News & Analysis

Best draft classes from the 2019 NFL season

While you can’t fully evaluate a draft class until after their rookie contracts have expired, that doesn’t mean you can’t update your opinions as we gain more data points.

The point of this isn’t to discern who got the most talent from their draft classes — as that would skew heavily towards those who accumulated more draft capital — but rather those who got the best return for the picks they had.

1. Tennessee Titans

Top Picks:
Pick No. Player Position PFF grade
19 Jeffery Simmons DI 70.4
51 A.J. Brown WR 84.0
82 Nate Davis G 41.2
116 Amani Hooker S 66.0

Jeffery Simmons was always going to fall in the draft after tearing his ACL around this time last year, but now that he’s back healthy, he looked comfortably the second-best defensive tackle in the class behind Dexter Lawrence over the second half of the year. He earned a 70.4 overall grade on 315 snaps.

While Simmons will be a big piece of their defense come playoff time, the real kicker here is A.J. Brown. Selected mid-way through the second round, Brown would be a top-five lock if every team were able to get a re-do today. The first-year pass-catcher has displayed all the skills necessary to be a No. 1 receiver and finished third among all receivers in the NFL in terms of yards per route run. When he’s on the field, good things happen.

Former Charlotte guard Nate Davis is the only player among their top-four picks who didn’t really hit the ground running, but even he has come on strong for them down the stretch, as he earned a 68.2 pass-blocking grade over the final six games of the season.

The Titans had the only draft where every player they selected was higher on our draft board than the slot they were actually drafted. That’s looking even more prescient by the day.

2. San Francisco 49ers

Top Picks:
Pick No. Player Position PFF grade
2 Nick Bosa Edge 86.7
36 Deebo Samuel WR 74.5
67 Jalen Hurd WR
148 Dre Greenlaw LB 63.9
183 Justin Skrule T 62.3

No team hit two bigger home runs than the 49ers did with Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel at the top of the draft. Bosa broke the PFF rookie record by racking up 80 total pressures this season, and that figure was good for the sixth-most at the position in the NFL. Even by No. 2 overall pick standards, Bosa is on another level.

Samuel started the season slowly but became their go-to guy down the stretch. Over his last eight games, the rookie wideout hauled in 35 catches for 575 yards and broke 12 tackles in the process. On only 57 catches on the year, Samuel would finish tied for the NFL lead with 18 broken tackles. That type of YAC ability will be deadly in Kyle Shanahan’s offense for years to come.

After those two, the play from Dre Greenlaw was just icing on the cake. Greenlaw made PFF’s all-rookie team filling in for Kwon Alexander and earned a respectable 66.5 coverage grade.

3. New Orleans Saints

Top Picks:
Pick No. Player Position PFF grade
48 Erik McCoy C 76.1
105 Chauncey Gardner-Johnson S/CB 72.7

They didn’t have a lot of picks, but they sure made them count. No. 48 overall wasn’t even supposed to be their first pick in the draft, but they recognized McCoy’s talent was too much to pass up and coughed up a 2020 second-round pick to move up from Pick 62. While we don’t usually endorse such short-sighted trades, McCoy has proven more than worthy of the pick — he finished the regular season as the fourth-highest graded center in football while only allowing 14 pressures all season. McCoy is the rare rookie who’s been an upgrade for the Saints' offensive line in the wake of Max Unger's retirement.

They didn’t have another top-100 pick, but they still got the player who would finish the season ranked PFF’s 12th-best rookie in 2019. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was one of the best slot cornerbacks in college football last year and has done the same for the Saints this season. He twice made PFF’s Team of the Week and only allowed 6.6 yards per target, which is a great number for a slot cornerback.

4. Kansas City Chiefs

Top Picks:
Pick No. Player Position PFF grade
56 Mecole Hardman WR 69.1
63 Juan Thornhill S 71.5
84 Khalen Saunders DI 54.6

The Chiefs didn’t have a first-round pick after trading for Frank Clark in the weeks leading up to the draft, but they made haste with both of their second-round selections. Mecole Hardman has proven to be a big play waiting to happen. He averaged over 20 yards a catch and broke eight tackles on 26 receptions. The only thing seemingly holding him back was all the other offensive talent on the Chiefs roster. 

The real gem of this class, though, was Pick 63. Juan Thornhill was a cornerback-turned-safety at Virginia, who capped off his college career with six picks in 2018 and an incredible combine performance in the spring. He somehow fell to the back of the second round, and the Chiefs have been the beneficiary. Thornhill hasn’t quite matched his pick total, but he’s been a necessary presence in turning around the Chiefs' defense this year — he’s only allowed 14 catches from 25 targets for 127 yards all season long.

Unfortunately, he tore his ACL in their Week 17 win over the Chargers and will be sorely missed come playoff time.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers

Top Picks:
Pick No. Player Position PFF grade
10 Devin Bush LB 62.9
66 Diontae Johnson WR 67.9
83 Justin Layne CB

After struggling out the gate, Devin Bush looked like a difference-maker in the Steelers' defense. From Week 4 on, Bush earned a 76.1 grade in coverage, including a 91.4 grade when playing specifically man coverage. His freakish athleticism and movement skills are closer to that of a safety than most linebackers, and he looks like he’ll be leading that defense for years to come.

Diontae Johnson similarly had struggles and made mistakes of his own, but once again, you could see the raw talent more as the season wore on. The third-round pick finished the regular season tied for the league lead with 18 broken tackles on only 59 receptions, and he only dropped three passes on the season.

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