The goal in every NFL Draft is to select players that can become starters; maybe not right away, but definitely over time. This is simple in theory, but exceptionally hard in practice; especially as you get deeper and deeper in the draft.
Beyond this basic goal, teams hope that their selections have the talent, temperament, and resiliency to develop into Pro Bowl players; to become first-team All-Pros; and, if the football gods are especially kind, to eventually be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
According to our friends at Pro Football Reference, 27 of the 28 took part in at least one regular season NFL game; 19 of them became a team’s “primary” starter; 8 of the 28 have been named to a Pro Bowl team; and 3 of those players have earned first-team All-Pro honors.
Are those good results from 3 years’ worth of picks?
If you read the headline, you know my position. Yes, it is HISTORICALLY good.
Before continuing, I would like to acknowledge that the book isn’t yet closed on the first 3 drafts of the current regime, and may not be closed for many years to come.
Any guesses? Here’s a hint:
Super Bowl XLVIII MVP: Malcolm Smith highlights (Seahawks.com)
An additional 7 players from those 3 draft classes played last season and are currently free agents: Russell Okung and Golden Tate (2010); James Carpenter, K.J. Wright, and Richard Sherman (2011); Bruce Irvin and J.R. Sweezy (2012).
Including Earl Thomas (2010) brings the total to 11 players from Seattle’s 2010-2012 drafts who are looking to add one or more “chapters” to the their NFL careers.
Over the next few minutes, I will attempt to prove that the Seattle Seahawks’ 2010, 2011, and 2012 draft classes may represent the best back-to-back-to-back drafts in NFL history.
The criteria I am using:
- The number of players selected over the 3-year period
- How many of those players became a “primary” starter in the league; and how many total seasons they started
- How many players were named to a Pro Bowl team; and how many Pro Bowl teams they made
- How many of the players received first-team All-Pro honors; and the total number of times they received those honors
- How many of the players have been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (or could “reasonably” be expected to be elected after they retire)
Having scoured 30 to 50+ years of draft history for all 32 NFL teams, using pro-football-reference.com, and ONLY pro-football-reference.com, I came up with the following list of contenders (in reverse chronological order):
- Seattle Seahawks, 2010-2012
- San Francisco 49ers, 2005-2007
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1995-1997
- Dallas Cowboys, 1988-1990
- Pittsburgh Steelers, 1987-1989
- Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers, 1982-1984
- New Orleans Saints, 1980-1982
Note: Four of our 7 contenders are from the 1980s - which makes sense since the draft was 12 rounds back then. More players equals more chances to find “hidden gems”.. The draft was shortened to 8 rounds in 1993 and then to the current 7-round format the following year.
Summarizing each contender’s case
These 3 drafts brought us Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, and 4 of the 5 founding members of the Legion of Boom.
The Legion of BOOM Official Highlight Reel | NFL Highlights (9 minutes of absolute awesomeness!)
Plus K.J. Wright, Golden Tate, Russell Okung, and others.
The 49ers’ classes in the mid-90s were sneaky good: Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Dashon Goldson ... Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker ... the underrated Alex Smith and the running back with the 3rd-most rushing yards in league history, Frank Gore.
Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks were Tampa Bay’s first two picks in the 1995 NFL Draft and both are now in the Hall of Fame. The only real question was whether to choose the 3-year stretch from 1993-1995 or the stretch from 1995-1997.
Michael Irvin (1988), Troy Aikman (1989), and Emmitt Smith (1990) - selecting a future Hall of Famer in 3 consecutive drafts makes a pretty strong case. Among the Cowboys’ other selections these 3 years? Seattle’s current Defensive Coordinator, Ken Norton Jr.
The Steelers’ case is headlined by a Hall of Fame defensive back (Rod Woodson) and a Hall of Fame offensive lineman (Dermontti Dawson). Adding a pair of All-Pro linebackers (Hardy Nickerson and Greg Lloyd) and an All-Pro Safety (Carnell Lake) makes them a serious contender.
Note: Both players played their entire career with the same team and Matthews, in particular was “extra special”, having played at least one season as a starter at every position on the offensive line over a 19-year career.
Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson + Hall of Fame kicker Morton Anderson ... between them, they played in 609 games. The rest of these 3 draft classes were solid, but not spectacular, which shows just how good those 2 players were.
Note: Morton Anderson holds the record for most games played (382) and ended his 25-year career and was #1 for career field goals and #2 for extra points when he retired in 2007. (Adam Vinatieri later passed him on the FG and XP lists.)
Turning players into numbers
For the sake of comparison, each group of 3 draft classes was converted into a numeric code. Seattle’s code is 28-19-101-8-34-3-12-0*.
It looks more confusing than it is. Here’s the breakdown:
- 28 players drafted
- 19 became starters
- 101 total starter-seasons between them
- 8 were named to the Pro Bowl
- 34 total Pro Bowl nominations between them
- 3 received first-team All-Pro honors
- 12 first-team All-Pro honors between them
- 0 players selected to the Hall of Fame (*at this time)
Here are the codes for the other 6 contenders:
- San Francisco: 29-19-116-8-29-2-6-0*
- Tampa Bay: 27-17-101-7-35-4-15-2
- Dallas: 32-14-112-8-38-4-8-3
- Pittsburgh: 39-19-113-7-35-5-18-2
- Tennessee / Houston: 39-18-104-4-25-2-9-2
- New Orleans: 37-17-110-6-18-2-4-2
And here is a table that shows all of the above codes, plus one additional number for each of the contenders:
The additional number is the “active” players remaining for each of the contenders. For 5 of the 7 teams, that number is zero. For San Francisco, it’s 1 - Frank Gore. For Seattle, it could be as many as 11.
Note: I “hid” the column in the table that shows how many of the drafted players made an NFL roster because it wasn’t a criteria for the analysis. For those that are curious though, I have 2 words: “Bonus Coverage.”
Making the case for Seattle as #1
Each of the contenders could certainly claim to have the best 3-draft class in league history (well, 40-ish years anyway). Here are my thoughts on why SEATTLE should be considered #1:
Reason #1: Seattle is the only contender with multiple active and potentially-active players, including the very best players from their 3-draft class. Additionally, two of those players are currently among the top 3-5 players at their respective positions heading into this season, both are under contract for at least two more seasons, and both could play several more years.
Reason #2: Seattle trails San Francisco by 15 starter-seasons, Dallas by 4 Pro Bowl seasons, and Pittsburgh by 6 All-Pro seasons. Seattle may eventually take the lead in all three categories, but Seattle doesn’t have to be #1 in every category; no one is right now. Assuming Seattle isn’t already considered #1, simply narrowing the gap should be “enough.”
Reason #3: No one in the current group has FOUR Hall of Fame players from a 3-draft class. Homer-ism aside, Seattle very well might (and arguably should).
If so, if indeed Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, and Earl Thomas are fitted for gold jackets when their playing days are done and end up with bronze busts in Canton, Ohio ...
Seattle’s 2010-2012 draft classes would unquestionably cement their status among the game’s all-time best. As the best.
A little bit extra ...
You’ve got to be in the game to make a play
As promised, here is the information on how many of the drafted players made at least one appearance in a regular season game for each of the 7 contenders:
- Seattle: 27 of 28 (96.4%)
- San Francisco: 26 of 29 (89.7%)
- Tampa Bay: 24 of 27 (88.9%)
- Dallas: 24 of 32 (75.0%)
- Pittsburgh: 32 of 39 (82.1%)
- Tennessee/Houston: 34 of 39 (87.2%)
- New Orleans: 28 of 37 (75.7%) - only 4 of their 10 draftees made the team in 1980!
While researching this article, I found some interesting things that didn’t quite “make the cut” but which I thought were worth sharing here in the “Bonus Coverage.”
One. Love them or hate them, the Dallas Cowboys have had some remarkable stretches in terms of the NFL Draft. I gave the nod to their 1988-1990 classes (32-14-112-8-38-4-8-3) but the following 3-draft classes were also considered:
- Their 2003-2005 classes, headlined by Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware (23-16-101-5-27-3-7-0*)
- Their 1992-1994 classes (31-17-100-5-27-2-9-1), led by Hall of Fame Guard Larry Allen
- The 3-draft class from 1989-1991 gave the 1988-1990 class the most trouble (+4 starters, +9 starter-seasons, +1 Pro Bowler, -1 Pro Bowl season, -1 All-Pro, equal All-Pro seasons), but the 1991 class didn’t have a Hall of Fame player, so ... 1988-1990 got the W.
Note: The Cowboys’ 4-year stretch from 1988-1991 is insane with a combined class code of 50-23-156-11-45-5-10-3. What’s more, using 1991 to join the 1988-1990 and 1992-1994 classes nets a 7-year stretch of absolutely EPIC proportions: 81-40-256-16-72-7-19-4). WoW!
Two. Tampa Bay’s 3-draft class from 1993-1995 was considered because of the presence of Hall of Fame Safety (and current San Francisco GM) John Lynch, but their overall case was weaker (-27 starter seasons, -7 Pro Bowl seasons, and -4 All-Pro seasons) than the 1995-1997 group.
Three. The 1975-1977 New England draft classes were considered, but their class code is 45-16-107-6-21-1-2-1 and it was the excessively large number of players (45) and “only” 1 Hall of Famer (CB Mike Haynes) that ultimately kept them out of the running.
Four. It was very, very difficult to not include the 2015-2017 Kansas City draft classes. Their 3-draft class code is 24-14-43-6-15-3-4-0* and features Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Marcus Peters, Steven Nelson, Mitch Morse, Kareem Hunt, and Chris Jones.
When we look back on this 20 years from now, it may be the Chiefs at #1. Right now though, Kansas City’s numbers are too far behind the others to make a sustainable argument given the nature of the game. That and the importance of both longevity and consistent, superior performance for this discussion.
Imagine if Seattle would have hit like that in the 1976 NFL Draft.
Last, but not least ...
All 28 of Seattle’s selections, 2010-2012
Here are the 28 players Seattle selected in the 2010-2012 NFL Drafts, along with photos and information on how long each one played and/or their current status.
Note: The code after their name is the player’s contribution to Seattle’s overall class code. For example, Russell Okung’s code is 9-2-0 which deciphers as: 9 starter-seasons, 2 Pro Bowl seasons, 0 All-Pro seasons.
R1.06: OT Russell Okung (9-2-0) - played in 2020; UFA
R1.14: FS Earl Thomas (9-7-3) - played in 2019; unsigned in 2020; UFA
R2.60: WR Golden Tate (7-1-0) - played in 2020; UFA
R4.111: CB Walter Thurmond (1-0-0) - played 6 seasons
R4.127: DE E.J. Wilson (0-0-0) - played one season
R5.133: SS Kam Chancellor (7-4-0) - played 8 seasons, all in Seattle; RETIRED (due to injury)
R6.185: TE Anthony McCoy (1-0-0) - played 4 seasons
R7.236: LB Dexter Davis (0-0-0) - played 3 seasons
R1.25: OT James Carpenter (10-0-0) - played in 2020; UFA
R3.75: OG John Moffitt (1-0-0) - played 3 seasons
R4.99: LB K.J. Wright (10-1-0) - played 10 years in Seattle; currently a free agent
R4.107: WR Kris Durham (1-0-0) - played 4 seasons
R5.154: CB Richard Sherman (9-5-3) - played in 2020; UFA
R6.173: CB Byron Maxwell (3-0-0) - played 7 seasons
R7.205: DE Lazarius Levingston (0-0-0) - played 2 seasons
R7.242: LB Malcolm Smith (3-0-0) - SB48 MVP; currently on Cleveland’s roster
R1.15: DE Bruce Irvin (5-0-0) - played in 2020; UFA
R2.47: LB Bobby Wagner (9-7-6) - 9 years in and under contract for 2 more
R3.75: QB Russell Wilson (9-7-0) - you know him, you love him ... (still going strong)
R4.106: RB Robert Turbin (0-0-0) - played (parts of) 8 seasons - 82 career games
R4.114: DT Jaye Howard (2-0-0) - played 5 seasons
R5.154: LB Korey Toomer (0-0-0) - played 5 seasons
R6.172: CB Jeremy Lane (1-0-0) - played 6 years, all for Seattle
R6.181: S Winston Guy (0-0-0) - played 5 seasons
R7.225: DT/OG J.R. Sweezy (7-0-0) - played in 2020; UFA
R7.232: DE Greg Scruggs (0-0-0) - played 4 seasons