The 2011 NFL Draft occurred under strange circumstances. The league was in the midst of a lockout, with the owners and the NFLPA, the players’ union, unable to come to terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. That wouldn’t happen until July, lifting the lockout. But the draft still took place, with the first round proving quite fruitful for many teams, in terms of the talent acquired.
Draft grades are often a futile exercise when handed out immediately after teams select their players. But looking at the results five years after the fact gives us a better idea of the picks and players who panned out and those who did not, for whatever reason. With that in mind, let’s take a look back on Round 1 of the 2011 NFL Draft, examine each team’s selections and regrade based on how those players have contributed during their time in the league.
1. QB Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Though Cam Newton was widely believed to be worthy of the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, the fact didn’t lack controversy. But the Carolina Panthers picked wisely by taking Newton with the top pick. He’s proven to be a true franchise quarterback, reaching the Pro Bowl three times in the past five years and the Super Bowl in 2015. He helped lead the Panthers to a 15-1 regular-season record last year and though they fell at the hands of the Denver Broncos, there’s no reason to believe anyone else would have been a better pick for Carolina. Last June, Newton signed a five-year, $103.8 million contract with $60 million in guaranteed money. That deal runs through the 2020 season and it’s hard to imagine Newton not playing out the contract and likely getting another — or an extension — to serve as the Panthers’ quarterback for the duration of his NFL career.
2. LB Von Miller, Denver Broncos
It’s not a coincidence that Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller and the Panthers’ Newton were the top two picks in the 2011 draft and then helped lead their respective teams to Super Bowls five years later. Like Newton, Miller was a stud coming out of college and has consistently performed at a high level. Miller has totaled 60 sacks and over 200 tackles in five seasons with the Broncos and is currently being paid $14.129 million for the 2016 season under the franchise tag. That, however, is a jumping-off point for a long-term contract, one that could have an average yearly value of $20 million or more. Paying Miller has its price, though — his payday this year contributed to quarterback Brock Osweiler moving on to the Houston Texans and other free agents not being retained. Still, the Miller-led Broncos defense is the reason why the franchise hoisted the Lombardi Trophy two months ago.
3. DT Marcell Dareus, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills continued the Round 1 trend of making the right decision with their third-overall pick in 2011, selecting defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. Dareus was a starter from the beginning of his career and in the past five seasons has totaled 30.5 sacks — including 10.0 during the 2014 season — as well as 11 passes defensed. Buffalo has repeatedly boasted one of the more aggressive defenses in the league and the drafting of Dareus is a major reason why. Though the Bills chose to pick up Dareus’ fifth-year option, worth $8.06 million for the 2015 season, they locked him down to a six-year, $96.5 million contract in September. It was a down season for Dareus, with just two sacks on the year, but that does nothing to decrease his overall value to Buffalo’s defense.
4. WR A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals didn’t know what was going to come from the quarterback position, with then-starter Carson Palmer in the midst of demanding a trade or else retiring. But the team did know an elite-level receiver was necessary to boost the offense. Taking A.J. Green with the fourth-overall pick in 2011 (and quarterback Andy Dalton in Round 2) served to reshape the makeup of the team and boosted them into perennial playoff contenders. In five years, Green is averaging 81.2 yards per game and has 45 touchdowns, with 10 or more scores in three of those five seasons. Green has also been named to the Pro Bowl every year he has been in the league. He was one of three receivers taken in the first round of the 2011 draft, and easily the most successful of the trio.
5. CB Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
Like Green, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson has been a Pro Bowler for all five years he’s been in the NFL, and for good reason: He’s had 17 interceptions over his career so far, as well as 58 passes defensed and 232 solo tackles. He’s also served as a punt returner, with four returned for touchdowns in his rookie season. Just months after the Cardinals picked up his fifth-year option in 2014, they signed him to a five-year, $70.05 million extension. Peterson has been the cornerstone of the Cardinals’ secondary.
6. WR Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons (Trade from Cleveland Browns)
The sixth pick in the 2011 NFL draft initially belonged to the Cleveland Browns, but instead of the Browns selecting receiver Julio Jones or any of the other top prospects available to them at the spot, they traded down to No. 26. The Falcons were the ones to get Jones, who has served as the speedy, deep-threat wideout for quarterback Matt Ryan ever since. Jones has totaled 6,201 receiving yards in the past five seasons and 34 touchdowns. For the past three seasons, he has averaged over 100 yards per game and had a career year in 2015 with 136 receptions and 1,871 receiving yards, both top marks at his position, leading to his first ever First-Team All-Pro selection. The Falcons’ overall team struggles as of late have led people to forget about Jones’ wicked talent, but Atlanta hasn’t: They signed him to a five-year, $71.256 million extension last August.
7. OLB Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
Initially, the San Francisco 49ers’ drafting of linebacker Aldon Smith seemed like a slam dunk. He totaled 14 sacks as a rookie and 19.5 in his second season. But legal troubles derailed his career, causing him to miss games via multiple suspensions as well as a stint in rehab in 2013. He was suspended for nine games in 2014 for another violation of the NFL’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies. Another DUI in 2015 led to his release by the 49ers; the Oakland Raiders picked him up a month later. Then in November, the league announced that Smith will have to serve a one-year suspension. As such, Smith is a free agent and may not even be reinstated by the NFL when the one-year period is up. What was at first a promising career may now be permanently over.
8. QB Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans
With Cam Newton considered the only truly elite quarterback prospect in the 2011 draft, teams with need at the position had to do the best they could to snag someone who could develop into a long-term solution. Hence, the Tennessee Titans selecting Jake Locker with the eighth-overall pick. Locker was not an immediate starter for the Titans, instead backing up Matt Hasselbeck in his rookie year and appearing in five games with no starts. He competed with Hasselbeck for the starting job in 2012, eventually winning it, though did miss time later in the season with a tear in his non-throwing shoulder. More injuries mounted in 2013 and as his play quality suffered, saw himself benched for rookie Zach Mettenberger in 2014. Locker then retired from football in March 2015 after losing his enjoyment of the game. He ended his career with a completion percentage of 57.5 and having thrown 27 touchdowns to 22 interceptions, while being sacked 60 times. This was not what the Titans had in mind when they selected Locker and the fallout left them scrambling for stability at the quarterback position that they have hopefully found in Marcus Mariota, drafted in Round 1 in 2015.
9. OT Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys have spent early picks in recent drafts on trying to build one of the top offensive lines in the NFL, and that included 2011 when offensive tackle Tyron Smith was their selection at No. 9 overall. Smith began his career as a full-time right tackle and switched to the left a year later and has started in every game he’s appeared in. In five years, he’s allowed just 28 sacks, including a mere 1.5 in the 2013 season. He’s locked down on an eight-year, $97.6 million contract with the Cowboys, a deal worthy of the three-time Pro Bowler.
10. QB Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars (Trade from Washington)
The Jacksonville Jaguars were among the teams that needed to find a solution at the quarterback position in 2011 and they chose to fill the void in Round 1 by selecting Blaine Gabbert via trading up with Washington to the No. 10 spot. Gabbert’s time in Jacksonville did not go well. As a rookie, he completed just 50.8 percent of his passes and threw 12 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, while being sacked 40 times and fumbling 14 times. His 2012 season ended on injured reserve and he played in only three games in the 2013 season, having lost the competition with veteran Chad Henne for the starting job. The Jaguars went 5-22 in games Gabbert started, including 1-9 in 2012 and 0-3 in 2013. He was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 2014 and started eight games for them in 2015. The Jaguars, meanwhile, moved on from Gabbert in 2014 by drafting Blake Bortles with the third overall pick.
11. DE J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Though Cam Newton and Von Miller are standouts from the first round of the 2011 draft, there was easily no better player in the class than defensive end J.J. Watt, whom the Houston Texans selected with the 11th-overall pick. Knowing what we do now about Watt, with his 74.5 sacks and 298 tackles, and it’s surprising that he fell so relatively far in the round. Watt has consistently been the best defensive player in the league over the past five years, regularly being the single hand that has led to Texans’ victories. He has scored touchdowns via fumble recovery, interception and as a receiver. The Texans have had some struggling years during Watt’s tenure with the team, but those struggles would have been significantly amplified without him on the roster.
12. QB Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings were also among the quarterback-needy teams in 2011 and chose to address it in the first round of the draft by taking Christian Ponder. Because of the lockout, Ponder wasn’t expected to be the immediate starter; instead, he would be mentored by veteran Donovan McNabb, who would serve as starter until Ponder became ready. But McNabb struggled mightily to start the season, forcing Ponder into action. As a rookie, Ponder started 10 games, going 2-8 while throwing 13 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. He started all 16 games in 2012, but poor play and injuries forced him to split time with Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman in 2013. In 2014, the Vikings drafted quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and Ponder was thrust into a backup role. Given his demotion, the Vikings did not pick up his fifth-year option and the free agent ultimately signed with the Oakland Raiders. He was released following the 2015 preseason and spent time later in the year as a third-string quarterback for the Denver Broncos. Now a man without a team, it’s obvious five years later that Ponder was certainly not the answer the Vikings were looking for.
13. DT Nick Fairley, Detroit Lions
Defensive tackle Nick Fairley never really fulfilled the potential seen in him coming out of college. His collegiate production at Auburn certainly justified his Round 1 draft status, but that production never really was matched in the NFL. Fairley was mainly used as a situational pass-rusher by the Lions, totaling 13.5 sacks in his four seasons there. But with numerous mouths to feed — Ndamukong Suh, Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson — the Lions opted not to exercise Fairley’s fifth-year option and let him leave in free agency in 2015. He then signed with the St. Louis Rams on a one-year contract and is now on a one-year deal with the New Orleans Saints. Fairley did meet a need the Lions had, but not as perfectly as they had anticipated when drafting him.
14. DE Robert Quinn, St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams
Perhaps the Lions would have been better off drafting the player who came off the board one spot after Fairley, defensive end Robert Quinn. Quinn started just one game as a rookie, though he appeared in 15 and totaled five sacks. As a full-time starter in 2012, he had 10.5 sacks and then 19.0, a career high. In 2014, he was given a four-year, $57.01 million extension. His 2015 season was marred by a back injury that landed him on injured reserve, but when healthy, Quinn has been a major reason why the Rams’ pass rush has been among the most formidable in the league.
15. C Mike Pouncey, Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins center Mike Pouncey has been one of the more consistent players at his position since being drafted in 2011. He’s started every game he’s appeared in and has given up a total of 11 sacks. He’s also been one of the constants on Miami’s offense, through numerous coaching changes and their attendant tweaks to the offensive scheme. Pouncey wasn’t a flashy pick, but he did meet a need Miami had on the offensive line and was the best player in the draft at his position. Barring injuries piling up, Pouncey’s career should be a long and fruitful one.
16. LB Ryan Kerrigan, Washington (Trade from Jacksonville)
Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan has been a stalwart fixture of the Washington defense since being drafted in 2011. He’s been an every-game starter, never missing a week and has produced consistently as a pass-rusher over the past five years. He has 47.5 sacks along with 214 solo tackles, and signed a five-year, $57.5 million contract extension with Washington last year to reward his efforts. Washington needed a pass-rusher and they got it in Kerrigan, along with stability and now, five years later, true leadership on the field and in the locker room.