NFL: Revisiting the First Round of the Great 2011 Draft

With the 2021 NFL draft right around the corner, teams are looking for the next cornerstone player for their franchise. But it isn’t always easy for teams to find those players. But this year marks the 10-year anniversary of the 2011 NFL draft where almost every player taken in the first round was a game-changer.

There were so many good players at many different positions. But quarterback was not one of them in 2011. The only three players of the first 12 selections to not make a Pro Bowl were quarterbacks (Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder).

The 2011 first round included 72 Pro Bowl selections, 22 first team All-Pro selections, three defensive player of the year awards, a MVP, and a Super Bowl MVP. 16 of the 32 players made at least one Pro Bowl.

Amazingly, many of the first round selections made it a full decade with the team that drafted them. But some of them have recently departed with those franchises. Let’s take a look back at some of the names. 

Cam Newton

The Carolina Panthers took quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick out of Auburn. The 2010 Heisman Trophy winner was the only quarterback taken in the first round to have success. 

Newton spent nine seasons with the Panthers but a shoulder injury caused Carolina to move on. In those nine years he earned three bowl Pro Bowl selections, offensive rookie of the year, a first team All-Pro, and the 2015 NFL MVP. Newton took the Panthers to the Super Bowl during the 2015 season.

Newton is set to begin his second season with the New England Patriots.

A.J. Green

With the fourth pick the Cincinnati Bengals took wide receiver A.J. Green out of the University of Georgia. He spent a decade with the Bengals before signing with the Arizona Cardinals this offseason. 

Green instantly made an impact, earning seven straight Pro Bowl selections from 2011 to 2017. He also earned second team All-Pro honors three times. Despite missing the 2019 season with injury, Green still had 9,430 yards receiving and 65 touchdowns with the Bengals.

Patrick Peterson

The Arizona Cardinals took Patrick Peterson out of LSU with the fifth pick. The shutdown cornerback also spent a full decade with the team that drafted him before signing with the Minnesota Vikings in free agency this past offseason.

In his time with the Cardinals, Peterson only missed six games and had 28 interceptions. Peterson made eight consecutive Pro Bowls from 2011 to 2018. He also earned three first team All-Pro selections in 2011, 2013, and 2015. 

J.J. Watt

J.J. Watt was taken by the Houston Texans with the 11th overall pick. The former Wisconsin Badger had a memorable 10-year career in Houston.

Arguably the biggest steal of the draft, the three time NFL defensive player of the year recorded 101 sacks and 25 forced fumbles with Houston. Watt also was selected to five Pro Bowls and five first team All-Pro teams. He also led the NFL in sacks in 2012 and 2015.

Watt signed with the Arizona Cardinals in March after being released by the Texans in February.

Mike Pouncey

The Miami Dolphins took Center Mike Pouncey with the 15th pick out of Florida. The former Gator spent his first seven seasons with the Dolphins making three Pro Bowls. He then played two more seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers making one more Pro Bowl. After multiple injuries and surgeries, Pouncey retired after missing the entire 2020 season.

Ryan Kerrigan

The Washington Redskins, now the Washington Football Team, took Ryan Kerrigan 16th overall, the pick after Pouncey. The pass rusher out of Purdue spent 10 seasons in Washington.

Kerrigan is one of the most underrated players in recent memory. He only missed four games in his career and recorded 26 forced fumbles and 95.5 sacks. His 95.5 sacks is enough to be the all-time sack leader in Washington franchise history.

But now Kerrigan is a free agent looking to land with his next team.

Mark Ingram

The New Orleans Saints took Mark Ingram with the 28th pick out of Alabama. The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner spent his first eight seasons with the Saints before spending the last two years with the Baltimore Ravens. Ingram made two Pro Bowls with New Orleans. He also had over 6,000 rushing yards, 1,600 receiving yards, and 55 total touchdowns in his tenure with the Saints.

Still Going Strong

A very strong and notable list of players are preparing for their 11th season with the franchise that drafted them a decade ago. Von Miller (2nd overall), Julio Jones (6th overall), Tyron Smith (9th overall), Cameron Jordan (24th overall), and Cam Heyward (31st overall) add to the depth of the players already mentioned above.

With these players on the wrong side of 30, this may be the last year for them with their current team. Most of them have either dealt with major injuries or their performance is dropping off. Teams may also face a decision with the player’s salaries against the cap.

Other Notables

A few names that may have been forgotten from this first round include pass rusher Aldon Smith. The San Francisco 49ers took Smith with the 7th pick but off the field issues caused the 49ers to release him after four seasons. Smith recorded 44 sacks in 50 games with San Francisco. He was named to the Pro Bowl and named a first team All-Pro in 2012.

After four seasons off, Smith signed with the Cowboys last year and had five sacks. But his off the field troubles popped back up this week as he was arrested and released for battery.

Marcell Dareus was selected by the Buffalo Bills with the third pick out of Alabama. The nose tackle had a very solid seven year run with the Bills recording 35 sacks from the interior. He made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014 and a first team All-Pro selection in 2014 as well. Dareus finished off his 10 year career with three seasons in Jacksonville.

The New York Jets took defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson with the 30th pick in the draft. Wilkerson was a nice find for the Jets at the end of the first round. He recorded 44.5 sacks in his seven seasons in New York. Wilkerson made the Pro Bowl in 2015 and earned two second team All-Pro selections in 2013 and 2015. But the Jets released him after the 2017 season and he signed with the Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately he suffered a bad ankle injury just three games into the season and that would be his last game in the NFL.

The End of an Era

The first round of the 2011 NFL draft may be the best ever. Miller, Peterson, Jones, Smith, Jordan, and Watt were all named to the 2010’s All-Decade team.

But when watching your team draft, don’t expect this kind of longevity. The NFL is a different animal when it comes to length of careers. Most players don’t make it a decade in the league for their whole career, let alone a decade with the team that drafted them.

If a team can get six or seven solid years from their top picks, they would take that in a heartbeat. The cases of Dareus and Wilkerson are much more common in that the team gets a solid run out of the player and then they move on for various reasons. They were very successful NFL players whose careers ended a few years ago.

With these players moving on or getting ready to, it’s the end of an era we may never see again from one draft class.

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You can follow Tyler Samsel on Twitter @tylersamsel.

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