Day 2 of the countdown to our top player of 2011, and time for today’s second piece as we get nearer to the top. You’ve already read the parts that looked at 101 to 91, 90 to 81, and 80 to 71, so up next we’re breaking down the players who were judged to be between the 70th- and 61st-best players in the NFL in 2011 by our analysis team.
As ever, it’s important to remember some of the criteria used:
• 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.
Let’s continue counting down.
70. Adrian Wilson, S, Arizona Cardinals
After Wilson admitted he was disappointed with his 2010 season, the accountable safety showed exactly how good a player he is in 2011. One of the premier “in-the-box safeties” around, he made a reputation rushing the passer, but it was that overstated part of his game that represented the least accomplished facet of his season. Alternatively, he ended the year with eight pass breaks up to go with an interception that helped him pick up our highest coverage grade of all safeties. Throw in some stout work in run defense and Wilson returned to being one of the league’s best, not just one of the most hyped.
Best Performance: Week 14 versus San Francisco (+4.0)
Key Stat: Tied for second among safeties with 25 defensive stops in the run game.
69. Brodrick Bunkley, DT, Denver Broncos
There wasn’t a player in the league like Bunkley last year. He may as well have had his position renamed ‘destroyer’ because it seemed he was sent out on the field simply to dismantle the center across from him; so good was he the Patriots essentially schemed to get him off the field. The reason Bunkley is relatively low down on this list is because he was purely an early down player that only got on the field for 485 snaps in the regular season. That, however, didn’t stop him from picking up a +28.4 run defense grade. Top of the tree among defensive tackles.
Best Performance: Week 11 versus New York Jets (+6.5)
Key Stat: 11.3% of all run plays he was on the field for ended up with him making a defensive stop. Highest of all defensive tackles.
68. James Harrison, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Only injury prevented Harrison from finishing higher, as he was still able to turn his 681 regular season snaps (including plays with pre snaps penalties) into a +23.6 grade. That was the sixth-highest grade of all 3-4 outside linebackers, with the Steeler once again ending the year with a positive grade in every category (except for penalties). The most complete outside linebacker in the league, the former undrafted free agent can do it all and that doesn’t look to be changing any time soon.
Best Performance: Week 3 at Indianapolis (+6.6)
Key Stat: Had the third-highest Pass Rushing Productivity among outside linebackers who rushed the passer at least 200 times. 40 combined sacks, hits, and hurries on just 235 pass rushes will do that.
67. Joe Thomas, OT, Cleveland Browns
While Thomas was his usual excellent self in pass protection, his run blocking was somewhat sub-standard and that (along with the nine penalties) is why he finds himself lower than you might expect him to be. Still, you want your franchise left tackle to keep pressure off your quarterback and his league-leading +20.0 grade in this regard confirms his excellence in that area.
Best Performance: Week 7 versus Seattle (+4.6)
Key Stat: In 12 games this year he was either perfect in pass protection or gave up just the one pressure.
66. Eric Weddle, S, San Diego Chargers
Weddle has been so good for so long that it’s about time everyone just accepted he’s an elite safety that earned his big contract from the Chargers. The free safety finished the year with seven interceptions to go with four pass deflections and was responsible for only 110 receiving yards given up while in coverage. His work in the run game didn’t stand out quite as much, but he still earned a positive grade. A fine player perfectly positioned to take over the mantle of the league’s top safety as others get older and begin to regress.
Best Performance: Week 4 versus Miami (+4.0)
Key Stat: His seven interceptions and four pass break ups combined were the same number as the number of completions he allowed, 11.
65. Duane Brown, OT, Houston Texans
The project is finished, with the once-developmental tackle now a bona fide stud blindside protector. Brown gave up just four combined sacks and hits, as he did an exceptional job of keeping his QB upright. His run blocking was a tad inconsistent, but his agility still helped set up the Texans’ dominant ground game. Showed up in a big way in a playoff defeat to Baltimore where he was one of the few players able to handle Terrell Suggs this year.
Best Performance: Week 15 versus Carolina (+3.9)
Key Stat: The only starting tackle not to give up a sack in 2011.
64. Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers
If you include the playoffs, Smith had the highest grade of all defensive players for pass rushing, registering an incredible 17 sacks, 17 quarterback hits, and 43 hurries. The only reason Smith is so low is that he was a purely situational pass rusher, who didn’t see the field in the 49ers’ base package, giving him somewhat of an advantage with his pass rushing. Still, for the rookie to come in and make that kind of impact can’t be understated, and his position on this list should highlight that.
Best Performance: Week 13 versus St Louis (+7.9)
Key Stat: Was the most productive pass rusher in the entire league. You can read all about it here.
63. Mike Wallace, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
With teams showing Wallace more respect, he wasn’t quite able to make the same impact as he did in 2010. That’s more a complement to his sophomore season than a knock on this one where he picked up 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s becoming more than just a go-route and bubble screen receiver as teams did everything they could to stop him from getting behind them. Wallace remains a player capable of changing a game like few others.
Best Performance: Week 2 versus Seattle (+3.4)
Key Stat: Only dropped four passes all year, giving him the 11th-best drop rate of all receivers.
62. Brent Grimes, CB, Atlanta Falcons
Grimes earned himself the franchise tag with another fine year. He did miss time hurt, though, and that explains why he is only 62nd in the rankings after finishing the year with our third-highest coverage grade and only giving up one penalty. While only one interception will keep significant media attention off him, by deflecting 12 passes and seeing just 44.6% of passes into his coverage completed, he’s proved himself an elite cornerback in our eyes.
Best Performance: Week 11 versus Tennessee (+3.4)
Key Stat: Gave up just 0.58 yards per snap in coverage. The lowest of all cornerbacks in the league.
We often bemoan that as good as Harvin is, the Vikings don’t do a good enough job of making the most out of him. Managed 1,320 yards from scrimmage as well as making a couple of game-changing plays on special teams. Essentially, if you get the ball in his hands he’s going to make something happen, and that’s reflected with his sixth-overall grade in our receiver rankings.
Best Performance: Week 13 versus Detroit (+3.8)
Key Stat: The seventh-most productive receiver in the league averaging 2.5 Yards Per Route Run.
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