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Thursday, April 3, 2003
Updated: April 4, 10:36 AM ET
 
Twenty years later, '83 draft still among best
By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

In the eighth round of the 1983 draft, the Chicago Bears selected a little-known defensive end from Tennessee State and, over the next 15 seasons, Richard Dent recorded 137½ sacks, earned a championship ring and was the most valuable player in the franchise's Super Bowl XX victory.

These days, the draft doesn't even have an eighth round, with the process having been dramatically downsized in 1993.

Dan Marino
Dan Marino passed for 61,361 yards in his NFL career.
Truth be told, the 2003 draft probably doesn't have a Richard Dent, either, or even a late-round selection who might approximate the degree of impact he made as he terrorized quarterbacks and offensive left tackles leaguewide.

Twenty years after the fact, the 1983 draft is still regarded by many as the greatest lottery in league history, one that in time should produce as many as six or seven Hall of Fame members. But while that legendary 1983 talent market is largely defined by a first round that included six quarterbacks -- one of whom (Jim Kelly) is already enshrined at Canton and two of whom (John Elway and Dan Marino) will be there within the next two years -- it is also recalled for possessing the kind of rare depth that introduced to the league a player of Dent's ilk.

As late as the final round of the 12-stanza draft, teams were still plucking viable players off the board, as evidenced by the Denver Broncos selection of linebacker Karl Mecklenburg, who played a dozen seasons in the league.

Defensive tackle Tim Krumrie, who played 12 seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals and is currently the Buffalo Bills' defensive line coach, was taken in the 10th round. The eighth round included wide receiver Mark Clayton, one-half of the famed "Marks Brothers" tandem in Miami and still the No. 1 pass-catcher in franchise history. Defensive end Charles Mann, a starter in three Super Bowl games with the Redskins, was a third-round choice.

The headline of that 1983 draft, there's no denying, was the quarterback class of the first round and the trade of Elway, two days after the draft, from the Baltimore Colts to the Denver Broncos. But the headliners from that draft were many as the lottery turned out prospects who went on to make nearly five dozen Pro Bowl appearances.

"That draft," said former Pittsburgh Steelers personnel chief Art Rooney Jr., "had everything you want a draft to have. Great players at the top and solid guys throughout. Teams were still getting really good prospects through the late rounds. Everyone talks about all the quarterbacks (in the first round). I like to talk about all the good players, period, that draft put in the league."

There have been, of course, some memorable lotteries in the 67 years of the draft, especially since the onetime rival AFL and NFL agreed on a common draft in 1967, three years before the entities completed their historic merger.

The '57 draft, for some oldtimers, was a tremendous talent bounty. In more recent years, a 1989 draft that included Barry Sanders, Troy Aikman, Deion Sanders and the late Derrick Thomas, among others in the first round, was a windfall. There have been individual franchises as well, like the Pittsburgh Steelers in '73, which hit the talent mother lode in some years.

But the 1983 draft, in which 15 of the 28 prospects chosen in the first round participated in at least one Pro Bowl contest during their respective careers, remains the benchmark against which all other lotteries are still appraised. The late Jim Finks, the Hall of Fame general manager and renowned roster architect for three different teams during his long league tenure, termed the '83 draft "the gold standard," and few would argue that assessment.

The '83 draft produced more than 80 players who started at least four games as rookies for the teams that selected them. Seven players topped their teams that year as rookies in at least one major statistical category. Eric Dickerson led the league in rushing as a rookie, with 1,808 yards, the signature player in a Los Angeles Rams draft that turned out four major first-year contributors.

"People forget that, in addition to 'Dick,' we also got (wide receiver Henry) Ellard in the second round that year," said then-Rams personnel chief Jack Faulkner. "The guy has numbers that make him one of the top 20 receivers in history. But a lot of teams got rich, both in the first round and beyond in the '83 draft."

Said Jack Bushofsky, who was a pro personnel scout in Tampa Bay in 1983 and is now the Carolina Panthers personnel director: "There was just such a combination of things that happened that year. You had Baltimore trading the top pick, Elway, in the whole draft. There were glamour players at the top of that draft and gritty guys at the bottom. Everything just kind of came together in that draft, somehow all fell into place, you know?"

Two decades later, though, while that '83 lottery has been the most analyzed and celebrated in history, no one can adequately explain why it was such an incredible blockbuster.

The '83 draft came seven years before the NFL revised its rules to permit the inclusion of underclass prospects. It occurred at a time when colleges did not feature the passing game as much as they do now. And while there were some teams using computerized scouting, and upgrading the manner in which prospects were evaluated, the bird-dogging techniques were not as advanced as they later became.

That draft had everything you want a draft to have. Great players at the top and solid guys throughout. Teams were still getting really good prospects through the late rounds. Everyone talks about all the quarterbacks (in the first round). I like to talk about all the good players, period, that draft put in the league.
Art Rooney Jr., former Pittsburgh Steelers personnel chief

Indeed, it seems that the beauty of the '83 draft was that it may have been nothing more than a freak, once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, some sort of a football harmonic convergence that might never be duplicated. Then again, no one knew in 1983 that the draft would be such a threshold event in league history, some coaches and team officials agree in hindsight.

"It's not like everyone went into (the '83 draft) thinking, 'Oh, man, this is going to be an all-timer," said Mike Ditka, whose 1985 championship club included seven starters gleaned from the 1983 lottery, including first-round choices Jimbo Covert and Willie Gault. "There wasn't some conscious deal where we all realized what the heck was going on. I'm sure we prepared the same way for that draft that we did for any other one."

Personnel directors still suggest strongly that there is no such thing as a truly bad draft, that the lottery is what you make of it, that superior scouting will characteristically unearth superior players. But history has indicated the theory is mostly hogwash, a myth perpetuated by scouts, most of whom see the annual event as another chance to validate their skills of perception.

In the case of the 1983 draft, however, the players themselves validated the process. From the top of the first round (Elway) to the final player chosen in the opening stanza (cornerback Darrell Green), and then deep into the later rounds, the draft was a bonanza.

"I think, looking back, part of what made it so great was that it provided the league a lot of competitive players," said former San Francisco star Roger Craig, one of the NFL's premier all-around tailbacks of his era, and a player the 49ers landed in the second round. "Because of all the quarterbacks taken in the first round, you had a feeling that (draft class) might be special. And you wanted to feel special, too, about being a part of it. So if you were a No. 1 pick or a 10th-rounder, you wanted to prove you belonged in that kind of elite company."

It was, for sure, an elite draft class.

Even some prospects who are rarely mentioned from 1983 -- safety Dave Duerson, cornerback Albert Lewis, defensive back Lionel Washington, defensive end Greg Townsend, defensive end Leonard Marshall, guard Tom Thayer and linebackers Darryl Talley and Vernon Maxwell -- all ranked at one point during their careers among the NFL's top players at their position.

Just more than three weeks removed from the 2003 draft, one has to wonder if the latest lottery will even come close to adding the pedigree of prospects who entered the league two decades ago.

In what is generally regarded as a thin '03 draft class, it isn't likely, scouts concur. Then again, chances are good that, even 20 more years from now, the 1983 draft will still be seen as a golden moment in league history.

"I don't think," said Green, who recently announced his retirement from the Washington Redskins, "we'll ever see anything like it again."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.