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Class of '96

Dec. 05, 2005
Dec. 05, 2005

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Dec. 5, 2005

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Class of '96

Ten seasons later, members of the most bountiful draft of wideouts in history are among the NFL's best playmakers and biggest newsmakers

The fleet of Rolls-Royces pulled up fashionably late, rolling into the parking lot at the House of Blues Sunset Strip in front of a host of onlookers. Once inside, rapper Tupac Shakur and his entourage made their way upstairs, where the man of the moment was holding court. A day earlier Keyshawn Johnson had been the toast of New York City after the Jets made him the top pick in the 1996 draft; now the former USC wideout was back home in L.A. hosting a jam-packed bash he would later describe as "the biggest party in the history of drafts." Clad in a white linen suit and surrounded by fellow athletes, actors and beautiful women, Johnson embraced Tupac amid a fusillade of flashbulbs as his college highlight reel played on a TV screen above him. To paraphrase one of Tupac's most famous song titles, the scene could have been described as All Eyez on Key.

This is an article from the Dec. 5, 2005 issue Original Layout

As Johnson partied on that April night nearly 10 years ago, celebrating with fellow draftees Jonathan Ogden of UCLA and Lawrence Phillips of Nebraska and watching high-energy performances by Coolio and the Westside Connection, he was confident that he would justify his status as only the second receiver drafted No. 1 since 1965. But as high as Johnson was on his abilities, he was similarly excited about the potential of the 10 other wideouts selected in the first two rounds, a class of pass catchers he believed could rank as the best ever.

Looking back, Johnson, now with the Dallas Cowboys, thinks he may have set his sights too low. "By the time we're done," he says, "I want to be able to say we're the best draft class, at any position, in the history of the game."

Given that the 1983 quarterback crop produced three Hall of Famers in John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, as well as a fourth Super Bowl starter (Tony Eason) and a Pro Bowl participant (Ken O'Brien), that goal will be difficult to attain. But with 10 wideouts drafted in '96 still performing at a high level--nine starters and suspended Philadelphia Eagles star Terrell Owens--they figure to continue building their case for the next several seasons.

Consider that the most productive receiver from the '96 class, the Indianapolis Colts' Marvin Harrison (pick No. 19), has no plans to break up his record-setting partnership with quarterback Peyton Manning. Thanks to year-round conditioning, Harrison and many of his classmates seem to be getting stronger as they get older. "It doesn't seem like I've been playing 10 years," the meticulous Harrison says. "My body feels like it's been four. Where it ends I don't know, but I can tell you there's no end in sight."

Everywhere you look on fall Sundays members of the class of '96--including some who were drafted after the second round--are shredding NFL secondaries. Last year the Carolina Panthers' Muhsin Muhammad (pick No. 43, now with the Chicago Bears) and the New Orleans Saints' Joe Horn (pick No. 135, by the Kansas City Chiefs) ranked one-two in the NFL in receiving yards, with 1,405 and 1,399, respectively, while Harrison, Owens (pick No. 89, by the San Francisco 49ers), the Chiefs' Eddie Kennison (pick No. 18, by the St. Louis Rams) and the Buffalo Bills' Eric Moulds (pick No. 24) also exceeded 1,000 yards. This year Terry Glenn (pick No. 7, by the New England Patriots), who now starts opposite Johnson in Dallas, led all his classmates through Sunday with 804 yards, 11th in the league.

With Harrison's Colts sitting on the best record in the league, there's a good chance that a class of '96 wideout will start in the Super Bowl for the fourth consecutive year, following Johnson, Muhammad and Owens. (Glenn was on the Patriots' roster for Super Bowl XXXVI but was inactive for the postseason because of a team suspension.) This season Muhammad of Chicago, Glenn and Johnson of Dallas, the Seattle Seahawks' Bobby Engram (pick No. 52, by the Bears) and the New York Giants' Amani Toomer (pick No. 34) have realistic aspirations of making it to Super Bowl XL in Detroit.

"No matter what happens," says Johnson, who started for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their Super Bowl XXXVII victory, "I know I was the first to get a ring." Well, no--two backups now out of football beat him to the parade route. The Green Bay Packers' Derrick Mayes (pick No. 56) won Super Bowl XXXI jewelry as a rookie at the expense of Glenn's Patriots; and the Baltimore Ravens' Jermaine Lewis (pick No. 153) earned his ring four years later, returning a kickoff for a touchdown in a 34--7 victory over Toomer's Giants.

"When we were coming out of college, all the scouts kept telling us how good we all were," Toomer says. "You take that stuff with a grain of salt. But it is amazing that so many players at one position from one draft have been so productive for so long."

In the winter of '96, during a Senior Bowl practice in Mobile, Toomer was standing on the sideline assessing his place in the pecking order of wideouts, when the sight of a tall, muscular player he'd never heard of caused him to do a double take. Recalls Mayes, a sure-handed Notre Dame standout, "We were going through drills--me, Amani, Bobby [Engram], Eric Moulds--and all of a sudden we saw this stallion of a man running around recklessly, diving under the bleachers to catch a ball, doing anything he possibly could to make an impression. We were like, Who is this kid? He's crazy! When he gets in the game, it's going to be bananas."

That kid was Owens, a raw talent from Division I-AA Tennessee-Chattanooga who also was the sixth man on the Mocs' basketball team. In the late Joel Buchsbaum's 1996 draft preview for Pro Football Weekly, the draft guru reported that Owens "has the size and ability to play on the next level provided he works on his pass routes and refines his skills." For what it's worth, no attitude issues were mentioned.

Mayes and his fellow major college receivers quickly befriended Owens and welcomed him to their unofficial fraternity. The connections between some of the wideouts in the group dated to high school. Johnson and Moulds were on the same recruiting trip to Mississippi State, where Moulds ultimately signed. Mayes and Toomer took visits together to Notre Dame and Michigan; Mayes eventually signed with the Irish and Toomer with the Wolverines. "On the Michigan trip," Mayes recalls, "we ended up at this party on campus--the Fab Five were there and so was Desmond Howard, who was about to win the Heisman. Amani turned to me and said, 'This is it, man--I'm having the time of my life.'"

One reason for the success of the '96 draftees, Johnson believes, is that virtually all of them chose not to leave school early. "Most of us were fourth- or fifth-year guys, so we were polished when we came into the league," he says. "We were football players. Now guys are too anxious to grab the money and get to the NFL, and they're mostly into catching the football and trying to get on the highlight shows."

Johnson, of course, can't complain about the power of hype. Were it not for his oversized personality, he might not have joined Irving Fryar (Patriots, 1984) as the only wideouts picked No. 1 in the past 40 years. "Keyshawn was the top-graded player on our board," recalls Pat Kirwan, then the Jets' director of player administration. "But we also didn't have a star player, and he had the personality and charisma to fill that role. No one looked at him and thought, He won't be able to handle playing in New York."

At the press conference following Johnson's final college game, a Rose Bowl MVP performance (12 catches for a record 216 yards) in USC's 41--32 victory over Northwestern, the wideout flashed his engaging smile and announced, "O.K., I'm ready to go play for the New York Jets." For the next four months Johnson was the presumptive No. 1 pick, yet when he woke up on draft day he was unsure whether New York would take him.

Johnson had balked when the Jets insisted that he agree to contract terms before the draft, telling his agent, Jerome Stanley, "I'd rather go to Jacksonville [which had the No. 2 pick] and get what I'm supposed to get than go to New York and get screwed." The Jets considered taking Illinois linebacker Kevin Hardy and contemplated trading down for Glenn, but found no takers. In the wee hours of the morning of the draft Kirwan visited Stanley and Johnson at their hotel suite in midtown Manhattan and scribbled the team's contract offer on a napkin. Johnson, standing on a footstool while being measured for a suit, reiterated that he would not agree to those terms. "It was like that scene in Jerry Maguire, with all that night-before-the-draft drama," Stanley says. Not until he received a call from Jets owner Leon Hess less than an hour before the draft was Johnson sure he'd be the top pick. (Hardy went second.)

Back then conventional wisdom held that it was imprudent to pick a wideout so high because productive receivers could often be found in later rounds, whereas the supply of prolific quarterbacks, tackles, defensive linemen and cornerbacks dried up quickly. "I think that notion has changed since then," says former San Diego Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, "and part of it was because the guys in that draft had such an impact."

One of the few remaining defensive backs from the '96 draft, Bills safety Lawyer Milloy, says he saw it coming. "I take a lot of pride in being part of that group," he says. "It started in college--we all kind of had that highly competitive, borderline cocky attitude. It was about coming out and taking over the league, and no one would settle for anything less. If you look at those receivers, the common denominator is that they all go up and attack every single ball like it's theirs to catch."

Not every receiver drafted high in '96 proved to be a standout. After selecting Johnson, the Jets used the first pick of the second round on Nevada's Alex Van Dyke, who as a senior had set an NCAA record with 1,854 receiving yards. Van Dyke caught a mere 26 passes in six NFL seasons with three teams. Ten picks later Beathard traded up to get Virginia Tech's Bryan Still, who had 83 receptions in five years with San Diego and Atlanta. "In terms of attitude," Beathard says of the selection, "Still was probably a slightly better version of Ryan Leaf."

Then again, Owens and Horn far exceeded predraft projections, and fifth-rounder Patrick Jeffers had a big 2000 season (63 catches, 1,082 yards, 12 touchdowns) for the Panthers before a knee injury short-circuited his career. Another '96 prospect, David Patten, went undrafted and spent a year in the Arena League before signing with the Giants as a free agent the following season; he later played in two Super Bowls for the Patriots and this year had 22 receptions for the Washington Redskins before having season-ending knee surgery.

Receivers are the divas of professional football, and Owens's banishment from the Eagles for the last 10 games of the 2005 season for repeated insubordination was hardly the first time the class of '96 has been touched by controversy. Glenn, once derisively referred to as she by then Patriots coach Bill Parcells for taking weeks to recover from a hamstring injury--the two have since been amicably reunited in Dallas--groused his way out of New England during the '01 season, at one point implying that he was faking an injury. That same year the Denver Broncos' Kennison abruptly retired the night before a game. After the Broncos released him, Kennison signed three weeks later with the Chiefs and played against his former teammates that season. Horn was fined a reported $30,000 by the league because he celebrated a touchdown in an '03 game by pulling out a cellphone he had planted in the goalpost padding and pretending to make a call from the end zone. Also that season Johnson clashed with Bucs coach Jon Gruden, in part over Johnson's role in the offense, and was deactivated for the final six games. Tampa Bay traded him to the Cowboys the following March.

Now, as they help the revived Cowboys contend for the NFC East title and a playoff berth, Glenn and Johnson happily complement one another. Glenn has retained the speed, acceleration and moves that made him a deep threat a decade ago; Johnson, never a blazer but a physical player with great body control, excels in the red zone and on third down. With 726 catches, Johnson ranks 21st on the NFL's career receptions list; among the class of '96 receivers only Harrison, with 903 through Sunday, ranks higher (sixth).

Collectively, the '96 wideouts stand above other notable draft classes at the position. They rank ahead of the productive class of '91 (which included Herman Moore, Keenan McCardell, Rocket Ismail, Alvin Harper and Jake Reed) in touchdown receptions (625 to 500), catches (6,899 to 6,394) and yards (95,423 to 91,277) and have produced more Pro Bowl players (Harrison, Owens, Horn, Johnson, Moulds, Muhammad and Glenn) than the class of '88 (Tim Brown, Michael Irvin, Sterling Sharpe, Anthony Miller and Brian Blades).

"There was a time when all of us were fantasy-type players," says Johnson, who is also known for his punishing downfield blocks, "but our careers have evolved to another level. Now it's not just about numbers--most of us are complete football players." From dangerous deep threats (Glenn, Kennison) to crafty route runners (Harrison, Moulds) to sure-handed possession specialists (Engram, Muhammad), the class of '96 should be celebrated for its overall brilliance.

Over the last nine years there has been no shortage of potential challengers to that class. At least three receivers have been picked in the first round of every subsequent draft, including six in 2001 (remember megabusts David Terrell, Koren Robinson, Rod Gardner and Freddie Mitchell?) and a record seven in '04 (Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, Lee Evans, Michael Clayton, Michael Jenkins and Rashaun Woods). "Every time you look up, we're being compared to somebody, and nobody's come close to what we've done," Johnson says. "People said Mike Williams [drafted 10th in '05 by the Detroit Lions out of USC] was going to be like me--yeah, good luck. I remember watching the 2004 draft, with Larry Fitzgerald and all those guys coming out, and they were calling it the best receiver crop ever. I was just laughing. By the time the class of '96 is done, there won't even be a debate."

Perhaps there will be a party. We know just the guy to throw it.

GREAT CATCHES
(left to right, stats through Sunday)

KEYSHAWN JOHNSON, Cowboys
1st round (1st pick), USC
726 receptions, 9,499 yards, 60 TDs

JOE HORN, Saints
5th round (135th pick), Itawamba (Miss.) Junior College
524 receptions, 7,641 yards, 53 TDs

MARVIN HARRISON, Colts
1st round (19th pick), Syracuse
903 receptions, 11,851 yards, 106 TDs

TERRY GLENN, Cowboys
1st round (7th pick), Ohio State
506 receptions, 7,444 yards, 35 TDs

MUHSIN MUHAMMAD, Bears
2nd round (43rd pick), Michigan State
626 receptions, 8,312 yards, 47 TDs

Before '96 conventional wisdom held that it was IMPRUDENT to pick a wideout so high; productive receivers could be found in later rounds.
"We were POLISHED when we came into the league," says Johnson. "Now guys are too anxious to grab the money and get to the NFL."
"It doesn't seem like I've been playing 10 years," says Harrison. "My body feels like it's been four. There's NO END IN SIGHT."
PHOTOPhotographs by Jeffery A. SalterPHOTOED WOLFSTEIN/ICON SMI ERIC MOULDS, Bills
1st round (24th pick), Mississippi State
648 catches, 8,791 yards, 47 TDs
PHOTOSCOTT D. WEAVER/ICON SMI EDDIE KENNISON, Chiefs
1st round (18th pick), LSU
462 catches, 6,993 yards, 36 TDs
PHOTOJAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES TERRELL OWENS, Eagles
3rd round (89th pick), Tenn.-Chatt.
716 catches, 10,535 yards, 101 TDs