2011 NFL Draft - 1st Round
What Did It All Mean?
2011 NFL Draft Analysis
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2011 NFL Draft Team Analysis - AFC
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What does it all mean? What does it all matter? What the heck just happened? In an attempt to make sense of the aftermath of the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, this is what we learned and this is what we know going forward as teams refresh, reload, restrategize (including making up words like restrategize), and everyone tries to sort through the big storylines and trends to figure out where to go next.
1. Panic on the streets of Minneapolis.
Taking a quarterback is different than taking any other position, and while that simple truth might seem obvious, it gets lost in the fog of the draft.
If a team misses on a wide receiver, others can pick up the slack. The same goes for every other non-kicker position on the roster except quarterback. Miss on a top signal caller, and no, you don’t just plug-and-play with the No. 2 option and go on with your life. You can play a mediocre defensive tackle and he can be mildly productive if the rest of the line is solid. You can’t hide an average quarterback.
Call the Minnesota Vikings’ pick of Florida State’s Christian Ponder at the 12 the first real casualty of the 2011 NFL lockout. Because there isn’t going to be the normal free agent dog-and-pony show/signing period, the Vikings couldn’t count on getting a turn-key starter like Kevin Kolb, or even fill in the gap with a Donovan McNabb – but could still eventually end up with an old veteran to take up space for a little while until Ponder is ready. By all indications, Minnesota thought that Jake Locker would be there for the taking at the 12. And why not? The Washington star isn’t accurate and is hardly a sure thing, which is why he was considered by most to be an early second round talent who’d be overdrafted because so many teams needed a quarterback to build around. Tennessee wanted in and took Locker at the eight, and when Jacksonville traded up you snag Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert at the ten, it was panic time for Minnesota.
Viking GM Rick Spielman got outhustled.
So instead of going for a need pick like Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, or any number of the good outside pass rushers still on the board, and then trying to maneuver to move up to get Andy Dalton or Ryan Mallett in the second round, considering the idea is to take a young quarterback to develop, the Vikings overpaid for Ponder, who 1) can’t stay healthy, 2) can’t throw harder than Brett Favre could with his left arm, and 3) is a dink-and-dunk artist who can’t push the ball deep. However, he’s good guy, smart, and has a lot of the tools needed to be a starting NFL quarterback, and while that might make him another Chad Pennington, that doesn’t mean he can’t be a very good starter.
But functional won’t cut it in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and Matthew Stafford – when healthy. Ponder is an instant upgrade over Joe Webb and he’s better than Tavaris Jackson was, but with Fairley going one pick later to Detroit and pass rushers Robert Quinn and Ryan Kerrigan going soon after, the pressure will be on the former Florida State star to be terrific from Day One, or this will forever be known as the big reach that set the Vikings back.
2. Let the case study begin.
Quarterback classes always seem to define drafts and the directions of franchises. If Indianapolis took Ryan Leaf No. 1 overall in 1998 and Peyton Manning went to San Diego, the NFL would be a very different place right now. Down the road, the 2011 quarterback class will be one of the most interesting groups in draft history to analyze and break down to see what the right blueprint might be for developing a pro quarterback.
The only thing that’s for sure about the top quarterback prospects – Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton, and Ryan Mallett – is that none of them are expected to be ready right away. None of them are going to be Sam Bradford and turn a doormat into a playoff-caliber team in one year, but they all have good skills to work with to outweigh all their glaring weaknesses. The difference is going to be how they’re developed and the expectations that go along with their progress.
Newton will be asked to be the savior right away and, as the No. 1 overall pick, will get thrown into the fire as soon as possible. Carolina might start the season with Jimmy Clausen, but he’ll only be keeping the seat warm for a few games until Newton is ready to take a snap from under center. At least the Panthers have a real, live option to go with; Minnesota doesn’t.
The Vikings can’t and won’t start the season with Joe Webb, and while the coaching staff has said from the start that the idea is to develop Ponder, he’ll be put on the field immediately simply because he’s a best option.
Locker has the pressure of being the No. 8 pick, and while he needs time and seasoning to work on his accuracy and timing, he’s probably not going to get it. Even so, he’s ahead of where Vince Young was as a rookie passer and will be handed the keys from the start. It might not be pretty, but the 2011 doesn’t matter, it’ll be to see how he progresses by 2013.
Is playing the rookie right away the best way to develop a quarterback or is time to absorb it all, like Aaron Rodgers got playing behind Brett Favre for a few years, the better way to go?
The test study will be Jacksonville, with Gabbert being put in an almost ideal situation. Taken with the tenth pick, there’s no question that the franchise will soon revolve around him, but he’ll get at least a year, maybe two, to take it all in, work on the little things, and be ready to roll while David Garrard handles the team for the foreseeable future. There won’t be any pressure on the former Mizzou star right away, and it’s not like he’s going to have to replace a legend like Rodgers did. Garrard is functional, but ultimately replaceable.
And then there’s Mallett and Dalton, who had to be dying after Ponder was taken so early by the Vikings. They were both considered to be possible first round talents, and while it’ll be an ego hit to go later, there won’t be anywhere near the same sort of pressure to produce immediately like they’d have as a top 15 pick. Considering that Mallett, Dalton, Ponder, and Locker are all roughly the same as far as general talent level – Newton and Gabbert have better skills than the rest of the lot – it’ll be fascinating to see if it was worth it for the Titans and Vikings to overpay, or if it would’ve been better to take a shot in the second round. History says that there’s no need to waste the time and effort on a quarterback after the first round, but this might be different.
3. New Orleans just got a whole bunch better because New England got cute.
The New England Patriots and Bill Belichick have been peerless in being able to manipulate the draft to stockpile picks and do whatever they want to in draft after draft, but they’ve also been burned.
In 2009, the Pats could’ve used a pass rusher, and needs one now, but ended up trading out of the No. 26 slot. With that pick, Green Bay took Clay Matthews.
There’s a chance it could be déjà vu all over again after trading out of the 28th pick.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead are marginally talented running backs who’d have a hard time finding a regular gig on almost any other team, and Mark Ingram could’ve been the type of franchise back Belichick thought he was getting when he took Laurence Maroney in the first round of the 2006 draft. Instead, the Patriots got out of the spot to stockpile more draft picks, and now New Orleans, who already has a talented bevy of backs in Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory, were able to get a workhorse to revolve the entire running game around. Throw in the addition of versatile pass rusher Cameron Jordan with the 24th pick, and the team one year removed from winning the Super Bowl might have reloaded to championship status with just two selections.
4. Speaking of the Patriots, the offensive tackles.
While the focus of this draft will always move towards the four quarterbacks taken in the top 12, the other key area of scrutiny will be the pecking order of offensive tackles, where they went, and how they’ll pan out.
2008 was the year of the offensive tackle with seven going in the first round. Jake Long went first to the Dolphins, Ryan Clady was a brilliant pick by Denver at the 12, and then came several misfires highlighted by Chicago’s selection of Chris Williams at the 14. Because the Bears whiffed on a player who was supposed to be a key tackle for a decade, they had to invest in Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi with the 29th pick this year, and there’s more work to be done for the woeful line.
Carimi was a need pick for the NFL’s least productive offensive line, and Chicago, despite botching a trade with Baltimore to try to move up to secure the selection, didn’t have to make the investment to get him that they had to do to get Williams a few years ago. On the flip side, New England made a bold statement by taking Colorado’s Nate Solder at the 17 ahead of Carimi, Boston College’s Anthony Castonzo, and Alabama’s James Carpenter – who’s really more of a guard – and Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod.
Solder isn’t expected to be ready to roll right away, but he’s a great athlete with tremendous potential. While Bill Belichick subscribes to the Jimmy Johnson belief that you don’t mess around if you want a player, you simply take him when you have the chance, there could be plenty of second guessing about the timing of the pick.
New England had both the No. 17 and 28 picks, and there was a better-than-average chance that Solder would’ve still been on the board at the 28. If he was gone, then Carimi, Sherrod, and a few other good prospects, would’ve still been there for the taking. Instead, the Pats made a big call by taking Solder early and trading away the 28, instead of trading away the more valuable 17 and maneuvering to get their guy, if it really was Solder over all the other prospects, a few slots later.
The most pressure, though, will be on Dallas with the pick of Tyron Smith. The USC star was widely considered the best tackle in the draft, but he hasn’t played left tackle in a few years and doesn’t have the raw bulk to be a blaster of a right tackle. Taken with the ninth overall pick, the Cowboys are making a huge call considering they need a pass rusher and J.J. Watt, Cameron Jordan, and others were still on the board.
And then there’s Indianapolis, who showed why the franchise is so successful despite making late picks every year – even though the jury is still out on Jerry Hughes - by getting Castonzo, who many considered to be the top tackle in the draft, with the 22. Ready to go right away to help keep Peyton Manning, the investment in the BC mauler is relatively low compared to what Dallas and New England paid for their tackles.
5. The character issue.
The first round of the 2011 NFL Draft showed one key trend: teams are sick of investing the franchise in jerkweeds.
You can’t build a successful NFL team without having several players with tons of character flaws, but the draft proved that being a good guy and missing the surly streak can pay off.
Ryan Mallett has been known to rub people the wrong way. While there are issues with his game, and there are questions about his off-the-field activities, that the words Ryan and Leaf have been attached to his profile, fair or not, has been a killer for his draft stock. Mallett isn’t any less of a quarterback prospect than Jake Locker or Christian Ponder, but his penchant for being, to put it politely, ultra-confident, might have had something to do with the slide. On the flipside, Ponder is a great interview with a terrific personality; he’s the type of guy you want to have as the face of your franchise. Locker is the ultimate high-character guy, and after Tennessee dumped Albert Haynesworth and got rid of the Vince Young experience, bringing in Locker, just like Atlanta wiped the Michael Vick slate clean with Matt Ryan, was a move to try to change the attitude of the franchise and the locker room.
There might be several issues surrounding Cam Newton, and some might see him as phony, but like Ponder, Gabbert, and Locker, he’s bright, great in front of the camera, ultra-personable, and has the look and attitude of a guy who’d be perfect to lead a team out of the doldrums. Now, it remains to be seen how Newton will react under the on-field adversity of struggling as a rookie, but for all his flaws and all the concerns, he’s not going to be a pain in the butt.
Cincinnati got the anti-Ochocinco/T.O. in A.J. Green, and Atlanta got picked up a great worker and great character guy in Julio Jones. The two fit the Calvin Johnson/Andre Johnson/Larry Fitzgerald anti-diva mold, as teams continue to trend away from the prima donna wide receiver act.
Texas A&M DE/LB Von Miller, a high character guy, went No. 2. Auburn DT Nick Fairley was awful in interview interviews and fell from a projected top five pick to the 13.
Colorado CB Jimmy Smith and Pitt WR Jonathan Baldwin are freaks of nature with elite talent. Instead of being considered for a top 15 slot, they dropped to the 27 and 28, respectively, because they have off-the-field issues. Adrian Clayborn has Erb’s Palsy, a nerve condition which forces him to play with one arm, but he’s a good guy with good character. He went at the 20.
There will always be a place for the bad boy in the NFL, but let this draft be a lesson to all top prospects. At least act like you’re not a mellonhead, and you’ll be paid better.