Prospecting the Prospects: Why 2011's Draft Class Is Something to Watch

Anthony Rizzuti@@Anthony_RizzutiSenior Analyst IIIJune 1, 2011

Prospecting the Prospects: Why 2011's Draft Class Is Something to Watch

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell poses for a photo with Carolina Panthers #1 overall pick Cam Newton from Auburn during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Under the ominous cloud otherwise known as the lockout, the 2011 NFL draft still went through with its annual proceedings at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. 

    Many young men took the next step in their careers despite the uncertainty and negativity surrounding the NFL universe that weekend.

    Decisions were made, players were drafted and lives were changed. And although this year's draft class wasn't exactly the deepest in recent memory, there were still plenty of intriguing storylines to talk about.

    Here are the top 10 most must-see rookie situations for hopefully, the 2011-2012 NFL season.

10. Denver's Devastating Duo

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  Von Miller, #2 overall pick by the Denver Broncos holds up a jersey on stage during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Every year there's always that one guy who darts up draft boards across the league. In 2011, that man was Von Miller.

    The 6'3", 246-pound product out of Texas A&M turned in an outstanding 2010 senior season as he accumulated 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. Miller, who was previously slated at the jack position, converted to a 3-4 outside linebacker under Tim DeRuyter at A&M in 2010. Miller's dominance at the position easily made him the nation's top linebacker, and it even drew him some comparisons to Dallas' defensive monster DeMarcus Ware.

    Leading up to the draft, Miller was initially mocked by many at the 11th and 14th spot. But as the event grew closer, the linebacker jumped into everybody's top 10 as a "sure-fire, can't miss" selection.

    On April 28th, the Denver Broncos took Miller with the second overall pick in hopes of boosting their dead-last sack total. And if that was their goal, they addressed it extremely well. Because not only does Denver have college football's best linebacker, but they still have 2009's NFL sack leader Elvis Dumervil. Unfortunately for the Broncos, Dumervil was lost for the entire 2010-2011 season after sacking opposing teams' quarterbacks 17 times a year earlier. (This may have very well accounted for the pathetic amount of sacks from Denver's horrific defense last season.)

    But with Dumervil healthy and Von Miller in the mix, opposing offensive lines will be extremely busy keeping tabs on this potentially scary duo.

9. Redemption in Tampa?

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    AUBURN, AL - SEPTEMBER 18:  Da'Quan Bowers #93 of the Clemson Tigers against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on September 18, 2010 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Entering April, Da'Quan Bowers seemed like a justifiable No. 1 pick for the defensively inept Carolina Panthers. Bowers led the nation in sacks with 15.5 and was tied for the most tackles for loss with 26 in his last season at Clemson. As a result of his phenomenal breakout year, Bowers was a unanimous first-team All-American choice and was awarded the 2010 Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the best defensive player in college football.

    All signs were pointing to Bowers being the second coming of Julius Peppers down in Charlotte.

    However, Da'Quan's draft stock began to plummet as the April 28th date approached. Teams turned away from Bowers due to his less-than-stellar combine performance and more notably, his offseason knee surgery. The 280-pound defensive end had to sit through 50 other picks until he heard his name called by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the draft's second round.

    So this begs the question, will Bowers spurn all the teams who passed him up? And will he overcome his knee problems to translate his dominant play into the NFL?

    This is definitely a story worth keeping tabs on.

8. The Prince of New York

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  Prince Amukamara, #19 overall pick by the New York Giants, holds up a jersey on stage during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    I think it's safe to say that we've never seen anything like the draft selection of Prince Amukamara. Amukamara, who is of Royal Nigerian descent, brought what it seemed like his entire family up to the Radio City Music Hall stage after being taken by the Giants with the 19th overall pick.

    Not only was it a show for New York, but an incredible steal as well. WIth the selection of Prince, the Giants are getting the best one-on-one defender in the entire class. Despite being ranked below fellow cornerback Patrick Peterson, Amukamara is more skilled in the coverage aspect of the position.

    During his senior year at Nebraska, Amukamara only allowed 18 completions in 52 passing attempts in his direction. The opposition was so weary of Prince that teams only threw at him a total of 52 times.

    So the Giants, who led the NFL in takeaways and ranked ninth in pass defense last season, basically robbed an elite cover-man in Prince Amukamara.

    The Giants secondary will be airtight and will have offensive coordinators scrabbling through their playbooks every week.

7. Seeing Two Birds with One Stone

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  Patrick Peterson, #5 overall pick by the Arizona Cardinals, holds up his jersey on stage during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    LSU's cornerback Patrick Peterson was regarded by many as the draft's best overall player.

    But how is a cornerback the best player of a draft class? Well, simply put, he can do it all.

    He can shut down your top target on any given day, he can make you adjust your offense and he can even throw his team's offense in opposing territory through his kick returns.

    Peterson did not disappoint in his junior season as a Tiger as he went above and beyond the already high expectations. On defense in 2010, Peterson racked up four interceptions and forced offenses to simply throw away from him. And with his new role as kick returner, Peterson averaged 27.5 yards on his kickoff returns and 16.5 yards with two touchdowns on his punt returns.

    His efforts earned him a first-team All-American selection and first-team All-SEC selection.

    Patrick Peterson was then picked with the fifth pick by the Arizona Cardinals, making him arguably the best value pick in the entire draft. (Getting the class' best player with the fifth pick isn't too shabby.)

    So with Pat Pete (hey, maybe it'll catch on) going to the desert, Cards fans can get a value of their own...with their tickets. Now you can see the NFL's most explosive wideout in Larry Fitzgerald and potentially the most must-see player on defense in Peterson with one ticket? Sign me up.

    Although the Cardinals may be hitting a rough patch, the Arizona faithful will still be thoroughly entertained on offense, defense, and special teams with the Fitzy-Pat Pete combo.

6. Making His Mark

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  Mark Ingram, #28 overall pick by the New Orleans Saints, holds up a jersey on stage during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Mark Ingram experienced a true storybook season in 2009 with Alabama. As a sophomore, Ingram rushed for over 1,500 yards, won the Heisman, and led his Crimson Tide to a National Title victory over the Texas Longhorns.

    However, Mark's junior year wouldn't be nearly as kind. He rushed for only 875 yards, watched the rival Auburn Tigers win the National Title game and battled through a nagging knee injury all year. 

    In a year's time, Ingram went from a top-five pick to a late first-round selection. His time came when the New Orleans Saints grabbed him with the 28th pick. Although it was an incredible moment for Ingram and his family, he probably knew he was worth an earlier selection.

    Can the Heisman winner return to form in his rookie season?

    Can Ingram put the knee injury behind him?

    And will Mark Ingram bring a new dimension to an already overpowering offense in New Orleans?

    We all know the Saints' passing game is excellent. So can the 28th pick give Sean Payton a dominant running game as well?

5. Boys to Men

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  Blaine Gabbert, #11 overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, holds up a jersey during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    One of the toughest tasks in all of sports is to be a starting quarterback as a rookie and that may be the case for a handful of guys.

    You have Christian Ponder of Minnesota and Jake Locker of Tennessee as virtual locks to start for their respective teams.

    You have Blaine Gabbert and Andy Dalton who may be their team's leaders depending on the incumbent situations. (Will Jacksonville dump Garrard and will Cincy trade Palmer?)

    And you have Cam Newton who will more than likely be replacing Jimmy Clausen in Carolina.

    So of the first five quarterbacks taken, all five have a more than legitimate chance of being the No. 1 guy. But if I had to predict it...Newton, Locker, Ponder and Dalton will all start while Gabbert spends the season learning behind David Garrard.

    Regardless, this is something to look forward to.

4. The Cincy Saga

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  A.J. Green, #4 overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals, holds up a jersey after he was drafted during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    If any team in the NFL needs to start over, it's Cincinnati. They've been the resident hard-luck losers for a while now and need something fresh.

    So for starters, the team drafted the promising wideout A.J. Green with the fourth overall pick and later selected TCU quarterback Andy Dalton with the 35th pick. 

    There is no doubt that these were two incredibly encouraging picks for the franchise. You get a wide receiver who has drawn comparisons to Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson. And then you get an underrated quarterback who has done nothing but win. 

    Now can Cincy find some takers on Palmer and Ochocinco?

    Can they replace their current QB-WR connection with Dalton and Green?

    If they can, it would be a positive step forward.

3. A-Town's Aerial Attack

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  Julio Jones, #6 overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons, holds up a jersey on stage during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Is Julio Jones really good enough for five draft picks in the next two years?

    Well Atlanta certainly hopes so because they're out of a first-rounder for next year.

    But if Julio Jones pans out to be the dangerous threat Atlanta think he'll be, the Falcons will give the New Orleans passing game a run for their money.

    Think about it...Matt Ryan throwing to Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and now Jones. Those are three players that could very well be top targets for other teams. So what better way to further develop Matt Ryan than throw the freakish athlete of Jones into the mix?

    Last year, Atlanta's offense was in the middle of the pack. They ranked 15th in passing, 12th in rushing and were 16th overall. Adding this extra dimension can only add to a team that has Ryan, White and Gonzalez through the air and Michael Turner on the ground.

    Take notice, NFL. The Falcons are on a mission.

2. Carolina on the Run

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  Cam Newton, #1 overall pick by the Carolina Panthers holds up a jersey on stage after he was picked during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Cam Newton had to be the pick for Carolina. Although it may have not been a sure-fire slam dunk, the selection of Newton dictates that the Panthers are committed to winning.

    But many may ask why the Panthers took a player who has so a list of question marks surrounding him.

    He only threw 280 passes with Auburn last season, he just burst onto the scene and he is perhaps the most controversial collegiate player in NCAA Football history.

    And to that, I say so what? The Panthers had to take this risk. Why? Because...

    —He has done nothing but win. Newton led Blinn College to the 2009 NJCAA National Title and then carried Auburn to the 2011 NCAA National Title.

    —He had arguably the greatest season in college football history. Newton won the Heisman by the largest margin ever, he won the National Title and became just the third player to throw and run for 20-plus touchdowns. 

    —His ceiling is as high as the heavens. Cam is 6'5", 248 pounds, and can run through and over defenses. If he can learn to pass under an NFL-style offense, there's no telling how great he will be.

    Not only does the pick give hope to Carolina, but it will give an immediate impact in the rushing game. In addition to having a mobile quarterback in Newton, the Panthers have perhaps the best running back combo in all of football with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. 

    With the exception of last season where Williams missed time, the Panthers have ranked third in the NFL in rushing offense for two years in a row, 2008 and 2009. When Williams is healthy along with Stewart and Cam Newton, the Panthers can literally run defenses off the field.

1. Kings of the Jungle

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  Nick Fairley, #13 overall pick by the Detriot Lions, holds up a jersey during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    When defensive tackle Nick Fairley dropped all the way to Detroit...

    How many jaws dropped?

    How many Lions fans rejoice?

    How many fans of the other 31 teams soil themselves?

    Probably a lot. And for good reason.

    With the pick of Nick Fairley at 13th overall, the Lions created perhaps the scariest combo in the entire NFL—Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. That's right, take it in. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.

    There's no need to explain the potential of this duo but I will anyway.

    For one, Detroit has Suh. Suh was the best draft pick in the league since Tom Brady. The Lions got the undisputed best player in the draft with the second pick. This guy is already on his way to Canton.

    And now they steal Auburn's Nick Fairley with the 13th pick. Not only should the Lions be arrested for theft, but for attempted murder of any quarterback they will face. Offensive tackles are going to fake injuries so they won't have to compete with these guys.

    Already drawing comparisons to the great Warren Sapp, Nick Fairley can prove his doubters wrong by translating his dominant play into the NFL. Adding the Lombardi Award winner will strengthen Detroit's defense and could finally catapult them back into the playoffs.

    Simply said, the combination of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley could very well be the best defensive tackle duo in the history of the game.