In the NFL, it takes about three years to fully evaluate a draft class. Coaches and scouts understand that it takes some time for some players to acclimate to the speed, intensity and tempo of the pro game. In addition, it takes some players more time to master the playbook and nuances of their position before playing to expectation.
However, the 2011 draft class might rank as one of the best classes in recent memory due to the immediate impact of several prospects in the group. From Cam Newton's assault on the record books to Patrick Peterson's wizardry as a punt returner, the rookie class made quite an impression on the game despite facing unusual circumstances following the lockout.
In fact, the 2011 draft class was so spectacular that it is hard to imagine decision makers changing their minds much if given the opportunity for a do-over. In this piece, however, we take a reflective look back at the draft and see if teams would stick with their picks if they knew then what they know now.
After watching Newton put on a spectacular showing as a rookie, it is laughable that there was even a debate about the best prospect in the 2011 draft class. Newton shattered Peyton Manning's rookie single-season passing mark and rewrote the record books with 14 rushing touchdowns. He has shown better passing skills than anyone imagined and his ability to assimilate into a pro-style offense has surprised even his biggest detractors. With a full offseason to continue to develop his game, Newton could revolutionize the game at the quarterback position.
For as much credit as Tim Tebow receives for ushering the Broncos into the playoffs, it was the strong performance of Miller and his defensive mates that drove the team to the division crown. Miller amassed 11.5 sacks as a dominant edge rusher and his penchant for creating disruption evokes memories of the late Derrick Thomas. The Broncos surprised some with the selection of a pass rusher over a defensive tackle, but the decision to nab Miller has already yielded big results in Denver.
Dareus has been impressive as a disruptor in the middle of the Bills' defense, but it is hard to ignore the sensational playmaking skills of Peterson. He played well on the island as a rookie and displayed exceptional ability as a punt returner. He earned a Pro Bowl bid with three punt return touchdowns and provided his team with several game-changing plays. In a tough AFC East where points are valued at a premium, the addition of Peterson would've helped them gain a little ground on their division rivals.
It is not often a receiver makes a dominant impact as a rookie, but Green has already emerged as one of the NFL's top receivers in his first season. Green surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in receiving yards and tallied seven scores as the Bengals' top option in the passing game. While those numbers were certainly expected based on his draft position, no one expected Green to blossom into an elite playmaker in Year 1.
The Cardinals' defense quietly became one of the league's stingiest units down the stretch, but the addition of Dareus could've made the unit impenetrable in 2011. Dareus has shown flashes of brilliance as an interior rusher and his presence alongside Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell would give the Cardinals an upper echelon defensive line.
If Cleveland GM Mike Holmgren bypassed the Falcons' tempting trade offer, the Browns would already have a legitimate No. 1 receiver in place with Jones. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound pass catcher is an explosive outside receiver with the size, speed and athleticism to create problems in the backend. Jones' seven 40-plus yard receptions ranked fourth in the league, and his eight touchdowns led all rookie receivers. Given his ability to impact the passing game as a "go-to-guy", the decision to opt for Jones over picks would produce better immediate results for the Browns.
The 49ers' defense finally lived up to the hype in 2011 partially due to the breakout performance of Smith. He led all rookies with 14 sacks and teamed with Justin Smith to provide the 49ers with a formidable rush tandem on the open side. Although Smith spent most of the year playing solely as a situational pass rusher, Smith's ability to impact the game as a hunter on obvious passing downs is enough to retain his spot as a top 10 pick.
Imagine if the Titans had an explosive runner to lean on while Chris Johnson fought through his slump a season ago. Murray paced all rookies with 897 rushing yards and only averaged 12.6 attempts per game, which points to his impressive efficiency and effectiveness as a runner. Most importantly, Murray provided a home run element in the backfield that few in the league can rival. While it certainly would be a luxury to have a pair of dynamic runners in the backfield considering the devaluation of the position, the thought of Murray and CJ2K occupying interchangeable roles would keep defensive coordinators up at night.
The Cowboys discovered their left tackle of the future with the selection of Smith. He was outstanding starting on the right side in 2011, but his combination of size, strength and athleticism makes him an ideal fit at left tackle. Given Jason Garrett's desire to become rougher and tougher at the line of scrimmage, the selection of Smith has helped the Cowboys take a step in that direction.
The Blaine Gabbert experiment was a flop of epic proportions in 2011, so Gene Smith would love to nab a steady playmaker like Andy Dalton at the No. 10 pick. Dalton completed 58 percent as a rookie and finished the season with seven games with 200-plus yards. Those numbers showcase his impressive efficiency and effectiveness as a pocket passer, and suggest he would give the Jaguars more playmaking than Gabbert provided in his first season.
Upon Further Review
Knocked it out of the park: Buffalo Bills. It won't be long before the Bills re-emerge as serious players in the AFC if they keep acquiring productive players through the draft. The team nailed it with the selections of Marcell Dareus, Aaron Williams and Kelvin Shepard during the first three rounds, and also discovered key contributors in Chris Hairston, Da'Norris Searcy and Johnny White. Buddy Nix and Co. need to add another solid class to the roster in 2012 to build upon the momentum, but the Bills appear to have a solid foundation in place with last year's haul.
Wasted Draft: Chicago Bears. Part of the reason Jerry Angelo is no longer running the Bears as general manager could be attributed to the team's poor drafting history. The team has failed to identify difference makers in the top three rounds, and the lack of quality depth on the roster has cost the team dearly in critical situations. In 2011, the Bears only received minimal contributions from their top two picks, Gabe Carimi and Stephen Paea, and failed to discover a hidden gem in the draft's late stages. Although Chris Conte made a few plays as a part-time starter, the Bears' third-round success is not enough to keep the team in contention in the NFC North.
How did he go there?! Award: Richard Sherman (fifth round). Sherman has emerged as the Seahawks' top corner after one season despite entering the NFL as a fifth-round pick. At 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, Sherman possesses the length to maul receivers at the line, and Pete Carroll provides him with the freedom to blanket receivers in press coverage. In addition to his superb cover skills, Sherman is a natural ball hawk with a penchant for coming up with game-changing takeaways.
Mr. Irrelevant 2011: Cheta Ozougwu. The outside linebacker from Rice suffered an injury in training camp and failed to make the Texans' final roster. Although he is currently listed on the Texans' preseason depth chart, Ozougwu will need to have a stellar training camp to earn a place on Houston's roster in 2012.
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