Which elite draft class of the past ten years has provided the most value in the NFL?

Quarterbacks

The strong quarterback class of 2011 is headlined by first overall pick Cam Newton. His breakout 2015 season was legendary — MVP, All-Pro, Super Bowl appearance. But outside of 2015, Cam has only been selected to two Pro Bowls and has a career 86.4 passer rating that ranks behind many of his peers Regardless, a solid first half of his career makes him a quarterback that you would love to have leading your pack of wolves onto the field. Behind Cam, the 2011 class has two Pro Bowlers: All-Average Team Captain Andy Dalton and briefly successful Tyrod Taylor. The class also includes first round busts Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and Christian Ponder — with a tasteful asterisk on Locker’s name due to injuries. The class is rounded out by “could have been” Colin Kaepernick, and journeymen TJ Yates and Ryan Mallett.

2014 was a tough year for first round quarterbacks. First round selections include Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, and Johnny Manziel. To summarize: failure to inspire, failure to break through, and failure to stay sober. To be fair, Bortles did put up 45 points in an AFC playoff game against the Steelers, Teddy has made a remarkable comeback from a devastating injury, The second round produced much better results, as Derek Carr made three consecutive Pro Bowls before his career ended abruptly by crying on the field. Jimmy Garoppollo looks promising as he hopes to complete his first full season as a starting quarterback. Tom Savage and AJ McCarron have been good backups. But there is no headliner of this class. There’s no quarterback that you would want to lead your team to the Super Bowl like you would with Cam Newton. And this is a quarterback-first league.

Tally to Cam Newton and the 2011 class.


Running Backs

Between these two draft classes, there was only one running back selected in the first round. That was 2011’s Mark Ingram, the Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama. After it was widely anticipated that Bill Belichick would draft Ingram, the Saints traded for the Patriots’ 28th overall pick to grab him. Ingram has been a consistent back in the NFL, totaling 6,000 yards and 50 touchdowns over eight seasons, and making two Pro Bowls in the process (2014, 2017). The next best Running Back taken in 2011 was DeMarco Murray, who saw his career slow down after a great stint in Dallas. The Patriots made up for the loss of Ingram by selecting Shane Vereen in the second round and Stevan Ridley in the third, both of which had solid careers in a very favorable system. In the late rounds, Bilal Powell and Dion Lewis had productive careers.

The best running back taken in the 2014 draft was the Florida State product Devonta Freeman, taken in the fourth round by the Falcons. Freeman has put together a great career, with multiple Pro Bowl selections and the reputation for being a hard nosed runner. Jeremy Hill had a strong first three years in the league, totaling 29 touchdowns from 2014-2016. Outside of Freeman and Hill, there have not been any consistent three down backs out of that class. Jerrick McKinnon, Carlos Hyde, and James White have all been solid contributors to their teams’ rushing attack, but none of them have truly excelled.

Since the journeyman backs in the two classes offset each other, we’ll compare 2011’s Ingram and Murray to 2014’s Freeman and Hill. As a testament to consistency and longevity, Ingram and Murray take the nod. Tally 2011.


Receivers

Both the 2011 and 2014 NFL Draft classes have been elite at the wide receiver position. 2011 saw two future All-Pros selected out of the SEC in the first six picks. A.J. Green was selected fourth overall by the Bengals, and Julio Jones. While Julio will likely enter Canton one day as the top dog, both players have been incredible for many years. They have been to 13 combined Pro Bowls and have served as building blocks for their franchises’ consistent playoff appearances While A.J.’s elite play has tapered off in the past couple of years, Julio enters his age 30 season in the prime of his career, and is now the league’s highest paid wide receiver. Behind this two-headed ball-catching monster are solid starters Torrey Smith, Randall Cobb, and here’s a big drop off in production after these two. Kyle Rudolph and Julius Thomas have had solid careers at the tight end position, but they are no Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz — both selected one year before in 2013.

2014 saw the rise of instant superstar Odell Beckham Jr. and talented, big-bodied Mike Evans. Beckham is the real gem of the class, breaking numerous records over his first few years in the league, including fastest receiver to reach 250 receptions (38 games) and 5,000 receiving yards (54 games). He’s slowed down in the past two years with injuries and poor quarterback play, but he looks to return to form with gunslinger Baker Mayfield. 2014 second-rounder Davante Adams has now reached WR1 status in Green Bay. Brandin Cooks, Allen Robinson, OBJ’s fellow Tiger Jarvis Landry. This is without mentioning serviceable first-rounders Sammy Watkins and Kelvin Benjamin This draft class is deep at the wide receiver position. It’s weaker at tight end, where Eric Ebron is the top player. To summarize, the 2014 represents top-end potential and depth, and 2011 represents long-term elite play from Julio and A.J. We’re going to give the edge to the 2014 class because Beckham, Evans, and Adams each have the potential to be Hall of Famers, and this class is significantly deeper.


Offensive Line

Let’s transition to the big uglies. In 2011, six Offensive Tackles were taken in the first round. They saw mixed success: the first three selected — Tyron Smith, Nate Solder, Anthony Costonzo have had fantastic careers and each spent several years on their original teams. Particularly Tyron Smith, who has been selected to six Pro Bowls and has been considered one of the league’s premier tackles since 2014. The remaining three first round tackles were James Carpenter, Gabe Carimi, and Derek Sherrod, of which only Carpenter was remotely worth the pick. The guard position was much weaker in this class, with Rodney Hudson as the only Pro Bowler to emerge from this class. First-rounder Danny Watkins’ heart was never in it in Philadelphia, and he only lasted four years in the league. This class redeems itself at center, where we have first-rounder Mike Pouncey, and successful late rounders Jason Kelce and Brandon Fusco.

The 2014 class had superstar Zack Martin, who is arguably the best Guard in the league, but also produced face-kicking Greg Robinson, one of the biggest busts of the past ten years. After being drafted second overall, Greg Robinson has bounced around the league and was traded for a sixth-round pick in 2017. In the interior line, 2014 also produced near-elite Trai Turner out of LSU, solid starter Gabe Jackson, and top-end Center Weston Richburg. At the all-important Tackle position, 2014 saw Taylor Lewan, Jake Matthews, and overpaid-but-good Ja’Wuan James selected in the first round. Charles Leno Jr. turned his seventh-round selection into a 2018 Pro Bowl selection, and is a good mention to round out this class’ depth.

Another close one. Let’s see the starting lineups: 2014 starts Taylor Lewan, Trai Turner, Western Richburg, Zack Martin, and Jake Matthews. 2011 starts Tyron Smith, Mike Pouncey (at Guard), Jason Kelce, Rodney Hudson, and Nate Solder. If I’m a quarterback, I would take the well-rounded 2014 line led by Martin and Lewan. Tally 2014.


Pass Rush

Here’s the scariest unit in any class of the past ten years. 2011 had nine edge rushers taken in the first round, and eight of them have made the Pro Bowl. We’ll list them in draft order: Von Miller, Aldon Smith J.J. Watt, too often forgotten DPOY Robert Quinn, Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Jordan, Muhammad Wilkerson, Cameron Heyward. It would be a legitimate question of whether that first round represents a draft class or an All-Decade team. The only first-rounder not to make a Pro Bowler? Adrian Clayborn, who has been to two Super Bowls in the past three years and has 32.5 career sacks. Not bad. Oh, and Justin Houston was selected in the third round. To add insult to injury, Marcell Dareus, Jurrell Casey, and Nick Fairley were the Defensive Tackles of this class.

It’s worth a mention that the 2014 class is still nasty on the Defensive Line, with future Hall of Famers Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack leading the class. Number one overall pick Jadeveon Clowney has also been a perennial elite player on the defensive line, along with fellow first rounders Dee Ford and DeMarcus Lawrence. Particularly Lawrence, who followed 2017’s 14.5 sack season with another double-digit total in 2018. At Defensive Tackle, Timmy Jernigan has also been a great starter for a Super Bowl winning Eagles team after revitalizing his career in Philadelphia. And it would be poor form to forget Stephon Tuitt, who has started for years for a stout Steelers defense. While 2014 has been great, 2011 is an all-time draft class for the pass rush group. 2011 sacks 2014 for the tally.


Linebackers

Linebackers. We’re not talking edge rushing OLB’s, we’re talking gritty, two-way linebackers — the heart and soul of any defense. The 2011 linebacker class was very thin. The highest selected LB was Bruce Carter, who could not match his stellar career at UNC in the NFL. Chosen in the fourth round, K.J. Wright has had a fantastic career, and starts alongside Bobby Wagner in 2019 as the only two remaining Seahawks from the Legion of Boom era. The list really trails after Wright, with names such as Nate Irving, Kelvin Sheppard, Jonas Mouton.

2014 was solid: Anthony Barr, Ryan Shazier, and C.J. Mosley were all taken in the first round. Shazier emerged as the best of the three, but his career was cut short by a devastating spine injury. We’ll see if he returns, but even just his first few seasons in the league made a massive impact to the position. C.J. Mosley is one of the best linebackers in the league, and is probably the scariest player to be tackled by in the league, possibly second to Vontaze Burfict. Anthony Barr is also a great player and C.J. Mosley are both considered solid starters in Later rounds: Kyle Van Noy, Christian Kirksey, Telvin Smith — pretty, pretty deep. We’ll stop there — tally 2014.


Secondary

Every defensive coordinator loves a shutdown guy. A corner that can put the top opposing receiver on an island. Patrick Peterson has been that player since he was drafted fifth overall out of LSU in 2011. Peterson has been so good that the Cardinals were able to build their entire defense around him. James Bettcher, the Cards DC from 2015-2017, was able to shift the team’s defense to the most aggressive blitzing scheme in NFL history because Peterson was that good. Rounding out the first round, Prince Amukamara was a bust for the New York Giants, but Jimmy Smith has had a respectable career for the Baltimore Ravens. The late rounds of the 2011 draft famously produced Richard Sherman out of Stanford, who is a great football player and an even better trash talker. 2011 did not have a lot of safety talent though, and top 3 selections Rahim Moore, Jaiquawn Jarrett, and Chris Conte are long out of the league.

2014 was more balanced, but did not provide a superstar like Patrick Peterson. Kyle Fuller was the best player selected that year, and he seems to be reaching his peak with a 2018 All-Pro selection. The 2014 first round saw four other corners selected, and they range from above-average Jason Verrett, to mediocre Darqueze Dennard and Bradley Roby, and bust Justin Gilbert. At safety, HaHa Clinton-Dix has been great for the Packers, but Calvin Pryor was quickly replaced by Jamal Adams after only three disappointing years in the league. Despite the weaker of the two safety classes, 2011 claims two of the best cornerbacks of the decade in Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman. Any DC would take mediocre safety play for those two shutdown corners, especially when Sherman was at Optimus Prime level. As Sherman would say, “When you try me with a sorry ass class like 2014, that’s the result you gonna get.”


Conclusion

2011 takes the close victory, winning the Quarterback and Running Back positions on offense, and the Pass Rush and Secondary groups on D. Because we love football here, we’ll give you a preview of that 2011 team. Oh baby, that is a scary defense.

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