Why the 1981 Draft Was Arguably the Best Defensive Class in NFL History

For dedicated NFL fans, the most exciting part of the offseason is the draft. The draft gives struggling teams a chance to add potential stars to their roster. More successful franchises, meanwhile, try to find useful role-players later in the draft. Of course, not all draft classes are stocked with the same talent.

The 1981 class was easily one of the most stacked drafts in NFL history. In particular, that draft had an overwhelming amount of defensive talent, including Lawrence Taylor, Kenny Easley, Howie Long, and others. Let’s look at the 1981 draft’s case as the greatest defensive class in NFL history.

The 1981 draft’s Hall of Fame contingent

Legendary athlete Howie Long on the field for the Los Angeles Raiders in 1987
Raiders player Howie Long in 1987 | Bettmann/Contributor

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It’s no exaggeration to say that the 1981 class contained arguably the greatest number of impact defenders of any draft. One statistic amply illustrates that fact: seven of the 1981 draftees went on to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after retirement.

Linebacker Lawrence Taylor spent 13 seasons playing for the New York Giants. In that time, Taylor racked up 10 Pro Bowl and eight First-team All-Pro selections, per Pro Football Reference. He also won three Defensive Player of the Year awards, and two Super Bowl rings. Taylor entered the Hall of Fame in 1999, his first year of eligibility.

Defensive end Howie Long enjoyed an equally lengthy career, spending 13 seasons with the Oakland Raiders. In that time, he made eight Pro Bowl teams, received three First-team All-Pro selections. He also won one NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, and one championship. Long entered the Hall of Fame in 2000.

Linebacker Mike Singletary spent 12 years playing for the Chicago Bears. His resume includes 10 Pro Bowls, 7 First-team All-Pro selections, two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, and one Super Bowl victory. Singletary was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995.

The 1981 NFL draft’s Hall of Fame list goes on

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Arguably the most accomplished defensive player of the 1981 draft was defensive back Ronnie Lott. In a 14-year career spent mostly with the San Francisco 49ers, Lott made 10 Pro Bowls, eight First-team All-Pros, and won four Super Bowls. He also twice led the NFL in interceptions. His 63 career interceptions put him at number eight on the all-time list. He entered the Hall of Fame in 2000.

In his 15-year career, spent mostly with the New Orleans Saints, Rickey Jackson made six Pro Bowls, received five Second-team All-Pro selections, and won one Super Bowl. He made the Hall of Fame in 2010.

Kenny Easley played seven seasons for the Seattle Seahawks, receiving five Pro Bowl and three First-team All-Pro selections, as well as the 1984 Defensive Player of the Year Award. He made the Hall of Fame in 2017.

Finally, there’s Russ Grimm, who spent 11 seasons as a guard for the Washington Redskins. Grimm made four Pro bowls, three First-team All-Pros, and is a three-time Super Bowl champion. He entered the Hall of Fame in 2010.

Other notable NFL players from the 1981 draft class

The 1981 draft also contained a multitude of defenders who put together highly impactful careers, though fell short of making the Hall of Fame. That list includes linebacker E.J. Junior, defensive end Dexter Manley, and three defensive backs: Dennis Smith, Eric Wright, and Hanford Dixon. Taken as a whole, those five players racked up 14 total Pro Bowl selections.

It also bears noting that the 1981 draft contained plenty of talented offensive players. Joe Delaney and David Overstreet may well have gone on to establish themselves as all-time greats, though both of their careers were cut short by tragic deaths. The 1981 class also included Cris Collinsworth, who at this point is best known at a television analyst.

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference