Lost in all of this chaos, it seems, were the representatives of the Stanford Cardinal football team, who turned out one of the best draft classes in recent memory.
Following up Stanford’s impressive 2010 draft class seemed like a tough task, considering that the Cardinal sent three players to the NFL: Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart (selected in the 2nd round by the Minnesota Vikings), standout tight end Jim Dray (selected in the 7th round by the Arizona Cardinals) and defensive end Erik Lorig (selected in the 7th round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Somehow, though, the 2011 class topped its predecessor, sending four players to four different teams, all taken between the 3rd and 6th round (the last time Stanford had four players drafted was 2006).
Sione Fua, Stanford’s standout defensive tackle, was the first player to come off the board. Drafted with the No. 33 pick in the 3rd round (No. 97 overall) by the Carolina Panthers, Fua will be entering a team in the midst of a rebuilding period, a fact that bodes well for his starting potential. Because of his size, Fua will most likely transition either to defensive end in a 3-4 front or defensive tackle in a 4-3 front, and could serve at least a year in a back up capacity as new head coach Ron Rivera organizes his team. However, considering the Panthers’ depth at defensive line, Fua could very well be asked to step in sooner.
Next off the board for Stanford was fan favorite Owen Marecic, 2010’s only two-way player in FBS college football. Drafted at the No. 27 spot in the 4th round (No. 124 overall), Marecic has the chance to make an immediate impact. The Browns could potentially be parting with their Pro-Bowl fullback Lawrence Vickers via free agency, which puts Marecic in the perfect position to assume the starting job. The bruising fullback will join a very talented backfield that includes Peyton Hillis (Cover athlete of Madden NFL ’12), Mike Bell and Montario Hardesty, and could very well revive a form of power run offense in the West Coast Offense scheme of new head coach Pat Shurmur.
The third Cardinal to go was cornerback Richard Sherman, who was taken in the 5th round by the Seattle Seahawks (No. 154 overall). Sherman entered the draft with a good amount of hype, as scouts seemed to love his combination of size and athleticism, which is likely what pushed him into the middle rounds. Considering his size along with the lack of secondary depth in Seattle, Sherman should at least be asked to play on a rotational basis as a man-to-man corner against taller receivers on the outside.
Last to come off the board for the Cardinal was wide receiver Ryan Whalen, who was drafted in the 6th round (No. 167 overall) by the Cincinnati Bengals. Whalen may be entering an apparently sealed competition at receiver in Cinci, but don’t count him out. With Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens both likely to be on their way, the Bengals will be looking to fill at least one vacancy (I would say two, but 1st round pick AJ Green is a lock to take the first empty spot). Whalen may not be the most athletic receiver, but his extremely high football intelligence and sure hands should find him a spot on the roster as a slot receiver or a third down specialist.
While that may have been all for the draft, the market for undrafted free agents should open up at some point in the next few months (providing the NFL does come to an accord on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement), and the Stanford prospects still left could very well find a home. Offensive tackle Derek Hall could easily find a spot on a team in need of depth at right tackle, and outside linebacker Thomas Keiser will likely be picked up by a team that is in need of a pass rusher, but will be willing to give him the time to develop.
It’s good to see Stanford active once again in the NFL. After a grand total of zero players were drafted in 2008 and 2009, the Cardinal have racked up seven draft selections, and seem on pace to continue to hold to, or perhaps even top, the last two years. With star quarterback Andrew Luck at the top of a list of Stanford players likely to enter next year’s draft, who knows how many players we’ll see on NFL fields in 2012 representing the Cardinal.