The 1983 draft: A class to remember

By Craig Ellenport, NFL.com
Special for Profootballhof.com

***This article appeared on NFL.com in 2003 as part of that year’s draft coverage.***

John Elway

Todd Blackledge

Jim Kelly

Tony Eason

Tony Eason

Dan Marino

 John Elway

Todd Blackledge 

Jim Kelly 

Tony Eason 

Ken O'Brien 

Dan Marino 

They say it takes at least five seasons to properly judge a draft class. Fair enough.

That being the case, let's take a look at some of what the 1983 NFL Draft had produced by 1988:

The single-season record holder for passing yards and touchdowns (Dan Marino )
The single-season record holder for rushing yards (Eric Dickerson )
Three quarterbacks who started in the Super Bowl (Marino, John Elway and Tony Eason; Jim Kelly  would later become the fourth)
Seven starters on the Bears' 1985 Super Bowl team, including three-fifths of the offensive line and Super Bowl XX MVP (Richard Dent)
A two-time AFC rushing leader (Curt Warner)
The 1988 leader in receiving yards (Henry Ellard)
The 1984 leader in receiving touchdowns (Mark Clayton)
The 1988 leader in combined scrimmage yards (Roger Craig)

And that's just after five years. It's now been 20 years since the 1983 draft, and there is enough evidence in hindsight to call it perhaps the greatest draft class in NFL history.

Of course, the Class of '83 will be forever known as the "Year of the Quarterback," because of the six signal-callers chosen in Round 1 -- Elway, Marino, Kelly, Eason, Ken O'Brien and Todd Blackledge. But the overall talent produced in that draft -- from top to bottom -- makes the quarterback story just one chapter of a blockbuster tale.

No less than 127 schools were represented in the 1983 draft, ranging from football factories such as USC and Penn State to small schools like Langston and St. Mary's. Here are the schools that had the most players taken that year (first-round picks in parentheses):
School

No. of Picks 

Washington

11

(0)
USC

10

(3)
Clemson

10

(1)
Pittsburgh

9

(3)
Penn State

9

(2)
Arizona State

9

(1)
Miami, Fla.

7

(1)
Nebraska

7

(1)

Two members of the Class of '83 already are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- Kelly and Dickerson. Four others are virtual locks as soon as they become eligible -- Marino, Elway, Bruce Matthews and Darrell Green. Dent and Craig are on the bubble.

Of the 28 players drafted in the first round, 15 made at least one Pro Bowl appearance -- Elway; Dickerson; Warner; Chris Hinton; Jimbo Covert; Terry Kinard; Matthews; Kelly; Joey Browner; Gary Anderson; Gill Byrd; O'Brien; Don Mosebar; Marino; and Green.

Of course, any debate about the greatest draft ever is going to be just that -- a debate. Many observers think this year's draft will go down as one of the best in a long time. And Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who played a pivotal role in the '83 draft when he was GM of the Baltimore Colts, has another year in mind.

"I think that the 1983 draft was one of the best in the history of the NFL, but not as good as the 1957 draft," said Accorsi. "In 1957, 12 clubs selected eight Hall of Famers, including two players -- Jim Brown and Jim Parker  -- who various polls have chosen as the greatest players ever at their positions."

Two teams in 1957, Accorsi pointed out, drafted two Hall of Famers apiece -- Cleveland, with Brown and Henry Jordan and Philadelphia, with Tommy McDonald and Sonny Jurgensen . Not bad.

But what makes the '83 draft impressive is that even after calling out the Hall of Famers and big-name first-round picks, there are more than a dozen other notables who appear in later rounds:

Round 2: Ellard; Craig; Leonard Marshall; Darryl Talley
Round 3: Albert Lewis; Dave Duerson; Charles Mann
Round 4: Tom Thayer; Greg Townsend
Round 5: Riki Ellison
Round 6: Reggie Roby; Babe Laufenberg
Round 8: Dent; Clayton; Mark Bortz
Round 10: Tim Krumrie; Mervyn Fernandez
Round 11: Jesse Sapolu
Round 12: Karl Mecklenburg

Mecklenburg nearly went undrafted in 1983 before the Broncos got him in the 12th and final round. "For a late-rounder, Karl went on to have a really outstanding career as a player with the Denver Broncos," said John Beake, the Broncos' general manager in 1983. Mecklenburg played in six Pro Bowls for the Broncos and surely stands as one of Beake's best late-round gems. "I would say that Karl would have to rank up there," he said.

On the sideline

While Darrell Green, Bruce Matthews and long snapper Trey Junkin were playing in the NFL up until last season, there are a few class of '83 members who are still making an impact in the league.

For instance, eighth-round pick Gary Kubiak was merely a backup most of his career to John Elway in Denver but he still pays dividends to the Broncos as their offensive coordinator.

The Steelers, who did not have a particularly great draft in 1983, nevertheless have benefited in the long run. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey was a ninth-round pick of the 49ers. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Tim Lewis was a first-round pick of the Packers.

Of course, Beake also played a role in what he understandably calls "the greatest trade in the history of the NFL." Elway, the top overall pick by the Colts, was threatening to pursue a pro baseball career unless the Colts traded him. A week after the draft, the Colts traded Elway to the Broncos in exchange for Denver's first-round pick -- offensive tackle Chris Hinton -- a first-rounder in 1984 and quarterback Mark Herrmann.

"That trade goes down as what solidified the Denver Broncos," said Beake, now an executive in the league office. "To have a quarterback and leader with the skill and ability of John Elway, to take the Denver Broncos to five Super Bowls and win two of them."

Twenty years after the fact, Accorsi has no regrets about drafting Elway despite the quarterback's warning that he wouldn't play for the Colts. "I was entrusted with the legacy of the franchise," Accorsi explained. "I simply picked the best player in the country. If the Baltimore franchise was good enough for John Unitas , the greatest quarterback in the history of the league, it was good enough for John Elway."

Accorsi said he was willing to force Elway's hand on the baseball threat, but it was then-owner Bob Irsay who orchestrated the trade to Denver. "I would never have traded him," Accorsi said.  "I would have waited until the next draft if need be and found out how good a baseball player he was."

It's impossible to say what might have happened had Elway not been traded. But with 20 years of hindsight, there is no denying he was part of a historic draft class.

Give it another five years, and we'll see how the class of 2003 stacks up against it.