2011 NFL Draft: The Year of the Superstar

Not all draft classes are created equal. The 2011 NFL Draft is a perfect example of this, as it was one of the best in recent history, loaded with players who have gone on to become stars in the NFL. Starting with the top 10 selections, an astonishing eight players have been selected to a Pro Bowl and have risen to the top of their respective positions. With the first overall selection, Carolina took the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Cam Newton. By no means is Newton the best quarterback in the league, but he is a rising star and the Panthers recently rewarded him with a contract extension that makes him the third highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. Denver selected next and took Von Miller, who is one of the league's most productive pass rushers. In his first four seasons, he has recorded 49 sacks, despite missing eight games––which is half of a season. Marcell Dareus may not receive the publicity that other defensive tackles get––probably because he plays in Buffalo––but he is one of the few elite interior defensive lineman in the league, productive as a pass rusher (10 sacks in 2014) and as a run stuffer. In Cincinnati, wide receiver A.J. Green has put together four seasons with more than 1,000 yards, including seasons of 97 and 98 receptions, while catching passes from a quarterback who is the definition of inconsistent. Things don't slow down at the fifth pick, as Patrick Peterson is considered by many to be one of the rare shutdown cornerbacks and has been an electric punt returner when given the opportunity (four touchdowns as a rookie, including a 99-yard return). When Atlanta traded up to number six for Julio Jones, they were expecting a game changing wide receiver and they received exactly that. In 2014, he hauled in 104 passes. Aldon Smith has run into trouble off of the field in San Francisco, but on the field, he has been a force, recording 44 sacks––including an amazing 19 as a rookie. The first miss of the draft came eight selections in, as Tennessee missed on quarterback Jake Locker. Jacksonville did the same at number 10 with Blaine Gabbert and Minnesota followed the trend with Christian Ponder at 12. Unless your favorite team selected a quarterback in the first round of 2012, odds are they hit on their pick. After one season at right tackle, Tyron Smith, the ninth overall selection, has locked down the Cowboys' left tackle position and anchors the best offensive line in football. Of course, no discussion of the 2011 draft would be complete without the player Houston took at number 11, a certain Justin James Watt. All J.J. Watt has done is become the best player in football. Teams didn't have any trouble finding talent after Watt, as Nick Fairley, Robert Quinn, Mike Pouncey, Ryan Kerrigan, Nate Solder, Corey Liuget and Prince Amukamara went in order. All seven of these players are essential pieces on their respective teams. The talent started to thin out a bit after the top 20 picks, but Anthony Castonzo (22), Cameron Jordan (24), Jimmy Smith (27), Muhammad Wilkerson (30) and Cameron Heyward (31) are all top players at their positions. In the second round, teams had much more success at the quarterback position with Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick. Neither is without their flaws, but they have led their teams to multiple playoff appearances. The second highest-paid center in the NFL, Rodney Hudson, went at number 55 to Kansas City and Green Bay took the NFL's best slot receiver at number 64 in Randall Cobb. Back-to-back selections in the early third round, numbers 70 and 71, saw the 2014 sacks leader (Justin Houston) and rushing leader (DeMarco Murray) go off the board. A few picks later, Tennessee found the anchor of their defensive in Jurrell Casey at number 77. The fourth round was the place to go for a tight end, with Jordan Cameron (102) and Julius Thomas (129) having made a combined three Pro Bowls in the last two seasons. Fullbacks are a dying breed in the NFL, but that doesn't mean the 2011 draft didn't have contribute at that position. Anthony Sherman, Pro Football Focus' best fullback in 2013 and 2014, went at number 136 to Arizona. (He really hit his stride after being traded to Kansas City before the 2013 season.) In the seventh round, pick number 211, San Francisco selected Bruce Miller, who finished third and fifth in the same rankings. Gold was struck on three consecutive selections in the sixth round (172-174). Minnesota started things off by taking Slippery Rock's finest, Brandon Fusco. Seattle followed with Byron Maxwell (more on the Seahawks later) and Miami finished with Charles Clay. That is three above-average starters in the sixth round on consecutive picks. The sixth round wasn't done though, with Philadelphia finding a high-level center in Jason Kelce at pick number 191. All the seventh round did was produce a Super Bowl MVP for Seattle. On to Seattle, the team has had so much success drafting in the late rounds, a whole paragraph needs dedicated to the team. The first two days of the draft didn't produce much to speak of for Seattle, but day three sure did. The day started well, with fourth-round pick K.J. Wright (99). The jewel of the draft was Richard Sherman (154), who is a top two cornerback. (Some people prefer Darrelle Revis, others prefer Sherman.) As already mentioned, Byron Maxwell went in the sixth round. Teams will take any contribution from a seventh round pick, but Malcolm Smith exceeded all expectations, earning MVP honors for Super Bowl XLVIII. The 2011 made major contributions to Seattle's suffocating defense. As everyone knows, once the last selection is made, the draft isn't over. In undrafted free agency, multiple quality players were found including Dan Bailey, Chris Harris Jr., Henry Hynoski and Doug Baldwin. Bailey (kicker), Harris Jr. (cornerback) and Hynoski (fullback) are all in the upper echelon of their positions and Baldwin has been the Seahawks' most consistent receiver since 2011. Not every player discussed here is a superstar, as the title of this article would suggest, but they are all quality players produced by an extremely talented draft class––one that will go down in history. In addition, there are a number of talented players that weren't mentioned in this article. Simply put, the 2011 draft class was one for the ages and the scary part is that these players are just four years into their careers.

Matt Pearce is a graduate of National Football Post's Introduction to Scouting and Scouting Boot Camp and is a journalism student at the University of Nebraska. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Pearce13