No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker started the run, and by the time Thursday’s first round was over, five members of college football’s top scoring defense had their names called. It was the first time in NFL history that one college defense had sent five first-rounders to the league in a single draft.
By the end of the weekend, Georgia had set another record. Using Chase Stuart’s draft value chart, which uses historical performance to measure the value of each individual pick, NFL teams had used more draft capital on Georgia’s defense than any other offense or defense in a single draft since the 1970 merger. It was a special ending for a special defense.
Figuring this out also got me thinking about other mega-classes from years past. On paper, Georgia’s five first-round picks and seven picks in the top 102 have special qualities, but that was also probably true for super-offenses and super-defenses from other years. How often did those college stars deliver on their pre-draft promise? Were they more likely to succeed than typical draft picks?
With that in mind, I calculated the draft capital spent on each offensive and defensive draft class by school going back through 1970, then broke down the 15 most expensive classes. Several of them are still a work in progress, but we have enough of a sample to get insight into whether they succeed more or less often than typical draftees.
I’ll report my findings after running through those 15 programs, and I’ll be honest: I was surprised by what I found!
Keep in mind that the year listed for these schools is the year of the draft where these players were selected, not their year at school. The 2022 Georgia defensive class, for example, consists of players from the 2021 Bulldogs. Since the draft used to be longer than seven rounds, the Stuart chart considers all draft picks after the 224th selection to be worth zero points. I’ll focus on discussing players drafted in the first and second rounds in these blurbs, but I’ll mention players taken afterward if they’re notable.
Let’s begin with another great defense, highlighted by a player who spent a year out of football before excelling as a pro:
Jump to the end:
Players selected: Eight (two first-rounders)
Best player: Safety Tyrann Mathieu (No. 69)
This draft class sent much of the dominant 2011 LSU defense to the league outside of Morris Claiborne and Michael Brockers, who were taken in the first round of the 2012 draft. The defense wasn’t quite as effective in 2012, with the Tigers dropping from second in the country in scoring defense to 12th, but six of the top 100 picks in 2013 were LSU defenders.
The most productive player from this class didn’t suit up for the Tigers at all in 2012, as Mathieu was dismissed from the program in August of that year. He was arrested on possession of marijuana charges shortly thereafter, which led the dynamic playmaker to fall to the Cardinals in the third round. Mathieu has been a model pro and one of the best safeties in football despite tearing each of his ACLs early in his run with the Cardinals. He has been the most notable defender of this bunch.
The first-rounders in this class were Barkevious Mingo (No. 6), who was never able to establish himself as more than a special-teamer, and Eric Reid (18), who struggled with injuries amid otherwise solid play. Kevin Minter (45) and Bennie Logan (67) played rotational roles, but fellow third-rounder Sam Montgomery (95) was cut by the Texans halfway through his rookie season and never played an NFL down.
Mathieu would have surely been drafted higher if it weren’t for the off-field issues that ended his college career, but he is the only player from this class who turned into a star.
Players selected: Five (two first-rounders)
Best player: Quarterback Vinny Testaverde (No. 1)
This is really about two players. One is Testaverde, who had one of the most unique careers in NFL history. He started six straight seasons to begin his career in Tampa Bay without posting an above-average passer rating. After leaving for Cleveland at age 30, Testaverde then posted five above-average seasons, including a dominant year while going 12-1 for the 1998 Jets. Testaverde tore his Achilles in the opener the following season but still started three more seasons, including a passable performance as a 41-year-old for the Cowboys in 2004. He ended up being a useful pro player, just not for the Buccaneers.
Miami also sent the No. 3 overall pick to the league in running back Alonzo Highsmith, who seems like a bizarre choice in hindsight, given that the 234-pound back had failed to top 500 rushing yards in either of his final two college seasons. Highsmith held out for several months, filed suit against the league for conspiracy to fix salaries and didn’t live up to expectations after eventually signing in Houston. He ran for 1,103 yards across three seasons with the Oilers before being traded to the Cowboys; knee issues ended his career at age 27 before he eventually became a personnel executive in the NFL.
The Highsmith selection feels like it comes from another era, but even by the standards of the 1980s, the bruising back wasn’t able to translate his college success to the pro level. Center Gregg Rakoczy (No. 32), drafted in the second round, started three seasons with the Browns before being waived. This class is carried by Testaverde, who was was much better as a free agent than a draft pick.
Players selected: Four (three first-rounders)
Best player: Offensive tackle Trent Williams (No. 4)
Here’s another example of a team with a quarterback coming off the board first overall and another player in the top five. The quarterback in this package was Sam Bradford, the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner who had missed most of his final season at Oklahoma with a shoulder injury before an impressive pro day led the Rams to draft him.
Injuries limited Bradford to two 16-game seasons in nine years in the NFL, while subpar supporting casts with the Rams limited his effectiveness. His best season came with the Vikings in 2016, although he threw just 123 passes over two ensuing campaigns. As the last of the No. 1 overall quarterbacks drafted before the league instituted its draft slotting formula, Bradford took home more than $130 million in his career.
Bradford’s left tackle has been far more successful, as Williams has made nine Pro Bowls over his past 10 seasons. The exception came in 2019, when he held out for the entire season to force a trade out of Washington. He was eventually traded to the 49ers, and after re-signing with them in free agency last year, he was almost universally regarded as the best tackle in football last season. Williams hasn’t played a full season since 2013, but he has become a prototypical left tackle when healthy.
The other first-rounder was tight end Jermaine Gresham (No. 21), who made two Pro Bowls during a solid career. Bradford would be considered a disappointment, but Williams and Gresham lived up to expectations. I’d expect Williams to garner Hall of Fame consideration, especially if the 33-year-old continues to play at this level in a high-profile 49ers offense.
Players selected: Six (four first-rounders)
Best player: Cornerback Antonio Cromartie (No. 19)
Like the LSU defense from 2013, the 2004 Florida State defense was actually better than the 2005 unit, with the former ranking fourth in the country in scoring defense. Bobby Bowden’s defense eventually sent six first-rounders to the league from that team, with the four from this year’s class joined by Travis Johnson and Lawrence Timmons.
The player who emerged from the pack was Cromartie, who was drafted in the middle of the first round despite missing the entire 2005 season with a torn ACL. He was a part-time player as a rookie for the Chargers before breaking out with a 10-interception season in 2007. He never picked off more than four passes in a season again, but he spent a decade as a good, sometimes very good starting cornerback. For a player who came into the league with injury concerns, Cromartie missed just two games across his first 10 seasons.
The other first-rounders weren’t quite as exciting, even if they had NFL careers. Linebacker Ernie Sims (No. 9) racked up tackles on bad Detroit defenses but wasn’t great in coverage. Edge defender Kamerion Wimbley (No. 13) had 11 sacks as a rookie with the Browns, but he never topped double digits again and settled in as a solid rotational rusher. Brodrick Bunkley (No. 14) was also closer to solid than spectacular as a run-plugging defensive tackle for the Eagles. This class turned out just fine, but Cromartie was the only one to make a Pro Bowl.
Players selected: Three (three first-rounders)
Best player: Quarterback Kerry Collins (No. 5)
This is one of the weirder draft classes in league history. Just three players were taken on the offensive side of the ball from the Nittany Lions in 1995, but those three were all taken among the top nine picks. They went in extremely different directions as pros.
The No. 1 overall pick was running back Ki-Jana Carter, who had rushed for 1,539 yards and 23 touchdowns in his final season at school. Sadly, he tore his ACL on his third preseason carry and missed the 1995 season. After returning, Carter averaged just 3.3 yards per carry across four additional seasons with the Bengals, two of which were marred by further injuries. Carter was the 20th running back to be selected with the top pick in the draft, but no team has taken a running back there since.
Collins immediately took over as the starter for the expansion Panthers and made the Pro Bowl in his second season, as a dominant defense dragged Carolina to 12-4 and a division title. Collins quit the team midway through his fourth season. The two-time Pro Bowler would go on to be a starter for the Giants, Raiders and Titans before retiring in 2011. Like Testaverde, he was a better player than he was a draft pick.
Kyle Brady is perhaps most notable for perplexing Bill Belichick, as the tight end expected Belichick’s Browns to take him with the No. 10 pick, only for the Jets to trade up and grab him at No. 9. The Browns then traded out of the pick and got two first-rounders; Belichick used the first on Craig Powell, who never started a pro game. He was fired by the time the then-Ravens were able to use the other first-round pick, which became Ray Lewis.
Brady didn’t live up to expectations, as he ended up as a very good blocking tight end without making a significant dent as a receiver. He finally made his way to a Belichick-led team in 2007, when he was part of the 16-0 Patriots that lost to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. None of these three picks turned out the way their drafting teams would have hoped.
Players selected: Five (three first-rounders)
Best player: Running back Jerome Bettis (10th overall)
We’ve got a Hall of Famer! I have my issues with The Bus getting in ahead of more impressive candidates at less glamorous positions, but Bettis made six Pro Bowl teams in 13 seasons as a bruising power back. Only three of those seasons came with the Rams, as Bettis was dealt to the Steelers after the Rams drafted Nebraska’s Lawrence Phillips with the No. 6 overall pick in 1996 and planned on moving Bettis to fullback. Pittsburgh got Bettis for a swap of midround picks, and Bettis promptly ran for 10,571 yards over the next decade.
Bettis actually split time at Notre Dame with Reggie Brooks (No. 45), who immediately ran off a 1,085-yard season with Washington before struggling with injuries. Tight end Irv Smith (20), father of the current Vikings starter, spent seven years with the Saints, 49ers and Browns without topping 500 receiving yards.
The most notable player from this class was Rick Mirer (2), who was part of a debate for the Patriots at No. 1. New England chose Drew Bledsoe, leaving the Seahawks to draft Mirer. After finishing second in the Offensive Rookie of the Year race behind Bettis, Mirer struggled and failed to post a single above-average passer rating during his time in the NFL. He eventually started 68 games, but he was a replacement-level passer.
Players selected: Five (four first-rounders)
Best player: Offensive tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. (No. 10)
It should be no surprise any Alabama team under Nick Saban sent a bunch of players to the NFL, but consider the 2019 Crimson Tide offense has now sent 10 first-round picks to next level. That list includes two quarterbacks, four wide receivers and three offensive linemen. In 2019, Alabama ranked second in the country in scoring offense despite losing Tua Tagovailoa to a hip injury; it was the rare season in which the Bama defense lagged behind its offense.
Results are mixed for the five players who were drafted here. Tagovailoa’s (No. 5) first two seasons in Miami have been compromised by injuries and dismal offensive line play; he is entering a make-or-break 2022. Jerry Jeudy (15) has likewise battled injuries and quarterback issues and has much to prove after the Broncos acquired Russell Wilson. Henry Ruggs III (12) will likely never play again after he was involved in a vehicle crash that left a woman dead; he faces felony driving under the influence and reckless driving charges.
Wills is the star of the group, a plug-and-play left tackle who has been excellent when on the field for the Browns. I didn’t include him here since he spent his final season at Oklahoma, but second-rounder Jalen Hurts (53) has exceeded expectations and emerged as a solid starter for the Eagles. If Tagovailoa and Jeudy take the step forward many expect this season, this would be a productive class from Saban and his small city of coaches.
Players selected: Six (three first-rounders)
Best player: Safety Donte Whitner (No. 8)
Five total Buckeyes were drafted in the first round of the 2006 draft, and the best player of the bunch was actually an offensive player in longtime Jets center Nick Mangold (No. 29). The 2005 Ohio State defense included a pair of eventual pro standouts in James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins, but they were freshmen on that roster.
The three first-rounders coming from the defensive side topped out as good pros, in part because the league changed after they arrived. Whitner and A.J. Hawk (5) were both better against the run than they were against the pass, but with the NFL shifting toward more and more passing after the 2007 Patriots changed the league, those players probably wouldn’t have been drafted so highly. Whitner ended up refining his game and making a pair of Pro Bowls for the Vic Fangio-era 49ers defenses.
Hawk spent nine years as a starter in Green Bay, but he was an object of frustration for fans as his time with the organization went on. Fellow linebacker Bobby Carpenter (18) ended up as a rare miss for the Cowboys, who never saw him develop into more than a special-teamer. I don’t think any of these teams would have taken these players again at their respective draft spots.
Players selected: Seven (three first-rounders)
Best player: Wide receiver Justin Jefferson (No. 22)
Well, you’re probably pretty familiar about how this draft has gone so far. Justin Jefferson has emerged as arguably the league’s best young wide receiver, with his primary competition as Ja’Marr Chase, who ran routes alongside Jefferson for the Tigers in 2019. Their quarterback was Joe Burrow (No. 1), who just led Chase and the Bengals to the Super Bowl. I have Jefferson just ahead of Burrow because the latter missed a good amount of his rookie season with a serious knee injury, but they are obviously picks the Vikings and Bengals, respectively, would make again.
Things haven’t gone quite as well outside of the top two. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (32) has looked ordinary for the Chiefs after being drafted ahead of Jonathan Taylor. Third-round pick Damien Lewis (69) has become a solid run-blocker for the Seahawks, which gives us three Tigers who look to be delivering on their expectations coming into the NFL. We’re only two years in, but this feels like one of the more successful draft classes of the top 15.
Randy Moss was delighted to autograph Justin Jefferson’s custom cleats that paid homage to Moss.
Players selected: Eight (three first-rounders)
Best player: Tight end Charle Young (No. 6)
Let’s go from a class everyone can remember dominating in college to one that’s slightly less familiar. The 1972 Trojans went 12-0 and won the national title, so it’s no surprise NFL teams wanted to pick apart the nation’s third-best scoring offense. Their primary quarterback was Mike Rae (No. 205), who was drafted in the eighth round and started eight pro games. Offensive linemen Pete Adams and Jeff Winans were drafted at Nos. 22 and 32, respectively, but Winans only started one season, while Adams was limited by injuries to two pro seasons.
The top of the class was better without being spectacular. Sam Cunningham (11) made it to one Pro Bowl in a 10-year career as a solid fullback for the Patriots, while Young was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie and made it to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons, but then never made it back. Young and Cunningham lived up to expectations without exceeding them, but the rest of the class was a disappointment.
Players selected: Six (three first-rounders)
Best player: Defensive end Joey Bosa (No. 3)
For the second time in a row with an Ohio State team, the offensive side of the ball might have been more spectacular than what this group delivered on defense. On offense, the Buckeyes delivered Ezekiel Elliott to the Cowboys at No. 4, Taylor Decker to the Lions (No. 16) and Michael Thomas to the Saints (47). We can debate the Elliott selection and whether the Cowboys should have selected Jalen Ramsey instead, but Elliott was everything the Cowboys would have hoped for, especially during his rookie deal.
The defensive side of the ball for the 12-1 Buckeyes starts with Bosa, who had a promise from the Chargers and famously tanked an interview with the Browns by wearing sweatpants. Bosa is one of the best edge rushers in football, but fellow first-rounders Eli Apple (10) and Darron Lee (20) didn’t live up to expectations for the Giants and Jets. Second-rounder Vonn Bell (61) was better for the Saints and joined Apple on the Bengals’ defense a year ago, but third-rounder Adolphus Washington (80) was out of the league by 2018 and fourth-rounder Joshua Perry (102) lasted one season with the Chargers. The hit rate here on defense was below 50/50, even if Bosa emerged as a star.
Players selected: Seven (three first-rounders)
Best player: Defensive tackle Mike Kadish (No. 25)
We’re back to the 1970s for the last time, as the Fighting Irish’s fourth-ranked defense sent three of the top 25 picks to the NFL. The best player of the bunch was Kadish, who was drafted by that undefeated 1972 Miami team but never actually played for the Dolphins. Kadish had a nine-year career with the Bills as a starting interior disruptor, although he never made a Pro Bowl.
Kadish being the best player from this class probably tells you how it went. The No. 1 pick was another Bills player in Walt Patulski, who managed 21.5 (unofficial) sacks over four seasons before joining the Rams. He played only 70 career games. Clarence Ellis (No. 15) spent three seasons with the Falcons before suffering a career-ending knee injury while playing basketball. The other four players never suited up for an NFL game. This was probably the worst case example for the Georgia draft class; I don’t think any of these teams would make these selections again.
Players selected: Seven (three first-rounders)
Best player: Defensive end Chase Young (No. 2)
It’s too early to judge any draft class from 2020 in full, but it’s not looking great for these Buckeyes. I’m saying that assuming Young returns to his rookie form after struggling and then tearing his ACL in Year 2, but even the 7.5 sacks and 12 knockdowns Young recorded in 2020 were on the low end of expectations. Young could have a big year in 2022, but if he doesn’t, this class could be worrisome.
Outside of Young, the best player from this draft class might be Rams sixth-round pick Jordan Fuller (No. 199), who has stepped in as a solid starter before missing Los Angeles’ run to the Super Bowl with an ankle injury. The guys between Young and Fuller haven’t impressed. Jeff Okudah (3) struggled badly as a rookie before tearing his left Achilles last season. Damon Arnette (19) had his own issues as a rookie before being released after brandishing a gun in a video. Third-rounders Malik Harrison (98) and DaVon Hamilton (73) have been rotation players. It’s Young (and Fuller) or bust with this class.
Players selected: Eight (two first-rounders)
Best player: Running back Reggie Bush (No. 2)
The majority of this Trojans class spent three years together at school, during which they went 37-2 under coach Pete Carroll. They ranked fifth, sixth and second in the country in scoring offense over that three-year span. This was a dominant offense over a multi-year sample playing in a modern, pro-style scheme. If any legendary group of talent should have been easy to evaluate and translate to the pro game, it should have been the 2005 Trojans.
And yet, this class was disappointing. Despite sending five of the top 45 picks to the NFL, this class did not produce a single Pro Bowl appearance. Bush, long-expected to be the No. 1 pick, even fell a spot to one of the best possible fits for his skill set in Sean Payton’s Saints. Bush became a productive third-down back and had some solid seasons as the lead runner in Miami, but he was never even a top-10 back by fantasy points in the NFL. Backfield mate LenDale White (No. 45) had a 15-touchdown season in 2008 before giving way to Chris Johnson and suffering a torn Achilles in 2010.
The running backs were the highlight of the class. Matt Leinart (10) threw 21 interceptions across 18 career starts and posted a passer rating of 70.2. Offensive linemen Winston Justice (39) and Deuce Lutui (41) were both out of the NFL before turning 30, although Lutui did start six seasons for the Cardinals and Titans. Tight end Dominique Byrd (93) had six career catches. It would be tough to argue any of the players from this class lived up to expectations.
Players selected: Seven (five first-rounders)
Best player: Wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (No. 6)
And for the most robust draft class in history before Georgia, we have to go all the way back to … 2021, when Alabama became the first offense in post-merger league history to send five first-rounders to the NFL in the same draft. Georgia just followed by becoming the first defense to do the same thing.
It’s too early to judge this class as a whole, but the Crimson Tide alums are off to a great start. Waddle racked up 1,015 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie, while fellow wideout DeVonta Smith (No. 10) made it to 916 yards and five scores. Quarterback Mac Jones (15) was a Week 1 starter for the Patriots and posted a league-average season, which is impressive for a rookie lacking spectacular weapons.
Offensive lineman Landon Dickerson (37) held his own in 13 starts for the Eagles, and while Najee Harris (24) failed to break four yards per carry, his 1,667 yards from scrimmage were enough for a trip to the Pro Bowl. The only notable disappointment was offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood (17), who was underwhelming in his debut season with the Raiders. Vegas eventually kicked him inside to guard after an ugly start to the season, although Leatherwood will hope for a fresh start now that Josh McDaniels has taken over as coach.
1. College football is concentrating into super offenses and defenses.
Three of the four largest outlays of draft capital since the merger are for offenses or defenses from the last three seasons of college football. Nine of the top 50 classes by draft capital have come over the past five seasons’ worth of drafts. Some of those results are a product of uber-recruiting, but we’ve also seen lesser prospects elevate after being around dominant talent; consider that Mac Jones was a three-star recruit before eventually joining Alabama and turning into a first-round pick.
I would guess the transition into the NIL era will only further exacerbate those gaps and create more super offenses or defenses in the years to come. We’ll see what happens, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Alabama, Georgia or their rivals send another five first-rounder class on offense or defense to the league in the years to come.
2. Lesser players from these groups rarely break out into stars.
I focused on mentioning the first- and second-round players from these teams — and later-round picks don’t often break out into standout contributors — but I was struck by how rarely players after the third round from these classes turned into starters. Of the 25 players who were drafted outside of the top three rounds from these units, just two (Fuller and Florida State safety Pat Watkins) recorded even a single season as his team’s primary starter. Fuller is the only one to turn into a multi-year starter.
I would be hesitant to take players on these rosters who fall into the later rounds of the draft, if only because they were likely surrounded by superior talent or locked into a limited role during their time at school. Having succeeded with Fuller, the Rams took another shot on the one Georgia player who qualifies here by taking Derion Kendrick (No. 212) in the sixth round.
3. Overall, these super teams have produced disappointing results in the NFL.
We’re still evaluating the more recent classes, and the 2020 LSU draft class on offense might turn out to be something truly special, but these drafts typically failed to live up to expectations. There’s one Hall of Famer in the bunch with Bettis. Of the 31 first-rounders with at least five seasons in the league, only 10 managed to make it to a Pro Bowl. The No. 1 overall picks — Patulski, Testaverde, Carter and Bradford — disappointed.
Does all of this mean that Georgia’s defenders will fail to look like the stars we’re expecting at the next level? Not necessarily. What I would keep in mind, though, is how much more difficult it will be for each individual player from this group to excel at the pro level. These Bulldogs were lucky enough to play on a defense full of stars against often overmatched, inferior offenses. They’ll be playing against tougher competition and won’t have the same sort of talent advantage across their defense at the next level.
The issue in projecting a superteam such as Georgia’s defense isn’t all that much different from the issues with projecting any player or team to the next level. As tempting as it is to look at a player on tape and be confident in what you see translating (or not translating) to the NFL, the reality is much more complicated. Players aren’t busts or hits in a vacuum. So much of what happens comes down to where players end up and whether they’re able to stay healthy. The stars aligned in Georgia and delivered one of the best defenses in the history of college football. Now, the stars will have to align a second time for Walker, Davis & Co. to excel at the next level.