In April 2016, following the NFL draft, the Ohio State football program and its newly drafted former players could reasonably be considered in a league of their own before having played a down on an NFL Sunday. Four of the first 16 picks were Buckeyes, with 12 being drafted over the draft’s three days.
Though the class was praised, no analyst or front office official could have predicted the kind of impact they would have on the field. Of the 12 selected, three former Buckeyes had notable years, comparable with some of the best rookie seasons in NFL history.
Selected third overall by the then San Diego Chargers, defensive end and former consensus All-American Joey Bosa’s career for the Chargers got off to a rocky start. Disagreements between Bosa’s representation and the Chargers on signing bonuses and offset language in Bosa’s rookie contract and signing bonus led to the holdout.
After he held out through both rookie training camp and the preseason, Bosa and the Chargers agreed on a four-year contract on Aug. 30.
A hamstring strain held Bosa out another month, as he missed the first four games of the year. As October turned, though, Bosa welcomed himself to the field and to rest of the NFL, recording two sacks and five total tackles in his first game on Oct. 9 against the Oakland Raiders.
Bosa was just one of five players in NFL history to record two sacks in their NFL debut.
After missing 25 percent of his rookie season, Bosa finished with 48 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Among rookies, Bosa’s 10.5 sacks in 12 games were first in his class, ahead of the second-place finisher Yannick Ngakoue from the University of Maryland, who finished with eight total sacks in a full season.
If Bosa had been healthy all year, he very well could have broken the record of 14.5 sacks in a rookie season, set by Jevon Kearse in 1999. Bosa was awarded the Pro Football Writers of America Rookie of the Year award for defense.
Picked immediately after his former roommate by the Dallas Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliott not only had the best season of rookie running backs, but also led the entire NFL in rushing during his rookie season, becoming just the fifth running back since 1970 to win the rushing title as a rookie.
Amassing 1,631 yards and 14 total touchdowns, Elliott came within 177 yards of breaking the rookie record for yards in a season held by NFL Hall of Fame member Eric Dickerson. Elliott also added 32 receptions and 363 receiving yards, while showcasing his non-quantifiable but highly regarded blocking ability in the backfield with fellow rookie Dak Prescott.
Michael Thomas upwardly improved in his final years at OSU. In his first year of work in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints, Thomas led all rookie wide receivers in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns in his rookie season.
Record-wise, Thomas came only nine receptions short of the rookie record of 101 receptions set by Anquan Boldin in 2003. Thomas’ yardage totals rank fourth in league history for rookies, behind Billy Howton in 1952 (1,231), Boldin (1,377), Randy Moss in 1998 (1,313) and Bill Groman in 1960 (1,473).
Though Bosa, Elliott and Thomas all were productive contributors to their teams, other Buckeyes of the class made their mark as well. Eli Apple became the starter partway through the year for the New York Giants, ending with 51 tackles, seven passes defended and an interception. Taylor Decker was ranked second overall among all rookie offensive lineman by Pro Football Focus, and received the top-overall grade of 82.8 for the entire Detroit Lions offensive line.
In all, 14 OSU rookies — twelve picks and two undrafted free agents — registered stats during the regular season, in what is the deepest draft class in school history and arguably the entire history of the NFL.