons.
2014 Las Vegas/Oakland Raiders
Draft Picks (by round) First: Khalil Mack, LB; Second: Derek Carr, QB; Third: Gabe Jackson, G; Fourth: Justin Ellis, DT; Keith McGill, DB; Seventh: T.J. Carrie, DB; Shelby Harris, DE; Jonathan Dowling, DB
This franchise really has struggled with some of its picks, particularly high ones. But the Raiders, then in Oakland, hit the target often in ’14. That began with choosing LB-DE Khalil Mack of Buffalo — yes, they play college football there, too — fifth overall. And 31 picks later came the team’s quarterback for almost the next decade, Derek Carr, now in New Orleans.
That neither player remains with the Raiders is another storyline. But Mack was an All-Pro and the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year for the Raiders before then-coach Jon Gruden dealt him to Chicago. Carr was a top-10 quarterback for most of his time with the team.
Also coming aboard in this draft were third-rounder Gabe Jackson, a seven-year starter at right guard, as well as rotational DB T.J. Carrie and DE Shelby Harris in the seventh round. Harris developed into a solid pass rusher in Denver and spent 2022 with Seattle after being included in the Wilson trade.
2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Draft Picks (by round) First: Vita Vea, DT; Second: Ronald Jones II, RB; M.J. Stewart, CB; Carlton Davis, CB; Third: Alex Cappa, OG; Fourth: Jordan Whitehead, S; Fifth: Justin Watson, WR; Sixth: Jack Cichy, LB
No, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2020 championship was not built solely on free agency moves (Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski) or trades (Leonard Fournette). They went to town in ’18 with such draft choices as defensive tackle Vita Vea (12th overall); running back Ronald Jones II, cornerbacks Carlton Davis and MJ Stewart in the second round; guard Alex Cappa in the third; fourth-round safety Jordan Whitehead and fifth-round wide receiver Justin Watson.
Jones led the team in rushing in the Super Bowl year, while Davis was a starter along with Cappa and Whitehead. Vea has developed into one of the NFL’s best at his position. Davis might, too, if he can stay healthy.
2017 Los Angeles Rams
Draft Picks (by round) Second: Gerald Everett, TE; Third: Cooper Kupp, WR; John Johnson III, S; Fourth: Josh Reynolds, WR; Samson Ebukam, LB; Sixth: Tanzel Smart, DT; Sam Rogers, FB; Seventh: Ejuan Price, DE
Yet, the following year they hit the jackpot with wide receiver Cooper Kupp (69th overall) and safety John Johnson (91st) in the third round and tight end Gerald Everett in the second round at No. 44. Two other selections, wide receiver Josh Reynolds and linebacker Samson Ebukam, came in the fourth round and have been quite serviceable in the NFL.
The gem is Kupp, the 2021 NFL Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP/hero. He doesn’t have breathtaking speed, which doesn’t matter because his intelligence, moves and persistence are unmatched. Johnson has been highly effective with the Rams and then the Browns. Everett had four solid seasons with the Rams, one with Seattle, and now is employed by the other LA team, the Chargers.
Barry Wilner was a sportswriter for the Associated Press for 46 years. He has covered virtually every major sporting event, including 14 Olympics, 9 World Cups, 34 Super Bowls, the World Series, and the Stanley Cup Finals, and has written 75 books. Follow him on Twitter @Wilner88