The 2011 NFL Draft kicked off amid chants of “We want football”, and for a few hours anyway the focus was on the field and the draft board rather than the courtroom. Things got interesting quickly, with the Panthers wasting no time making Cam Newton the first overall pick, and three trades and a handful of reaches later the first round was in the books.
While the first frame was split evenly between both sides of the ball, defensive lineman constituted a dozen of the 32 picks and offensive linemen another eight. That left just eight skill position players going off the board in the first round, half of them quarterbacks. In fact, the biggest fantasy winner of the draft’s first day was actually Peyton Manning: while he added a left tackle (Boston College’s Anthony Castonzo) to protect his blindside, half of his divisional foes spent their first pick on quarterbacks (Washington’s Jake Locker to Tennessee and Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert to Jacksonville). That means the Titans didn’t upgrade their defensive line as expected, while the Jaguars ignored their anemic pass rush. And Houston passed on the opportunity to slap a Band Aid on the league’s worst secondary, opting instead for yet another defensive lineman (Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt).
But what of the incoming fantasy class? Here’s a rundown of the potential dynasty draftees coming out of 2011’s first round.
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers (1.1)
While the lockout prevented Carolina from openly negotiating with Newton and thus leaving at least a little suspense to Thursday night, nearly every mock draft had Ron Rivera marking his territory with a new quarterback. While Newton is far from a finished product, it’s not as if Carolina has a ton of options preventing him from immediate playing time. Under the tutelage of quarterbacks coach Mike Shula, who spent the past four seasons working with David Garrard in Jacksonville, Newton could sneak into fantasy relevancy primarily on the strength of his rushing scores; in Carolina he’ll be lucky to rack up half of the 30 scoring strikes he notched during his Heisman-winning season at Auburn, but if he mixes in a half-dozen rushing scores that makes the equivalent of 27 QB TDs and puts him on the cusp of fantasy starter status in TD-heavy leagues. Newton’s presence might also take a bite out of Jonathan Stewart’s fantasy value, seeing as the rookie has been known to call his own number at the stripe.
A.J. Green, WR, Bengals (1.4)
There’s little question neither Terrell Owens nor Chad Ochocinco will be back in Cincinnati next season, and while Jerome Simpson, Jordan Shipley, and Andre Caldwell weren’t bad last year it just wouldn’t be the Bengals without a true elite receiver. Whether it’s denial that Carson Palmer wants out, a kiss-and-make-up bouquet to their incumbent quarterback, or a top target for the rookie QB Cincy intends to take at the top of Round Two, the Bengals most definitely filled the playmaker vacancy in their wide receiver corps.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons (1.6)
Desperate for playmakers, the Browns passed on the opportunity to add one with the sixth overall pick; instead, they traded the selection to Atlanta for the Falcons’ first, second, and fourth-round picks as well as next year’s first- and fourth-round picks. That’s a steep price to move up 21 spots, but Jones is an elite receiver Atlanta can team with Roddy White to give Matt Ryan one of the most talented tandems in the league. Of course, fantasy-wise the problem with Jones is White... and Tony Gonzalez, at least for one more season, and the 25-plus carries per game Michael Turner will get. That’s a ton of weapons at Ryan’s disposal, which should be good for his fantasy value; however, Jones now spreads Atlanta’s offense across one more player--which can’t be good for anyone’s fantasy productivity, other than Ryan.
Jake Locker, QB, Titans (1.8)
The Titans dropped the first real bombshell of the first round, passing on Blaine Gabbert at No. 8 and opting instead for Locker. There’s little question Tennessee needed to address the position; Rusty Smith proved last season he wasn’t going to be the answer. But the pick of Locker over Gabbert caught many by surprise. Not that Locker doesn’t have many attributes of a quality NFL quarterback: the size, the arm, the leadership ability. Concerns about Locker’s accuracy threatened to knock him out of the top ten, though more recent reports indicate he has improved in that area. Like most rookie signal callers Locker would do well to have a year or two of understudy work in order to acclimate himself to the NFL, but with no veteran on the roster in Tennessee he may not be afforded such a luxury. At least he’ll have Chris Johnson to give the ball to, and a relatively low achievement bar set by the play of Vince Young and Kerry Collins.
Blaine Gabbert, QB, Jaguars (1.10)
After Gabbert slipped past Arizona at five, San Francisco at seven, and Tennessee at eight you had to figure it was a race to the phones to move up and get him. Maybe the Cowboys were asking for another Herschel Walker-type deal from Minnesota, or perhaps they thought Tyron Smith wouldn’t still be there at 12. When the Redskins came on the clock it appeared as if Mike Shanahan had his quarterback project. And then... suddenly Dan Snyder was trading down and acquiring more picks, with Jacksonville giving up its first- and second-round selections to move up six spots and give Jack Del Rio the new quarterback he never wanted. With Del Rio likely coaching for his job this season the move was curious, but clearly the coach isn’t calling the shots. Gabbert will have the opportunity to either sit behind or compete with David Garrard, who has four years and roughly $23 million left on the extension he signed three years ago--assuming that hefty price tag doesn’t cost Garrard his roster spot and give the starting gig to Gabbert outright. The Jags also need help at wide receiver, so even if Gabbert does move quickly into the starting lineup he’s hardly set up for fantasy success.
Christian Ponder, QB, Vikings (1.12)
If the Titans’ pick of Locker was a surprise and the Jags’ move to acquire Gabbert a shock, Minnesota’s reach for Ponder at 12 was a downright stunner. There was little doubt the Vikings needed to address the position, but after Gabbert went off the board two picks previous the assumption was that Minnesota would trade down and dip into the second tier of signal callers. Instead, with the Redskins (and Mike Shanahan’s apparent affection for Ponder) lurking at 16 and the Vikings’ potential trading partners all falling after Washington’s pick, Rick Spielman opted to, as NFLN analyst Mike Mayock likes to put it, “bang the table” for his franchise quarterback. Ponder is actually a decent fit in Minnesota; coming out of a pro style offense he’s the most NFL-ready of the top grouping of quarterbacks, and there are few if any questions about his intangibles, leadership, and decision-making. What prevented him from battling Newton, Gabbert, and Locker for elite status is a perceived lack of arm strength and an injury history that includes surgeries on his throwing elbow and shoulder. The Vikings believe in Ponder enough to go out on a limb for him, and with Ponder’s familiarity with a pro-style offense and little if any competition for the job he could be handing off to Adrian Peterson and throwing passes to Sidney Rice by Week 1.
Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Chiefs (1.26)
The Chiefs entered the day with the 27th overall selection, but when the Ravens ran out of time trying to consummate a trade with the Bears KC rushed to the podium with their pick; after all, the Ravens were believed to be in the market for a field-stretching receiver and could very possibly have been targeting Baldwin as well. Instead, it’s the Chiefs who add a complementary target to a passing game that last year featured Dwayne Bowe and little else. Baldwin has tremendous size (6-4, 228) and plenty of speed; he’ll not only give Matt Cassel another option down the field but also draw attention away from both Bowe and the Chiefs’ top-ranked running game.
Mark Ingram, RB, Saints (1.28)
Ingram seemed a lock to go to Miami at 15; instead the Dolphins opted to upgrade their offensive line and trust that they’ll find replacements for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams on their current roster, via free agency, or later in the draft. Then when the Patriots’ selection came up at 28 it appeared the 2009 Heisman winner would join the Law Firm in New England. Instead, the Pats acquired another first-round pick in next year’s draft—as well as a third second-rounder this year—from the Saints in exchange for the right to select Ingram. The former Crimson Tide star is an every-down back who’ll take a bite out of the productivity of all three returning Saints backs; in fact, Reggie Bush has already Tweeted his farewell to New Orleans. Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory saw their values take a hit as well, though perhaps they’ll be used as trade bait. After all, you don’t give up a future Number One for a guy who’s not the lead horse in your stable.
With Rounds Two and Three slated for Friday evening, look for an early run on the remaining second-tier quarterbacks; the Bills, Bengals, Cardinals, 49ers, and Redskins all missed out on the first run and will be fighting over Ryan Mallet, Colin Kaepernick, and Andy Dalton in the top third of the round. You can also expect the Giants, Patriots, Packers and Dolphins to consider additions to their respective backfield committees, with Ryan Williams, Mikel LeShoure, and Daniel Thomas among the top candidates. There’s also receiver talent still on the board, particularly for teams who feel the need for speed: Torrey Smith, Titus Young, Randall Cobb, and Jerrel Jernigan head up that group. And thus far the draft has been devoid of tight ends; expect that to change Friday night, with Kyle Rudolph topping most draft boards at the position.