After much individual prep work and a marathon discussion between Neil Hornsby, Khaled Elsayed, Ben Stockwell and Sam Monson, a Top 101 was created using these criteria:
• It was based solely on 2011.
• It was based on an ethos of all positions created equal. This isn’t about the most valuable players; otherwise there would be a lot more quarterbacks. This is about looking at what is expected from a position and who most exceeded that.
Now it’s time to start things off!
101. Chris Gamble, CB, Carolina Panthers
A real bounce back year for Gamble as the cornerback was able to find the form that deserted him a season earlier. He showed his class with a string of good performances that saw him allow just 27 receptions for 338 yards whilst he was in primary coverage all year. Those kinds of numbers should let you know teams shied away from throwing at him, and when they did, they got little joy with quarterbacks picking up a 53.3 QB rating in his coverage.
Best Performance: Week 15 at Houston (+3.5)
Key Stat: Gave up just 0.68 yards per route in coverage. The third lowest of all cornerbacks in the league.
100. Erin Henderson, LB, Minnesota Vikings
A contentious pick, some argued Henderson shouldn’t have made the list because he was limited to a two down role for most of the season. It says something about just how good he was in 2011 that he still earned a spot in our Top 101, helped by finishing fourth overall in our 4-3 outside linebacker rankings. His numbers don’t particularly jump out at you and scream excellence, but when you factor in his more limited snap count, you start to see a very special player
Best Performance: Week 4 at Kansas City (+3.1)
Key Stat: Was the top-ranked 4-3 OLB in our Run Stop Percentage “Signature Stat” that looks at how many defensive stops a player made solely on running plays relative to how many snaps he is on the field for running downs.
99. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks
What a rookie year from Sherman who assumed a starting role in Week 8 and never looked back, turning his 785 snaps into a spot on this list. Actually earned our fourth-highest grade of all cornerbacks in coverage, but hurt his stock with a rather disappointing nine penalties that almost saw him fall off the list. In the end, though, we couldn’t overlook a fine year he’ll have trouble bettering as a sophomore.
Best Performance: Week 11 at St Louis (+2.6)
Key Stat: Gave up receptions on just 46.4% of balls thrown at him when he was in coverage.
98. Josh Sitton, G, Green Bay Packers
Another good year for Sitton who in our guard rankings finished fourth overall for his pass blocking, and fifth with his run blocking. His pass protection was a particular highlight with him only allowing his QB to hit the ground three times all year. Not as dominant with his run blocking as the other guards on the list (and seven penalties are too many) but still another fine year from a fine player.
Best Performance: Week 1 versus New Orleans (+5.1)
Key Stat: Gave up just nine pressures (two sacks, one hit and six hurries) all year.
97. Brian Orakpo, OLB, Washington Redskins
The Redskin outside linebacker continued his rise to be one of the most productive pass rushers in the league with another excellent season. Finished fifth out of 3-4 OLBs with a +26.0 pass rushing grade, but remains something of a one dimensional weapon who failed to make much of an impact in run defense. You live with that because he’s capable of taking over a game with his speed off the edge.
Best Performance: Week 4 at St Louis (+8.1)
Key Stat: Finished the season with 59 combined sacks, hits and hurries.
96. London Fletcher, LB, Washington Redskins
Two Redskins on the bounce and as you would expect from us this is far more than simply recognition for a lifetime of productivity from Fletcher. Of all 3-4 inside linebackers Fletcher finished fifth, grading positively in every area of his game. Not bad for a soon to be 37-year-old. Had the third-highest number of tackles in the league, notched up 17 QB disruptions and even broke up four passes to go along with two interceptions. A complete year from a complete player.
Best Performance: Week 11 versus Dallas (+5.3)
Key Stat: Allowed a completion rate of just 60% into his coverage. Second lowest of all inside linebackers.
95. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
While we weren’t always sold on his passing (-9.4) Newton brought so much more to the table than just that, as evidenced by his +8.3 overall rating, the number of records he broke, and how he re-energized a franchise that seemingly was going nowhere. Will occasionally throw the odd ball that makes you question his sanity, but stood up and made so many plays we couldn’t leave him off the list.
Best Performance: Week 4 at Chicago (+5.6)
Key Stat: Ran the ball for 14 touchdowns, breaking 19 tackles in the process. That was the same number of tackles broken as DeAngelo Williams, Michael Bush, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
94. Alan Branch, DT, Seattle Seahawks
During his time as a Cardinal we’d seen flashes from Branch, but nothing to suggest he was capable of playing like he did in 2011. None of his numbers really jump out, but his game was about so much more than what can be measured on a stat sheet. A disruptive presence, Branch was the type of player who redirected runs and facilitated others on his team racking up the stats. The Seahawks player personnel department is doing a great job of finding defensive players; using them to highlight their strengths, and reaping the rewards.
Best Performance: Week 14 versus St Louis (+3.3).
Key Stat: Had our third-highest grade of all defensive tackles in run defense (+19.2).
93. Asante Samuel, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Some may want to write Samuel off, but if his 2011 is anything to go by he still has it. He gave up just two penalties and two touchdowns all year while picking up three interceptions and breaking up six passes. Previous form (as someone who often jumps routes and gets beat on doubles moves) is held against him, but it didn’t show up an awful lot last year.
Best Performance: Week 14 at Miami (+4.6)
Key Stat: Gave up just 296 yards all season long.
92. Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks
His beast mode run against the Saints in the 2010 playoffs seemed to have awoken something in Lynch, who put forward his best year to date with a 1,203 yard season. Wasn’t always helped by his blocking, but found a way to make yards by simply shrugging off would be tacklers like they had no right touching him. Not much of an every down threat, he did however pick up 13 total touchdowns.
Best Performance: Week 13 versus Philadelphia (+3.3)
Key Stat: Broke 52 tackles as a rusher, the second most of all running backs (only Michael “I faced Tampa twice” Turner had more).
Long has long divided opinions amongst PFF staff (pun intended). We respect his pass rushing, but detest his run defense. This year he was the ultimate sellout as he seemingly gave up on playing the run and just zeroed in on the quarterback. It meant that he managed just 15 defensive stops in the run game all year (despite playing 385 snaps in run defense), but also that he led all defensive ends with 83 combined sacks, hits, and hurries.
Best Performance: Week 8 versus New Orleans (+5.5)
Key Stat: Every single one of his pressures came rushing from the left side. Did not attempt one pass rush from the defensive right end position.
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