The Best Ever? The 1996 WR Class
In an earlier post, I broke down the 2008 WR draft class – an odd group insofar as there was no first round receiver, but there has been a fair bit of (late blooming) depth. Today, we look at a the Class of ’96. A WR group which has produced 2 (perhaps 3) soon-to-be Hall Of Famers and a few other good-to-great players. In general, the 1996 draft was very strong. When all is said and done, 1996 might go down as one of the 5 best draft class of all time producing quality players such as Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Zach Thomas, Donnie Edwards, Eddie George, Lawyer Milloy, Tedy Bruschi, La’Roi Glover, Simeon Rice and Willie Anderson. But unlike most draft classes, the strength of the 1996 group came from its wide receivers.
On the surface, it wasn’t set up for a particularly noteworthy year. Since the introduction of the 7 round draft in 1994, there have been an average of 12.7 WR’s taken in the top 3 rounds. 1996 was right around average, with 13 players taken in the 1st-3rd rounds. What separates 1996 from most groups is the unusually low number of early round busts. Even more surprising considering the most hyped of the group never really lived up to expectations.
Every single one of the first round receivers was at least a solid NFL contributor:
Kennison was the least productive of the bunch but still had 8 years with 50+ catches and averaged 49 catches for 750 yards for his first 11 seasons in the league. Johnson came into the league amid a lot of fanfare and was merely “good” instead of the dominant game changer he was projected to be. Glenn never lived up to his early promise, as injuries plagued his career. He still managed to play for 11 seasons and be pretty productive when healthy. Moulds, one of the most under-appreciated WR’s of his time racked up 764 catches for 9,995 yards over 12 seasons. Harrison is clearly atop the 1996 class (perhaps due to playing with Peyton Manning for virtually his entire career), compiling an eye-popping 1102 catches for 14,580 yards and 8 straight Pro Bowl selections.
Unlike most classes, the 1996 first round did not produce a single bust. Every WR selected played for 10+ seasons and every one of them had at least 2 1000 yard receiving seasons. The 2nd round started off with one of the bigger duds of the last 20 years:
Alex Van Dyke taken 31st overall, a 1st round pick by today’s standards, put up 17 catches his rookie year and just 9 in the next 3 years (27 games over that span). Still was only slightly better. Mayes was a total flop in Green Bay, had one nice year in Seattle and was out of the league quickly thereafter. Williams had 30 catches in his 2nd season but was out of the league by 1999. The rest of this group speaks for itself. Toomer had 4 straight 70 catch, 1000 yard seasons and had a very productive 13 year career in New York. Engram was never quite good enough to hold down a #2 receiver spot but still stuck around for 14 seasons. Muhammad quietly amassed an impressive 860 catches for 11,438 yards and led the NFL in receptions (102) in 2000 and receiving yards (1405) and touchdowns (16) in 2004. He has a decent shot at getting into the Hall of Fame although with only 3 1,000 yard seasons it could be tough. Terrell Owens, despite his shenanigans, is one of the most prolific WR’s of all time with a resume which stacks up well against the all time greats (5 time All Pro, 9 1,000 yard seasons, 1,078 catches for 15,934 yards and 153 TD’s).
Of the top 13 receivers selected, only 4 didn’t pan out. The later rounds were almost a complete washout with the exception of 5th rounder Joe Horn (603 catches for 8,744 yards and 58 TD’s) and 2-time Pro Bowl kick returner Jermaine Lewis:
Also in the mix was Reggie Barlow who stuck around as a kick returner/special teamer for awhile. 1-year wonder Patrick Jeffers, who had 63 catches, 1082 yards in 1999 looked like a late-blooming star before a pre-season knee injury in 2000 derailed his career. David Patten was the lone notable undrafted WR in the 1996 rookie class although he spent his first season in the Arena Football League.
Overall, 1996 produced a top-heavy but extraordinarily successful crop of receivers. The best ever? Perhaps. As I hope to show in the next few weeks, there are a few other classes which compare pretty well.
An interesting result of the 1996 receiver class was that the 1997 class of receivers ended up being not only the smallest (only 24 selected compared to an average of 32 in the 16 other drafts from 1994-2010) but also one of the worst. That’s a fairly common trend, a strong class of players (whether by position or in general) followed up by a nearly complete flop.