While the league’s labor dispute played out in the courts, and the commissioner struggled to speak over a howling crowd chanting “We want football,” the draft got under way Thursday night with some surprises.
Newton was not one of them.
The Auburn quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner went to the Carolina Panthers – the worst team in the league – and vowed to immediately fix that. Newton led Auburn to an undefeated season and its first national championship since 1957.
“I’m ready to change this whole organization around, to go from worst to first,” he said. “Just being a Panther is the most special part about this.”
Not so special but certainly unusual was Commissioner Roger Goodell getting booed as he prepared to conduct a moment of silence for victims of the devastating storms that ripped through the South. He responded to their chants for football by saying, “I hear you. So do I.”
With the second pick, Denver took Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller, a plaintiff in the antitrust lawsuit players filed to block the lockout. He strode across the stage with tears in his eyes and embraced Goodell.
It was a strange opening for what normally is a festive occasion. In an offseason of labor strife, the league’s work stoppage temporarily ends today. Teams will resume business in compliance with U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson’s order to lift the lockout.
Then again, the lockout could be back in place if the NFL wins an appeal. For now, the drafted players will be allowed to report to their teams, meet coaches and get playbooks. The rest is vague.
Moments before the draft began, Goodell requested a moment of silence for victims of Wednesday’s storms, which left at least 280 people dead in six states and hundreds more injured. On stage, he was surrounded by the Auburn and Alabama stars and their coaches.
Of those stars, none shined brighter than Newton, who showed last season he can handle the spotlight.
With the third pick, Buffalo selected Alabama nose tackle Marcell Dareus, who gave Goodell an even bigger hug. Of course, Dareus weighs 308 pounds, about 70 more than Miller.
Cincinnati, perhaps calling the bluff of quarterback Carson Palmer, who is demanding a trade, instead took the top receiver in this crop, A.J. Green of Georgia.
Arizona, also in need of a quarterback, selected the top cornerback available, Patrick Peterson of LSU.
Just six picks in, Atlanta cut a massive deal with Cleveland and moved up from No. 27 to grab Alabama receiver Julio Jones – the fifth Southeastern Conference player in the first six.
The Browns received the Falcons’ first-rounder, second- and fourth-rounders, plus their first pick and fourth-rounder in 2012.
San Francisco chose defensive end Aldon Smith of Missouri to bolster a weak pass rush, then the second quarterback was selected: Washington’s Jake Locker to Tennessee.
After Dallas went for offensive tackle Tyron Smith of Southern California with the ninth pick, Jacksonville saw a chance to get its future quarterback. The Jaguars moved up six slots for Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert, dealing their first-round pick and a second-rounder to Washington.
Houston bolstered its weak defense with Wisconsin end J.J. Watt at No. 11 before yet another QB was chosen: Florida State’s Christian Ponder, who impressed Minnesota with his workouts. That meant four QBs went in the first dozen selections.
Auburn DT Nick Fairley, once projected as a top-three selection, was chosen 13th by the Lions.
St. Louis, undeterred by Robert Quinn’s lost season — the linebacker-end was suspended from North Carolina for his role in an agents scandal — took him at No. 14.
Mike Pouncey, whose twin brother, Maurkice, was a sensational rookie center for Pittsburgh last year, was chosen by Miami to play the same position.
Washington then took Purdue linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. Cleveland traded again, from No. 27 to 21st for Baylor DT Phil Taylor, with Kansas City sliding to 27th.
One player who dropped from a projected top-10 slot to 19 was Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara, taken by the Giants.
New England addressed concerns about protecting Tom Brady by taking Colorado tackle Nate Solder. Archrival Indianapolis took Boston College tackle Anthony Castonzo to help protect Peyton Manning.