With just three seasons under its belt, the 2011 NFL Draft is already one of the most acclaimed in league history. It’s chock-full of dirt-cheap superstars at nearly every position on both sides of the ball, and these young assets won’t come at a discount for much longer.
ON July 21, 2011, the NFL was monumentally changed for players who had yet to enter the league. Then the lockout ended and a new CBA was installed, one that radically altered rookie salaries and the structure of their deals … mostly in the way that they restored the status quo of newbies being at the bottom of the economic totem pole.
(That’s not entirely true for every player, of course. The first pick in the draft still makes over $20 million over the course of his four-year contract, a sizable sum, but the annual average value (AAV) of $5.5 million is a far cry from Sam Bradford’s albatross of a deal signed under the old CBA.)
With the new rookie wage scale that harkens to the NBA’s slotting system for first-round picks, the only real negotiating that can go on nowadays is in the form of collateral. As No. 1 pick quarterbacks, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck were naturally able to get the entirety of their contracts guaranteed, while Kansas City offensive tackle Eric Fisher — who played exclusively on the right side last season — netted roughly $16.7 million.
The 2011 draft class was the first to feel the affects of the draconian cuts for rookies. Newton still raked in $22 million, but it’s 28 percent of what Bradford got from St. Louis (and $28 million less in guaranteed money). The savings have been a boon for front offices everywhere, allowing teams to spend elsewhere and accumulate depth while paying their franchise quarterback pennies on the dollar for almost a half-decade. Luck, Newton, Andy Dalton, Nick Foles, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson were ushered into the league under the new CBA and all of them already have at least one postseason appearance to their names. Wilson already has a ring.
But while Dalton, Kaepernick, and Newton have all enjoyed various degrees of success, 2011 was famous for a lot more than its quarterbacks. It is arguably the strongest draft of the twenty-first century, with only 2007 being able to boast a serious claim in opposition*. Multiple Defensive Player of the Year-worthy players litter the first-round, as do All-World receiving talents and the best young pass-blocker in the NFL. 20 Pro Bowlers in total were selected**, a staggering number for a draft that is just now approaching its third anniversary.
The paydays are coming for these underpaid superstars, but franchises have one last resort if they want to stall on a long-term extension. Teams now have the choice to exercise a fifth year option on all first-round pick contracts, and it comes at a steep price; top-ten picks receive the transition tender (the average salary of the ten highest-paid players at their position), and those picked 11-32 are paid the average salary of the 25-richest at their position (with the top three excluded). It’s the equivalent of a young man’s franchise tag, and it can come with the risk of alienating a star player that is hungry for his second contract on the open market.
The extensions will eventually come, though, and not all of 2011’s studs are burdened with the fifth-year option. Descending by pick number, let’s take a look at some of the players that will soon be able to refer themselves as among the best compensated at their positions.
1. Cam Newton
2013 stats: 24 TD, 13 INT, 4,051 yards, 7.1 Y/A, 5.90 NY/A, 5.69 ANY/A
Career stats: 64 TD, 42 INT, 11,299 yards, 7.7 Y/A, 6.58 NY/A, 6.20 ANY/A
This is a no-brainer for the Panthers. As Carolina’s first marketable star at the game’s most important position, and barring a disastrous 2014 season, Newton will get a $100 million deal amid much fanfare and celebration for the franchise. 2013 was actually a down year for Cam when ignoring completion percentage and quarterback rating for efficiency metrics that are quite a bit more informative, but Carolina made the playoffs last season and Newton’s rushing statistics remain excellent. He’ll remain the most wealthy member of his draft class whenever the Panthers decide to open the checkbook.
2. Von Miller
2013 stats (9 games): 34 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
Career stats (40 games): 166 tackles, 35.0 sacks, 11 forced fumble, 1 interception
Miller is an interesting case for John Elway to deal with. He was far and away the best 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL in 2012, being stout against the run and nothing short of transcendent as a pass-rusher, ending the year as Pro Football Focus’ fourth-best rated player in the entire league. But the former Aggie was suspended for the first six games of 2013 for cheating a drug test, and he wasn’t quite the dominant force upon his return as he was in his sophomore campaign, perhaps missing the presence of Elvis Dumervil on the edge. If Miller approaches anything close to his 2012 form next season then he will see a massive payday, but the drug-related suspension will probably give Denver more leverage in negotiations than they had once expected. And it’s going to be quite difficult for them to open their wallets and retain Miller given Elway’s all-or-nothing spending spree this offseason as he tries to capitalize on Peyton Manning’s final years. Miller is one of the most likely on this list to get his payday wearing a different uniform, although that is still hard to picture.
4. A.J. Green
2013 stats: 180 targets, 98 receptions, 7 drops (3.9%), 1,426 yards, 14.6 Y/R, 11 TD
Career stats: 460 targets, 260 receptions, 18 drops (3.9%), 3,833 yards, 14.7 Y/R, 29 TD
With two All-Pro seasons to his name and a reputation as one of the game’s most sure-handed pass-catchers, Green has solidified himself as a top-five (and perhaps top-three) receiver in the NFL. He will likely become the NFL’s third $100 million receiver after Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson, and it will be interesting to see if he approaches the overall numbers of their matching contracts (seven years, $113 million) or Johnson’s whopping guaranteed figure ($48.75 million).
2013 stats: 3 interceptions, 42 tackles, 13 pass deflections
Career stats: 12 interceptions, 161 tackles, 43 pass deflections
Originally bursting onto the scene as the league’s best return specialist, Peterson rebounded from a rocky rookie season in pass coverage to develop into one of the NFL’s best man corners. He was the only returning starter from one of the best pass defenses in 2012, and Arizona’s secondary was once again a premier unit in Peterson’s third year. That says a lot about his ability to shut down the opponent’s best receiver — Deion Sanders recently called Peterson the best comparison to Prime Time, not Richard Sherman — and it’s safe to say he’ll be one of the three highest paid corners in the NFL by the time the Cardinals extend him.
6. Julio Jones
2013 stats (5 games): 60 targets, 41 receptions, 2 drops (3.3%), 580 yards, 14.1 Y/R, 2 TD
Career stats (34 games): 285 targets, 174 receptions, 11 drops (3.9%), 2,737 yards, 15.7 Y/R, 20 TD
Foot injuries are no joke. Jones finally seemed to overtake a hobbled Roddy White as Matt Ryan’s number-one receiver in 2013 only to miss the last 11 games of Atlanta’s nightmare season after undergoing surgery for a fracture in his left foot, the same one he had a screw inserted in before the 2011 draft for an unrelated injury. But Jones was leading the league in receptions before disaster struck, and he is arguably the NFL’s most talented (non-Megatron) physical specimen at the position. His health in 2014 will dictate whether Jones gets a contract that rivals Green’s or a figure that’s closer to half of that.
7. Aldon Smith
2013 stats (11 games): 34 tackles, 8.5 sacks
Career stats (43 games): 137 tackles, 42.0 sacks, 5 forced fumbles
For all the headaches he’s caused San Francisco, Smith is on pace to be an all-time great pass-rusher. Despite missing five games last year, he has the third-most sacks in NFL history through a player’s first three seasons***, just one-and-a-half behind second-placed Derrick Thomas (in four less games). But the 49ers’ concerns with him are legitimate. He’s been busted for two DUIs since joining the team, was involved in a fight that resulted in him receiving multiple stab wounds, and has been charged with the illegal possession of an assault weapon in relation to the incident. The second DUI forced him to enter rehab in the middle of the 2013 season. And while Smith is a prodigal talent at getting to the quarterback, he isn’t nearly as well rounded of a defender as Miller and won’t receive the same amount of guaranteed money because of it. How San Francisco goes about paying their dominant linebacking corps (Smith, Navarro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, and Patrick Willis) should be fascinating to watch unfold.
EDIT: Also, getting caught saying “bomb” in an airport may not help you in negotiations, either. I feel for Aldon’s agent.
9. Tyron Smith
Smith was a revelation last year. For a guy that was originally considered to be somewhat of a project coming out USC at a mere 20-years-old, he has already developed into one of the league’s dominant blindside blockers. Smith’s ballerina feet and massive wingspan turned him into a second-team All Pro at the prescient age of 23, and he only looks to get better from here on out. In the second half of the season, PFF only graded him negatively in one game — against the Rams, owners of the league’s most talented defensive line. Dallas seems keen on exercising Smith’s fifth-year option and delaying a long-term deal as long as possible, but Smith could be poised to become the league’s highest-paid tackle in the 2016 offseason.
11. J.J. Watt
2013 stats: 80 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 7 pass deflections, 15 tackles for loss
Career stats: 217 tackles, 36.5 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, 27 pass deflections, 47 tackles for loss
What more is there to say about Watt that hasn’t already been lavished upon him? He’s been the NFL’s best defensive player since he was 24, and his 2012 season is one of the greatest in the history of football. Given his premium position and his status as the league’s best combined pass-rusher and run-stopper, Watt will soon be the league’s richest defender. And deservedly so.
14. Robert Quinn
2013 stats: 57 tackles, 19.0 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, 12 tackles for loss
Career stats: 109 tackles, 34.5 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, 15 tackles for loss
Quinn lagged far beyond the star power of fellow 2011ers like Miller, Smith, and Watt in his first two NFL seasons, but he was an absolute monster last season, pressuring quarterbacks often (PFF’s leader in defensive hurries) and always hitting them hard (a mind-boggling seven forced fumbles in 2013). He had a good case for Defensive Player of the Year, and at just 23-years-old it is pointless in trying to place a ceiling on his abilities. Quinn could be paid more than Miller or Smith since he has a clean rap sheet, something that no one would have predicted at this point a year ago.
35. Andy Dalton
2013 stats: 33 TD, 20 INT, 4,293 yards, 6.9 Y/A, 6.68 NY/A, 6.29 ANY/A
Career stats: 80 TD, 49 INT, 11,360 yards, 6.6 Y/A, 6.24 NY/A, 5.89 ANY/A
Dalton is a rare breed — a statistically serviceable quarterback that no one really believes in. With three horrific performances in three career playoff games, 2014 may be a make-or-break year for the signal-caller. He finished 12th in Y/A in 2013, 13th in AY/A, ninth in NY/A, and 11th in ANY/A, but he’ll turn 27 halfway through the 2014 season and already has 48 starts to his name; Dalton can’t rely on age as an excuse since his play has generally been static over the years. As evidenced by the contracts given to Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco, though, teams may be willing to pay dearly for stability at the quarterback position.
36. Colin Kaepernick
2013 stats: 21 TD, 8 INT, 3,197 yards, 7.7 Y/A, 6.52 NY/A, 6.65 ANY/A
Career stats: 31 TD, 11 INT, 5,046 yards, 7.9 Y/A, 6.78 NY/A, 6.96 ANY/A
I spoke enough about Kaepernick’s contract situation here to refrain from delving any deeper. Naturally, of course, TMZ reported the 49ers’ quarterback was being investigated for an alleged sexual assault just weeks after I wrote about why San Francisco should pony up to his demands.
While 43rd pick Kyle Rudolph languishes in Minnesota, Cameron and Thomas enjoyed breakout seasons in 2013 … with vastly different quarterback situations. While supplemented by the presence of the league’s second-best receiver in Josh Gordon, Cameron led the league in receiving yards for non-Jimmy Graham tight ends despite dealing with a quarterback rotation of Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer, and Brandon Weeden. Thomas emerged as the physical freak that Denver drafted him to be, adding another dimension to a record-breaking passing attack that was spearheaded by the best to ever sling it; Thomas’ 12 touchdowns led the team. Neither are quite Graham or Gonk-esque talents, but an encore 2014 season for either could lead to them asking for a contract similar to Vernon Davis’.
154. Richard Sherman
Another player that needs little introduction. As a former fifth-round pick whose rookie contract isn’t eligible to be flexed for an extra season, the All-Pro and Super Bowl champion Sherman could (and should) ask for Darrelle Revis money in 2015. But general manager John Schneider is a very smart man, and he can certainly see how Revis’ whale of a contract has already led his departure from two teams in two years despite still being able to lay a claim as the NFL’s best cornerback. Sherman’s demands and subsequent negotiations should be some of the most entertaining to observe given that Seattle also needs to fit Earl Thomas and Russell Wilson into their cap.
SOME further autopsy:
There are some other very good players in this draft class that will be rewarded handsomely over the next two seasons, namely Wilkerson (30), Nate Solder (17), Cameron Jordan (24), Torrey Smith (58), Randall Cobb (64), Justin Houston (70), and Jurrell Casey (77) . Guys like Marcell Dareus (3), Nick Fairley (14), and Ryan Kerrigan (16) could go either way on their next contracts, having shown flashes of brilliance in their first three years but needing to stay consistent and healthy through 2015 to justify a big payday from their teams. Mike Pouncey (15) is one of the best young centers in the league, but his off-the-field shenanigans in relation to the Aaron Hernandez fiasco and a terrible 2013 season from the Dolphins’ offensive line may have depressed his value a bit. He had to have been salivating at Alex Mack’s new deal with Cleveland, though.
Very few definitive busts are present in the first round of 2011, and the highest profile among them are quarterbacks. The jury is still out on Jake Locker (8), although his stock is certainly trending downward as he heads into his fourth season, while Blaine Gabbert (10) and Christian Ponder (12) will probably be replaced by new rookie signal-callers in May. Offensive linemen are the other weak point. Derek Sherrod (32) is still a mystery in Green Bay, Anthony Castonzo (22) has disappointed for Indy, James Carpenter (25) couldn’t cut it as a tackle and has been banged up as a guard, and Danny Watkins (23) and Gabe Carimi (29) didn’t make it to a third season with the teams that drafted them. In terms of skill players, Jonathan Baldwin (26) will be out of the league before the next presidential election.
But that’s a matter of attrition; the simple law of averages. With 32 picks, some are always good, some are always bad, and the variance between the two options often determines the strength of that particular draft in the eyes of pundits. In the 2011 edition, I count multiple players that are among the best in the league at their positions. There are at least five guys in that bunch that are already playing at a DPOY level, and the three best quarterbacks already have a combined six playoff trips on their resumes.
It’s an embarrassment of riches that should provide the backbone for the league through the rest of the decade, one that may one day be seen as the defensive equivalent of 1983. It’s that good, and a lot of them will be paid accordingly.
* 2007 gave us six elite players in Calvin Johnson (2), Joe Thomas (3), Adrian Peterson (7), Patrick Willis (11), Darrelle Revis (14), and Ryan Kalil (59), but its big name busts — the most prominent being No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell, an all-timer — probably prevent it from getting more praise.
** This number doesn’t include Pro Bowl snub Muhammad Wilkerson, a second-team All-Pro selection last season for the Jets.
*** Four of the top 11 on that list were 2011 draft picks. Eight make an appearance in the top 100.
Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.