I was feeling in the mood to revisit some of the previous draft classes now that predictions regarding the current rookie class are coming out. Since the internet only seems interested in things that end in a five or zero, I decided to go back a pick out the five best players from each of the previous ten draft classes.
If there were some close calls, I tried to include the names of the players who were just passed over in the explanations. Try to keep in mind that we have less data on the more recent draft classes, which makes picking the top five players more difficult.
The players that were selected appear in alphabetical order and are not ranked one through five.
Arian Foster, Malcolm Jenkins, Alex Mack, Clay Matthews, and LeSean McCoy
Foster’s career didn’t last long enough for him to reach statistical highs. He played more than ten games in just four seasons, but he made the Pro Bowl in all four instances. During those four seasons, Foster recorded 5,510 rushing yards and 49 rushing touchdowns. The All-Pro finished his career with 8,873 yards from scrimmage.
Jenkins was my final pick from the 2009 class. I considered going with Matthew Stafford simply because of how long his career will extend and the numbers he’ll be able to post. However, Stafford has never won a playoff game and he’s not posting the same yardage numbers he was six years ago. Meanwhile, Jenkins has gone to three Pro Bowls and won two Super Bowls as a versatile defensive back capable of playing in all kinds of unconventional positions. All three of his Pro Bowl selections have come with the Philadelphia Eagles in the past four years.
Mack has put together a very nice career. He was one of the Browns lone great selections in the late 2000s. Surprisingly, Mack has received more attention late in his career. After only making two Pro Bowls in his first six seasons, he’s been to the last four. Mack has been a Second Team All-Pro three times with his most recent selection coming in 2017.
Without Matthews, I don’t think the Packers win the Super Bowl in the 2010 season. That year, Matthews was a First Team All-Pro and recorded 13.5 sacks. he added 3.5 more in the playoffs. For the first six seasons of his career, Matthews was on a tear. He registered 61 sacks during that span. Injuries and changes to his position on the Packers defense slowed down the once-feared pass rusher though.
McCoy is the flashiest star among the 2009 draftees. He did have a terrible season with Buffalo in 2018, but that’s not reflective of the numbers he’s posted over his career. In his career, McCoy has over 10,000 rushing yard and 14,000 yards from scrimmage. His unique shifty running style has also helped make him famous as a versatile runner.
Geno Atkins, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh, and Earl Thomas
The 2010 draft class made this a struggle. There are plenty of great and potential Hall of Fame players who I had to leave off of the list for this year. It’s hard to distinguish between players because so many of them could end up in Canton someday.
I did flag Brown, Gronkowski, and Thomas though as my first three selections. Brown has put together one of the best six-year runs by a wide receiver in history. During that time, he has 686 receptions, 9,145 receiving yards, and 67 receiving touchdowns. While his recent antics won’t be forgotten, Brown has set himself up nicely for a final stop in Canton, Ohio.
Gronkowski, who recently retired, has an even better chance of being a first-ballot Hall of Famer than Brown. Gronk won three Super Bowls with the Patriots and is arguably the most unstoppable tight end in NFL history. He’s not the best, that title belongs to Tony Gonzalez, but Gronkowski had an incredibly high peak where he was almost unstoppable.
In comparison, Thomas’ career hasn’t had as many high peaks. He is the best safety since Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed retired though. The crucial role he played in the Legion of Boom will also help advance his legacy and further his chances at a gold jacket.
Selecting the final two players from this class was painful. In most other scenarios, there would be three or four remaining candidates. However, just like with the 2011 class, there were a lot more players remaining on my radar. The nine players competing for the two spots were Atkins, Eric Berry, NaVorro Bowman, Kam Chancellor, Jimmy Graham, Gerald McCoy, Maurkice Pouncey, Suh, and Trent Williams.
Ultimately, I went with Atkins and Suh. Berry was my next choice, but injuries and availability issues kept him from cracking the top five. Ditto for Bowman. While Suh had a more dominant run in his Detroit years, Atkins has matured and is in his prime right now. Their careers are trending in different directions at the moment with Suh only making one Pro Bowl in the last four seasons while Atkins has been to the last five. It will be interesting to see how history remembers these two.
Julio Jones, Von Miller, Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, and J.J. Watt
Picking players for 2010 and 2011 was frustrating because it’s so easy to second guess a decision when so many All-Pros and future Hall of Famers are on the board. While these are the five players I ended up selecting, A.J. Green, Jason Kelce, Cam Newton, Tyron Smith, and a handful of pass rushers all had good cases.
I went with Jones over Green because Jones is in the conversation for being the best wide receiver in the league while Green isn’t anymore. Pass rushers like Justin Houston, Cameron Jordan, and Ryan Kerrigan were buried under Miller and Watt. While Watt is one of two players in NFL history with three Defensive Player of the Year awards, Miller has a Super Bowl MVP and three First Team All-Pro selections.
While he was recently suspended for the first six games of the upcoming season, Peterson has been the most consistently great cornerback since Darrelle Revis retired. He’s made the Pro Bowl in each of his eight seasons and has been a First Team All-Pro three times. Because of his and Sherman’s inclusion on this list, Chris Harris Jr. missed out on a spot.
The Sherman selection was the hardest one to make. While he was part of the legendary Legion of Boom defense, Newton and Smith both hard strong cases. Newton is a former MVP and Smith has established himself as one of the top offensive tackles in the league. However, Sherman has been more consistent than Newton and had a higher peak than Smith. There were a few years where Sherman was the best cornerback in the league, even topping Peterson.
Luke Kuechly, Andrew Luck, Harrison Smith, Bobby Wagner, and Russell Wilson
Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, and Patrick Willis were the best middle linebackers in the 2000s and early 2010s. Since those three retired though, Kuechly and Wagner have risen to take their places. The two linebackers are perennial All-Pros at this point. Wagner has been a First Team All-Pro in four of the last five seasons and Kuechly has received the same honor in five of the last six seasons. Kuechly was also the Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.
Smith is an interesting case. He didn’t receive the recognition he deserved early in his career, but now he’s known as one of the most versatile safeties in the game. Smith excels against the run, but he’s also proven he can perform at an All-Pro level in coverage. He’s also a threat as an edge rusher. Smith is already 30 years old, so his time in the league is limited, but he’s proven he’s one of the top players at his position in the current era.
Wilson has proven he’s a winning quarterback, even without the Legion of Boom. Through seven seasons, Wilson has 75 regular season wins, which is an NFL record. He’s already won a Super Bowl and been to two, which is something even some of the more experienced quarterbacks in the league can’t claim. While I don’t think Wilson will ever win an MVP, he was a dark horse candidate for the award in 2017. I don’t see Wilson as a generational quarterback like Tom Brady or Drew Brees, but he’s still got a good shot at the Hall of Fame.
Luck was the last player I selected from the 2012 draft. All-Pros like Fletcher Cox, David DeCastro, and Chandler Jones were still available, but I’m still taking the Colts quarterback. He’s bounced back nicely after missing an entire season and undergoing a confusing and stressful recovery process. As of right now, Luck’s best seasons sit in the 4,500 yards and 40 touchdown range. He does throw more interceptions than other quarterbacks, but that’s just something you have to accept as part of the way he plays. In the six seasons he’s seen action, Luck has gone to four Pro Bowls and the Colts have finished with ten or more wins four times as well.
Le’Veon Bell, Zach Ertz, DeAndre Hopkins, Travis Kelce, and Adam Thielen
Apart from the 2018 draft, this was the easiest one to make the selections for. 2013 only produced a few players who have displayed lasting star power in the league. A handful of members from this class like Tyler Eifert and Kyle Long burned bright early in their careers before fading due to injuries.
Bell, Hopkins, and Kelce are the true superstars of this draft. All three have been or are in the conversation for being the best players at their given positions. Bell sitting out a year didn’t help him in this regard, but he still made the list easily. As for Hopkins, his career took off when he was paired with Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson. Hopkins has been a First Team All-Pro the last two seasons. Kelce was already encroaching on Rob Gronkowski’s title as the league’s best tight end before continues injuries led the New England legend to retire.
The final two selections were harder to make, but I’m confident in both. Since his sophomore season, Ertz has averaged 871 receiving yards per season. He’s been extremely consistent and just set the single-season record for receptions by a tight end.
Thielen’s greatest competition for this list was fellow wide receiver, Keenan Allen. While Allen exploded onto the scene quicker, he’s far more injury-prone. Thielen also strung together eight consecutive 100-yard receiving games last season.
Besides Allen, I also considered Green Bay left tackle, David Bakhtiari and Dallas center, Travis Frederick. Bakhtiari has made three straight All-Pro teams and Frederick was once considered to be among the best centers in the league. Unfortunately, Frederick missed all of 2018 battling an illness.
From this draft class, I think Tyrann Mathieu is underrated as he’s recovered well from injuries suffered early in his career that denied him the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2015.
Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Donald, Mike Evans, Khalil Mack, and Zack Martin
This draft produced a lot of Pro Bowlers. Initially, it was a little overwhelming just looking through the whole list. Things became clearer though when I narrowed my focus to players who have generational talent. Immediately, four players jumped out at me. Defensively, Donald and Mack have both won the Defensive Player of the Year award. That sets them far apart from players like Jadeveon Clowney.
On offense, two more players caught my eye. Beckham is a two-time Second Team All-Pro and is always in the top five wide receiver conversation. I think he has Hall of Fame talent. Now, if only he could stay healthy. Since entering the league, Martin has been a First or Second Team All-Pro every year. That’s something even Donald can’t say.
Evans was my final and most controversial selection. He was a Second Team All-Pro back in 2016 and has only been to two Pro Bowls. Evans has largely been limited by mediocre to poor quarterback play. I think he could take a large step forward like DeAndre Hopkins did if he was paired with a better quarterback. I also considered Clowney, Kyle Fuller, and C.J. Mosley for Evans’ spot.
Landon Collins, Amari Cooper, Todd Gurley, Danielle Hunter, and Marcus Peters
Collins, who was in the mix for the Defensive Player of the Year award back in 2016, has been to three consecutive Pro Bowls. He was far from a given to make the list because he has shown limitations in recent years, but the 2015 draft didn’t produce as many studs as 2014.
Cooper is far from a top-five wide receiver in the league. He’s never taken that next step since entering the NFL, and he floundered for his final season and a half in Oakland. Nevertheless, he’s still healthier and more consistent than fellow draft-mates Melvin Gordon and David Johnson. If Johnson returns to his 2016 form, he could overtake Cooper
Gurley was a given from the beginning. I don’t need to explain why he’s here.
Hunter has had two good seasons in the NFL. While he has been a little up and down, he posted 14.5 sacks and over 70 tackles this past season even without the full-time assistance of Everson Griffen.
Peters’ career has gone in the opposite direction of Hunters. He went from being the Defensive Rookie of the Year and leading the league in interceptions to performing disappointingly in Los Angeles last season. He’s still one of the most accomplished members of the 2015 draft class though and will be looking to rebound in 2019.
Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Tyreek Hill, Michael Thomas, and Carson Wentz
There were three other players who I considered for this list but did not select. Jared Goff, Dak Prescott, and Jalen Ramsey were all just beat out by Carson Wentz. While Wentz wasn’t fully himself in 2018, he was still the front runner to win the NFL MVP for most of the 2017 season. That alone puts him in a whole different class than the three players he was chosen over. Ramsey was the closest to overtaking Wentz since he’s a former All-Pro, but the Jaguars corner needs to show more consistency if he wants to be selected over a quarterback like Wentz.
The other four players selected for 2016 were obvious. Elliott, Hill, and Thomas have all been First Team All-Pros and Bosa seems on his way to becoming one. He just needs to stay healthy.
Jamal Adams, Myles Garrett, Eddie Jackson, George Kittle, and Patrick Mahomes
Mahomes is the obvious selection. This whole article would be a joke if the 2018 MVP wasn’t included. Besides him, Garrett and Jackson stood out as strong candidates that I ended up selecting. Garrett is averaging over ten sacks per season through his first two years and he looks like the type of player who could make a run at 100 total when his career is winding down.
Jackson makes the list because of his terrific 2018 season. He intercepted six passes, returning two for scores, and he was a First Team All-Pro. It’s hard to ignore the guy who was selected as the best player at his position.
After those three players though, things get difficult. Because these players have only put together two seasons, there isn’t enough data to differentiate between all of them. Adams, Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, Kittle, Marshon Lattimore, Christian McCaffrey, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Deshaun Watson, and T.J. Watt all have bright futures in the NFL.
Right now, I’m taking Adams and Kittle over everyone else. Both were Second Team All-Pros in 2018. I’m a big fan of Adams’ game as well. He’s going to have to compete with a lot of bright, young safeties and aging veterans for notoriety at his position though. Meanwhile, Kittle just set the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end.
I know a lot of people would have gone with Kamara, but this isn’t a PPR fantasy football draft. As for Watson, I’m not giving him an edge just because he’s a quarterback.
Saquon Barkley, Derwin James, Darius Leonard, Quenton Nelson, and Leighton Vander Esch
Picking these five players was pretty cut and dry. They were all First or Second Team All-Pros last season, demonstrating that they are already among the NFL’s elite players. Of course, there’s still a lot of room for players to move into or out of the top five for 2018. These guys do have the rest of their careers left after all. After one season though, this is roughly where the rankings stand.
Although it might seem controversial to leave Baker Mayfield off of this list, it really shouldn’t be. Yes, Mayfield looks like a future perennial Pro Bowler and star NFL player, but his performances as a rookie were inconsistent. In 2018, he showed more potential than success.
TBD. I’ve already said enough stuff that I could regret down the line.