But before we get there we need to reach the Top 10, and that leaves us a little ground to cover: our selection for No.’s 20 to 11. If you’ve missed any of the countdown so far, you can catch up here: 101-91, 90-81, 80-71, 70-61, 60-51, 50-41, 40-31 and 30-21.
Our analysis team decided on the list using some select criteria which is important to remember:
• 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.
Time to start the countdown from 20.
20. Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco 49ers
If not for missing three games (and being limited to five plays in another) Willis likely would have been higher. One of a handful (if that) of inside linebackers who can match up with athletic tight ends while still being able to shed blocks and make plays in the run game. If you were building the perfect franchise, you wouldn’t wait long before saying his name. Doesn’t miss tackles, breaks up passes like it’s going out of fashion (his eight deflections tied Rolando McClain for the most for all linebackers), and turns his blitzing into pressure. 2011 was simply Patrick Willis being Patrick Willis.
Best Performance: Conference Championship versus New York Giants (+6.0)
Key Stat: Missed one tackles in every 43.5 attempts. The best of all inside linebackers.
19. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
The sophomore defensive tackle was as good this year as people thought Ndamukong Suh was last year. Emerging as an every-down defender, Atkins graded positively in both the run game and with his pass rushing. His +21.3 grade in the pass game was the best of all defensive tackles, aided by 23 quarterback sacks and hits. That shouldn’t take away from his work in the run game where he finished in the Top 15 with 20 defensive stops. Got the nation’s attention with a dominant display in the Bengals’ playoff defeat to the Texans.
Best Performance: Week 15 at St Louis (+6.3)
Key Stat: His 49 QB disruptions were the most of any defensive tackle.
18. Evan Mathis, G, Philadelphia Eagles
We’ve gotten something of a reputation as champions of Mathis when, in actuality, all we’re doing is pointing out what is there for anyone to see: in 2011, on a play-by-play basis, there wasn’t a better guard in the entire league. You want to know how good he was? His run blocking grade was almost three times better than the next left guard, while his pass protection netted him a Top 10 spot among all guards. He didn’t have one negatively-graded game and was easily our top OG on the year. All you’ve got to do is watch him on every play and you won’t be able to dispute it. Every play.
Best Performance: Week 6 at Washington (+3.6)
Key Stat: Didn’t give up a sack all year.
17. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
It may seem controversial to say, but JPP was somewhat overrated for his regular season exploits. High on sacks, but low on total pressures, he could only finish 31st overall in our Pass Rushing Productivity rankings. With the addition of some great work in run defense (a part of his game that is often overlooked) and a tremendous postseason, JPP earned a spot in our Top 20. If not for Eli Manning, Pierre-Paul would have likely been the Super Bowl MVP. He always seemed to be the guy that would make the play when the Giants needed it.
Best Performance: Week 13 versus Green Bay (+11.6)
Key Stat: Including the postseason, Pierre-Paul tallied 1,208 snaps (including those negated by pre-snap penalties). That’s 168 more than any other defensive end, yet he managed a +5.1 grade in the Super Bowl.
16. Cameron Wake, OLB, Miami Dolphins
When you start to break down the performance of Camerwon Wake, you understand his need for a new contract. One of the top pass rushers in the league, Wake finished 2011 our highest-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker with the best grade of all his peers as a pass rusher. He proved that you really need to look beyond sack numbers when judging the impact a pass rusher has. As good as Wake is in the passing game, it’s overlooked that he is able to get off blocks and make plays in the run game–his run defense was initially a concern when he transitioned to an every-down role. Keeps getting better.
Best Performance: Week 15 at Buffalo (+5.7)
Key Stat: His 81 combined sacks, hits, and hurries was the second-highest total of all defensive players.
15. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
MJD didn’t have the highest rushing grade in our system. He didn’t even have the highest overall grade, but he’s the perfect example of why you need to look at these grades with a degree of context. The Jaguars “passing attack” was a complete mess, meaning they were essentially reliant on Jones-Drew to get anything going. That he was able to have such a big impact with teams focusing in on him in a way you rarely see, is testament to his talent. No other running back put their team on their shoulders like he did and was able to deliver so emphatically.
Best Performance: Week 12 versus Houston (+3.5)
Key Stat: Led the league in rushing, picking up 1,606 yards; 242 yards clear of the next in line.
14. NaVorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco 49ers
If you finish higher on this list than your teammate Patrick Willis, then you’ve done alright. Bowman isn’t the athlete Willis is (but then who is?) Instead, he’s a downhill force who shows a tremendous ability to close on receivers when they’re catching the ball, thus preventing any significant yards after the catch. He finished as our top-ranked inside linebacker and added two fine performances in the playoffs where he demonstrated what a weapon he is in run D. In 2011, 13 of his 18 games ended with grades in the green.
Best Performance: Week 17 at St Louis (+5.6)
Key Stat: Made more defensive stops (70) than any other player in the league.
13. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
No 33 this year for Brady as he started the season off on fire, with fine performances in each of the first four weeks. This wasn’t maintained throughout the season, but he did more than enough to lead the Patriots to the top seed in the AFC. Outside the Top 10 because he just didn’t challenge teams vertically this season. Brady completed just 20 passes that went over 20 yards in the air (15th in the NFL) and had some of his worst games against the best teams. He still firmly in command of a New England team that steamrolls most foes.
Best Performance: Week 1 at Miami (+12.9)
Key Stat: In the adjusted PFF QB Rating, Brady finished third overall with a 93.45 score.
12. Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos
A quite phenomenal season for a player who walked away with the PFF Rookie of the Year Award. A stunningly productive pass rusher who picked up 60 regular season sacks, hits, and hurries despite playing a quarter of it with a cast on his hand. That shouldn’t deflect from some remarkable performances where he destroyed tackles, including an incredible run between Weeks 9 and 12 where he scored a +28.5 grade over four games. He didn’t miss a single tackle all season, and while not a natural in coverage, he made plays in the running game.
Best Performance: Week 11 versus New York Jets (+8.7)
Key Stat: Had the highest defensive grade of the year (+50.4).
Peters was comfortably the top-ranked tackle in our 2011 grades and it’s therefore hardly surprising that he’s the top-ranked tackle in this list. His +27.6 overall grade was nearly twice as good as the next best tackle, and he did it with a quarterback who doesn’t help him out a great deal by holding onto the ball. Finished fourth in the pass protection rankings, and second in the run blocking grades as his athleticism was a perfect fit in Howard Mudd’s system.
Best Performance: Week 8 versus Dallas (+6.2)
Key Stat: Was responsible for just four quarterback knockdowns (sacks plus hits) all season.
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