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A Look Back at the1989 NFL Draft: A legendary Draft

Publish Date: 12/11/2023
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

Thirty-four years have passed since the 1989 NFL Draft, when four top-five selections became legendary figures in football history.

At the dawn of Jerry Jones’ era in Dallas, they not only owned the top overall pick but also made an ambitious move that greatly affected future drafts. While Joe Montana and Jerry Rice anchored San Francisco as reigning champs at this point, their reign as a dynasty would come to an end soon enough; NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle retired, ushering in Paul Tagliabue – marking for nearly thirty years the only time when league leadership changed significantly since Rozelle had first taken his seat back then.

The 1989 draft marked a pivotal time in NFL history, featuring some of its most influential players donning its shield. We will reflect on one of its most remarkable editions as we explore its highlights and lowlights.

First-Round Hits and Misses

Troy Aikman goes No.1

Aikman played his final college game at UCLA’s Cotton Bowl, where Dallas media made much of the fact that Cowboys coach Tom Landry was watching him during Bruins practices – something new owner Jerry Jones eventually did away with, replacing Landry with Jimmy Johnson instead as head coach; Aikman would go on to become Dallas’ No.1 pick, go on to win three Super Bowls within seven seasons, and eventually be honored with entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. Jerry Jones’s ever pick in an NFL Draft was an epic Home Run that placed the first brick in a foundation that would win three Super Bowls.

Tony Mandarich becomes one of the biggest Draft busts

Mandarich was widely considered one of the top offensive line prospects before being selected by the Packers as their number-one choice. Sports Illustrated featured him with “The Incredible Bulk” as a headline. His personality mirrored his physical stature, earning him one of its famous covers with an eye-catching photo. The Packers eventually made him their No. 1 draft choice. Mandarich was selected with the second overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft and held out until one week before regular season play when Green Bay released him after three years due to substance abuse issues. Following another stint with Indianapolis before suffering a shoulder injury in 1998 and retiring due to lackluster play, Mandarich became known as one of the greatest busts ever seen at draft time – particularly considering all of the future Hall-of-Famers drafted around him.

Barry Sanders Revamp of Draft

Before the 1990 season, NFL regulations only permitted seniors to enter the draft without receiving special permission. Sanders, who won the 1988 Heisman Trophy applied for such an exemption and went No. 3 overall with one of finest running back careers ever seen; setting or tying numerous records during a 10-year career, and only Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton, who both played longer, could rush for more yards; later in life Sanders would go onto become Pro Football Hall of Famer; Sanders was so good the Lions actually made it all the way to a Conference Championship game in 1991.

Derrick Thomas starts his campaign of terrorizing everything

Alabama’s Derrick Thomas was selected No. 4 overall by the Chiefs. In 1989, he earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors before setting an NFL single-game sack record with seven (poor Dave Krieg) against the Seattle Seahawks (in which Krieg threw for a touchdown on game’s final play, actually giving the Seahawks the win). Thomas would spend 11 seasons with Kansas City before passing away due to injuries suffered in a car accident after the 1999 season ended, posthumously being honoured with inclusion into Pro Football Hall of Fame honours upon death by Pro Football Hall of Fame Honors in 2009.

In 1989’s NFL Draft, four of its initial five picks would go on to enter the Hall of Fame.

Has any other draft had this happen, no!

Other notable first-rounders include Broderick Thomas, Trace Armstrong, Eric Metcalf and Steve Atwater.

Cowboys Sign another Quarterback

So let’s jump forward: In an unusual move during the 1989 offseason, the Cowboys utilized the No. 2 overall pick in the Supplemental Draft on Miami quarterback Steve Walsh under new Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson – making an unprecedented move and forfeiting its first-round selection in 1990 which turned out to be No. 1. (They could have used that pick on Cortez Kennedy or Junior Seau.) Walsh started five games for Dallas that season and won its only game that year before getting traded away early into the 1990 season to the Saints. This was a major scew up drafting Walsh, Walsh had won new Cowboys Coach Jimmy Johnson a National Championship in College and I guess Johnson was hedging his bets.

Steve Wisniewski and Moose Johnston

The Cowboys used the first pick in the second round on guard Steve Wisniewski but would later trade him and a sixth-round pick to Oakland for three second, third, and fifth-round selections. Wisniewski became an eight-time Pro Bowler with Oakland, earning selection to the NFL’s “All 1990s Team.” Dallas used their second-round selection acquired through this deal on Daryl “Moose” Johnston; who would go on to win three Super Bowls as an integral member of Dallas offense – blocking for Emmitt Smith.

Other notable second-round picks in 1989 included Lawyer Tillman, Carnell Lake, Dennis Byrd, Billy Joe Tolliver and Wesley Walls.

Don Beebe of Chadron State was selected 82nd overall by the Buffalo Bills

The Bills, with their 82nd pick, selected little-known Don Beebe. His career stats may not stand out, but one of his Super Bowl plays was certainly impressive despite not having much impact on its outcome. Beebe’s heart was shown by a meaningless play in a Super Bowl that was already lost; down 52-17 late in the game, Leon Lett from the Dallas CowboysΒ  was trying to return a fumble for a touchdown. Beebe’s effort was immediately recognized, and since then, it has become an example for coaches and teachers to demonstrate perseverance even when things don’t go their way.

Other notable third-round picks are Mark Stepnoski, Mike Utley and Marv Cook.

David Meggett quickly won over New Yorkers.

David Meggett of Morgan State was selected with the 132nd overall pick in the fifth round by the Giants as their kick and punt returner, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. Meggett would go on to become one of the greatest punt returners ever, leading the NFL in punt return yards as a rookie before becoming more of a general backfield contributor as Rodney Hampton suffered injuries, helping lead them into Super Bowl XXV victory and another Super Bowl appearance with the Patriots (1996).

Notable fifth-round picks include Jeff Uhlenhake, Tony Martin, Vince Workman and Darren Carrington.

Rodney Peete commences long career as backup.

Rodney Peete made history at USC by winning the Johnny Unitas Award and finishing second to Barry Sanders in the Heisman voting. Drafted by Detroit to form their stable of quarterbacks for five seasons (where he saw limited playing time), after being bounced around between backup jobs, he finally found success by starting 14 games for Carolina in 2002, going 7-7 . Jake Delhomme took over his spot starting Game One of the 2003 season, but Peete would remain their backup until retiring in 2005.

Chris Jacke, Chris Mohr and Bo Orlando were notable sixth-round selections.

Giants Find Longtime Tight End

The Giants selected Howard Cross as an Alabama tight end in the sixth round. Howard Cross was one of the finest blocking tight ends during his era and would earn himself a Super Bowl ring in 1990, playing on both their Super Bowl XXV team, which defeated Buffalo and Super Bowl XXXV, which lost to Baltimore; only Eli Manning and Michael Strahan have seen more games with the franchise than Cross.

Draft #2 for Falcons/Braves players.

Deion Sanders — who was selected No. 5 overall — and his career in both football and baseball are well known, yet Brian Jordan — picked 173rd overall by Buffalo — also had a notable playing career with both teams, eventually joining the Atlanta Falcons and Braves teams as both a defensive back and baseball player. Brian was cut during training camp after Buffalo cut him but ultimately found work with Atlanta where he led in tackles while earning Pro Bowl recognition. Later, the St Louis Cardinals baseball team offered Jordan an incentive bonus if he gave up football, which he accepted.

Notable seventh-round picks include D.J. Johnson and Marion Butts.

Indiana kicker Pete Stoyanovich was selected with the 203rd pick by Miami Dolphins as an “Ace” kicker

in the 1990-1991 season he set an NFL playoff record by making an NFL playoff record-tying 58-yard field goal against the Chiefs during wild-card playoff game. By 1992, he led the NFL in scoring and became an All-Pro for the only time ever; he also made appearances as a former Dolphin who used the bathroom during Ace Ventura: Pet Detective movie shoots.

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