In the Super Bowl era, only three draft classes (arguably two) have produced multiple Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks*. In 1979, the Giants picked Phil Simms No. 7 overall, while Joe Montana fell to the 49ers at No. 82 overall. In 1984, Jeff Hostetler was picked No. 59 by the Giants, while Steve Young went No. 1 to the Buccaneers in the USFL/CFL Supplemental Draft**. And in 2004, Eli Manning was drafted a Charger at No. 1 overall but immediately traded to the Giants, while Ben Roethlisberger went No. 11 to the Steelers.
That's three drafts in the last 43 eligible years*** if you're scoring at home. With four titles between them, Manning and Roethlisberger trail only Montana and Simms (five) among all draft classes. Both are two-time Pro Bowlers. The Class of '04 has also produced Philip Rivers, a four-time Pro Bowler, and Matt Schaub, a Pro Bowl alternate in '09.
All four players are entrenched starters on solid teams and in the prime of their respective careers. Roethlisberger and Rivers are 30; Schaub and Manning are 31. Schaub, Manning and Roethlisberger have the luxury of continuity on their respective coaching staffs and a stable of great receivers to work with; Rivers has lost his best all-purpose weapon (Darren Sproles) and his best receiver (Vincent Jackson) in the last two offseasons, but Antonio Gates and Malcolm Floyd remain, and the team just added WR Robert Meacham. A playoff win or two this season would help coach Norv Turner keep his job, but Rivers is the only one of the four in danger of a coaching change in the near future.
In my estimation, 2004 outshines any other in the last eligible decade (2000-2009). The Class of '09 (Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman) may well challenge it eventually, and the Class of '05 is in the ballpark (Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith, Matt Cassel, Ryan Fitzpatrick), but '04 comes out on top. Four rings, eight Pro Bowls, twelve division championships and sixteen playoff appearances between them, including seven trips to their respective conference championships, provide some pretty compelling evidence in that direction.
Another thing the Class of '04 has going for it is the existence of only one QB "bust", here defined as a failed pick in rounds 1-3: J.P. Losman. Compare that to the wasteland that is the Class of '07, for example, which featured JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, John Beck, Drew Stanton and Trent Edwards. Or the Class of '03, which hit on Carson Palmer and Tony Romo**** but missed with Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller, Rex Grossman, Dave Ragone and Chris Simms. In my judgment, from 2000-2009, NFL teams hit with 22 quarterbacks but missed with 33 (with the jury still out on Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn). That should provide some supporting evidence for just how rare it is to get four upper-echelon starters in one year.
So it's the best in the last eligible decade. Does it have a chance at Greatest of All Time (GOAT) level? Maybe. The Class of '83 is currently setting the bar for GOAT, with three Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly) and two more notables, Tony Eason and Ken O'Brian. Despite collecting only two rings, the group made it to 11 Super Bowls (Marino 1, Elway 5, Kelly 4, Eason 1) and 24 Pro Bowls. The Class of '04 has yet to have that kind of sustained success, but give 'em time; like I said, they're all still young. And there's only one two-time Super Bowl winner (poor Jim Plunkett) who is not in the Hall of Fame.
All four '04 QBs should be adding to their already impressive statistics until their mid-to-late 30s, omitting a Joe Theismann-style disaster, and barring catastrophic team collapses they should all be serious contenders for the Super Bowl title in 2012. All of them have plenty of weapons and solid defenses to work with, and only Roethlisberger lacks an upper-tier offensive line (but the Steelers have taken major steps to fix that this offseason). If they keep going the way they have, by the time everyone's Hall of Fame-eligible we'll be talking about the Class of '04 as the greatest QB class of all time.
*I'm using only quarterbacks who started in the Super Bowl and won it, because come on. Jay Schroeder, of the Class of 1984, got a Super Bowl ring--as a backup with the Redskins behind Doug Williams. No way should that be on the same level as a Super Bowl starter, unless a backup at least played in the Super Bowl.
**This is up for debate because they were drafted in separate NFL drafts. Hostetler and Young were drafted in the same year though, after all, so I'm inclined to count Young as part of the Class of '84.
***Going off the long-established precedent that it takes three years to get the measure of a player. '10, '11, '12 have yet to prove their worth.
****I wanted to explain my philosophy on "busts" a little bit more here. If you draft a QB in the first three rounds, you expect that he will eventually start; if he doesn't win a starting job and keep it, he's a bust. QBs in rounds 4-7 and undrafted are typically developmental players; you don't really expect them to start eventually, but it'd be great if they did. So the undrafted Tony Romo counts as a hit from 2003, but seventh-rounder Ken Dorsey isn't a bust, because who expects much out of a seventh-round QB?