jj watt2

During this driest of NFL dry seasons, the draft is torn down, reassembled, and deconstructed again (rinse and repeat), we’re reminded that each draft takes on its own unique characteristics and reflects the current league climate.

In 2005 three running backs were selected in the top five: Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, and Cadillac Williams. Nearly a decade later we recall that draft as a crushing failure and the beginning of the running back draft spiral. In the nine years since only three other backs were selected in the top five overall.

This year’s draft will almost certainly be driven by the passing game, just as it was three years ago but in a very different, and very defensive way. Let’s look back on 2011, and what’s already known as one of the great pass rusher drafts of all-time.

When you remember the 2011 draft, mostly you think about bad quarterbacks. Cam Newton is pretty alright, but the QB class promptly nosedives into Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and Christian Ponder – all cautionary tales. They were all first-round picks in 2011 in the top 12, and just three seasons later Gabbert isn’t on the team that drafted him. He’s a backup in San Francisco, while Ponder will likely stay in the same role behind Matt Cassell in 2014, and Locker is on his last chance.

Quarterbacks dominate our draft memory because they’re the anchor of an offense and usually also of a team, making both their triumphs and collapses louder than those at any other position. The QB busts stand out but the true story of the 2011 draft lies with the guys who make life generally awful for quarterbacks: pass rushers.

Highlighted by J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Robert Quinn, Ryan Kerrigan, Marcell Dareus, Aldon Smith, and Cameron Jordan, 10 edge rushers were selected among the first 32 picks. They’re all good at football, and as a group here’s what that 2011 DE/OLB first-round class has accomplished in just three seasons.

  • 9 total Pro Bowl appearances
  • 11 double-digit sack seasons
  • 251.5 total career sacks
  • Three pass rushers with 30 or more career sacks

Between Watt, Quinn, Miller, and Smith, the 2011 draft has seen four pass rushers either exceed or come close to the 20-sack mark in a season. J.J. Watt recorded 20.5 sacks in 2012 while flirting with Michael Strahan’s single-season record. Watt only went sack-less four times that season. Quinn, Miller, and Smith have all reached 18 sacks, with Quinn’s 19 finishing just behind league leader Robert Mathis this past season (Mathis had 19.5).

And that’s just the first round. Justin Houston ending up a third-round pick should have broken a law of some kind. But there he was at 70th overall, and three years later he has 26.5 career sacks and 14 passes defensed while forming a pretty scary tandem in Kansas City with Tamba Hali.

With the entire class just now entering their mid 20′s, career arcs are still ascending. Which is a terrifying thought, and barring injury or more off-field idiocy (see: Smith), we’ll continue to look back on 2011 and see it as a pass rusher factory.

What will the character and dominant theme of the 2014 draft be? As we’ve seen with the fall of running backs into the second round and beyond, draft tendencies reflect league strategies. Wide receivers could easily emerge as the royalty of this draft with six WRs — led by Sammy Watkins — projected to hear their names called in the first round.

Or, if the quarterbacks combust again, we’ll have one more year with multiple examples of what not to do on draft day.