When Panthers quarterback Cam Newton lines up across from Broncos pass rusher Von Miller on Sunday, it will be the first time players selected with the first two picks in one draft have appeared in the same Super Bowl.
“The 2011 draft class – there were a lot of special guys there, man,” Newton, the top pick that year, said this week. “You look at J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Julio Jones, A.J. Green. It’s crazy.”
He could have gone on and on.
Fifteen players taken in the first round in 2011 have been selected to at least one Pro Bowl. A third-rounder, Kansas City’s Justin Houston, led the league with 22 sacks in 2014, one shy of the NFL record. The player taken just after Houston, running back DeMarco Murray, was the league’s 2014 rushing leader and broke Jim Brown’s 1958 record with eight consecutive 100-plus-yard rushing efforts to start the season.
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That Newton and Miller are the best players on their respective squads only strengthens the mystique of the 2011 class.
The 2011 draft class – there were a lot of special guys there, man.
Cam Newton, Carolina quarterback and the No. 1 draft pick in 2011
That season also was a banner year for new 49ers general manager Trent Baalke. He landed Jim Harbaugh as his head coach, then played the free-agent market perfectly in bringing in low-cost, high-yield veterans Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner and Jonathan Goodwin.
To top it off, his 10-man draft class was a home run with several members – from Aldon Smith to Chris Culliver to Bruce Miller – making key contributions that year. At the end of the season, one in which the 49ers came within an overtime fumble of the Super Bowl, Baalke was named the NFL’s Executive of the Year.
The problem is that Baalke’s remarkable 2011 haul has all but disappeared in recent years. Harbaugh is long gone. So is every member of that season’s free-agent class.
And the players Baalke drafted that year? Let’s go one by one, listed by round:
1. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith: He was booted from the team before the 2015 season after another arrest. Smith was signed by Raiders, and he had 3 1/2 sacks in nine games before the NFL suspended him for a year. Of the 15 first-rounders in 2011 who have gone to the Pro Bowl, Smith is the only one who isn’t with the team that drafted him.
2. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick: He was benched after eight games in 2015 and his future with the team is in limbo. The New York Daily News reported this week that Kaepernick wants to leave the 49ers and the Jets are his top destination.
3. Cornerback Chris Culliver: He embarrassed the 49ers in the run-up to the Super Bowl three years ago, then was picked on in the game. The 49ers allowed him to leave in free agency last year and he now plays for Washington.
4. Running back Kendall Hunter: The 49ers cut Hunter last year after he was slow to recover from an ACL tear. They could have used him later in the season when they were low on runners, but a paperwork snafu prevented it.
5. Center Daniel Kilgore: After being injured for most of 2015, he regained his starting spot late in the season and gave the offensive line stability it lacked in his absence.
6a. Wide receiver Ronald Johnson: He was overmatched during training camp and was released before the 2011 regular season.
6b. Safety Colin Jones: The 49ers saw Jones as a special-teams ace. They traded him to the Panthers in 2012. Jones appeared in 15 games this year for the NFC champions with three starts at safety.
7a. Fullback Bruce Miller: He’s one of the better fullbacks in the NFL, but he now plays for a coach, Chip Kelly, who didn’t have a fullback on the roster when he was with the Eagles.
7b. Tackle Mike Person: He was released before the 2011 regular season and now plays center for the Falcons.
7c. Cornerback Curtis Holcomb: He tore his Achilles’ tendon before his rookie training camp and didn’t play a snap for the 49ers.
When the 2016 season begins, it’s possible Kilgore will be the only player from that 10-man draft class on the roster. The 2011 draft has crumbled quickly, and so has Baalke’s standing.
But the 49ers’ general manager has a chance to rebuild it.
Baalke again hired an aggressive, offensive-minded coach in Kelly whose reputation was built largely on what he did in the Pacific-12 Conference. The 49ers also are expected to have more salary-cap space than all but two teams, which signals a big free-agency haul.
And, like 2011, Baalke will go into the draft with a lot of selections – 12 this year – including the same first-round spot, No. 7, at which he took Smith five years ago.
Can Baalke recapture his old magic? That appears to be his approach.