If you’ve missed any of our previous pieces, you can catch them at 101-91, 90-81, 80-71 and 70-61 as we work our way toward our top player of 2011. As ever, our analysis team used some important criteria to help them 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.
Now let’s complete the first half.
60. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
While everyone was looking at Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown stepped up and became one of the league’s most productive receivers. Brown was our seventh-highest graded receiver despite only being on the field for 427 pass routes. He put forth a series of displays after Week 6 that highlighted his emergence as someone who could hurt you all over the field. If that’s not enough, Brown was also our second-ranked returner on the year, earning positive grades for his work running back kicks and punts. It seems something invariably happens when you get the ball in his hands.
Best Performance: Week 7 at Arizona (+3.2)
Key Stat: Finished third in the league averaging 2.59 Yards Per Route Run.
59. Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys
Over the past few years we’ve seen rookie tackles come into the league and struggle. You have to credit Smith for bucking that trend. He only had two games graded in the red (both courtesy of Jason Babin) as Smith established himself as one of the top right tackles in what is likely to be his only season (for the foreseeable future) at the spot. Overall, Smith graded positively in every aspect of his play as a rookie.
Best Performance: Week 4 versus Detroit (+4.8)
Key Stat: Had 10 games where he was either perfect in pass protection or gave up one pressure.
58. Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens
He’s still got it. Despite missing some time due to injury, Lewis still finished the year with the highest grade of all middle linebackers (playing predominantly in a base 4-3). This was achieved in part by his continued ability to make plays in the run game (+17.7 grade) while also rating positively for his pass rushing and work in coverage. The leader of the Ravens’ defense, his impact on those around him is felt beyond on his numbers on the stat sheet.
Best Performance: Week 4 versus New York Jets (+5.7)
Key Stat: On running plays, turned 13.7% of his snaps into a defensive stop. That’s the fourth-best figure in the league.
57. Calais Campbell, DE, Arizona Cardinals
Campbell isn’t always the best lineman against the run, but he is one of the most destructive when it comes to making plays rushing the passer. He finished second in our 3-4 DE rankings in large part due to the nine sacks, nine hits, and 29 hurries he tallied. He was also rather exceptional when it came to getting his hands up in throwing lanes as he led the league with nine batted passes.
Best Performance: Week 13 versus Dallas (+4.9)
Key Stat: Made more tackles (55) than any other 3-4 defensive end.
56. Marques Colston, WR, New Orleans
It’s easy for Colston to get lost in the shuffle when you consider the other components of the New Orleans offense, but when you start to think about it, he had a remarkable year. A mismatch that can operate in the slot and outside, he had the fourth-best drop rate, was ninth in the league with 2.42 yards per route run, and (including the post season) had the fourth-highest receiving grade of all wideouts. The Saints know how to get the best out of the former seventh-rounder and he continues to repay them with great seasons like this one.
Best Performance: Week 17 versus Carolina (+4.1)
Key Stat: Drew Brees had a 132.4 quarterback rating when throwing to Colston.
55. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Injuries hurt the numbers Peterson produced and created some long-term concerns. Let’s not forget how good he was in turning his 208 carries into 970 yards … only one running back had a better pure rushing grade than his +17.6. With just one fumble and better play in the passing game, he eliminated a lot of the negatives that have held him back to a degree. Simply put, when Peterson is healthy, he will make things happen regardless of what blocking he gets.
Best Performance: Week 7 versus Green Bay (+4.7)
Key Stat: Despite missing four games (and parts of others) finished the year with 12 rushing touchdowns; the second-highest amount of all running backs.
54. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Watt was that rare type of rookie who actually looked to get stronger as the season went on. He earned grades of more than +10.0 for both his work in the run game and in rushing the passer during the regular season. Watt also featured prominently in the Texans’ postseason with two superb displays that caught the attention of anyone watching. A high-motor player, Watt graded positively in all but three of his games in 2011.
Best Performance: Week 16 at Indianapolis (+6.4)
Key Stat: His 40 defensive stops were the second-most of any 3-4 defensive end.
53. Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers
The Packer receiver was something of a touchdown machine as teams struggled to devote enough of resources to stopping him from getting in behind defenses. He dropped only two passes while having the second-highest Yards Per Route Run of any receiver and was a quarterback’s best friend. Literally. When quarterbacks threw at him they had a 150.8 QB rating in 2011.
Best Performance: Week 11 versus Tampa Bay (+3.8)
Key Stat: Led the league in Deep Pass yardage (total amount of yardage on balls that travelled over 20 yards in the air) with 637 yards.
52. Jason Babin, DE, Philadelphia Eagles
If you put Jason Babin in a Wide-9 scheme, then you’re practically guaranteeing production when it comes to rushing the passer. That proved to be the case as he followed Jim Washburn to Philadelphia. In the end, he picked up 18 sacks, 12 hits, and 37 hurries that helped him earn the third-highest pass rushing grade of all defensive ends. Some Eagles fans complain about his lack of impact in the run game along with 12 penalties, but it’s a small price to pay when you can make the impact Babin does.
Best Performance: Week 15 versus New York Jets (+7.4)
Key Stat: Finished fourth overall in our Pass Rushing Productivity rankings.
Hali wasn’t able to replicate his 2010 season, but still put forth an extremely strong 2011 highlighted by his +26.9 grade for pass rushing. He did take a big step forward with his run defense, which graded positively for the first time. All of which combined to see him finish fourth in our 3-4 outside linebacker rankings. Hali was the only Chief to consistently generate pressure while also doing a good job in overcoming the increased attention.
Best Performance: Week 4 versus Minnesota (+7.4)
Key Stat: Had the fourth-highest number of combined sacks, hits, and hurries (63) of all 3-4 outside linebackers.
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