It seems like just yesterday that football fans were watching the 2020 NFL Draft in the first few weeks of COVID-19-induced quarantines, wondering if the upcoming regular season was even going to be able to happen.
Fast-forward eight months, and the hundreds of players selected in the draft are close to completing their first season in the league.
Throughout the year, fans have become familiar with plenty of the draft class’ biggest names, whether it’s Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, or Washington Football Team defensive end Chase Young.
They saw the rise of players like Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, and the unfortunate injury that ended No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow’s rookie campaign for the Bengals.
Like any rookie class, it’s easy to get blinded by the shininess of the football equivalent of a new car or a newborn baby. The players are fun to talk about, and no matter how they may turn out in future years, they seem like the greatest thing since sliced bread throughout the first year they’re around.
But, something feels different when evaluating the 2020 NFL Draft class. Quarterbacks are getting a shot in a variety of situations across the league, spanning almost every division. Running backs and wide receivers are showing out offensively, when some defensive stars are emerging on the other side of the ball, as well.
Yes, it may seem like recency bias. And yes, like counting the votes on Election Night in 2020, it may simply be too early to make a definitive call.
But, as this year’s rookies finish up their first season, where should they rank in comparison to NFL Draft classes from recent years?
Working backwards, the 2020 NFL Draft classes looks much stronger than 2019’s from an offensive standpoint, and gives the last year of the 2010s a run for its money on defense, as well.
Obviously, the player that stands out the most from 2019 is Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, who has grown (as a football player, as opposed to his height) since his rookie season in Arizona.
In his first year in the league, Murray’s Cardinals went just 5-10-1, finishing last in a competitive NFC West. The Oklahoma alum threw 20 touchdowns with 12 interceptions, and ran in four touchdowns on his own through his 16 starts.
A year later, Murray’s evolution is evident, surpassing his rookie passing touchdown total in just 12 games and throwing less interceptions in the process. Add on 10 more rushing touchdowns in just nine games, and Murray looks like a player who could win league MVP honors in 2021.
Outside of Murray, however, not much stands out from the 2019 NFL Draft. Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown and Seahawks wide receiver D.K. Metcalf have turned into solid options for their respective options, along with players like Washington wideout Terry McLaurin, Chiefs wide receiver/punt returner Mecole Hardman, and 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa.
Quarterbacks faltered in their respective chances, with Washington’s Dwayne Haskins losing his starting job in 2020 and being waived by the team due to off-the-field issues. Giants quarterback Daniel Jones had and continues to have issues with turnovers, while Broncos quarterback Drew Lock struggled to stay healthy.
Chargers quarterback Easton Stick can’t get into a game due to Herbert’s success, and Patriots quarterback Jarrett Stidham can’t supplant Cam Newton as New England’s starter.
If you’re focused on quarterbacks when evaluating a draft class’ worth, the 2018 NFL Draft may be more up your alley.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, the draft’s No. 1 overall pick, held the rookie passing touchdown record for a few years until Herbert tied it in 13 starts and broke it against the Broncos in Week 16. The hype got to Mayfield and his teammates in Cleveland during his sophomore season, but the team bounced back in a big way to become a contender in the AFC North in 2020.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson went 6-1 as a starter in his rookie year, and was named the league MVP in his sophomore season during a 14-2 season.
And, while Bills quarterback Josh Allen took longer to mature as an NFL-level quarterback, he eventually found his footing in his third season as he pushed Buffalo to the top of the AFC East.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, 2018 also serves as the origin of Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Browns running back Nick Chubb, Chargers safety Derwin James, and linebackers like Roquan Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and more.
But, if we’re talking about the mother lode of talent in a single rookie class, look no further than the 2017 NFL Draft.
That draft class can be summarized by one person, who happens to play quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs.
He was named league MVP in 2018 in his first full year in the league, won the Super Bowl with Super Bowl MVP honors a year later, and had the Chiefs looking like the favorite in the AFC once more at the end of the 2020 season.
Through it all, he signed a massive, record-breaking contract extension, tying him to the Chiefs for an additional 10 years for a whopping $503 million.
That man is Patrick Mahomes.
As if that wasn’t enough, the draft class included another star under center in Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, an all-around stud at running back in Christian McCaffrey, a talented defensive end for the Browns in No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett, and superstar safety Jamal Adams (who was traded to the Seahawks in 2020).
Not to mention cornerbacks like Marshon Lattimore for the Saints, Marlon Humphrey for the Ravens and Tre’Davious White for the Bills. You can’t forget about running backs like Dalvin Cook for the Vikings or Alvin Kamara for the Saints, or linebacker T.J. Watt, running back James Conner or wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for the Steelers.
Oh, and how about Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin and Browns running back Kareem Hunt in the third round, or 49ers star tight end George Kittle in the fifth round.
It’s a draft class that could potentially go down as the best in league history when all is said and done for everyone involved, and could feature key contributors to dozens of Super Bowls.
While it isn’t a perfect way to answer the question, if you were to put a team together of the stars of each draft class, 2017 would come out as the clear winner as of December 2020.
2018 has its stars to work with, and 2020 would give each “team” a run for its money despite the squad’s youth. 2019 would likely fall behind in this made-up division’s standings, but could pull out an upset win every now and then.
Even getting away from any head-to-head, team-based-type scenario, the standings/rankings would probably have 2017 at the top, 2018 in second, 2020 in third, and 2019 stuck with the anchor in fourth place.
But, give the 2020 NFL Draft class a year or two more for players like Herbert, Tagovailoa, Burrow and Hurts to fully develop, and allow wide receivers like Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, and Chase Claypool the chance to get more reps in their respective offenses.
Let players on the other side of the ball like Young, Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons, 49ers’ defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, or Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen get some reps in their systems.
Most importantly, just allow fans the chance to see the fruits of each player’s labor, and it could create an even tougher debate when evaluating each of the draft classes to come out of recent years in NFL history.