The 2011 NFL Draft Class Might Be The Best Ever

(from The Cauldron)

Imagine, for a moment, that your NFL team has J.J. Watt and Robert Quinn rushing the passer at defensive end. Marcell Dareus and Nick Fairley line up in the middle to stop the run. Von Miller, Justin Houston and Aldon Smith are your stand-up rushers from the second level. Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman are your shutdown corners, and Prince Amukamara is your nickel back.

Cam Newton starts at quarterback, but you’ve got Colin Kaepernick or Andy Dalton on the bench if you need them.
Their targets? How does A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Randall Cobb and Torrey Smith sound? Julius Thomas — probably the second best tight end in football — is on your team, too, but just in case he falters, Jordan Cameron and Kyle Rudolph are there to back him up.

DeMarco Murray carries the load at running back, and giving your host of playmakers time to do their thing are Tyron Smith, Nate Solder and Mike Pouncey.

A Pro Bowl team? Certainly. Super Bowl caliber? No doubt. But what this All-World roster will always have in common is that each was picked in the 2011 NFL Draft — which has a chance to go down as one of the best ever.

Below is a list of the number of Pro Bowl appearances and All-Pro nominations for each draft class from 1994 — when the NFL Draft went to seven rounds — through 2011. A first-team All-Pro designation is reserved for the best two players at each position (except one for QB, TE and C), while Pro Bowl selections typically go a few players deep. Considering totals of each helps establish a fair representation of: 1) truly elite players; and 2) significant difference-makers.

(*When evaluating top-15 overall picks from 1994–2011, using statistical totals is problematic because of the relatively low experience of the most recent draftees. The 2011 draft class is only in its fourth season, and since it is extremely rare for a player to be named an All-Pro as a rookie, there has only been two years to earn that achievement, realistically.)
Disclaimers aside, the top 15 picks of the 2011 draft class have already earned more All-Pro selections than five drafts in the last two decades, and should easily achieve a dozen more selections over the next few seasons. The gold standard for NFL Draft classes, at least according to this method, was back in 2007 — which netted some 19 All-Pro picks.

The 1997 class boasts 15 All-Pro selections, but was dominated by three players — Orlando Pace, Walter Jones and Tony Gonzales — who accounted for 13 of the All-Pro nods, and 30 of the Pro Bowls. While strong at the top, the class also has several busts in Bryant Westbrook, Michael Booker, Tom Knight, Reinard Wilson and Yatil Green.
The 2007 draft class was also stacked with superstars, but similar to the 1997 group, there are too many misses. First overall pick JaMarcus Russell is in the conversation as one of the worst number one picks of all-time. Defensive linemen Gaines Adams, Jamaal Anderson, Adam Carriker, Amobi Okoye, Lawrence Timmons, Levi Brown, Ted Ginn and LaRon Landry combined for just one Pro Bowl between them.

The other relatively young draft class that comes close is from 2010. Only five of the top 15 picks have yet to earn a Pro Bowl nod (Sam Bradford, Rolando McClain, Tyson Alualu, Anthony Davis, Brandon Graham), and at least two of them are starting-caliber players, depending on how you view the perpetually injured Sam Bradford. The 2010 class has just as many All-Pro nods and two more Pro Bowl selections as 2011, but it has also had an additional season in the league to amass those totals. The 2011 class has a good chance to either tie or surpass its predecessor in the next couple of seasons, making these two draft classes the ones to watch going forward.

The beauty of the top of the 2011 draft class is that every position player except for one, Nick Fairley, has made a Pro Bowl. As with any other draft, there have been some busts, but they are all quarterbacks: Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Jake Locker. No other draft class has 11 of their top 15 picks with Pro Bowl honors. Basically, if you didn’t select a quarterback in 2011, you had at least 10 other can’t-miss available to you.

In reality, that the top portion of 2011 NFL Draft class — never mind the later round steals — contained so few misses is truly amazing. No one knows what kind of production the members of the class will be able to sustain over time, but based on the early returns, there’s more than a good chance that the group will be remembered as one of the best in NFL history.

Here’s who went in the top 15 picks along with some of the absolute bargains that were had in the later rounds:

1. QB Cam Newton — Carolina Panthers

Although Newton is enduring the worst statistical season of his career during an injury-plagued 2014, when healthy he remains one of the most dynamic players in the league. No other quarterback amassed more yards, rushing or passing, in his first three seasons than Newton, who has started every game for the Panthers since his debut in 2011. He has been to two Pro Bowls, won Offensive Rookie of the Year, and has a 76/52 touchdown to interception ratio in 58 games. Not a bad start to a career.

2. OLB Von Miller — Denver Broncos

Miller has shown no ill effects from the torn ACL he suffered at the end of 2013, with 10 sacks in 10 games for the Broncos this season, and has teamed with DeMarcus Ware to form one of the league’s best pass-rushing duos. The Defensive Rookie of the Year has 45 career sacks, two Pro Bowl nods, and one All-Pro designation.

3. DT Marcell Dareus — Buffalo Bills

Dareus, the former Alabama standout, anchors a Bills defense that ranks among the best in the NFL this season. The 330-pound defensive tackle went to his first Pro Bowl last year and appears set to make a second trip to Hawaii this season. His 10 sacks in 2014 are tied for the most by any defensive lineman through 11 weeks, and he consistently rates among the best run stoppers in the league.

4. WR A.J. Green — Cincinnati Bengals

Green was a star in the league from day one, with three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons and 29 touchdowns entering 2014, earning him Pro Bowl honors in each of his first three seasons. Although he has been hampered by injuries this season, he appears to be on track for a Hall of Fame career.

5. DB Patrick Peterson — Arizona Cardinals

Peterson has proven his worth as the fifth overall pick with three straight Pro Bowls, two All-Pro nominations, 14 interceptions, and four punt returns for touchdowns. Widely considered one of the best cover corners in the league, the Cardinals already awarded him a seven-year contract worth $83 million, even though they controlled his rights through 2015.

6. WR Julio Jones — Atlanta Falcons

There is no drop-off to the sixth player taken in the 2011 Draft: Julio Jones. He made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and would have again in 2013 if not for a foot injury cutting his year short mid-season. He ranks in the top 10 in both receiving yards and receptions in 2014, and is Matt Ryan’s favorite target in Atlanta.

7. LB Aldon Smith — San Francisco 49ers

If not for his off-field issues, Smith would be perhaps the premier pass rusher in the NFL. He has 42 sacks in 44 games — one of the highest career rates in NFL history — and 2012 Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections under his belt. If Smith can stay out of trouble — he was suspended for the first nine games of the 2014 season and voluntarily missed five games in 2013 for substance abuse treatment — he should solidify himself as one of the league’s elite defensive players.

8. QB Jake Locker — Tennessee Titans

The Titans went off the tracks with Jake Locker going eighth. He has been plagued by injuries his entire career, and after being replaced as the starting quarterback by Zach Mettenberger last month, Locker has likely played his last game under center for Tennessee.

9 . OL Tyron Smith — Dallas Cowboys

Smith has become one of the best left tackles in the game since being drafted in 2011, earning Pro Bowl honors last season. He is one of the key cogs in a Cowboys offensive line that has paved the way for a near-historic rushing season by DeMarco Murray, and appears to be justifying the 10-year $109 million contract he signed with the Cowboys this offseason.

10. QB Blaine Gabbert — Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jacksonville Jaguars select Blaine Gabbert, quarterback…. And that’s why they’re the Jaguars.

11. DE J.J. Watt — Houston Texans

Even worse, the Jags picked Gabbert over J.J. Watt, who went to Houston with the next pick. The 2012 Defensive Player of the Year went to the Pro Bowl and won All-Pro honors the last two years, and is widely considered the top defensive player in the league. He is having an MVP-caliber season in 2014, racking up insane numbers on both sides of the ball — 9.5 sacks, 44 tackles, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, an interception return touchdown, a fumble return touchdown and two (!) receiving scores.

12. QB Christian Ponder — Minnesota Vikings

Keep it going Vikings! Wait, seriously, you are picking Christian Ponder? Really? Ugh.

13. DT Nick Fairley — Detroit Lions

Fairley has probably been the most disappointing of all the players taken that weren’t quarterbacks. He has no Pro Bowl Appearances, but has started 30 of 46 games and has 13.5 career sacks.

14. DT Robert Quinn — St. Louis Rams

The Lions probably wished they took Robert Quinn, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks last year on the way to Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. After a slow start in 2014 (zero sacks in his first five games), Quinn now has six sacks this season, helping St. Louis to a 4–6 record that includes upset wins over the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos.

15. OL Mike Pouncey — Miami Dolphins

Pouncey went to the Pro Bowl in 2013 and has started in all 52 games he has played in his NFL career. He is regarded as a top center, but injuries have hampered him this season.

Ryan Kerrigan went 16th to the Redskins, and he not only made the Pro Bowl in 2012, but also has 32 career sacks while being considered a good run defender.

Prince Amukamara was the Giants pick at No. 19 and became a full-time starter last year. He was having an outstanding 2014 season with three picks in his first seven games, before suffering a season-ending biceps injury in Week 9.

Cameron Jordan went at 24 to the Saints, and made the Pro Bowl last year after ranking fifth in the NFL with 12.5 sacks.

Muhammad Wilkerson went thirtieth to the Jets and has been 2nd team All-Pro.

Andy Dalton (1 Pro Bowl) and Colin Kaepernick (led the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game two straight years) were both picked in the second round.

Torrey Smith and Randall Cobb were both 2nd round picks, though neither has a Pro Bowl… yet.
Kyle Rudolph, selected in the second round, has one Pro Bowl appearance.

Justin Houston leads the NFL with 12 sacks this season, and has two Pro Bowl appearances despite being picked in the third round.

DeMarco Murray was picked right after Houston and made the Pro Bowl last season. In 2014 he became the first player in NFL history to begin a season with eight consecutive 100-yard rushing games, and is nearly on pace to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark.

Jordan Cameron was the 102nd overall pick in the fourth round and made the Pro Bowl last year as an emerging tight end for the Browns.

Julius Thomas went in the fourth round as well, and is now considered one of the league’s top tight ends after making the Pro Bowl last year. He enters Week 12 with a league-leading 12 touchdown catches this season.

Did I forget to mention that Richard Sherman went in the fifth round? He has one Pro Bowl and two All-Pro selections, and is one of the most feared cover cornerbacks in the league.