Sanders was part of greatest first round draft class in NFL history

Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, and Deion Sanders (via phone) get the news that they have been selected early in the first round of the 1989 NFL Draft. All three are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Which picks in the upcoming NFL draft will be booms and which will be busts? We won’t know (in most cases) for years. But there will be some of both, history tells us.

Remember Tony Mandarich? The behemoth offensive tackle was nabbed with the second pick by the Green Bay Packers in the first round of the 1989 NFL Draft. A physical monster with tremendous strength, the Michigan State All-American was pegged as a game-changer in the trenches. Sports Illustrated called Mandarich “the best offensive line prospect ever.” Well, it didn’t work out that way. Mandarich held out for more money as a rookie, failed to start any games for the Packers in his first season, mostly playing on special teams. His subsequent years in Green Bay were dismal and he was cut in his third season. Mandarich later entered drug rehab and admitted he’d been using steroids early in his football career. He’s considered one of the biggest busts in draft history. But ironically, he’s part of one of the best first rounds in the history of the NFL Draft.

As we approach this year’s NFL Draft, here’s a look back at the high points in that record-setting first round from 1989:

#1. Troy Aikman, QB Dallas Cowboys

In 1989 the once-dominant Dallas Cowboys held the #1 pick thanks to a 3-13 record in Tom Landry’s last season as head coach. With Jerry Jones and his buddy Jimmy Johnson in charge of the draft in ’89 they picked Aikman out of UCLA, where he’s been an efficient two-year starter after transferring from Oklahoma. Aikman fit the rebuilding Cowboys perfectly and went on to quarterback the team to three titles in four years in the 1990s. He’s a Hall of Famer.

#3. Barry Sanders, RB Detroit Lions

Lions fans know the story of Barry Sanders, the most exciting runner in the history of the NFL, a rare big-play back who could drop an 80-yarder on the defense at any time. The quiet Sanders led the NFL in rushing in his second season and added three more rushing titles in his ten-year career, including 2,053 yards in 1997. Sadly, he never got to play in a Super Bowl and once the losing started to pile up on this Hall of Famer, he walked away from the game in his prime. The Lions nabbed him one pick after the Packers picked Mandarich. How different would the 1990s have been if Sanders had been in the backfield with Brett Favre?

#4. Derrick Thomas, LB Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs found gold in Thomas, a hard-nosed linebacker known for his ability to rush the passer and stop the run. He spent his entire 11-year career in KC where he helped the Chiefs to the playoffs seven times and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in ’89. He totaled 126 1/2 sacks and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

#5. Deion Sanders, CB Atlanta Falcons

The fourth member of the first round to be elected to the Hall of Fame, Sanders captivated the NFL as “Prime Time” in a 14-year career. He won Super Bowls with the Cowboys and 49ers and was named an All-Pro eight times. With speed and blanket-like coverage, Sanders revolutionized the cornerback position. Many consider him the best coverage corner in the history of the NFL.

#12. Trace Armstrong, DE Chicago Bears

The defensive end out of Florida played 15 years in the NFL, topping ten sacks in six seasons in a solid career.

#13. Eric Metcalf, WR Cleveland Browns

Metcalf was a quick, daring runner who made a big impact as a receiver and as a kick returner in a long career in the NFL with seven teams. He was a three-time Pro Bowler and ended up with a total of 17,230 all-purpose yards, ranking him among the NFL’s top 10 in that category at the time of his retirement.

#20. Steve Atwater, S Denver Broncos

When you think about the Denver Broncos, who won back-to-back Super Bowl titles in the 1990s, Atwater jumps out as one of the key players on the defensive side of the ball. Known for his ferocious hits, in Super Bowl XXXII, he posted one of the better performances by a safety in a Super Bowl when he was credited with with six solo tackles, one sack, two passes defensed and a forced fumble. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler in ten seasons with Denver.

#22. Andre Rison, WR Indianapolis Colts

Much-traveled, Rison had his best seasons with the Falcons and the Packers, for whom he won a Super Bowl. Rison was selected to the Pro Bowl five times, from 1990–1993 and once again in 1997. In Super Bowl XXXI he caught a 54-uyard touchdown pass from Brett Favre.

Other drafts have had more overall Hall of Famers or more future Pro Bowlers, but the 1989 NFL Draft had more Hall of Famers taken in the first round an the best overall performances by first rounders.

Can the 2018 NFL Draft compete with the one that took place at Madison Square Garden in 1989? It’s doubtful.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.