Eleven best members of the 2011 rookie class heading into 2021

Nearly 10 years ago to the day, Randall Cobb scored his first two NFL touchdowns, one on a 32-yard pass from Aaron Rodgers, the other on a 108-yard kickoff return, to help the Packers begin the 2011 season with a win over the Saints.

A few days after that, Julio Jones snagged his first regular-season NFL catch, a 3-yarder from Matt Ryan in Chicago to set up a field goal for the Falcons against the Bears. The next day, Von Miller recorded his first real professional tackle, on a forced fumbled against the Raiders.

Fast-forward to 2021. Not only are all three players still in the NFL — no mean feat in itself — but they all remain relevant and important to their respective teams, playing at a high enough level to keep up with younger players with fresher legs.

Before the 2021 NFL season begins, I thought I’d rank the best members of the 2011 rookie class right now, heading into their 11th pro campaigns.

Note that this is not an overall ranking of the class, which would surely include players like the recently released Cam Newton or the retired Anthony Castonzo. Note also that I included undrafted players — the only criteria for inclusion was beginning one’s NFL career in 2011 and remaining relevant today.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 2 overall.

Miller is turning 33 next March, when he is also set to hit free agency — but if this is his final season in Denver, I expect the eight-time Pro Bowler to go out with a bang. Barring catastrophe, Miller (who missed most of 2020) will be on the field with Bradley Chubb (who missed most of 2019) on a regular basis for the first time since Chubb’s rookie season in 2018, when they combined for a hearty 26.5 sacks. Strong coverage from the Broncos’ recharged secondary should give the pair even more time to wreak havoc with opposing QBs in 2021. The Dallas product is primed for a big year.

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Drafted: Round 1, No. 24 overall.

Jordan’s sack total was cut nearly in half, from 15.5 in 2019 to 7.5 in 2020, but some of the blocking attention he received from opposing offenses no doubt helped Trey Hendrickson break out with 13.5 sacks of his own. Hendrickson landed a free agent deal in Cincinnati this offseason, and the 32-year-old Jordan remains the Saints’ best defensive lineman, equally adept at stopping the run and bothering quarterbacks. It would be nice for Jordan and the team, of course, if at least one of the defensive ends drafted in the first round in recent years — Marcus Davenport and 2021 rookie Payton Turner — steps up to help immediately, especially given the team’s shakiness at cornerback, aside from Marshon Lattimore.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 6 overall.

When Jones is in uniform, he remains one of the NFL’s most dangerous receivers. The problem for him last season was staying on the field. If the 32-year-old can stay healthy, he is primed for a standout season catching passes from Ryan Tannehill, a strong-armed QB who can take full advantage of Jones’ deep-ball skills. Like his draft classmate, A.J. Green, Jones is in a new setting after spending the entirety of his career thus far with one team (Jones left Atlanta for Tennessee via trade and Green signed with Arizona after 10 seasons with the Bengals). And like Green, who is partnering with DeAndre Hopkins, Jones will have the benefit of working with a youngster who can command coverage from opposing defenses: A.J. Brown.

Drafted: Round 2, No. 55 overall.

I’m still stunned the Raiders moved on from one of the best centers in football, trading him to a Cardinals team that desperately needed help at the position. Hudson has allowed just three sacks in the past six seasons, and he’s an outstanding communicator. With Hudson helping in pass protection, dynamic QB Kyler Murray should have an easier time standing upright than he did last season, when he was slowed by a shoulder injury.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 31 overall.

Heyward has crafted a legacy that would make his late father, former NFL player Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, proud. The younger Heyward led all Steelers defensive linemen in tackles for a fourth straight season in 2020, and I expect him to do the same in 2021. Heyward’s presence also helped Stephon Tuitt rack up a career-high 11 sacks last season.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 9 overall.

I’m hoping injuries won’t keep Smith — who otherwise has Hall of Fame talent — from enjoying a long enough career to earn induction into Canton one day. He did just turn 30 in December. But he also hasn’t played a complete season since 2015, missing most of last season after undergoing neck surgery. A bounceback year as Dak Prescott’s blind-side protector would be huge, with the QB and team both looking for rebound seasons of their own.

Drafted: Round 6, No. 191 overall.

Don’t overlook Kelce because of his unit’s injury-related struggles or the poor performance of the team overall in 2020. He was the only offensive lineman on the Eagles to start all 16 games last season, earning Pro Football Focus’ 12th-highest offensive grade among centers (he was also graded as the fourth-best run-blocker). While Kelce’s three-season streak of first-team All-Pro nods ended in 2019, he did make his fourth career Pro Bowl team in 2020. It’s not hard to envision two members of Philly’s O-line from the past decade — Kelce and Jason Peters, who is currently with the Bears — generating Hall of Fame talk someday.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 11 overall.

I don’t think we’ll see Watt — who is one of only three players, along with Lawrence Taylor and Aaron Donald, to win Defensive Player of the Year three times — at his peak. But I do think he’ll enjoy a strong season on what could be one of the NFL’s most dangerous defenses, boosted by defensive coordinator Vance Joseph and the pass-rushing talent around him. Watt’s leadership abilities are already paying dividends in Arizona, where he has quickly assumed a role as a vocal standard-bearer.

Drafted: Undrafted.

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Harris’ first season with the Chargers did not go as planned because of a foot injury that cost him seven games. He should be much happier in 2021, operating in new coach Brandon Staley’s scheme, where he’ll switch between the slot and outside coverage responsibilities (and maybe even spend time at safety).

Drafted: Round 1, No. 5 overall.

After a decade in the desert, the ex-Cardinal headed for the colder climes of Minnesota, motivated in part by a desire to play under Mike Zimmer. The Vikings’ secondary underwent a complete overhaul over the past two seasons, and Peterson is set to play a starring role. The eight-time Pro Bowler slimmed down (to 195 pounds) — a wise move, considering the gradual decline in production we’ve seen from him over the past few seasons. 

Drafted: Round 2, No. 64 overall.

I don’t expect Cobb to reach the peaks he hit in his outstanding prior run with the Packers (2011-18). But the strong bond between him and quarterback Aaron Rodgers could go a long way toward sparking a revival from Cobb, who is set to step into the slot role Green Bay has struggled to fill since Cobb left two years ago.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter.

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