If you’ve missed it, you can catch up with the previous countdowns (101-91, 90-81, 80-71, 70-61, 60-51 and 50-41) by clicking on their nicely highlighted links. If you’re new to what our Top 101 is all about then know this 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.
Let’s count down from 40.
40. Fred Jackson, RB, Buffalo Bills
Jackson missed six games and yet still had our highest rating for all running backs. That’s how good he was in 2011, and it makes you wonder how much higher he could have gone if not for injury. He was electric to start the year, as the Bills went from laughing stock to playoff contender. Numbers say it all as Jackson averaged 5.5 yards per carry (best for all backs with 150 plus carries), 3.7 yards after contact per carry (most of all backs) and 11.2 yards per reception (the 2nd most of any back with at least 20 receptions). Stunningly productive.
Best Performance: Week 3 versus New England (+3.9)
Key Stat: Finished second in our 2011 Elusive Rating after averaging 3.75 yards after contact and forcing 45 missed tackles.
39. Aaron Hernandez, TE, New England Patriots
More than a tight end, Hernandez is a weapon wherever the Patriots line him up and whenever they get the ball in his hands. Sam Monson looked at this in detail here, but however you paint it, Hernandez had the fourth-highest amount of yards of all tight ends and was a difference maker for the Patriots. Opposing defensive coordinators are yet to get a grasp on how they need to set up their defenses to slow the tight end down.
Best Performance: Week 15 at Denver (+6.4)
Key Stat: Forced more missed tackles (23) than any tight end or any receiver.
38. Clay Matthews, OLB, Green Bay Packers
The Claymaker took an awful lot of criticism this year as his sack number fell to just five. With virtually no one else on the Packers’ defense generating pressure, Matthews was that rare type of player who actually had to contend with extra attention on a consistent basis. Even then he overcame it to finish fifth in our 3-4 outside linebacker rankings, but was able to do with a truly complete performance that saw him making plays in every phase of the game. That’s a rare trait for a 3-4 outside linebacker, and the Packers playmaking was pivotal in a number of close contests.
Best Performance: Week 13 at New York Giants (+6.7)
Key Stat: Actually managed six more combined sacks, hits and hurries (66) this year than in 2010.
37. Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants
Well who saw that coming? The former undrafted free agent took the league by storm, amassing 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns in the regular season. The only disappointing aspect of his play were the 11 drops, but Cruz was a constant threat all over the field. He was fifth in the league when it came to receptions on deep passes (14) and picked up more yards from the slot (1,208) than any other player. A star was born.
Best Performance: Week 9 at New England (+3.0)
Key Stat: Managed 3.08 yards per route run; best in the league.
36. Sione Pouha, DT, New York Jets
This Jet isn’t a player who does a great job of getting to the quarterback, though he did manage a sack and 11 hurries in limited pass rushing opportunities (a +0.7 pass rushing grade). Where his strength lies is his work in the run game, making him an integral part of one of the league’s best defenses. Pouha had our highest grade of all defensive tackles, doing an excellent shop of shedding blocks to make plays, or simply pushing offensive linemen about to re-direct runs. Such a talent.
Best Performance: Week 16 versus New York Giants (+5.2)
Key Stat: 37 defensive stops were the second most of all defensive tackles.
35. John Abraham, DE, Atlanta Falcons
Old, broken down, a has been, these are some of the ways people want to describe Abraham. Despite getting up there in years, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing when it comes to harassing quarterbacks. While he didn’t have a sack in nine games, his value goes beyond that given his ability to constantly generate pressure. This helped him finish third in our defensive end rankings. He’s still got it, scares quarterbacks, a terror off the edge; that’s how people should describe him.
Best Performance: Week 15 versus Jacksonville (+7.1)
Key Stat: Finished sixth in our Pass Rushing Productivity rankings for defensive ends.
34. Marshal Yanda, OG, Baltimore Ravens
Our top-ranked right guard in 2011, Yanda played through pain in the final weeks of the season. It showed in the postseason and his play there didn’t reflect just how well he performed in Baltimore’s regular campaign. No other right guard had as high a run blocking grade and only one bested his +16.2 pass blocking grade. A year after excelling at right tackle, Yanda has returned to his natural position and assumed his role as the top man at the spot.
Best Performance: Week 13 at Cleveland (+4.0)
Key Stat: Gave up just two sacks, a hit, and six hurries on 571 pass blocks. That gives him the best Pass Blocking Efficiency of any guard who played more than 250 snaps in pass protection.
33. Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh Steelers
Some think Polamalu’s best days are behind him, but he still has an ability to change a game with his knack for making plays. He finished the year as our top-ranked safety by a distance, even if he did a lot of his good work against bad offenses. Grading positively in every area of his game while finishing (amongst safeties) 1st in pass rushing, third in run defense and fourth in coverage. You can’t quantify what he means to the Steelers’ defense.
Best Performance: Week 3 at Indianapolis (+5.8)
Key Stat: Broke up an incredible 13 passes. The second-best safety only managed nine.
32. Brian Cushing, LB, Houston Texans
Finished with PFF’s second highest grade for all inside linebackers, in large part to how wonderful a blitzer the Texan is. Cushing has the type of athleticism and motor that allows him to stay on the field for every snap and make plays on every down. This was evidenced by grading in the Top 10 in every phase of his play compared to his peers. While his tackle count was low, only two defenders in the league turned a higher percentage of their snaps on running plays into defensive stops. Cushing was back to his best in 2011.
Best Performance: Week 8 versus Jacksonville (+4.6)
Key Stat: Managed more combined sacks, hits, and hurries (35) than any other inside linebacker.
McCoy would end the year with our highest pure rushing grade of all running backs, picking up 1,309 yards after forcing 49 missed tackles as a runner. Didn’t always excel as a receiver, and the Eagles would be wise to limit the amount of time he’s pass protecting. You have to give credit to McCoy for playing more snaps than any other running back yet not tailing off as the season went on. A great year.
Best Performance: Week 3 versus New York Giants (+4.9)
Key Stat: His 17 touchdowns were five more than any other running back.
Follow us on Twitter: @ProFootbalFocus