Best draft class in NFC South history?

As we wait for the NFL schedule to be released (presumably sometime this week) and I work on some player profiles to advance the draft over the coming days, I took a little break to ponder the best and worst draft classes in NFC South history.

By NFC South history, I mean that literally. I’m looking only at the drafts that have come since the NFC South started play in 2002. Yeah, I know you could argue that Tampa Bay’s 1995 class, featuring Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, might be one of the best in the history of the league. I also know the Falcons, Bucs and Saints did their part to have some incredibly bad drafts back in the 1970s. But I wasn’t old enough to really know the ins and outs of those drafts.

So we’re going to start with the 2002 draft and work forward. I’m also going to leave the 2009 class out of this because one season isn’t enough to judge a draft. With that in mind, here’s my winner for the best draft class in NFC South history.

1. 2006 by the New Orleans Saints. It’s not even close. This class eventually could end up in the same conversation with the Sapp and Brooks class. Forget No. 2 overall pick Reggie Bush for just a second. The Saints found Jahri Evans in the fourth round and receiver Marques Colston with their second of two seventh-round picks. Evans is the best guard in the league and Colston is an outstanding receiver. Bush maybe hasn’t lived up to the hype, but he’s been a productive player and second-round choice Roman Harper has developed into a solid safety. Offensive lineman Zach Strief, also a seventh-round pick, has been a valuable backup.

2. 2008 by the Atlanta Falcons. Yes, I’m giving Matt Ryan the benefit of the doubt here. A lot of people say he took a step back in his second season. I’m not one of them and I think Ryan will take a huge step forward in his third season. Anyway, I’d take what Ryan did last season and be reasonably content with it. At worst, he’s a solid starter. At best, he’s a franchise guy. What the Falcons did in this draft was get the quarterback of their offense and they also got the quarterback of their defense, taking linebacker Curtis Lofton in the second round. Left tackle Sam Baker was taken late in the first round and there are some questions about his durability. But the Falcons also found some other players, like receiver Harry Douglas and safety Thomas DeCoud later in this draft.

3. 2006 by Carolina. We’re giving the Panthers extra credit for hitting on DeAngelo Williams with the 27th overall pick. It’s easy to get it right in the top 10, but there are no sure things late in the first round. Williams has turned into a very good all-purpose back and the Panthers got starting cornerback Richard Marshall in the second round. Fifth-round choice Jeff King has been a decent starter at tight end and linebacker James Anderson has a chance to claim a starting role this season.

I’ll be back with the three worst draft classes in NFC South history in a bit.