While free agency has played a significant role in the success (or failure) of NFL franchises since its inception in the early 1990s, the NFL Draft continues to play a large role in helping determine which team hoists the Lombardi Trophy on a yearly basis. Simply put, teams that consistently draft good players have generally been in position to win one or multiple championships. Conversely, teams that struggle to select the right prospects perennially find themselves with one of the top picks in the draft.
With this year’s draft now in the rearview mirror, we decided to take a look back at each team’s best draft since 2000. We’re excluding the 2020 draft, as those players have yet to take an NFL snap. And while older draft classes will clearly have an advantage, the potential already shown in some recent draft classes did result in some from the last few years cracking this list.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Arizona Cardinals: 2004
The Cardinals’ 2004 draft class starts with Larry Fitzgerald, a future Hall of Fame receiver who was the team’s best player during their 2008 Super Bowl run. With their second and third-round picks, the Cardinals picked two other players that would play prominent roles on their ’08 NFC title team: linebacker Karlos Dansby and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. In the fifth round, Arizona selected defensive end Antonio Smith, who received 39 starts in five years in Arizona before earning his first Pro Bowl selection after joining the Texans.
Atlanta Falcons: 2008
Atlanta’s best draft class came down to the two drafts that saw them select Matt Ryan (2008) and Michael Vick (2001) with their first-round pick. While Vick helped the Falcons win a pair of playoff games that included a trip to the NFC title game in 2004, Ryan led the Falcons to the Super Bowl in 2016. Ryan, who is 10th all-the in career passing yards and 11th in touchdown passes, has also spent his entire career in Atlanta, while Vick spent just five seasons as the Falcons’ starting quarterback.
Atlanta’s 2008 draft also produced Pro Bowl defensive back Thomas DeCloud (third round) and NFL starers in tackle Sam Baker (first round), linebacker Curtis Lofton (second round) and receiver Harry Douglas (third round).
Baltimore Ravens: 2018
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While Baltimore’s 2008 draft class produced two players (Joe Flacco and Ray Rice) that played a prominent role in the team’s 2012 championship run, the Ravens’ 2018 class has the potential to be even better. The Ravens’ 2018 draft class includes reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson, 2019 Pro Bowl right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., and tight end Mark Andrews, who also earned Pro Bowl honors in 2019 after catching 10 touchdown passes.
Baltimore’s ’18 draft class also includes offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman, who has made 17 starts in his first two years, at a great value in the sixth round, plus another key contributor in linebacker Kenny Young, who was part of the trade that landed the team corner Marcus Peters. Tight end Hayden Hurst was traded to the Falcons this offseason in exchange for a second-round pick.
Buffalo Bills: 2001
A Pro Bowler in 2004, Nate Clements started in 168 regular season games during his career. Aaron Schobel carved out a nine-year career that saw him earn two Pro Bowl nods while tallying 78 sacks. Travis Henry, a Pro Bowler in 2004, rushed for 2,794 yards and 23 touchdowns over a two-year span. Ron Edwards made 98 career starts over a 12-year career, while Jonas Jennings started in each of his 75 career games before injuries forced him to retire following the 2008 season. Marques Sullivan and Jimmy Williams also made quality contributions as Day 3 picks, though the latter’s came with other teams after he failed to make the Bills’ opening roster as a rookie.
A big “what if” from the Bills’ ’01 draft class is linebacker Brandon Spoon, a fourth-round pick who recorded 65 tackles, seven tackles for loss and two interception returns for touchdowns as a rookie. Spoon’s career essentially ended the following summer, when he tore his biceps before the start of the 2002 season. Spoon spent that season on injured reserve before being cut by the Bills before the start of the 2003 season. He signed with the Rams the following offseason but suffered a torn hamstring during training camp.
Carolina Panthers: 2005
Carolina’s 2012 class produced two of the team’s best players during their 2015 Super Bowl run (Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman), the Panthers’ 2005 class is significantly deeper, with five draft picks from that class going on to have considerably long and successful careers. Headlining that draft class is linebacker Thomas Davis, who earned All-Pro honors during the Panthers’ memorable 2015 season. Guard Evan Mathis, a third-round pick, enjoyed a 12-year career that saw him earn two Pro Bowls selections as well as an All-Pro nod in 2013.
While three of the Panthers’ top five picks turned out to be busts, they made up for it by selecting three productive players during the fifth and sixth rounds. Center Geoff Hangartner made 85 starts over a nine-year career. Defensive end Jovan Haye made 45 starts over a three-year span, while offensive lineman Joe Berger, the Panthers’ final pick in the ’05 draft, enjoyed a 13-year career that saw him make 46 starts during his final three seasons.
Chicago Bears: 2000
You could make an argument for the depth of the 2003 class winning out, as the Bears were able to find solid contributors on Day 3 to go with their Day 2 picks of Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs. The issue is their two first-round picks were spent on Michael Haynes, who only lasted about 2 1/2 years without making much of an impact, and Rex Grossman, who only spent one year as the primary starter (albeit it one that involved a Super Bowl run).
But in 2000, the Bears made their first two picks count, starting with Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher at No. 9 overall. The four-time first-team All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler ranks in the top 10 all-time of solo tackles in a career to go along with plenty of other accolades. Second-round pick Mike Brown was a first-team All-Pro in his second season, and while he never reached those heights again, he enjoyed a long, productive career that also included a Pro Bowl bid. And the 2000 class had some supporting contributors as well, with Dez White racking up 155 catches in four years with the Bears after being taken in the third round, seventh-rounder Michael Green making 45 starts while playing 81 games in his six years in Chicago, and kicker Paul Edinger putting together a couple solid seasons before the sixth-rounder played his way out of town.
Cincinnati Bengals: 2001
The Bengals’ 2001 class produced one of the league’s best receiving duos during the 2000s in Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The duo would combine to catch 1,393 catches for 18,296 yards and 111 touchdowns over their careers while helping the Bengals win an AFC North division title in 2005.
That draft also produced Pro Bowl running back Rudi Johnson and defensive end Justin Smith, who earned five consecutive Pro Bowl selections as well as an All-Pro nod during his time with the 49ers following seven solid years in Cincinnati.
Cleveland Browns: 2018
Cleveland’s 2018 class, led by No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, should be on its way to surpassing the team’s 2010 class, a group that includes cornerback Joe Haden, safety T.J. Ward and guard Shawn Lauvao.
Along with Mayfield (who is looking to bounce back following a disappointing 2019 season), the Browns’ 18 class includes cornerback Denzel Ward (second round), a 2018 Pro Bowler, and running back Nick Chubb (second round), a Pro Bowler last season after rushing for 1,494 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging five yards per carry. The Browns also picked a few other solid contributors such as Austin Corbett, Chad Thomas and Genard Avery.
Dallas Cowboys: 2016
Ezekiel Elliott, a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL rushing champion, and two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott headline the Cowboys’ 2016 draft class. But the class also includes Pro Bowl linebacker Jaylon Smith, who has blossomed into a Pro Bowl player despite having to sit out his entire rookie season after suffering a major knee injury during the final game of his college career.
The Cowboys’ 2016 draft class also includes defensive tackle Maliek Collins, who signed with the Raiders after four solid seasons in Dallas, and cornerback Anthony Brown, who landed a new three-year contract after starting 34 games in his first four years.
Denver Broncos: 2006
While he never led the Broncos to the promised land, first-round pick Jay Cutler earned his first (and only) Pro Bowl selection in Denver before spending eight seasons as the Bears‘ franchise quarterback, helping lead them to an NFC Championship Game appearance in 2010.
While second-round pick Tony Scheffler enjoyed a solid eight-year NFL career, what really sets this Broncos’ draft apart from the others is their fourth-round selections of six-time Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall and five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Elvis Dumervil. The Broncos also got significant value out of guard Chris Kuper, a fifth-round pick who made 79 starts in eight seasons in Denver.
Detroit Lions: 2013
The Lions successfully hit on each of their first three picks in 2013, when they acquired 2015 Pro Bowl defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, three-time Pro Bowl defensive back Darius Slay, and three-time Pro Bowl guard Larry Warford. Detroit also found late-round value in punter Sam Martin and running back Theo Riddick. Each of these players played significant roles in the Lions’ playoff seasons in 2014 and in 2016.
Green Bay Packers: 2008
Devoid of a first round pick in 2008, the Packers made up for it by using a second-round pick on Jordy Nelson, who is in the top five in franchise history in career catches, receiving yards and touchdown receptions. His nine-catch, 140-yard, one touchdown performance helped the Packers defeat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.
While tight end Jermichael Finley enjoyed a solid six-year run with the Packers, what truly sets Green Bay’s 2008 draft apart from the rest are the selections of offensive linemen Josh Sitton and Breno Giacomini in the fourth and fifth rounds. Sitton was a four-time Pro Bowl selection during his eight seasons in Green Bay, while Giacomini made 86 career starts and was a starter on Seattle’s 2013 championship team. Matt Flynn once threw six touchdowns in one game before signing a three-year deal with the Seahawks, which is not bad for a seventh-round pick.
Houston Texans: 2006
No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams enjoyed a fruitful 11-year career that saw him earn four Pro Bowl selections while registering 97.5 career sacks. Second-round pick DeMeco Ryans was named to two Pro Bowls while recording nearly 970 career tackles and making 139 starts over his 10-year career.
Houston also got significant value out of offensive tackle Eric Winston and tight end Owen Daniels in the middle rounds. Winston started in each of his team’s regular season games for seven straight years, while Daniels earned two Pro Bowl selections with the Texans before helping the Broncos win Super Bowl 50 during his final NFL season.
Indianapolis Colts: 2018
Guard Quenton Nelson, the team’s first-round pick in the ’18 draft, has been an All-Pro in each of his first two seasons. Indianapolis also struck gold with its second-round pick, linebacker Darius Leonard, who already has two Pro Bowls under his belt.
Guard Braden Smith has turned into a quality starter, while running backs Nyheim Hines (fourth round) and Jordan Wilkins (fifth round) have put up decent numbers during their first two years with the Colts. Second-rounders Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis have made some solid contributions, while seventh-rounder Matthew Adams has served as a key special-teams contributor.
Jacksonville Jaguars: 2016
This Jaguars’ draft class, for now, is ahead of the team’s 2019 draft class that includes pass rusher Josh Allen (10.5 sacks as a rookie), offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor and quarterback Gardner Minshew. While it’s a top-heavy group, the Jaguars’ 2016 draft class includes three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey (first round), outside linebacker Myles Jack (second round), and 2017 Pro Bowl defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. This trio played a significant role in the Jaguars’ run to an AFC Championship Game in 2017.
Kansas City Chiefs: 2017
The reasoning behind making this Chiefs’ draft class the best is pretty simple: Patrick Mahomes. While this was the draft that saw Kansas City land a future league and Super Bowl MVP, Kansas City also drafted running back Kareem Hunt, who led the league in rushing as a rookie before off-field issues led to his premature exit from Kansas City. Defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon started eight games last season while putting up career highs in sacks, total tackles and tackles for loss.
Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders: 2014
The Raiders landed a future NFL Defensive Player of the Year (Khalil Mack) as well as their franchise quarterback (Derek Carr) with their first two picks, and the pair have been to eight Pro Bowls in six seasons. The Raiders’ third-round pick that year, Gabe Jackson, has started at both guard positions during his first six seasons with the Silver and Black. Day 3 defensive tackle Justin Ellis is preparing for his second season with the Ravens, while a pair of seventh-rounders in this class went on to become solid contributors as well. Defensive back T.J. Carrie has 50 career starts under his belt, while defensive end Shelby Harris recorded a career-high six sacks while starting in all 16 regular season games for the Broncos in 2019.
San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers: 2001
While this certainly wasn’t their deepest draft, you can’t do much better than a class that includes the selections of a Hall of Fame running back in LaDainian Tomlinson and a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees.
The 2006 NFL MVP, Tomlinson retired as the league’s fifth all-time career rushing leader. Brees, who led the Saints to their first Super Bowl victory in 2009, is the all-time career leader in passing yards and touchdown passes. Of the rest of the class, Brandon Gorin had a solid run for a seventh-round pick, making 27 starts for three different teams following his exit from San Diego.
St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams: 2005
You could certainly argue for the 2014 class based on two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald alone, but taking offensive tackle Greg Robinson with the No. 2 overall pick and watching him bust is a significant ding to the class overall.
This 2005 class doesn’t have an Aaron Donald type of player, but it features a lot of depth up and down the board. The top four picks all started at least 75 games, and while guard Richie Incognito has been the best of the bunch on the field and is still going strong, O.J. Atogwe racked up 22 interceptions over six years with the Rams as well. Then you come to seventh round, where the Rams took a quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick who has made 139 starts with eight different teams during a winding NFL career and will likely make a few more with Miami this year before ceding way to Tua Tagovailoa.
Miami Dolphins: 2012
While he never reached his full potential in Miami, 2012 first-round pick Ryan Tannehill had a breakout year in 2019, his first season with the Titans, helping Tennessee reach the AFC Championship Game. Defensive end Olivier Vernon, the team’s second-round pick, earned Pro Bowl honors in 2018 and has been a regular starter since his second season. Running back Lamar Miller was also a Pro Bowler in 2018, while receiver Richard Matthews, Miami’s last pick in the ’12 draft, has 230 career catches and 21 touchdown receptions to his credit.
Minnesota Vikings: 2007
Adrian Peterson, the team’s first-round pick in the ’07 draft, won league MVP honors in 2012 and is currently fifth all-time on the NFL’s career rushing list. Second-round pick Sidney Rice earned Pro Bowl honors in 2009, catching 83 passes for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns that season while helping the Vikings advance to the NFC Championship Game. Defensive end Brian Robison recorded 60 sacks over his 11-year career with the Vikings. And while he spent more of his career as a backup, quarterback Tyler Thigpen managed to carve out an eight-year career, a considerably impressive feat for a seventh-round pick.
New England Patriots: 2010
If you want to give this to the 2000 class for Tom Brady alone, that’s fair. But we’re highlighting the much better depth in the 2010 class. Devin McCourty has started 178 games for the Patriots while helping New England win three Super Bowls and five AFC titles since being taken in the first round. Rob Gronkowski, who played a significant role in the Patriots’ second wave of Super Bowl wins, is regarded as one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history. Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez had a productive three seasons before his career ended prematurely.
Second-round linebacker Brandon Spikes made 54 starts during his six-year career. And while he never played a down for the Patriots, offensive lineman Ted Larsen (sixth round) has made 88 starts in 137 career regular season games entering the 2020 season.
New Orleans Saints: 2006
Sean Payton’s first draft in New Orleans is still his best. While he may not have lived up to his pre-draft hype, running back Reggie Bush was a versatile, highly productive player and a key piece to the Saints’ 2009 championship team. Safety Roman Harper was a two-time Pro Bowler during his 11 seasons with the Saints, while guard Jahri Evans earned four straight All-Pro and six Pro Bowl selections from 2009-14. Fifth-round pick Rob Ninkovich won two Super Bowls as a starting defender for the Patriots.
The Saints struck gold in the seventh round with the selections of guard Zach Strief and receiver Marques Colston. Strief spent half of his 12-year career with the Saints as a starter, while Colston retired after the 2015 season as the Saints’ all-time leader in catches (711), yards (9,759) and touchdowns (72).
New York Giants: 2004
The Giants spent the No. 1 overall pick on longtime star quarterback Philip Rivers, only to trade him to the Chargers in exchange for Eli Manning, who went on to set just about every Giants passing record while also leading Big Blue to two Super Bowl wins over Bill Belichick’s Patriots.
New York spent their second-round pick on guard Chris Snee, who enjoyed a 10-year career with the Giants that included four Pro Bowl selections and an All-Pro nod in 2008. Defensive back Gibril Wilson played a significant role on the Giants’ 2007 championship team, recording 92 tackles and four interceptions during the regular season. Running back Derrick Ward rushed for a career-high 1,025 yards in 2008 while averaging a league-best 5.6 yards per carry, a banner season for a former seventh-round pick.
New York Jets: 2000
The Jets’ first draft of the new millennium remains their best. That spring, the Jets spent their first two first-round picks on defensive ends Shaun Ellis and John Abraham, who combined to record 207 sacks while earning seven Pro Bowl nods during their careers. The duo helped the Jets make the playoffs four times in a six-year span from 2001-06.
With the 18th overall pick, the Jets selected quarterback Chad Pennington, who helped lead New York to the playoffs on three different occasions. Pennington, a two time Comeback Player of the Year Award recipient, led the Dolphins to their most recent AFC East division title in 2008. Pennington’s favorite target in New York was 2000 third-round pick Laveranues Coles, who is top five in franchise history in career catches, yards and touchdowns.
Philadelphia Eagles: 2012
While the Eagles’ 2009 draft (headlined by LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin) deserves consideration, Philadelphia’s 2012 draft was a little deeper. It also played a significant role in the franchise winning its first Super Bowl title in 2017. The Eagles’ first pick that spring was defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, a Pro Bowl pick each season since 2015 and an All-Pro choice in 2018. Second-round pick Mychal Kendricks was a starter on the Eagles’ Super Bowl-winning defense before joining the Seahawks during the 2018 offseason.
Philadelphia’s third-round pick, quarterback Nick Foles, earned Pro Bowl honors in 2013 while throwing 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Four years later, he earned MVP honors after throwing three touchdowns in the Eagles’ 41-33 win over the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. Dennis Kelly has also proven to be a solid contributor for a fifth-round pick, making 31 starts while appearing in 88 games for the Eagles and Titans.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 2010
Pittsburgh’s 2010 draft produced two potential Hall of Fame talents, a two-time Pro Bowler and a solid defender. Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers’ first-round pick that spring, is an eight-time Pro Bowler and member of the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade Team. Seventh-round pick Antonio Brown, a fellow member of the 2010 All-Decade Team, led all NFL receivers in receptions, yards and touchdowns from 2013-18.
Third-round pick Emmanuel Sanders blossomed into a Pro Bowl level player for the Broncos, while second-round pick Jason Worilds recorded 25.5 sacks in five seasons before calling it quits after the 2014 season.
San Francisco 49ers: 2007
First-round pick Patrick Willis was named to the Pro Bowl in seven of his eight NFL seasons. He was the best player on a 49ers defense that helped San Francisco advance to three straight NFC title games from 2011-13. The team’s second first-round pick, tackle Joe Staley, is a six-time Pro Bowler who started in each of his 181 career regular season games.
Defensive end Ray McDonald was a starter for five of his eight seasons with the 49ers, while defensive back Dashon Golden earned consecutive Pro Bowl berths that included an All-Pro selection in 2012. Fellow defensive back Tarell Brown, a fifth-round selection, made 63 starts in 117 career regular season games. Willis, Golden and Brown combined to rack up 35 interceptions in their careers.
Seattle Seahawks: 2010
While the Seahawks’ 2012 class includes two of the best Day 2 picks of the last 20 years in quarterback Russell Wilson and linebacker Bobby Wagner, Seattle’s 2010 draft class produced four Pro Bowl players and two crucial members of the team’s “Legion of Boom” secondary. Seattle used their second first-round pick on safety Earl Thomas, who would become a seven-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro. Fellow defensive back Kam Chancellor, a fifth-round pick, would earn four Pro Bowl selections during his eight-year career. The two played a key role in the Seahawks’ Super Bowl XLVIII title and consecutive NFC championships.
Tackle Russell Okung, the No. 6 overall pick in that draft, has made two Pro Bowls while being an eight-year starter on Seattle’s offensive line. Golden Tate helped the Seahawks win their first Super Bowl before earning his first Pro Bowl selection during his first season with the Lions.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2015
The Buccaneers have drafted only 10 players this century that have gone onto earn Pro Bowl recognition, with their first Pro Bowl pick (guard Davin Joseph) not coming until 2006. That being said, the Buccaneers have have a few decent drafts over the past two decades, with their best draft taking place in 2015, when they selected quarterback Jameis Winston, tackle Donovan Smith, center Ali Marpet and outside linebacker Kwon Alexander with their first four picks.
Winston, who signed a one-year deal with the Saints this offseason, led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards in 2019. Smith, a starter since his rookie season, has missed just one game during his first five seasons with the Buccaneers. Marpet has also been a starter on the Buccaneers’ line since his rookie season, while Alexander, a Pro Bowler in 2017, helped the 49ers win the NFC title last season during his first year in San Francisco.
Tennessee Titans: 2016
While second-round pick Derrick Henry is the crown jewel, the Titans had four other players from this draft become starters during the first four years of their careers. Right tackle Jack Conklin, an All-Pro in 2016, signed a multi-year deal with the Browns earlier this offseason. Nose tackle Austin Johnson signed with the Giants this offseason after making 13 starts during his final three years with the Titans. Safety Kevin Byard earned All-Pro honors in 2017 after leading the NFL with eight interceptions.
Receiver Tajae Sharpe signed with the Vikings earlier this offseason after making 29 starts in three active seasons in Nashville, while LeShaun Sims has also been a solid contributor for a fifth-round selection. We’d be remiss not to take a second to further acknowledge Henry, who rushed for 2,170 yards (including the postseason) while leading the Titans to the AFC Championship Game this past season.
Washington Redskins: 2012
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This draft class produced two future Pro Bowl quarterbacks (first-round pick Robert Griffin III and fourth-round pick Kirk Cousins), the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year (Griffin), a two-time Pro Bowl running back (fifth-round pick Alfred Morris) and a starting offensive lineman (sixth-round pick Tom Compton). The duo of Griffin and Morris helped the Redskins capture the NFC East division title in 2012, while Cousins, a Pro Bowler for the Redskins in 2016, was named to his second Pro Bowl in 2019 before winning his first playoff game as a starting quarterback.