It takes three years to get a true feel for an NFL draft class. It's been three years since the 2011 NFL draft, and in those three years, that 2011 group has proven to be one of the best pass-rushing draft classes of all time.
In the first 16 picks, six defensive ends and outside linebackers were selected: Von Miller, Marcell Dareus (now a defensive tackle), Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn and Ryan Kerrigan. All six have been named Pro Bowlers, but what is most shocking is one simple statistic.
Among those six, they have 191 sacks, and four of them (Miller, Smith, Watt, and Quinn) have each racked up over 18 sacks in one season and over 30 in their careers.
How can any class live up to a top crop like that? As great as they were, this year's pass-rushing group is not that far behind them.
Jadeveon Clowney has been the talk of college football for years; Anthony Barr and Khalil Mack are high-producing, high-talent prospects; and Kony Ealy and Dee Ford have been rising up draft boards quickly. All five could easily be top-16 selections in the draft.
While this batch is not completely comparable to the class of 2011 (there were not any running back converts from that class, to use one example), there are similarities when the top players are looked at more closely.
Jadeveon Clowney is in a camp all his own when the complete package is looked at. Talent-wise, when he's on, he's the best out there. He can disrupt the flow of an offense on his own, and he can cause trouble for even the best of offensive tackles.
ESPN's Todd McShay said it best about Clowney:
It's rare to see a player with his size, a true 4-3 end, who can bull-rush and also has great balance, body control and closing burst.
The downside, however, is that his drive and work ethic are not quite up there, and in a sense, his biggest obstacle in the NFL is himself. It makes him this year's boom-or-bust candidate, but the boom makes him worth any bust risk.
Like Clowney, Khalil Mack is a different kind of football player that can't quite be compared to 2011's great pass-rushers. Yes, Mack can rush the passer without a problem, but he's much more versatile, and can drop into coverage and disrupt offenses throughout the field.
As a result, Mack could work in either a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense. He may not put up the sack numbers that we see from the 2011 crop, but he will be great in his own way. He will have to adjust from facing lesser competition, but that's the only major disadvantage he has.
Mike Mayock of the NFL Network said the following of Mack (via Sports Illustrated's Don Banks):
I'm going to tell you right now, I'd take him with the first pick. That's how much I think of Khalil Mack.
The other three top prospects, given their skill sets, are more easily compared to the 2011 batch. Anthony Barr is a pass-rushing specialist who has continuously put up monster numbers, yet he is still developing as an outside linebacker after just two years at the position.
Like Barr, Aldon Smith only played college football for two years, and while he was dominant, his transition to the NFL was not a sure thing. Smith became an immediate contributor to the 49ers when he was selected, and he quickly made people forget that he was only a two-year starter.
Kony Ealy followed in Smith's footsteps, showcasing his pass-rushing abilities at the University of Missouri. While there, he showcased both athleticism and versatility, playing both defensive end and stand-up outside linebacker, which gives him an advantage come draft day.
Bleacher Report's own player comparison video has Ealy as the next Aldon Smith, while CBS Sports' Rob Rang compares Ealy to Robert Quinn due to his technique, burst and upside.
Dee Ford, despite a slight lack of size, has been rocketing up draft boards due to his speed. He has the ability to drop into coverage if needed, but his strength comes, simply put, in attacking the quarterback.
If you were to take an inch or two away from Von Miller's frame, the comparison between the two would be fairly clear. Both have that explosive first step, and they rely on their ability to get to the quarterback first with their speed rather than using raw strength against offensive tackles.
In the end, while all five do not compare completely with the 2011 crop, the main similarities are there, and this top batch, if anything, is more versatile.
Will this group of five put up 150 sacks in three seasons? That's a lot to ask and is rather unlikely. Could they all become complete players and nab Pro Bowl appearances?
That is a lot more realistic, and if they are all in the right situations, it could very well happen.