Analysis

2011 NFL Draft class worthy of greater appreciation a decade after entering league

The transformation from jovial to serious happens quickly for Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt. Ask what motivates him, and his smile vanishes and his eyes narrow. An answer that began as a trickle soon flows with the intensity of a dam that has been released.

"It's always been greatness," he said after a recent practice. "I want to be as great as I can possibly be, so the motivation is being the best, and greatness is being the best. As a team, that's winning the Super Bowl and getting to the top, to the peak, of what you do. As an individual, that's being the best at your position and what you do. For me, every day is an opportunity. If I go in the weight room, if I go to the field and I run, if I go out to practice -- somebody is the best that day. Somebody ran the hardest, somebody lifted the most, somebody had the most sacks. At the end of the day, somebody is the best, and at the end of the season, somebody is the best, and at the end of the decade, somebody is the best. Somebody is the best to ever do it in every sport and every position. That's what we're all chasing, and if we're not chasing being the absolute best to ever do it, I don't know why you're out there, besides chasing a paycheck or it being a job."

Watt applies that description to not only himself, but to the first-round picks of his 2011 draft class.

"I'm biased, but our draft class was one of the best ever," he said. "Just go down the line: Cam Jordan, Von Miller, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Ryan Kerrigan, Tyron Smith -- it's an unbelievable list."

It's a list that deserves further recognition, if only because we should appreciate those on it while their careers are still active. That reality hit home this week when the Patriots released quarterback Cam Newton, the first overall pick in 2011 and a player who was transcendent at his peak. Whether his career is over remains to be seen, but the NFL can be a cold business for a 32-year-old dual-threat QB who has struggled due to injuries and COVID-19 in recent years.

Still, the fact remains that we can look at the first round of the 2011 draft and argue that some of its members were the best at their positions at the peak of their careers. The group includes a league MVP (Newton), a three-time Defensive Player of the Year (Watt), a Super Bowl MVP (Miller) and six members of the 2010s All-Decade Team: Watt, Miller, Peterson, Jordan, Jones and Smith. Furthermore, Watt and Miller were among eight unanimous selections on the 52-player All-Decade squad. Richard Sherman, a fifth-round selection in the 2011 draft, also was voted to the 2010s team, but this discussion is being limited to the first round, because that is what makes it unique.

Overall, the 2011 draft has 39 players who have played at least 10 seasons, which ties it for 25th-most all-time. But when the iris is narrowed to the first round, the class becomes elite. To wit: 19 of the 32 selections have been on an NFL roster at least 10 seasons, which ties the 2001 first-rounders for the league high.

That said, there are two distinctions that make the 2011 class stand out: No. 1, it would rank first in Round 1 guys who played 10-plus years had Nate Solder not opted out last season because of the pandemic; and No. 2, it likely will outpace 2001 first-rounders in total Pro Football Hall of Famers. Currently, LaDainian Tomlinson and Steve Hutchinson are in from that first-round class. Richard Seymour and Reggie Wayne have been finalists multiple times. However, the likelihood is remote that others from that class make the cut, while the 2011 first round could credibly send a minimum of six, beginning with those on the All-Decade Team, to the Hall of Fame.

After all, Watt is the only player with multiple 20-sack seasons since sacks became an official stat in 1982. Miller is an eight-time Pro Bowler who ranks first among active players with 106 career sacks. Jones is a seven-time Pro Bowler who ranks second and third, respectively, on the single-season list for receiving yards and receptions and is also second and third all-time among active players in those areas. Jordan has been to six Pro Bowls and ranks sixth among players currently on an NFL roster in career sacks with 94.5. Tyron Smith is a seven-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, and Peterson, who was among the top shutdown corners at the height of his career, is tied for seventh in interceptions among active players.

"It's a great deal to be a part of that 2011 class," said Peterson, who signed with the Vikings this offseason after 10 years with the Cardinals. "There were so many great players in that class who are still doing great things in the league. We're kind of looked at like the old guys of the NFL now, but it's remarkable what we've been able to do over the years. All the great ones will tell you it's because of the mentality that we have to not be satisfied, understanding that there's always still work to do. It's a different mentality from the other players. All the great ones have that same trait; we were just lucky enough to have a number of them in the same draft class who took that tradition and ran with it."

The first round of the 1983 draft is often regarded as one of the greatest in NFL history, with three quarterbacks (John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino), a running back (Eric Dickerson), an offensive lineman (Bruce Matthews) and a cornerback (Darrell Green) gaining entry to the Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Whether 2011 reaches that stature remains to be seen, because narratives are still being written. What the players have potentially lost in speed, quickness or strength, they contend, has been balanced by an elevated football IQ from years of service.

"To have Hall of Fame-caliber players all in the same draft class is truly a blessing," said Miller. "I want to have that football reunion like Peyton Manning had at his Hall of Fame induction. The things that keep me going are when I wake up in the morning, after I do a body check and really think on where I'm at in my career, I still got something left, and I want to take advantage of every opportunity that I have, every single play, every single rep, and just continue to rack it up and see how many years I will have played at the end. I'm leaving it all out there."

Added Watt: "It's not like our draft year we were all hanging out and saying, Hey, let's go out there and be great. It just happened over time, and as it started to become clear that there were a lot of great players in that class, you do start to be proud of it and you do start to say, Oh, hey, we've got something special going on with this class. It's pretty incredible. The longer you go in the league, the less people you know, because there's new guys coming in all the time. But it's been very cool to flip on games and still see your guys out there dominating."

We should enjoy it while we can.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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