By George Somerville

Continuing his history lessons of NFL Drafts gone by, George takes us to an annual selection meeting that had plenty of boom, but one notorious bust…


The greatest NFL Draft class of all time is hotly debated. 1983 is certainly up there, as I proposed in my first series of draft articles – do some homework and take a read here:

But as this year’s Hall of Fame class proves, the 1998 draft class was pretty special. In fact, 1998 was smokin’ hot, as I am about to reveal.

While we can debate the merits of different draft classes, surely the mark of a great class is when players go on to leave an indelible mark on the game. And one sure fire way of judging this is where multiple members not only go on to be Pro Football Hall of Famers, but with the gold standard of being first ballot HoF’s. That – to me – is the mark of an elite class….

Heisman Quarterbacks

Unless you have lived in a cave this past 12 months you will know that both Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson were voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and will be inducted into ‘The Hall’ this year. Very conveniently for this article, they came out of the same draft class: 1998.

But, draft manaics: Before we get to the NFL Draft itself, we need to step back just a little – just a few months before the draft and to the Heisman Awards ceremony. Why? Because this sets the background to this incredible draft class. For arguably the 1997 Heisman Finalist class was also the greatest Heisman class of them all.

The 1997 College season gave us so many back stories which made the Heisman finalist group special, and perhaps the best of all time. 

Peyton Manning had decided to forego the NFL Draft his Junior year, deciding to come back to Tennessee for one final throw of the dice as a Senior. This decision would be fully justified as Manning led the Vols to a 10-1 regular season and a shot at the SEC title. This long-awaited SEC title looked forelorn with the Vols down 20-7 against Auburn in the Championship game. However Manning would go on to do what he did many times in his glittering NFL career and drive his Vols to a memorable 30-29 victory. Suffice to say that the Vols – to this day – have struggled to live up to that Manning-inspired team, and Peyton continues to be standard that all Tennessee Vols are asked to live up to.

Meanwhile, over on the West Coast, the Washington State Cougars were also having a season to remember, and were also led by a young gunslinging quarterback. In his Junior year, Ryan Leaf would average over 330 passing yards per game with a then Pac-10 record of 33 touchdowns. The Cougars would win the PAC-10 Championship, the first in their history, and Leaf would take this Wazzou team to a Rose Bowl for the first time since 1931. And yes, draft peeps – this isn’t a typo. The Pacific Football Conference indeed did have ten teams in it back then.

Other Contenders

While the quarterbacks were hogging all the glory, a young wide receiver was having a standout season with the Marshall Thundering Herd. The start to Randy Moss’ college career had been difficult. He was denied entrance to Notre Dame after a fight at high school which ended in Moss being handed a custodial sentence. As Moss had signed a letter of intent with the Fighting Irish, under NCAA rules he had to transfer to another school, which meant he lost a year of eligibility when he transferred to Florida State. A failed drugs test brought his time in Tallahassee to a swift end and Moss ended up moving closer to home with Marshall. 

However Moss was a stand out at Marshall, and during his time with the Thundering Herd set many records. But it is his 1996 year at Marshall that will go down as one of the greatest seasons ever in College football. In 1996, Moss set the record for the most games with a touchdown catch in a season (14), the most consecutive games with a touchdown catch (13), tied Jerry Rice’s record for most touchdown passes caught in a season (28) and set a new record for the most receiving yards by a freshman in a season (1,709). Unbelievably, these are just a few of Moss’ collegiate records.

In 1997, Moss would go on to better his 1996 season, finishing his career having scored at least one touchdown in each of the 28 games that he played for the Thundering Herd. In 1997 Moss would win the Biletnikoff Award which would pave his way to becoming a Heisman finalist.

And last but not least is the man who actually won the Heisman Trophy, and would do so as the first – and still the only – defensive player to take home the coveted award. Charles Woodson would secure 282 more Heisman points than runner up Peyton Manning – a point still considered highly controversial in the State of Tennessee. However there was no doubting the huge impact that Woodson had on his Michigan Wolverines, both defensively as a cornerback and a gamechanging playmaker on special teams.

Much like he did in the NFL, Woodson had a remarkable knack of making huge plays for the Wolverines at the right time. In his Junior season he would return a punt for a touchdown in a Michigan win over Ohio State, leading his team to an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl win over Washington State (who if you recall Ryan Leaf had led the Cougars to). As well s the Heisman winner, Woodson would be voted Best Defensive Player, All Big Ten First Team, Consensus First Team All American, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and winner of the Jim Thorpe Award.

Fine Lines

So this leads us nicely to the NFL Draft. Which is kinda the point as to why we are here.

The Indianapolis Colts had a truly awful 1997 season where they lost their first ten games and would go on to a 3-13 record, affording them the first pick of the 1998 NFL Draft. The Colts were moving on from Quarterback Jim Harbaugh and it was clear that the Colts would pick his replacement with the #1 overall selection.

But which QB – Manning or Leaf? 

Whilst Peyton Manning was coming out of the now prolific Manning Quarterback factory and considered polished and NFL ready, Ryan Leaf was considered to have the better arm and higher ceiling (Buyer beware warning for NFL teams here – Do not overthink this!). This led to a lot of debate as to who would be picked first. The Colts ultimately went with Manning, and in doing so would change the course of their franchise history.

However, the pick was not as straightforward as it seems. While Colts scouts favoured Manning, there were some within the Colts organisation that thought Leaf would be the better pick. Leaf had particularly impressed during individual workouts, whilst Manning had interviewed better. What ay have swung the decison for the Colts was they had started to receive feedback that Leaf was not convinced about playing in Indianapolis. Inevitably, Colts GM Bill Polian would ultimately make the choice that would define this team for the next fifteen years. The rest they say is, well….history.

The Chargers had the third pick and were keen to move up to pick one, but the Colts had made it clear that they would not entertain a trade. San Diego would trade with the Cardinals for the second spot and would select Leaf, a pick that was universally lauded by the NFL world. However things would turn sour very quickly for both the Chargers and Leaf. Leaf’s lack of discipline and poor decision making would mean that his NFL career would be cut short; While Leaf would play in his debut season, a shoulder injury sustained in his second year training camp would essentially mean the end of his Chargers career. 

An interesting footnote to this is that the first NFL game I ever saw live was at Qualcomm Stadium in 1999 when the Chargers played the Colts. Peyton Manning did play in this game, but instead of seeing Draft picks 1 play 2, Ryan Leaf’s time at the Chargers was incredibly already coming to an end. So who was the Chargers Quarterback that day? In a rather ironic twist, it was the man who Peyton Manning replaced at the Colts – Jim Harbaugh.

Record Breakers

George & his brother with Georgia Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship

Charles Woodson would be selected by the Oakland Raiders with pick #4. Woodson will rightly be remembered as one of the greatest to play in the NFL over an incredible 17 year career with the Raiders (twice) and the Packers. The achievements that Woodson gained during his career are genuinely too long to list in this article. But as well as winning Super Bowl XLV, Woodson would be a 9 time Pro Bowler, a 4-time First Team All Pro, NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, NFL Defensive Player of the Year and many more. Woodson would end his NFL career with 1,105 tackles, 20 sacks, 33 forced fumbles and 13 defensive touchdowns. 

Randy Moss would also go on to a glittered and stellar NFL career which would see him selected as a first round ballot Hall of Famer in 2018. Moss would play in the NFL for 14 seasons, firstly for the Vikings who selected him with the 21st pick of this Draft. Moss would then go on to play for The Raiders, Patriots, Vikings (again in 2010), Titans and 49ers.

Randy Moss continues to hold the records for single season receiving touchdowns (23 in 2007), single season receiving touchdowns as a rookie (17 in 1998), and is second on the NFL all-time regular season touchdown reception list. Randy Moss was a 6 time pro-bowler, 4 time First Team All Pro and voted on to the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All Time Team. 

The Blocker From The Bayou

Pretty good so far, huh? Three Hall of Famers is pretty special! Nope, let’s try four… 

Alan Joseph Faneca played College football in Baton Rouge for the Louisiana State University, where he ended his college career as an All-American. In his final season playing guard at LSU, Faneca allowed just one sack.

Predictably, Faneca came out of LSU as a highly rated prospect and was picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 26th selection in the first round of the draft. Faneca started with the Steelers right from the outset as a rookie, although he got off to a slow start. However by his second season Faneca had become a mainstay of the Steeler’s offense and would go on to be Superbowl XL champion, a 9 time pro bowler, be voted onto the Steeler’s All Time team and the NFL’s 2000 All-Decade Team. 

Faneca would play in the NFL for 13 seasons for the Steelers, Jets and Cardinals. He would be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021.

Still with me? I know this is a long one. But it’s a good‘un….

Also drafted in 1998 was Fred Taylor by the Jags, Takeo Spikes by the Bengals and Patrick Surtain by the Dolphins. Does the name Surtain ring a bell? Well it should do. His son, Patrick Surtain II will enter this year’s draft looking to better his father’s position as second round pick (44th overall), where he ended up with the Miami Dolphins. We have to wait just a few weeks more to see where Junior ends up.

UDFA Center to #1 Pick QB

Ok, so Im going to let you go now as this one has been a marathon. But kudos to y’all for hanging on in there. Before you go, here’s a little gift to reward you for staying right to the end. 

I do love it when an undrafted player ends up a Super Bbowl Champion. And Jeff Saturday is one of my favourite players. Saturday played his college ball at UNC and would be picked up by the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent. Saturday would not play for Baltimore and would go on to sign for the Colts, where he played 13 seasons and would win Superbowl XLI with – yes – Peyton Manning. What a small world this is. Fun facts, the National Anthem at Superbowl XLI was sung by Billy Joel and the Half Time Show was Prince. Let’s Go Crazy. See what I did there?

And while it is not uncommon for a kicker to go undrafted, I’m not sure I want to be the guy who passes on a kicker who would go on to be the NFL’s most accurate kicker of all time! Mike Vanderjagt graduated from West Virginia University and chose to return home to play his football in the Canadian Football League. After 6 years in and around the CFL, he decided to pursue a career in the NFL and was signed by the Indianapolis Colts. Vaderjagt would go on to have an interesting career with the Colts, at points criticising both Peyton Manning and Head Coach Tony Dungy – Manning would go on to call Vanderjagt the “idiot kicker” – but there would be no doubt that he left his mark on the league.

And here endeth the lesson. Finally. CLASS DISMISSED!

Mock Draft

george somerville

College football writer