The Packers of today are known as one of the best drafting teams in the NFL. And while that hasn’t always been the case (*cough* Mandarich), they have been pretty successful when it comes to loading a team up with talent in a single year.
With the draft done, the undrafted free agents signed, and with rookie minicamp underway, now is the time to look back at the greatest Packers draft classes of all time. We’ll count down the Top 15 classes starting from the top.
Get started with a blast from the past. After the departure of Curly Lambeau the Packers needed new blood and they needed to start to change with the times. And that meant building up the middle at center at quarterback as they continued to learn the T-formation. QB Tobin Rote became a very good player in the 2nd round, one of the best dual threat QBs in early league history and first round pick Clayton Tonnemaker was awarded some sort of post season award every year he was in the league. Sadly, he only played from 1950-1954 seasons due to military service and then went into coaching.
This was a class with great depth, which was great since the top two picks didn’t work for different reasons. Terrell Buckley (Round 1) was a colossal flop as the fifth pick. Second round pick Mark D’Onofrio had a ton of talent but a neck injury ended his career in the preseason before that year. But three key starters from the Super Bowl XXXI championship team came from this draft in WR Robert Brooks (Round 3), RB Edgar Bennett (Round 4), and TE Mark Chmura (Round 6). All were strong, steady, and in the case of Brooks, high-flying members of the great offense of 1996 and each has their place in the Packer Hall of Fame.
The very next season continued with the depth being built up as well as the drafting of a player who would change the fortunes of another franchise. Wayne Simmons, as the first pick of the team, was a solid player who did his job well for the Packers for a number of years. George Teague, taken with the second first round pick, was all right, but better in Dallas. But the middle rounds…they were very strong. Longtime tackle Earl Dotson went in Round 3. CB Doug Evans went in Round 6. And faithful backup “Scooby” Kuberski went in Round 7. But the best player from this draft didn’t even make a mark in Green Bay. Third round pick Mark Brunell became the savior of Jacksonville after his acquisition by the expansion team and almost took them to a Super Bowl appearance in their early stages. Even though he wasn’t a Packer for long, the other guys taken along with Brunell make this a good class.
Another draft of incredible depth and proof of the genius of Ron Wolf. He kept building and building until he got a juggernaut a year after this draft, and some of these picks made an impact right away. Six of them eventually started for the team, starting with first round pick Craig Newsome. With Tyrone Williams and Doug Evans, he made a good CB trio during the mid-90s. Darius Holland (Rd 3) was solid, but four gems came from then on. Later in Round 3, a trio of Packers joined the ranks and each became a starter almost instantly. FB William Henderson would become the steady block of granite, paving holes for back after back. LB Brian Williams held down the outside, and WR Antonio Freeman became one of the most well-rounded receivers in the game. Throw in special teams ace and all around kook Travis Jervey and starting G Adam Timmerman and Ron Wolf knocked one out of the park in ‘95
This draft, while not as deep nor as abundant as the ones ranked below it, had two key factors. One of them became one of the greatest defensive backs in recent memory, and one won defensive player of the year the year after he left. Bryce Paup was a solid player for the Pack and a steal in the 6th round. But the real gem of this class that puts it ahead of the early 90s drafts was 2nd round pick LeRoy Butler. What a safety he was. There was nothing like him in the NFL in the 90s. He could cover and play centerfield yet he would still come up and blitz. Until he got hurt in 2001, he was arguably the best safety in football. If he had stayed healthy, I have no doubt he would have a plaque in Canton right now.
Another steady and deep class from Ron Wolf, this class produced two current Packer Hall of Famers and will include a third in the next couple of years. Bubba Franks was a decent TE for a first round pick and was a good red zone target. And Na’il Diggs was a consistent, steady weakside linebacker for a stretch in the Sherman era. But it’s Chad Clifton (Rd 2), his tackle partner Mark Tauscher (Rd 7), and the pass rush force Kabber Gbaja-Biamila (Rd 5) that make this class extraordinary. Those three were all consistent forces on the trenches for the Packers and Clifton and Tauscher stayed mainstays in the Super Bowl XLV team in 2010. A great class for lineman for Ron Wolf.
This draft created two really good players in John Anderson (Rd 1) and Mike Douglass (Rd 5), but it’s the selection of James Lofton with their first pick in Round 1 that puts this draft so high in my rankings. One of the greatest deep receivers of all-time, Lofton was the perfect receiver for the deep bombs of Lynn Dickey and he was a record-setter from the time he was selected until he retired. With the exception of Don Hutson, there was no receiver who was better in Green and Gold than Lofton.
And we get to Ted Thompson now. While this draft had some major misses (Brian Brohm), it had four big hits. In Round 7, Matt Flynn became the perfect backup to another QB we will get to later, and Jermichael Finley (Rd 3) showed signs of become the next great tight end before injuries struck. But the two Pro Bowlers, Josh Sitton (Rd 4) and Jordy Nelson (Rd 2) make this class great. Both have been near the top of their positions for the past half-decade and neither looks like they’re slowing down. And each was a key in a championship and will be in the Packer Hall of Fame not long after they retire.
We finally get to the glory years of Lombardi, and this draft was a doozy for the defense. Lionel Aldridge became a run-stuffing beast out of the 4th round, and Marv Fleming was a very strong TE in the 11th. But the prize here is the Hall of Famer Dave Robinson. The rangy linebacker was arguably the most athletic guy on the team, the same size as Willie Davis with twice the range. He complemented the mania of Nitschke perfectly and was a pure playmaker. Without him, the Packer defense isn’t the same. His induction into Canton was long overdue and it cements this draft class in Packer lore.
Back into Curly Lambeau, this draft had exactly one name that people know, but that man was a huge part of the 1944 champions and has his number retired. The “Grey Ghost” Tony Canadeo came to the team in Round 7 out of Gonzaga and never looked back, becoming the first Packer to rush for 1000 yards and carrying the team with Don Hutson into a championship while also serving in the military. He deserves his spot in Canton and to have his number raised above Lambeau Field. He defined the 1940s for the team and was a superstar in a league that didn’t have many.
This was the third draft to be scouted and organized by legendary scout Jack Vainisi, and he hit this one with a bang during the dead era of the 50s. First round pick Babe Parilli was a decent QB, but 2nd Round WR Billy Howton broke some of Don Hutson’s records during his career and is a big omission from Canton. Throw in fellow Canton snub Bobby Dillon in Round 3 (still the team interception leader with one eye), longtime player and coach Dave “Hawg” Hanner in Round 5, and starting defensive end Deral Teteak in Round 9, this draft was solid from top to bottom and showed that the Packers had talent even if the product on the field didn’t always show it.
The very next year Vainisi did it again. Al Carmichael became a good running back and Packer Hall of Famer in Round 1, and Bill Forester became a mentor and leader for Nitschke. And don’t forget Roger “Zany” Zatkoff in Round 5, One of the meanest player in NFL history. But the prize in this draft was 7th Round pick Jim Ringo. The leader of some great offensive lines, he became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was the lynchpin of the early 60s Packers lines. A steal for the residents of Lambeau.
Not too much came from this draft after Round 2. Sure Brady Poppinga was all right, but those two picks in the beginning were spectacular for Ted Thompson. Nick Collins was on a Hall of Fame track when he broke his neck in 2011, and of course Aaron Rodgers famously fell into our laps at pick 24. And Ted had the stones to turn in that name despite having a Hall of Famer already on the roster. The rest is history. Rodgers has become one of the greatest QBs in history, and only the lack of depth in this draft kept it from being #1.
Vainisi again. This guy was a savant for scouting the middle rounds. Two hall of famers in this class, another guy who his QB has been clamoring for, and a solid defensive back all came from this class. Hank Gremminger (Rd 7) started for a couple of years and was a good all-around safety during the glory years, but it’s the tackles and passer that set this draft apart. Bob Skoronski (Rd 5), the captain of the offense and the blindside protector of his draftmate, was underrated and undervalued by many. But the two superstars, tackle Forrest Gregg (Rd 2), and Bart Starr (Rd 17) are what make this class absolutely legendary. Arguable in the Top 5 of all time at both their positions, these two shaped this team for their amazing run in the next decade.
Finally, we get to the greatest class of all. No surprises here, two Hall of Famers, one who should be in, and a longtime starter make up not just the greatest class in Packer history, one of the greatest in NFL history. Dan Currie (Rd 1) was solid and a good leader and tackler, but he is overshadowed by Jim Taylor (Rd 2), Ray Nitschke (Rd 3) and Jerry Kramer (Rd 4). Taylor and Nitschke are in Canton, and deservedly so. Taylor was a superstar battering ram and Nitschke arguable the greatest linebacker of all-time. And everyone except the voters agree that Kramer should have joined them for over 40 years. Hands down, this was the best work Jack Vainisi ever did.——————
Mike Wendlandt is originally from Iola, Wisconsin and graduated from Drake University in 2015 with a degree in History. With a significant journalism background both in writing and broadcasting, Mike can be heard as the play-by-play voice of Central Wisconsin High School sports on WDUX FM 92.7 and on Twitter @MikeWendlandt.
Mike Wendlandt is a writer covering the Green Bay Packers for PackersTalk.com.