The NFL is the league that never sleeps, and with the draft coming up, there's lots of chatter regarding the "best" drafts ever. I won't argue with draft experts because they know more than I do, but there is a way that we can effectively measure drafts. Pro-football-reference.com has data available on every NFL draft since 1936, and include two metrics on their charts:
CarAV-- Career Approximate Value (will be shortened to CAV from here on)
DrAV--the Career Approximate Value that the drafted player accumulated for the drafting team
I rooted around and can't find how they calculate Approximate Value, and I'm not sure I really care--what matters to me is that we can rank drafts using these values. Accept or reject them, but they are a yardstick.
In all cases (unless otherwise noted), I only use the first seven rounds of the draft. Since the NFL went to a seven round draft in 1994, it's not fair to use straight sums, even though we can safely assume that the vast majority of players drafted in the eighth round or lower prior to 1993 was very small (and I'll quantify that at some point), using seven rounds only allows for a similar point of reference. With that, this chart shows the best drafts in NFL history, as ranked by the CAV measure:
Some recognition of expansion needs to be acknowledged, so this includes only drafts from 1980 on. To explain, in 1993, there were 196 picks in the first seven rounds, and those players had a cumulative Career Approximate Value of 4,374, or an average of 22.3. The QB-rich draft of 1983 was right on its heels.
Some of the marquis players in that 1993 draft were Michael Strahan (121 CAV), Drew Bledsoe (103 CAV) and Hall of Famer Willie Roaf (101 CAV). Other notables included Jerome Bettis, Mark Brunell, Lincoln Kennedy and Garrison Hearst. By using this measure, steady is preferred to stellar. For example, the 1985 draft included Jerry Rice (160), Bruce Smith (143) and Chris Doleman (112), Hall of Famers all, but didn't have a broad base of success as a draft class. It's not a perfect measure, but it allows for meaningful comparisons.
This next chart shows two things--the best drafts by each franchise for all time, and also since 1980. For relocated teams, where they currently reside is the place shown:
I meant to rank this, but no matter, you can do that on your own. According to the CAV measure, the Packers 1958 draft was the best ever. It included first round pick LB Dan Currie (60 CAV), second round pick RB Jim Taylor (103 CAV) and third round pick LB Ray Nitschke (110 CAV), absolutely nothing wrong with those choices. The second-best was the Steelers draft of 1987, with solid pros Rod Woodson (140 CAV), Hardy Nickerson (122 CAV) and Greg Lloyd (89 CAV), with Nickerson and Lloyd going in the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively.
For those teams that had their best drafts prior to 1980, the right-hand columns list their best drafts since 1980. As you check those drafts, you'll find that the best aren't usually when the biggest stars were drafted, but when a solid core of players that lasted 8-10 years were picked. The Patriots 2000 draft doesn't rank well even though it includes Tom Brady because it didn't have many other players with sustained players.
I'll show one more table, which shows how NFL teams rank since 2002 in cumulative draft CAVs (scroll down a bit):
There's a pretty solid correlation between success over the past 11 years and how well these teams have drafted. I've paid less attention to the Draft AV column, since in the free agent era it's more difficult for teams to hang onto every player they want, but it sure helps if a team can keep the players they draft, especially if they're good. San Diego in particular was particularly hit, losing both Philip Rivers and Eli Manning, but they still drafted extremely well in the past 11 years. There's little doubt that effective drafting is a key component to NFL success, and this buttresses that.