Looking through the warring wasteland, we never saw it coming.
Instead, four years ago at this time, we happily indulged in the NFL's fight to keep Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams out of the league. We were titillated by the sparking feud between San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith and the Manning family. And we couldn't get enough of the brash cockiness of Kellen Winslow. All the while, we failed to see that the league was preparing for what might someday pan out as the biggest talent haul in league history.
Four years from now, the 2004 draft could be just that – the best ever from top to bottom.
Surely, it's too early to make that designation now. As it stands, the 2004 draft class is one quarter through the total life span of all its players (most draft classes see even their most durable picks bounced from the league within 16 years). But in only four seasons, the draft already has cranked out 21 Pro Bowlers. Consider the highlights:
• Two quarterbacks – Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger – already have won Super Bowls. A third, Philip Rivers, is off to a solid start. Two others, J.P. Losman and Matt Schaub, still are young enough to carve out solid careers.
• Four members of the receiver/tight end class look special: Winslow, Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams and Ben Watson. And four others have shown flashes of brilliance – Lee Evans, Bernard Berrian, Jerricho Cotchery and Chris Cooley.
• There has been a defensive player of the year winner (Bob Sanders), a league sack leader (Jared Allen), top-shelf defensive linemen (Tommie Harris and Vince Wilfork) and a slew of other defensive players oozing talent (D.J. Williams, Jonathan Vilma, DeAngelo Hall, Darnell Dockett and Karlos Dansby).
With those players in mind, all the class needs to do is stay healthy, win Super Bowls and continue to pile up highlights and league-leading statistics. That's what it takes to qualify for "best-ever" status.
With that in mind, here are my top 10 draft years of all time, and five others that could move into the top 10 soon.
Current Hall of Famers: QB John Elway, QB Dan Marino, QB Jim Kelly, RB Eric Dickerson, DB Darrell Green, OL Bruce Matthews.
Some other notable picks: RB Roger Craig, DL Richard Dent, RB Curt Warner, OL Chris Hinton, DB Joey Browner, WR Henry Ellard, DL Leonard Marshall, LB Darryl Talley, LB Mike Cofer, DL Tim Krumrie, OL Jesse Sapolu.
In hindsight: The class had it all – a superb quarterback class; one of the best running backs of all time; and six Hall of Famers. Elway and Marino may have the two best arms in NFL history. Some still argue for Richard Dent's inclusion in the Hall of Fame. The class had plenty of quality depth, too, with 21 Pro Bowl players tabbed in the first three rounds.
Current Hall of Famers: RB O.J. Simpson, DL Joe Greene, DB Roger Wehrli, LB Ted Hendricks, WR Charlie Joiner.
Some other notable picks: RB Mercury Morris, OL Bob Kuechenberg, WR Gene Washington, RB Calvin Hill, DL L.C. Greenwood, RB Larry Brown, OL Jeff Van Note.
In hindsight: Simpson, Greene and Hendricks were three of the best to ever play their positions. Joe Greene might be the greatest defensive tackle in history. Aside from five Hall of Famers, several other key pieces of classic Pittsburgh, Miami and Dallas teams came from this draft.
Current Hall of Famers: LB Lawrence Taylor, DB Ronnie Lott, LB Mike Singletary, DL Howie Long.
Some other notable picks: DB Dennis Smith, LB Rickey Jackson, RB James Brooks, RB Freeman McNeil, DB Kenny Easley, OL Brian Holloway, DB Hanford Dixon, WR Cris Collinsworth, OL Russ Grimm, DE Dexter Manley.
In hindsight: One of the great defensive drafts and one of the most underrated drafts ever. Aside from four defensive Hall of Famers who are among the most elite to play their positions, there were an impressive 27 Pro Bowlers selected in the first three rounds.
Current Hall of Famers: QB Bob Griese, DL Alan Page, OL Gene Upshaw, DB Lem Barney, LB Willie Lanier, OL Rayfield Wright, DB Ken Houston.
Some other notable picks: DL Bubba Smith, LB George Webster, WR Gene Washington, RB Mel Farr, RB Floyd Little, DB Rick Volk.
In hindsight: The first year of the joint NFL/AFL selection process produced an impressive haul of seven Hall of Famers (even if you don't agree with Griese). That's the most of any draft since the joint selections began. And though the seven aren't all considered in the top two or three at their position, it's a
solid group nonetheless. Overall it wasn't the deepest draft, but the seven busts in Canton elevate this class's overall standing.
Current Hall of Famers: QB Troy Aikman, RB Barry Sanders.
Some other notable picks: DL Derrick Thomas, DB Deion Sanders, DB Steve Atwater, WR Andre Rison, DE Trace Armstrong, OL Steve Wisniewski, TE Wesley Walls, DB Carnell Lake, WR/RB Eric Metcalf, FB Daryl Johnston, OL Mark Stepnoski, RB Dave Meggett, RB Marion Butts.
In hindsight: Deion Sanders should join Aikman and Barry Sanders as first-ballot Hall of Famers. Thomas will make it eventually, too. Barry Sanders is one of the most unique superstars in the history of the game, and might be the best pure runner the NFL has seen. And while this draft laid the foundation of the Dallas dynasty, it had plenty of very good and underrated players like Rison, Atwater and Walls.
Current Hall of Famers: RB John Riggins, DL Jack Youngblood, LB Jack Ham, OL Dan Dierdorf.
Some other notable picks: DB Jack Tatum, QB Joe Theismann, QB Ken Anderson, QB Archie Manning, RB John Brockington, LB Isaiah Robertson, DL Lyle Alzado.
In hindsight: The four Hall of Famers carry this class, particularly Youngblood and Ham, who should stand the test of time as two of the best players ever at their positions. Some argue that Tatum should be a Hall of Famer. The draft had decent depth at quarterback with Anderson and Theismann getting plucked in the third and fourth rounds.
Current Hall of Famers: WR Lynn Swann, LB Jack Lambert, WR John Stallworth, OL Mike Webster, TE Dave Casper.
Some other notable picks: LB Randy Gradishar, QB Danny White, WR Billy Johnson, DL John Dutton, DL Ed Jones, DL Henry Lawrence, LB Matt Blair.
In hindsight: This year included the Steelers' haul that most consider to be the greatest single-team draft class ever. Lambert and Webster are right up there with the best to play their positions. The fact that three major parts of Pittsburgh's core came in this class pushes it up the board despite the class lacking great depth. Gradishar, White and Dutton are underrated.
Current Hall of Famers: OL Art Shell, FB Larry Csonka, OL Ron Yary, TE Charlie Sanders, DL Elvin Bethea.
Some other notable picks: QB Ken Stabler, WR Harold Jackson, DL Claude Humphrey, LB Fred Carr, OL Forest Blue.
In hindsight: It wasn't an overly impressive draft from a superstar standpoint, but it produced a lot of good, consistent players. That much was evident from a five-man Hall of Fame class that didn't include any players in the conversation as the all-time best at their positions. Stabler, Jackson and Humphrey have been very underrated over the long term.
Current Hall of Famers: DL Bruce Smith.
Some other notable picks: WR Jerry Rice, WR Andre Reed, QB Randall Cunningham, WR Steve Tasker, TE Mark Bavaro, LB Kevin Greene, OL Bill Fralic, DL Ray Childress, DL Chris Doleman, OL Lomas Brown, WR Al Toon, OL Jim Lachey, DB Jerry Gray, RB Herschel Walker, TE Jay Novacek.
In hindsight: This draft produced arguably the best player in the history of football in Rice, but it also was remarkably deep and talented. The first six picks (which didn't include Rice) combined to play in 36 Pro Bowls. Reed still has an outside shot to get into the Hall of Fame, and the rest of the draft was filled with good talent and hordes of role players.
Current Hall of Famers: QB Joe Montana, TE Kellen Winslow, DL Dan Hampton.
Some other notable picks: QB Phil Simms, DL Mark Gastineau, WR Dwight Clark, RB Ottis Anderson, OL Kent Hill, DL Fred Smerlas, DL Bob Golic, TE Doug Cosbie, RB William Andrews.
In hindsight: Another one of the underrated drafts, partially because all anyone ever talks about is how Montana was a third-round pick. Winslow also was one of the best ever at his position, and Hampton has been underappreciated in the long run. Simms, Gastineau, Clark and Anderson are better than people remember.
FIVE MORE CLASSES CAPABLE OF MOVING UP
1993: It has five potential Hall of Famers in Willie Roaf, Jerome Bettis, Michael Strahan, Will Shields and John Lynch. Plenty of solid talent fills the gaps (Drew Bledsoe, Mark Brunell, Dana Stubblefield, Lincoln Kennedy and Lorenzo Neal).
1996: There are three Hall of Fame locks in Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis and Marvin Harrison. Three more could get there: Terrell Owens, Zach Thomas and Brian Dawkins. And there are plenty of good players sprinkled in with Eddie George, Keyshawn Johnson, Tedy Bruschi, Lawyer Milloy, Stephen Davis, Amani Toomer and Terry Glenn.
1997: Orlando Pace, Walter Jones and Tony Gonzalez have written Hall of Fame tickets. Jason Taylor is getting there. Meanwhile, there is a healthy crop of other talent in Tiki Barber, Ronde Barber, Warrick Dunn, Corey Dillon, Tarik Glenn and Sam Madison.
1998: Hall of Famers should include Peyton Manning, Randy Moss and Alan Faneca. Hines Ward could have a good argument when he retires, and Matt Hasselbeck could win a Super Bowl and throw his name in the running, too. And there are plenty of good but not great talents: Charles Woodson, Fred Taylor, Olin Kreutz, Ahman Green and Matt Birk.
2001: The class has produced an impressive 30 Pro Bowlers. And there are a lot of players off to great starts: LaDainian Tomlinson, Richard Seymour, Steve Hutchinson, Chad Johnson and Steve Smith. The class is loaded with other stars, too: Marcus Stroud, Reggie Wayne, Nate Clements, Todd Heap, Drew Brees, Matt Light and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.