Updated: May 31, 2021
The National Football League Draft has become one of the most highly anticipated and analyzed events in sports each year. It offers hope to teams that struggled through even the worst of seasons, and it gives championship teams a chance to bolster their already talent-rich rosters. While every draft has its share of dynamic performers, there are several that stood out from the rest. This list features the top 10 drafts in NFL history.
The 1983 draft will forever be known as the year of the quarterback. Hall of Famers John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly rewrote NFL record books after being chosen in the first round, but the draft should be remembered more for its incredible depth at all positions.
In addition to quarterback, 1983 was rich in running backs, as six Pro Bowl backs were chosen, including Roger Craig, Curt Warner and Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson. The draft also featured 14-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, Hall of Fame corner Darrell Green and prolific wide receivers Henry Ellard and Mark Clayton.
While the first round featured seven Hall of Famers and 15 Pro Bowlers, there were gems to be found in the later rounds. Ten Pro Bowl players were taken in the seventh round or later, including Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent in the eighth and 6-time Pro Bowl linebacker Karl Mecklenburg in the 12th.
Overall, the draft featured 41 Pro Bowlers, with 33 of those players making at least two Pro Bowls, meaning the vast majority were more than one-year wonders.
The 1957 draft helped provide the talent that brought the NFL a new level of popularity in the late fifties and early sixties. This was especially true on offense.
At quarterback, the draft produced two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Len Dawson and Sonny Jurgensen, and two more All-Pros in John Brodie and Jack Kemp. At running back, it introduced 8-time rushing leader Jim Brown and 3-time scoring leader Paul Hornung to TVs across the nation.
The draft also produced two of the era’s top receivers, Don Maynard and Tommy McDonald. On the offensive line, 8-time All-Pro tackle Jim Parker and 6-time Pro Bowl guard Gene Hickerson were brought in to block for the next decade’s top two stars, quarterback Johnny Unitas and the aforementioned Brown.
Overall, the draft produced nine Hall of Famers and 19 All-Pros, the second highest totals for any year.
While the 1961 draft didn’t feature as many skill position players as 1957 or 1983, it included 50 future Pro Bowlers, the most of any draft. Of those players, 31 made at least two Pro Bowls and 25 made three or more.
Seven players from the 1961 draft made the Hall of Fame, and 21 were named First Team All-Pro. The draft’s lone Hall of Fame quarterback, Fran Tarkenton, retired as the NFL’s career leader in most passing categories.
Other Hall of Famers included 11-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Bob Lilly, 4-time All-Pro and 6-time NFL champion cornerback Herb Adderley, and the NFL’s first great tight end, Mike Ditka.
In one of the greatest draft bargains in NFL history, the Los Angeles Rams selected Hall of Fame pass rusher Deacon Jones in the 14th round.
The 1964 draft featured 10 future Hall of Famers, the most in history. The 10 Hall of Famers are spread across seven different positions, showing the depth of talent in this draft.
First round picks included 5-time All-Pro tackle Bob Brown, wide receivers Charley Taylor and Paul Warfield, who combined for 16 Pro Bowls and 164 touchdowns, and original “Purple People Eater” and 5-time All-Pro defensive end Carl Eller.
All-time interception leader Paul Krause and 10-time Pro Bowler Mel Renfro were safeties taken in the second round, and 7-time Pro Bowl linebacker Dave Wilcox was chosen in the third.
The Dallas Cowboys got two of the biggest steals in draft history with speedy receiver “Bullet” Bob Hayes in the seventh round, and Heisman trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach in the 10th. The Cleveland Browns found a similar bargain when they drafted 6-time Pro Bowl running back Leroy Kelly in the eighth round.
The 1981 draft was the richest for high-level defensive talent in history. Six Hall of Fame defenders were taken in the first two rounds, including three who are regarded by many as the best ever at their positions: outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor, safety Ronnie Lott and middle linebacker Mike Singletary. The three combined for 30 Pro Bowls and five Defensive Player of the Year awards.
The other three Hall of Fame defenders were defensive end Howie Long, safety Kenny Easley and outside linebacker Rickey Jackson. The draft also included two of the decade’s top defensive backs in 6-time Pro Bowl safety Dennis Smith and 2-time All-Pro corner Hanford Dixon.
The San Francisco 49ers accomplished a rare trifecta by picking three Pro Bowl defensive backs in the same draft: Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson.
The draft wasn’t only about defense, as seven Pro Bowl running backs were chosen, including two who went on to lead the NFL in rushing: George Rogers and Freeman McNeil.
The 1996 draft was strong at multiple positions, but none more so than wide receiver. Ten players went on to catch at least 500 passes for 7,500 yards in their careers. The two stars of the class were Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens, who combined for over 30,000 yards and 281 touchdowns in their Hall of Fame careers.
The Baltimore Ravens had perhaps the best first round in draft history after selecting two Hall of Famers: 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis and 11-time Pro Bowl tackle Jonathan Ogden.
Other notables on offense included 10,000-yard rusher Eddie George, 8,000-yard rusher Stephen Davis, 6-time Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott and 3-time All-Pro tackle Willie Anderson.
Other notable defenders included Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins, 5-time All-Pro linebacker Zach Thomas, 6-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle La’Roi Glover and pass rusher Simeon Rice, who finished his career with 122 sacks.
The 2010 draft was one of the deepest in history. It produced 39 Pro Bowl players, the third most all-time, with 28 of those players making at least two Pro Bowls.
The draft was especially strong in the trenches. It included offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey, Trent Williams and Mike Iupati, and defensive tackles Geno Atkins, Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh.
On offense, the draft was highlighted by two future Hall of Fame tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, and two of the most dynamic receivers of the past decade, Antonio Brown and Dez Bryant.
Other notable players from the 2010 class include Pro Bowl safeties Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Eric Berry, and pass rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Everson Griffen.
Only four years later, the 2017 draft is already one of the top 10 in NFL history, and it may end up being the best. It has produced 14 All-Pro and 24 Pro Bowl players so far, with more on the way in coming years.
The draft was strong on both sides of the ball. On offense, it featured MVP Patrick Mahomes and Pro Bowler Deshaun Watson at quarterback, and all-purpose studs Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara and Aaron Jones at running back.
On defense, it was highlighted by two perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidates: Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker T.J.Watt and Cleveland Browns’ defensive end Myles Garrett.
The draft’s greatest area of depth may be at defensive back, though, with seven Pro Bowlers. At the head of the class were corners Marshon Lattimore and Marlon Humphrey, and safeties Jamal Adams and Budda Baker.
Another recent draft that has a chance to top this list is 2016. It has already produced 29 Pro Bowlers, with talent being distributed across all positions.
Running backs Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliott have each led the league in rushing twice, wide receiver Michael Thomas set the single-season reception record, and receiver/returner Tyreek Hill has over 7,400 all-purpose yards and 58 total touchdowns in five seasons.
The draft has also produced three Pro Bowl quarterbacks in Dak Prescott, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.
The defensive stars of the draft so far have been shutdown corner Jalen Ramsey and defensive end Joey Bosa. Other notable defenders include corner Xavien Howard, defensive tackle Chris Jones and defensive end Matt Judon.
While the 1989 draft is remembered for its early first round talent, the 1988 draft produced 11 more Pro Bowlers than its more famous successor.
The year was especially notable for its receiver class. Hall of Famers Michael Irvin and Tim Brown combined for over 26,000 yards and 165 touchdowns, Sterling Sharpe broke the single-season reception record twice, and Anthony Miller made five Pro Bowls.
Other Hall of Famers included Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas, who had over 16,000 yards from scrimmage, and offensive linemen Randall McDaniel and Dermontii Dawson, who combined for 19 Pro Bowls.
On defense, the draft featured cornerback Eric Allen, defensive end Neil Smith and defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry, who made six Pro Bowls each.