Judging the strength of an NFL draft is always a subjective pursuit.
But the 2011 draft has this hard fact going for it:
Aside from providing the NFL with future stars such as J.J. Watt, A.J. Green and Julio Jones, the ’11 draft’s top two picks – Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller – will face off in Sunday’s Super Bowl at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s never happened before.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
“Those are two really good players and here they are meeting in the Super Bowl five years later,” said former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, now a studio commentator for CBS Sports. “They’re really special. And you know it’s a really good draft if it has them at the top.”
Indeed, the 2011 draft was as deep as it was talented. Fifteen players taken in the first round – including Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, Atlanta receiver Julio Jones and Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green – have played in at least one Pro Bowl. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, drafted by San Francisco in the second round, took the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012. Third-rounder DeMarco Murray went on to win a rushing title with the Dallas Cowboys.
When I go back and look at the 2011 draft class, there were a lot of special guys. Sheesh. It’s crazy.
“It wasn’t just Von and me,” said Newton, who in addition to leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl will also likely be named the league’s most valuable player Saturday. “When I go back and look at the 2011 draft class, there were a lot of special guys. I was just happy to be drafted so high. But you look at J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Julio Jones, A.J. Green. Sheesh. It’s crazy.
“They’re all impacting this game in some way, shape or form. They’re making it a better game. It’s great to know the league is going to flourish for years to come with great talent on the field like that.”
The Panthers had gone 2-14 in 2010, struggling along with Jimmy Clausen at quarterback. The Broncos weren’t much better, finishing 4-12 with a defense that finished last in the league by allowing 390.8 yards per game. Those miserable seasons earned Carolina and Denver the top two spots in the draft.
Coach John Fox was fired by the Panthers after the season. His replacement, Ron Rivera, and former general manager Marty Hurney were zoned in on Newton from the start.
It was a quarterback-rich draft, however, including Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton and Kaepernick.
The Panthers and Broncos earned the first two picks up the 2011 draft after having miserable seasons in 2010.
“We talked about finding a franchise quarterback and my statement was, ‘He’s either on the roster or out there in the draft, but we have to go through everything to figure it out,’” Rivera said. “As we went through the draft we decided Cam and Jimmy Clausen would compete and that’s what happened. We drafted a guy that we felt very good about, very positive about, was our clear cut No. 1 pick. There was no hesitation.
“When they told us we were on the board we put the name in right away. We were on the board and automatically, we knew. When you look at guys and you feel like you have a need you go out and you make decisions, that’s what we did.”
The Broncos, in the meantime, needed help defensively. But they were mindful that if the Panthers didn’t draft Newton, that the former Auburn star would fall to them. Denver’s quarterback spot was a tossup between Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow.
Asked by a reporter earlier this week if Denver would have considered Newton had he been available, Broncos general manager John Elway said: “No question.”
Miller has gone on to make the Pro Bowl in four of his five seasons and has 60 career sacks.
15 Players from first-round of 2011 draft who have earned Pro Bowl invitations
Observing the moves ahead of his team in the first round was then-Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, now the Broncos’ coach.
“I obviously looked at them all,” Kubiak said. “I knew Cam’s ability and what he stood for. I knew Von very well because he was right down the street from us (at Texas A&M). When you look back on it now and who’s lining up and playing (in the Super Bowl) that tells you it was a pretty darn good draft for both teams.”
The draft went well for Kubiak and the Texans, who took Watt with the 11th pick. He’s become one of the top pass rushers in the league and is already a two-time defensive MVP.
The remainder of the draft didn’t work out nearly as well for the Panthers. None of the seven other players they took are still with the team.
Newton and Miller have faced each other once, when the Broncos beat the Panthers 36-14 in 2012. Miller had one of seven Broncos sacks of Newton that day.
“I wouldn’t even call it a rivalry,” Miller said. “If I played qarterback, I could see it. I don’t think there’s another quarterback that’s ever played the game the way (Newton) does, especially the way his personality is on the field.
“If he played defense, he probably would’ve gotten $220 million dollars because he can probably rush the passer and drop back and do safety and all that stuff, too. It’s not really the 1 vs. 2 that the media tries to play out to be. He’s a great quarterback. We’ve got a great opportunity going against him.”
2011: An NFL draft to remember
Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati (second round, 35th overall); Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco (second, 36th); Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota, (second, 43rd); Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Tampa Bay (second, 51st); Shane Vareen, RB, New England (56th); Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay (2nd, 64th); DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas (third, 71st); Richard Sherman, DB, Seattle (fifth, 154th);