The NFL can seem like a world dominated by quarterbacks, but did you notice who won the Super Bowl last season? It was the Broncos, who had Peyton Manning in name alone; the future Hall of Famer threw nearly twice as many interceptions (17) as touchdowns (nine). The Broncos were led to that Super Bowl by their defense, which dominated the regular season and held three of the league's best offenses to a combined 44 points in the playoffs.
The centerpiece of that defense: star pass rusher Von Miller, who piled up five sacks in three games and was named Super Bowl MVP. If Miller was the best defender in the postseason, the best defensive player of the 2015 regular season was otherworldly Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who led the league in sacks (17.5) and quarterback hurries (50). In addition to serving as helpful ambulatory examples of the word "disruptive," Watt and Miller have something else in common: They were both taken in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft.
We have a ways to go, but we may very well be watching the prime years of the best defensive draft class to ever play the game.
The 2011 class did deliver a certain MVP named Cam Newton, but the vast majority of the draft's output has been from the other side of the line of scrimmage. In fact, forming a starting lineup from that 2011 class produces a terrifying defense. If you line them up in a 4-3, you can go with Watt at one defensive end spot across from the Rams' Robert Quinn, who had a 19-sack season as recently as 2013. Jets end Muhammad Wilkerson would kick inside to play tackle alongside massive Bills nose tackle Marcell Dareus, forming a devastating two-way front four.
Now consider the back end. The AFC West came away from the 2011 draft with a pair of terrors at outside linebacker. We can slot Miller alongside Chiefs star Justin Houston, who has averaged more than one sack per game over the past three seasons. The interior isn't quite as laden with talent, but we can move Seahawks cover linebacker K.J. Wright into the middle.
Throwing on this team? Good luck. Our cornerbacks are an NFC West tandem; Arizona's Patrick Peterson and Seattle's Richard Sherman are both capable of shutting down top talent. The lone weak spot comes at safety, where the likes of Da'Norris Searcy and Chris Conte would be competing for starting reps. But that's not much of a complaint.
The scariest thing, perhaps, is the players I haven't named who narrowly miss out on this team. Chris Harris was an undrafted free agent in 2011 before turning into a perennial Pro Bowl corner in Denver. Jimmy Smith, Byron Maxwell and Buster Skrine could easily step in as nickel corners. Aldon Smith was as dominant a pass rusher as there was in the league before his career unraveled. Ryan Kerrigan and Pernell McPhee are dominant at their best, as is defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. Cameron Jordan has made two Pro Bowls and can't even sniff this team. The talent level in this class is unreal. It is already historic.
What can rival it? The best defensive draft in post-merger NFL history is almost definitely the class of 1981, which produced five Hall of Famers on the defensive side of the ball: Lawrence Taylor, Ronnie Lott, Howie Long, Mike Singletary and Rickey Jackson.
That '81 class made 15 first-team All-Pro appearances through its first five seasons in the league, a staggering number. The defenders of 2011? They have 16 All-Pro appearances in their first five seasons. Watt, Peterson, Sherman and Miller have been awarded the honor multiple times. The offensive players from that same draft have combined for just four All-Pro appearances over that span.
Can the class of 2011 live up to the lofty heights of 1981 and send five defenders to Canton? It's not out of the question. Watt faces some injury concerns, but he's probably already done enough to justify enshrinement. Every eligible two-time defensive player of the year has made it to the Hall of Fame, and Watt has already won the award three times.
The same logic also suggests that Peterson and Sherman have already done enough to get in. Of the 25 Canton-eligible, post-merger defenders who were named first-team All-Pros three times during their careers, 16 (64 percent) made the Hall of Fame. Both NFC West cornerbacks have done that before the sixth year of their respective careers. Miller, who has racked up the same honor two times, is knocking on the door. The fifth Hall of Famer isn't quite as clear, but with Dareus (when not suspended), Houston and Quinn all regularly producing dominant seasons, there are reasons to be optimistic.
You can make the case that this is an offensive era. Enlightened by college football, it's a pass-heavy league with tempo everywhere. Offenses averaged 22.8 points per game last year, the fifth-highest figure in NFL history.
But ... Denver's run to the Super Bowl with some of the league's worst quarterback play tells us again just how impactful a team with several star defenders can be. Offenses are better-schemed and better-coached than ever, but a great defense can still rip their plan to shreds. And the class of 2011 has delivered more world-class, game-changing, opponent-destroying defenders than any other draft in 30 years.