How 2011 NFL Draft set stage for Super Bowl 50 matchup

The 2010 NFL regular season had mercifully come to a close, and Panthers coach John Fox and Broncos interim coach Eric Studesville took their team's post-game podiums for the final time. Both spoke of how much they loved the character of their players and how their dismal records weren't a reflection of who they were.

But the fact of the matter was, both teams were so awfully bad that their season-ending losses had wrapped up the top two selections in the 2011 draft. These teams that were trotting out Tim Tebow and Jimmy Clausen as their starting quarterbacks were going nowhere fast.

Making matters more uncertain was a looming offseason of league turbulence. Team owners would lock out the players, free agency would be delayed until a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was in place, and the draft would operate under a cloud, including a set of new rules that prohibited player trades.

But only in the NFL it seems can a team go from least to beast overnight. And while it hasn't exactly been overnight, that Denver and Carolina are to meet in Super Bowl 50 -- only five years removed from being the worst teams in their respective conferences -- is quite remarkable.

"This is what Pete Rozelle envisioned 40 years ago," said NFL Media senior analyst Gil Brandt. "He wanted the fan in Carolina and Denver to have hope, and not like we have with some teams in the NBA and Major League Baseball. All 32 teams go into each season thinking they have a chance."

It starts with the structure of the draft, with the worst teams picking at the front end and the best teams at the back end. Good teams in the NFL use the draft to build. Great teams nail their top picks and use them to lay a foundation. That's exactly what the Broncos and Panthers did in 2011.

The two best players on their teams -- quarterback Cam Newton for the Panthers and outside linebacker Von Miller for the Broncos -- were taken with the top two picks in that draft. So in a span of five years, the two worst teams in the NFL are now the two best, and their top picks that year are responsible for turning things around.

In the Broncos' case, Miller has helped them to two Super Bowls in five years. But Sunday will mark the first time ever that the top two picks in a single draft will be on opposite sidelines in a Super Bowl.

Some believe the 2011 draft will go down as the best ever. The top half of the first round that year included a future MVP (we'll assume Newton wins it at NFL Honors on Saturday), a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (J.J. Watt), nine first-team All-Pros (Newton, Miller, Julio Jones, Marcell Dareus, Patrick Peterson, Aldon Smith, Tyron Smith, Watt, and Robert Quinn) and a second-team All-Pro wideout (A.J. Green).

"To have the premier players at their position five years after they were drafted, that's pretty unique to have them go back to back at the top of the draft," said Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout with the Browns, Ravens and Eagles and current NFL Media draft analyst.

How unique? Only once in the last 10 years have the top two selections in the same draft gone on to become All-Pros (Newton and Miller), and only twice has it happened in the last 30 years (Orlando Pace and Darrell Russell also did it in 1997).

In fact, of the 36 players that have gone in the top two picks since Newton's Super Bowl 50 counterpart, Peyton Manning, was drafted No. 1 overall in 1998, only nine (Newton, Miller, Ndamukong Suh, Jake Long, Calvin Johnson, Mario Williams, Julius Peppers, LaVar Arrington and Manning) have gone on to be named the best at their position. That's one out of every four. You'll get better odds at a blackjack table in Vegas.

Newton and Miller were anything but sure bets entering the draft. While Miller was answering questions about his size and his ability to support the run, Newton was hit with a barrage of criticism surrounding his maturity, leadership skills, and love for the game.

There was the stolen-laptop charge when he was a backup at Florida in 2008; the fake-smile charge entering the 2011 draft season; and then the whole "icon and entertainer" drama a month out from the draft.

Brandt, the former VP of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys for three decades, was not among the critics. Having invited Newton's father to Cowboys camp in 1983, Brandt knew the family well. On his recommendation, the Panthers hired an Auburn student to watch Newton closely during his final year at the school and file a report with team president Danny Morrison. It came back squeaky clean.

The report included testimony that showed Newton as the player organizing practices, the one who was watching film on his own, the one who didn't cut class, and the one who showed the leadership skills many said he lacked.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera says the team didn't officially decide Newton would be the No. 1 pick until five days before the draft, but there are strong indications the Panthers were all-in on Newton long before then. Regardless, it was a decision that came with much consternation.

So what finally sold team owner Jerry Richardson? "No tats," said Brandt, referring to a meeting between owner and player three weeks before the draft in which Newton revealed he didn't have any tattoos on his body.

"In more ways than one, Cam was all natural," Brandt said. "He was the genuine deal."

"I've had several phone calls this year with (team) personnel buddies who admitted they misread that kid," added Jeremiah. "There were a lot of people that didn't fully buy into him."

Maybe tattoos were the reason Miller was not in the conversation to be picked No. 1 overall. The arms of the Broncos' pass rusher are literally covered with tats, including one with the Texas A&M logo, another with the words "The world is yours" (from the movie "Scarface"), another of a chicken, and others with old jersey numbers.

But seriously, Miller had his blemishes (some that didn't come to light until 2013, when he was suspended by the NFL for drug use). Not many, but they did exist.

"There was some concern on him about his build, but that was about it," said Jeremiah, who was a regional scout with the Philadelphia Eagles at the time. "He was just so naturally gifted. His ability to bend was something that was so unique and much discussed in the (draft) room."

The Broncos were going through their first rebuilding project in a decade and a half, and with John Elway taking control of the front office, there was no time for patience. They knew they had to get their first pick right if they were going to quick-fix this thing.

With a logjam of talent at the top of the draft, taking Green or Jones would have been tempting (even with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the roster), but the Broncos focused in on defense, particularly at outside linebacker, interior defensive line, and in the secondary. Miller, the consensus top pass rusher in the draft, was a perfect fit for Denver's 3-4 scheme, and with a premium on getting to the quarterback, the Texas A&M product was a favorite, along with Dareus and Peterson.

Because of the depth at the top of the first round, the Broncos entertained offers for the No. 2 pick, but ultimately kept it and selected Miller. While dropping back and getting a player like Peterson and an extra pick or two would have worked out nicely, in the end, Elway got the man who reminded him of the late, great Derrick Thomas and who he would later call "the best football player on the planet." The Broncos did end up addressing their cornerback need by signing undrafted free agent Chris Harris, who along with Miller has helped form one of the most dominant defenses in the league, and a big reason they're playing for a Super Bowl title on Sunday.

Rozelle would be smiling if he were still alive. "Super Bowl 50 represents his dream of parity," Brandt said, "and how the draft can turn things around in a hurry."

"It should even give the Titans and Browns hope," Brandt added, referring to the teams with the top two picks in the 2016 draft. "Now all they have to do is nail their picks."

History says that's easier said than done, but the Panthers and Broncos have shown the way.

Follow Andy Fenelon on Twitter @Andy_Fenelon.

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