Perhaps never will the "paralysis by overanalysis" of prospects take place as much as it will in the next three weeks. It can be argued that the 2011 draft is going to have more buildup and hype than ever. With no big-name free-agent signings to eat up hours of your broadcasting day, it's going to be all draft, all the time on the sports networks starving for player news. It's only going to make the uncertainty about who will go where and when at the top of the first round even more pronounced.
In a typical draft year, a lot of the projecting a player's draft status is affected when a team addresses a glaring need in free agency. In 2008, the Vikings were faced with a pressing question as to how to address defensive end? The team had been dismal in generating a pass rush and was expected by most analysts to focus on an end with their first-round pick. Like 2011, it was viewed as a big year for defensive ends in 2008, but, by the time the Vikings picked at No. 17, there would be at least two of them gone – Chris Long of Virginia and Vernon Gholston of Ohio State. The rest was a crapshoot.
Had a love affair between Jared Allen and the Kansas City Chiefs not gone sour, the Vikings likely would have been forced to draft an end. There were several prospects being touted and three of them – Long, Gholston and Derrick Harvey – were gone on the first eight picks. Had the Vikings needed to make a pick at No. 17, their options were Lawrence Jackson of USC, Phillip Merling of Clemson, Calais Campbell of Miami and Quentin Groves of Auburn. All were linked to the Vikings prior to the blockbuster Allen trade. None of them, with the exception of Long, who was taken by St. Louis with the second pick in the draft, has turned out to be dominant NFL players and most of them can best be described as pedestrian.
The Vikings came out of the Chiefs trade significantly better for the deal. They gave up three draft picks to do it, but, considering the options they would have had at No. 17, it was a brilliant decision with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. What makes the draft great is that you don't have that sort of perspective at the time you make the pick. Every pick has the potential to be a star. The team loves them and, in many cases, expresses shock that a player of his talent was still available. The Chargers were firmly convinced Ryan Leaf could do as much or more as a pro quarterback than Peyton Manning could in the 1998 draft. Hindsight has made Leaf a punch line, ironically in the same draft where more than half the league decided it wanted nothing to do with Randy Moss.
The 1998 draft highlighted a sentiment that has been expressed many times since – the "one-year wonder" syndrome. Manning, while viewed by many scouts as a QB that didn't win the big game, was a four-year workhorse. Leaf had one big season and it propelled him to the top of the charts in that draft class. The Chargers organization was set back for years by the decision and the Colts have been the most consistently successful franchise in the free-agent era.
What makes this year's draft so intriguing is that there isn't just a single "one-year wonder" that is being discussed in the conversation about how the top five picks will pan out – there are three.
The Carolina Panthers sit with the No. 1 pick and have a couple of glaring needs – an obvious conclusion when your 2010 record was so bad that you "earned" the first pick in the next year's draft – quarterback and defensive line. While most scouts view Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert as the most likely to be a successful NFL quarterback, his name has been scarcely mentioned as a possibility for the Panthers' first pick. Much more attention has been paid to Auburn's Cam Newton.
Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner and national champion, has played a total of 14 Division I college football games – for hard-liners, he did throw 12 passes in two years at Florida. He has a suspect character, but is supremely athletic. Offensive coordinators and QB coaches need a lobster bib to catch the drool when they watch game film from last year. He made some unbelievable plays, but it is expected that he will be the Day One starter. With 14 games of experience behind him, his 15th start will be in the NFL.
For the purpose of comparison, Gabbert has started 26 games. Jake Locker has started 40. Ryan Mallett has 29. Christian Ponder has 35. Colin Kaepernick has 47. The disparity is enormous. Drafting Newton will be done largely on the belief that what he showed last year with a national championship team and raw potential will translate to the NFL. The last one-year wonder QB that went with the top pick was JaMarcus Russell in 2007. He's out of football and it might not be much longer that he's out of prison.
If the Panthers don't roll the dice on Newton, it won't be long until somebody does. It could be Buffalo at No. 3. It could be Cincinnati at No. 4. It could be Arizona at No. 5. In what many think is a worst-case slide scenario, he ends up in Washington at No. 10. The red flags of history are not only waving, they're on fire. The team that drafts Newton will have limited actual game film to watch– good and bad – and will be so limited that they are going on a hunch. A gut feeling. They will be rolling the dice on the next three or four years that he will be a savior and not a scourge. Such pressure has made a lot of inexperienced quarterbacks crack.
Where the Panthers and the other teams at the top have compounded concerns is that two other players being included in the mix for their No. 1 pick are defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Marcell Dareus. Fairley has 16 career college starts. Dareus has 15. Fairley blew up in 2010. After recording 1.5 sacks in 13 games (two starts) in his first year at Auburn, Fairley notched 11.5 last year and his performance in the BSC Championship game was so dominant, anyone who saw that game could attest to his talent. Dareus was part of a rotation as a sophomore in 2009. He was a full-time starter in 2010, yet his production was essentially the same as it was when he was on and off the field.
Both players have minimal experience as full-time starters yet have the intangibles that get scouts to drop their jaws. Like Newton, both Fairley and Dareus are players that were intriguing as NFL teams finished the 2010 draft and started looking forward to the 2011 draft crop. Less than a year later, all three could not only be blue-chip draft picks, there are logical scenarios in which they are the first three picks of the draft. If that isn't enough to make the 2011 draft interesting, the hype leading up to Decision 2011 will dissect all three and justify why teams draft them or don't.
Hindsight won't become 20/20 for two or three years, but when talent and inexperience meet, history has taught us that talent wins out on draft day, but not as much in the long-term.
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John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.