We’re now over halfway through our Top 101 players of the 2011 NFL season, and we’re about to move a step closer to the top. After unveiling our No.’s 60-51 earlier today (to go with the already-published 101-91, 90-81, 80-71 and 70-61 ), we’re now heading into the Top 50.
Our analysts (who created the list after one of the lengthier discussions of each man’s life), used some select criteria to help create the list:
• 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 kick off the second half of our Top 101.
50. Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants
Nicks saved his best play for when it mattered most, picking up a +7.7 receiving grade for his work in the postseason. His regular season wasn’t too shabby either as he finished among our Top 10-ranked receivers after picking up 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns (helped by breaking 13 tackles). Still, it was his work in the playoffs that propelled him up this list as he proved a difference-maker in the Giants’ reaching, and winning, the Super Bowl.
Best Performance: Divisional Playoff at Green Bay (+3.2)
Key Stat: Had 445 yards in the post season, 148 more than any other receiver.
49. Darren Sproles, RB, New Orleans Saints
The Saints’ scatback had some productive years in San Diego, but was a perfect fit in New Orleans and he responded to his new home and contract with 1,327 yards from scrimmage. Defenses just couldn’t cope with Sproles who, under the guidance of Sean Payton, was used in a variety of ways to create all sorts of mismatches. The end result was a +12.7 grade, though the Saints would be wise to limit his time pass protecting where he struggled more than he ever did in San Diego. He also made a big contribution in the return game, finishing the year as our top-ranked all-around returner.
Best Performance: Week 9 versus Tampa Bay (+3.4)
Key Stat: 14 of his 87 carries went for 15 yards or more; the best percentage of all backs in the league.
48. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Stuck behind an offensive line that continues to give up pressure on a consistent basis, Roethlisberger had to work harder than most for his 4,077 passing yards. That’s all the more remarkable considering he played with a severely injured ankle which also forced him to miss time. Even so, his performances still propelled the Steelers to the playoffs in a way numbers can’t adequately quantify.
Best Performance: Week 2 versus Seattle (+3.6)
Key Stat: Completed 54.8% of passes when pressured; the fifth-highest of all quarterbacks.
47. Julius Peppers, DE, Chicago Bears
Peppers continues to repay the investment the Bears made in him, showing an ability to make good tackles look sub standard and then some. A real every-down player (remember when people thought he took plays off?), the former Panther once again graded positively in both run and pass defense on his way to finishing sixth overall in our defensive end rankings. Graded in the green in 10 games.
Best Performance: Week 12 at Oakland (+7.7)
Key Stat: 70 combined sacks, hits and hurries were fourth-most of all defensive players in the league.
46. Nick Mangold, OC, New York Jets
What’s this? Nick Mangold not the top center. Are we crazy? At times, clearly, but not here we believe as Mangold lost a step on the competition after missing time through injury and had a couple of games that were very un-Mangold-like. In the second half of the season, though, he did more than enough (outside a mauling at the hands of Brodrick Bunkley) to finish in the Top 50, as he ended 2011 with our second-highest grade among centers. Such is his ability, however, that may be enough to qualify as a down year by his standards.
Best Performance: Week 14 versus Kansas City (+4.6)
Key Stat: Gave up four combined sacks, hits, and hurries in Week 1, and then just four more for the rest of the year.
45. Ray McDonald, DE, San Francisco 49ers
When McDonald was limited to life as a situational/ backup defensive linemen before 2011, there wasn’t much to suggest he’d become an overly productive player for San Francisco. Well, the 49ers’ DE showed what he was capable of with a quite brilliant 2011 where he wore down offensive linemen, and made all sorts of plays in a team that likes to share them out. Finished with our third-highest regular season grade, before destroying the right side of the Giants’ line in the Conference Championship game. A huge and underrated part of the league’s best defense.
Best Performance: Week 3 at Cincinnati (+5.7)
Key Stat: Only graded negatively once all season.
44. Cortland Finnegan, CB, Tennessee Titans
Let’s be honest, people don’t like Finnegan. His brash style rubs some the wrong way, and as a result they really hate giving him credit when it’s due. This is largely built on what he did before 2011, but with the Titans tweaking how they used him (no more tracking a team’s top receiver, instead moving into the slot in their nickel package) Finnegan put forward a fantastic year. He finished third overall in our cornerback rankings, thanks in large part to his versatility and excellent work in run defense. There aren’t many cornerbacks who are as active as the new Ram on every down.
Best Performance: Week 2 versus Baltimore (+5.2)
Key Stat: Allowed just 8.8 yards per reception; the lowest of any cornerback on the field for more than 500 snaps.
43. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
Forte was on pace to finish much higher before suffering a serious injury in Week 13 against the Chiefs that ended his season. As it was, he still finished the year with our fourth-highest grade of all running backs, helped by averaging 4.9 yards per carry and breaking 39 tackles. Dangerous in space, he finished fourth in receiving yardage among all backs. In an age where the running back by committee is preferred by many, Forte is a true every-down player who can produce in a number of situations.
Best Performance: Week 1 versus Atlanta (+5.0)
Key Stat: Had 1,487 yards from scrimmage despite missing nearly a quarter of the season.
42. Steve Smith, WR, Carolina Panthers
As bad as the Panthers’ quarterback play was in 2010, Smith himself didn’t help matters with a year that suggested he could be on the decline. He halted those fears with a stellar 2011 where he finished fifth in the league in receiving yards, second among receivers in forced missed tackles, and seventh in yards after the catch. His ability to go deep (14 receptions for 538 yards) was crucial to Carolina and Cam Newton moving in the right direction.
Best Performance: Week 4 at Chicago (+3.8)
Key Stat: Caught 62.2% of passes thrown to him at 17.6 yards a pop.
Playing in Jacksonville, Smith is the perfect example of a player overlooked because of his home market. Our top-ranked conventional 4-3 outside linebacker, Smith graded positively in every area of his game as he continued to make play after play in an improved Jaguars defense. Turned his 83 pass rushes into 10 quarterback knock downs and three hurries (third-best of his peers), managed a defensive stop on 10.6% of all his plays (third among outside linebackers), and broke up eight passes to go with one interception (most of all 4-3 OLBs). However you look at it, Smith is a truly remarkable talent that requires more praise.
Best Performance: Week 5 versus Cincinnati (+4.7)
Key Stat: Made more defensive stops in the run game than any other outside linebacker (43).
Follow us on Twitter: @ProFootbalFocus