There were 2 drafts in NFL history that helped shape two of the league’s greatest dynasties – dynasties that produced the 2 best teams the NFL has seen for a single season. While no single draft was solely responsible for creating these dynasties, these 2 drafts coupled with other successful drafts and free agent pickups resulted in sustained excellence on the gridiron.
Today’s piece will be the first of a three part series. In Part I we will define what makes a great draft and look at some of the drafts that rank behind our top 2. Part II will chronicle the second best draft and Part III will detail the best single draft an NFL team has ever had.
To enable this piece to be the subject of debate, we must first define what constitutes a great draft. Certainly drafting players that play most or all their career with their drafting team is one factor. Another factor is achievement. Did these players play in Pro Bowls or become All Pro or even Hall of Famers? While these are attributes any fan would want from their team’s draft, the most important is and always will be did these drafts contribute to winning championships. Individual awards are great but winning a NFL title or Super Bowl takes precedent over everything else.
While Dan Marino and Jim Kelly are Hall of Famers, both failed to win a Super Bowl. On the other hand, Jim Plunkett quarterbacked the Raiders to victory in Super Bowls XV and XVIII yet he more than likely will only step foot into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a visitor. That said Plunkett would never trade his Super Bowl rings for a bronze bust in Canton while Marino and Kelly would gladly trade their enshrinements in the Hall for one NFL title.
The NFL draft began in 1936 and was invented to try and bring parity to the league. It would take decades for the draft to have an impact on NFL parity. The earliest NFL drafts had nine rounds. They increased that to 20 rounds in the 1940’s and thirty rounds in the 1950’s. The rounds were trimmed to 20 in 1960 and down to 17 rounds after the NFL-AFL merger began in 1967. The NFL collective bargaining agreement brought the rounds down to twelve in 1977, 8 in 1993, and 7 rounds in 1994, where it sits today.
Because college scouting did not exist in the 1950’s most draft picks were busts. The only guide for drafting college talent before then was word of mouth from coaches and fans, newspaper articles, and the annual Street and Smith college football magazine. Most teams did not take the draft seriously after the first couple of rounds. That all changed with Tex Schramm of the Los Angeles Rams. He started college scouting and took the system he built with him to the expansion Dallas Cowboys in 1960. After Shramm began to build a winner in Dallas through the draft, all teams began to scout, then the draft began to become more important. Some teams formed scouting combines, the first and most famous was BLESTO. This stood for, Bears, Lions, Eagles, Steelers, Talent Organization. These teams shared all of their scouting information with each other.
Although scouting became part of every team’s strategy by the mid 1960’s and most draft picks were busts before the 60’s, one of the top 2 drafts came before modern scouting. One individual who for the most part has remained anonymous to both old and new school NFL fans was responsible for the second greatest draft of all time. The best draft of all time was a result of the modern scouting system.
The Runners Up
Heading into this Saturday’s draft, there have been 1,640 team drafts in the 73 years of the NFL draft. Here are a few worth briefly mentioning that were in the neighborhood of our top 2 (listed chronologically):
1971 Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers selected Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount the year before. In the 1971 draft Art Rooney Jr. and Chuck Noll selected 7 future Super Bowl starters, who between them would win twenty four Super Bowl rings. Second round choice Jack Ham was the only Hall of Famer in this draft class, but Frank Lewis, Gerry Mullins, Dwight White, Larry Brown, Ernie Holmes, and Mike Wagner would all play important roles in Super Bowl victories.
1975 Dallas Cowboys
Tex Schramm had his best draft in 1975. He had 2 first round picks, the first was Hall of Famer Randy White while the second was linebacker Thomas Henderson. Seven other players selected by Schramm in this draft would join White and Henderson on their winning Super Bowl XII team. Burton Lawless, Bob Breunig, Pat Donovan, Randy Hughes, Mike Hegman, Herb Scott, and Scott Laidlaw became Cowboys draft weekend 1975. While most of these players were not superstars, they were household names to Cowboy fans and the Cowboys would not have won Super Bowl XII or been able to play in five NFC championship games between 1977 and 1982 without this draft class.
1983 Chicago Bears
George Halas participated in his last NFL draft in 1983. He died in October 1983. That year his Grandson Michael McCaskey along with head coach Mike Ditka did the actual drafting but Halas still had final word. The dominating 1985 Bears were built in part with this draft class. Three starters on that offensive line, Jimbo Covert, Tom Thayer, and Mark Bortz were selected along with wide receiver Willie Gault. The defense added defensive backs Dave Duerson and Mike Richardson along with the 203rd pick of that draft and Super Bowl XX MVP defensive end Richard Dent who was selected in the 8th round.
1986 San Francisco 49ers
Bill Walsh had his best draft in 1986, a year after drafting Jerry Rice. This draft did not bring many big names but Walsh brought in 8 Super Bowl starters with this draft class. Defensive end Larry Roberts, DB Tim McKyer, FB Tom Rathman, WR John Taylor, DE Kevin Fagan, DE Charles Haley, T Steve Wallace, and DB Don Griffin would win twenty one Super Bowl rings between them.
First Round Honorable Mentions
We would be remiss if we did not mention 2 teams that achieved maximum value with multiple first round picks. There have been many teams with 2 first round choices in NFL draft history but 2 stand alone as the best. The 1965 Chicago Bears had the third and 4th overall choices that draft and selected Hall of Famers, linebacker Dick Butkus and running back Gale Sayers with those picks. While these 2 are considered by many to be among if not the best at their positions in NFL history, they never played in one post season game and had just 2 winning seasons in their careers, 1965 and 1967.
The 1996 Baltimore Ravens drafted 2 future Hall of Famers in round one 1996. The franchise’s inaugural choice with the ’96 Draft’s 4th pick was tackle Jonathan Ogden and with the 26th pick Ray Lewis. This was the best first round in NFL draft history, even better than the 1965 Bears. Without it Super Bowl XXXV would have meant nothing to Baltimore.