Best NFL Draft Classes Of All Time: Top 7 In Football History, According To Fans

The first National Football League (NFL) Draft occurred in 1936 in Philadelphia. The first draft class consisted of only 90 players of which more than half chose to pursue other professions besides football. The top pick of the 1936 NFL Draft opted for a career as a foam rubber salesman. The NFL Draft has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the early part of the 20th century. With such a long history of draft classes, only a few can be considered the best NFL Draft classes of all time. 

Today, the NFL Draft is a national spectacle that occurs every year in April. For years, the NFL Draft was held in New York City’s famed Radio City Music Hall. Today, the draft is a traveling fan show meant to spotlight the top college players making their way to the NFL. Fans from all over the country flock to various NFL cities across the country and watch in awe as the next generation of superstars discover their new teams and change the course of pro football in our great country, forever. 

However, traveling to sporting events is nothing new for Americans. In fact, a study found that the average sports fan is willing to travel to see their favorite team play in person. A survey of 2,000 self-identified sports fanatics examined the lengths people are willing to go to in order to watch their favorite sports team play in person. The survey found that the average fan is willing to travel a whopping five hours and 48 minutes plus spend $762.20 on tickets just to see their favorite team play live.

Although the NFL Draft doesn’t feature a competitive football game, it does determine the fate of NFL teams for years to come. However, another recent study suggests that simply getting out to watch a live sports event – whether it’s professional or amateur sports – is beneficial for your mental health. Scientists at Anglia Ruskin University say that attending live sporting events actually helps increase overall mental well-being and reduces feelings of loneliness. A survey of 7,000 adults found that those respondents who attended live sporting events scored better in terms of life satisfaction than those who had not recently attended events. That’s definitely a great reason to follow the draft and visit the host city the next time you get a chance. 

So, which draft classes are considered the greatest in NFL history? StudyFinds did the research, consulting 10 sports and football-oriented websites in an effort to bring you a consensus list of the best NFL Draft classes of all time. Our list comprises the seven most frequently listed NFL Draft classes from across these sites. Think our experts missed a great draft class? Feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments section below! 

red, white, and blue NFL area rug
NFL logo (Photo by Adrian Curiel on Unsplash)

The List: Best NFL Draft Classes of All Time, According to Experts

1. 1983 NFL Draft Class

The top spot on the list of the best NFL Draft classes of all time belongs to the class of 1983. The ‘83 draft class was loaded with generational players at some of the most important positions in all of football. “The 1983 NFL Draft is the best NFL Draft class ever. While it doesn’t match the NFL record for the most Hall of Fame inductees from a single draft, the 1983 class makes up for it because of the importance of quarterbacks in NFL history. It starts with Dan Marino (27th overall) and John Elway (1st overall pick), two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Going beyond two of the most skilled passers in the history of football, the first round also included the second-best offensive lineman in NFL history (Bruce Matthews, 9th overall) and iconic running back Eric Dickerson (2nd overall),” explains Sportsnaut

Bruce Matthews is considered the best offensive lineman in the history of professional football while John Elway and Dan Marino are both widely regarded as two of the top quarterbacks in NFL history. Add in players such as Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelley and Rams running back Eric Dickerson and it’s easy to see why the ‘83 class is one of the best in NFL history. 

“You have probably heard about 1983’s QBs and the trade that sent top pick John Elway to Denver, but beyond the Elway-Jim Kelly-Dan Marino troika, the ’83 first-round housed four more Hall of Famers. Eric Dickerson (No. 2 overall) remains atop the single-season rushing list; Bruce Matthews and Darrell Green played into the 2000s; Jimbo Covert helped Walter Payton to post-30 accolades. The class’ other Canton inductee, Bears eighth-rounder Richard Dent, led a historic pass rush. But the class included numerous long-term starters — from Roger Craig to Mark Clayton to Charles Mann,” adds Yardbarker

The list of great players to come out of the 1983 NFL Draft just keeps going on and on. The Chicago Bears added two of the best players in that franchise’s history by drafting stud left tackle Jimbo Covert and legendary pass rusher Richard Dent. Dent went on to amass over 130 career sacks while Covert was one of the top pass protectors and run blockers of the 1980s. Meanwhile, Jim Kelley went to the Bills where he led that franchise to a historic four straight Super Bowl appearances. 

“The first round was especially star-studded, as 15 of the players selected (out of 28) made at least one Pro Bowl, and a whopping seven players became Hall of Famers (including quarterbacks John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino). The draft also featured one of the best running backs in league history in Eric Dickerson, and one of the best offensive linemen in Bruce Matthews. While the class may have been top-heavy, it also had unprecedented depth. There was at least one Pro Bowler selected in every round, and Hall of Famer Richard Dent fell all the way to the eighth round,” furthers The Sportster

2. 1964 NFL Draft Class

The ‘64 NFL Draft class featured some of the best players in the history of professional football and it produced some of the biggest names in NFL history. “Ten men entered into the Hall of Fame from this illustrious class, and 11 others were voted into the Pro Bowl. Paul Warfield, Charley Taylor, Roger Staubach, Leroy Kelly, Mel Renfro, Paul Krause, Dave Wilcox, Bob Brown, Carl Eller and Bob Hayes all have had their busts enshrined in the hallowed halls of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There may never be another draft class to match this one,” explains Bleacher Report

Roger Staubach, Mel Renfro, and Paul Krause are all considered some of the best players in history at their respective positions. Renfro was a lockdown corner for the Dallas Cowboys for his entire NFL career while Krause enjoyed a long Hall of Fame career with the Minnesota Vikings and the Washington Redskins (now known as the Commanders). 

“The 1964 NFL Draft gave us one Super Bowl MVP and is tied for the most Hall of Fame players drafted on a single night (10). Highlighting this class is Super Bowl VI MVP Roger Staubach, one of the most important early figures in the NFL,” adds One37PM

Staubach was the star of the ‘64 NFL Draft class as he went on to lead the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowl victories and play in two more, bringing his overall Super Bowl appearances to four. Still, other players such as Carl Eller of the Vikings and Paul Warfield of the Browns are considered two of the best at their positions while Bob Hayes is the only person to have won a Super Bowl and also bring home an Olympic Gold Medal. 

“To date, no draft class has been able to exceed the 11 Hall of Famers the class of 1964 produced. Most teams did a good job of talent evaluation, as six of the top 18 picks turned out to be Hall of Famers, most notably a quartet of first-rounders: Bob Brown, Charley Taylor, Carl Eller, and Paul Warfield. Canton residents Bob Hayes and Bill Parcells slipped to the seventh round while Leroy Kelly was taken in the eighth round before having a Hall of Fame career. Then there was Roger Staubach, who was picked in the 10th round and is arguably the most famous player from this all-time great draft class,” furthers Franchise Sports

3. 1957 NFL Draft Class

Next up on the list of the best draft classes in NFL history is the unforgettable 1957 NFL Draft. The class of ‘57 featured some of the most notable names in NFL history and is a testament to the power that the draft has over a team’s future success. “During the 1957 draft, it was more of a battlefield, whereby the Green Bay Packers won the draft lottery over the Chicago Cardinals to determine their number one overall pick. Additionally, the Green Bay Packers came away with Notre Dame halfback and future Hall of Famer Paul Hornung, who was seemingly not the group’s number-one go-to choice by that time,” writes Sports Brief

The NFL Draft consisted of 30 rounds in 1957, so there were plenty of opportunities for players to get drafted. Although the draft consisted of more rounds, there were far fewer teams drafting players. Still, the ‘57 draft produced some of the most legendary names in the history of professional football. Jim Brown, Paul Hornung, and Len Dawson were all drafted in 1957. 

“This class has the most Hall of Fame members on this list and Brown, Hornung, Dawson, and Parker were taken with the first eight picks in the draft. However, many players who are not enshrined in Canton became major factors in both the NFL and AFL, including quarterbacks John Brodie and Jack Kemp, fullback Jack Pardee, and end Ron Kramer,” furthers Athlon Sports

Like most NFL Drafts, the 1957 draft would look much different if the teams drafted over again. Jim Brown would most certainly be the first player off the board and the history of professional football in America would look much different than it does today. Other notable players such as Sonny Jurgenson and John Brodie were also drafted that year, but not in the order one would expect. 

“Offense was the name of the game in 1957. Paul Hornung led the group as a fullback, halfback and quarterback combo out of Notre Dame. No. 3 overall pick John Brodie and No. 43 overall pick Sonny Jurgensen have over 31,000 passing yards, putting both of them among the top 50 in NFL history. The fifth, sixth and eighth picks — quarterback Len Dawson, fullback Jim Brown and offensive tackle Jim Parker — each have an NFL championship to their name and are all in the Hall of Fame. Thus, the legend of the 1957 class was born,” adds NBC Sports Boston

4. 1981 NFL Draft Class

The next spot on the list of the NFL’s top draft classes takes us back to the ‘80s, this time it’s the 1981 NFL Draft class. The ‘81 class was full of future Hall of Fame football players, and it more than deserves the spotlight as one of the top draft classes in NFL history. “The 1981 Draft shaped the league’s landscape for the next decade, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Lawrence Taylor, Howie Long, Ronnie Lott, and Mike Singletary were a few headliners from arguably the best defensive draft class in NFL history. The class was so rich with talent that seven undrafted players reached the Pro Bowl, including 2022 Hall of Fame inductee Sam Mills, one of eight players from the class with a Hall of Fame bust. While the defenders grab all the headlines, countless offensive players also achieved significant success in the league, including Chris Collinsworth, Freeman McNeil, and Russ Grimm,” writes The Sportster

The 1981 NFL Draft is by far the most influential defensive draft in the history of the NFL. Some of the most important defensive players in NFL history were chosen in the 1981 NFL Draft including Ronnie Lott, Lawrence Taylor, and Mike Singletary. 

“The class of 1981 produced some of the meanest, baddest defenders to ever strap on a helmet. Six Hall of Famers were born in this year to go along with 25 others who made it to at least one Pro Bowl. Lawrence Taylor was drafted by the New York Giants, and his epic career revolutionized the way linebackers are used to attack quarterbacks. Ronnie Lott was also drafted in 1981, and the NFL hasn’t seen another safety to compare with him since he left the game,” adds Bleacher Report

The 1981 NFL Draft wasn’t just loaded with star defenders such as Mike Singletary, Howie Long, and Rickey Jackson. The ‘81 class also featured wide receiver Chris Colinsworth and guard Russ Grimm. Grimm would go on to lead the Washington franchise to a whopping three Super Bowls and he proved to be one of the best offensive linemen in the history of the league. 

“Round 2 of the 1981 NFL Draft produced three additional Hall of Famers — linebackers Mike Singletary and Rickey Jackson, plus defensive end Howie Long. All three players made significant contributions to the league throughout their careers. In the third round, the Washington Redskins selected offensive guard Russ Grimm, who proved to be a steal. Grimm would go on to win three Super Bowl championships and become a Hall of Famer in 2010,” furthers Betway Insider.

5. 1996 NFL Draft Class

The ‘96 NFL Draft class gave the world of professional football some of the best players in history and it certainly belongs in the conversation as one of the top classes of all time. “The Ravens‘ first draft brought foundational cogs Jonathan Ogden (No. 4 overall) and Ray Lewis (No. 26). The Browns acquired the Lewis pick in 1995 but set up the Ravens instead. The Colts also benefited from a weird trade, leading to Marvin Harrison. This trio appears on the All-Century team; Terrell Owens (Round 3) probably should have. These four were among this draft’s 17 All-Pros. Also here: Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins, Zach Thomas, Mike Alstott, Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson and Eddie George,” explains Yardbarker

Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis in 2013
Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis in 2013 (Photo by Debby Wong on Shutterstock)

The 1996 NFL Draft was revolutionary in terms of the impact these players had on the game of football. At the time, less notable draft picks such as Terrell Owens and Brian Dawkins were chosen in the middle rounds while a slew of Pro Bowl players were taken in the later rounds. 

“The Hall of Famers in this class speak for themselves, but many others would be major forces in the league over the next decade, including wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, defensive end Simeon Rice, running back Eddie George, strong safety Lawyer Milloy, and linebacker Tedy Bruschi,” writes Athlon Sports

Lawyer Milloy and Tedy Bruschi would go on to lead the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl and help lay the groundwork for one of the best dynasties in the history of professional sports. Other Hall of Fame players such as linebacker Zach Thomas fell to the middle rounds. Still, the winner of this draft was the newly formed Baltimore Ravens, which had just moved from Cleveland to Baltimore and changed their name from the Browns to the Ravens. The Ravens landed two of the best players in NFL history in the first round of the ‘96 NFL Draft – Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden. 

“The first round of the 1996 NFL Draft delivered three Hall of Famers, including Marvin Harrison (19th overall pick). What makes it one of the best NFL Draft classes ever is the depth and value found throughout the rounds. Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins was selected 61st overall by the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers land Terrell Owens with the 89th overall selection and then Zach Thomas fell to the Miami Dolphins with the 154th pick. In total, there were six Hall of Famers in the 1996 NFL Draft,” adds Sportsnaut

6. 2004 NFL Draft Class

The next spot on the list of the best draft classes in NFL history goes to the 2004 NFL Draft class. The ‘04 draft class produced some of the longest-tenured quarterbacks in the history of the NFL and it provided some of the greatest matchups NFL fans have ever seen. “Few classes impacted the league’s landscape like the 2004 Draft, which featured three of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history in Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger. While the signal-callers grab the headlines, they were not the only all-time greats to enter the league that year, as Larry Fitzgerald, Jared Allen, and Vince Wilfork are just a few of the other headliners from the stacked class. A staggering 15 first-rounders got selected to at least one Pro Bowl, and countless others had successful pro careers,” writes The Sportster

The first round of the 2004 NFL Draft nearly looks like a Pro Bowl roster. But the underlying story of this draft was the number of University of Miami players taken in the first round. Players such as Jonathan Vilma, Sean Taylor, Vince Wilfork, and Kellen Winslow II were all taken in the first round and all played at the University of Miami (Go Canes). 

“The 2004 NFL Draft is well-known for a variety of reasons. Among them, Eli Manning refused to play for the Chargers. While they drafted him with the first overall pick, he was traded to the New York Giants for Philip Rivers (fourth pick) along with a third-round pick and a 2005 first-round selection. New York got two Super Bowls out of it, while Rivers thrived in San Diego… While no player drafted in 2004 has made the Pro Football Hall of Fame yet, that will change in the coming years. Ben Roethlisberger, Manning, Larry Fitzgerald and Jared Allen will all be inducted. When you add in Vince Wilfork, DeAngelo Hall, Steven Jackson, Karlos Dansby and Darnell Dockett, this class provides the depth necessary to be one of the 10 best in NFL history,” furthers Sportsnaut

Manning’s refusal to play for the Chargers was not the first time a player had refused to play for the team that drafted them. Bo Jackson famously refused to play for Tampa Bay while John Elway said he’d rather play baseball than play for the Colts. Of course, only the best players at their respective positions are capable of pulling such a power move, and Eli proved to be one of the top players in that draft. Still, the trade between the Giants and the Chargers worked out pretty well for both teams. Philip Rivers went on to have an amazing career in San Diego while Manning led the Giants to two Super Bowl victories — both coming against Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots. 

“The San Diego Chargers drafted Eli Manning as the first overall pick, but he was quickly traded to the New York Giants, who had just selected Philip Rivers as the fourth overall pick. This trade has since become one of the most talked-about deals in draft history. Larry Fitzgerald was chosen as the third pick, followed by safety Sean Taylor at No. 5, and then a run of tight end Kellen Winslow II, receiver Roy Williams, and cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Ben Roethlisberger was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers as the 11th pick, while Vince Wilfork was selected by the New England Patriots at No. 21 overall. Bob Sanders and Darnell Dockett were also picked up on the draft’s second day,” adds Betway Insider

7. 2011 NFL Draft Class

Rounding out the list of the best draft classes in NFL history is the 2011 NFL Draft class. This class is definitely one of the best classes in recent history, and although it’s too early to know for sure which players will eventually make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, this class is sure to produce several busts in Canton. “This class did plenty to shape the modern NFL. The top five might not quite be 1989-caliber, but Cam Newton-Von Miller-Marcell Dareus-A.J. Green-Patrick Peterson is up there. The Falcons’ 17-spot trade-up for Julio Jones (No. 6) worked out well too. Miller, Jones and J.J. Watt (No. 11) are Canton locks. Others will be considered. The Cowboys, Saints, and Steelers are still reaping the benefits from their first-round picks — Tyron Smith, Cam Jordan, Cam Heyward — while the Seahawks continued to set up their Super Bowl nucleus by taking K.J. Wright in Round 3 and Richard Sherman in Round 5. Almost no class can match 2011’s combination of high-end talent and depth,” writes Yardbarker

The number of Pro Bowl-caliber players chosen in 2011 combined with the generational talents this class gave NFL fans are sure to leave a lasting impression on the league. The first round of the 2011 NFL Draft looks like an all-time roster filled with some of the best players in NFL history. 

“Recency bias aside, the 2011 Draft, which includes a few players who are still playing at an incredibly high level today, is an all-time great unit. J.J. Watt, Von Miller, and Julio Jones were just a few of the players who headlined one of the most star-studded first rounds in league history, and it would not be a surprise if seven first-round selections wound up in Canton when it is all said and done,” furthers The Sportster

The 2011 NFL Draft class produced countless stars, many of whom are still playing for the team that drafted them. Eagles center Jason Kelce is considered to be one of the top three NFL centers of all time, if not the top center in league history, while Cameron Jordan of the Saints and Cam Heyward of the Steelers will surely go into the Ring of Honor for their teams as well as receive some Hall of Fame votes after their careers are over. 

“There may not be any Hall of Fame players from the 2011 NFL draft yet, but that’s because a lot of the best players in this draft are still playing! NFL MVP Cam Newton highlights this class as the first overall selection. Two of the best wide receivers ever shortly followed with A.J. Green and Julio Jones coming off the board. This draft was equally as stacked on the defensive side of the ball with CB Patrick Peterson and two Super Bowl MVPs Von Miller and Malcolm Smith,” adds One37PM

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