Santa clara, calif. – Sometime Sunday, Von Miller will speed around the Panthers offensive line and run into Cam Newton. The very possibility of that collision tells the story of recent NFL history, the importance of the NFL draft, the nature of the modern NFL athlete, and, as always, the transformative impact of Tim Tebow.
The Carolina Panthers finished 2-14 in 2010, compiling more losses than the Vikings ever have in one season. That season the Denver Broncos finished 4-12.
The Panthers used the first pick in the 2011 NFL draft to select Newton instead of one of the other top-rated quarterbacks, Jake Locker or Blaine Gabbert. By placing their faith in Newton, and ignoring the supposed red flags in his past regarding character, they landed the presumptive NFL MVP.
Even with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway taking charge of the Broncos' front office, Denver with the second pick in the draft chose the best speed rusher available in Texas A&M's Von Miller. The Broncos had spent a first-round pick the previous year on Tim Tebow and had one of the NFL's worst defenses.
Even after Miller was the most important player on the field in the AFC Championship Game, that pick can be second-guessed, because the 2011 draft may be the best in recent history.
Newton should become the league MVP. J.J. Watt is a once-in-a-generation defensive star. The Falcons traded a slew of draft picks to take Julio Jones at No. 6, and he has rewarded them by becoming perhaps the NFL's best receiver. The Bengals chose receiver A.J. Green with the fourth pick, and he is a star.
Marcell Dareus, Patrick Peterson, Aldon Smith, Tyron Smith, Mark Ingram and Ryan Kerrigan are among the other players who justified their first-round selections either with their talent or their production.
With the 12th pick, the Vikings chose Christian Ponder, one spot after Houston took Watt.
Here's what the 2011 draft taught us:
1.Reaching for the wrong quarterback is the most common and understandable mistake in the NFL, and is only permanently damaging if the team invests years of wasted development in that player. Ponder was a bust, but the Vikings moved on quickly enough to get back to the playoffs in 2015 while buying time to rebuild their roster. Locker reminded some scouts of Brett Favre and Gabbert had the NFL build and arm.
2.If you believe in a player, go get him. The Falcons fell hard for Jones and traded five draft picks to Cleveland for him. The Browns used those picks on Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson, Greg Little, Phil Taylor and Owen Maracic. The Falcons easily won a 5-for-1 trade.
3.Some players become great well after the draft. Watt's work ethic made him a star. There was a reason 10 teams passed on him. He became much more explosive once he entered the NFL.
4.Great prospects aren't always comparable to great players of the past. Newton is 6-5, 248 pounds and can run over or around linebackers. There never has been an accurate passing quarterback of his size and speed. If the Panthers wanted a quarterback who looked more like Joe Montana or Tom Brady, they would have taken Gabbert.
5.One draft can transform a franchise — but that doesn't happen very often. This will be the first time the first two picks in a draft will face each other in the Super Bowl. This also is the only top-two duo in a draft to go on to be All-Pros in the past 10 years.
6.You never know who is going to affect a team's decision, and for what reason. Legend has it that Panthers owner Jerry Richardson signed off on Newton after discovering that Newton had no tattoos. If Newton had a neck tattoo of a Bronco, he might be quarterbacking Denver on Sunday. Elway didn't care about Miller's tattoos.
There's one more thing you might want to know about that likely collision between Newton and Miller. The quarterback is 6-5, 248. The fearsome defender is 6-3, 249. If Newton eats a cheeseburger Saturday night, Miller might be outweighed by the guy he's trying to bring down.