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The 2011 NFL season was one to remember for many reasons. Now dubbed the ‘year of the quarterback’ with passing records being broken on multiple fronts, the improvement in the passing game culminated in a higher desire for athletic and versatile tight ends, whilst slot receivers continued to grow in value, as did receivers with speed enough to stretch the field.
With the 2012 NFL Draft over and done with, fans excitement for the upcoming season is rapidly growing so we have made a list of players who set the standards for their positions last season, and whose performances players this year will be trying to better.
Aaron Rodgers – Green Bay Packers
Although there was some stiff competition at this spot, it is impossible not to name a man who was crowned NFL MVP for the season. He may have had the NFL’s best offense around him, but his statistics speak for themselves. He had a quarterback rating of 122.5, the highest in the league, whilst passing for 45 touchdowns and giving up just six interceptions. The fact his offensive line allowed him to be sacked 36 times, more than both Tom Brady and Drew Brees, makes his feats even more impressive and a worthy MVP selection.
Honorable Mentions – Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints) Tom Brady (New England Patriots) Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions).
Maurice Jones-Drew – Jacksonville Jaguars
Jones-Drew was the only player to rush for more than 100-yards a game on average last season, and whilst propelling his case for being the best running back in the NFL last season, highlights their declining importance in what has quickly become a passing league. His case is helped by the fact he was arguably Jacksonville’s only real offensive weapon and saw more of the ball then any other running back in the league.
Honorable Mentions – Ray Rice (Baltimore Ravens) Arian Foster (Houston Texans) LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia Eagles).
Vonta Leach – Baltimore Ravens
Already one of the league’s top fullbacks when he joined the Ravens, Leach went on to have a stellar season up in Baltimore and earn the title of best fullback in the NFL. His powerful and astute blocking helped Ray Rice to a career-best season whilst also providing a limited target for quarterback Joe Flacco.
Honorable Mentions – Greg Jones (Jacksonville Jaguars) Marcell Reece (Oakland Raiders) Jed Collins (New Orleans Saints).
Calvin Johnson – Detroit Lions
Similar to Jones-Drew, Johnson was the only receiver to average over 100-yards a game, and also had over 100 more receiving yards than his closest rival, Wes Welker, despite having significantly less receptions. Known as ‘Megatron’, Johnson is a huge threat down the field due to his height, speed, jumping ability and reach, and managed to finish the season with 16 touchdowns, more than any other wide receiver, despite having to put up with double coverage for much of the season.
Honorable Mentions – Wes Welker (New England Patriots) Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona Cardinals) Victor Cruz (New York Giants).
Rob Gronkowski – New England Patriots
The term ‘breakout season’ was surely created to describe Gronkowski’s second season in New England. The University of Arizona product broke NFL records for most receiving touchdowns (17), most total touchdowns (18) and most receiving yards (1,327) by a tight end. With help from positional colleague Aaron Hernandez, and the pinpoint arm of Tom Brady, Gronkowski has spearheaded the current crop of athletic and versatile tight ends currently playing in the NFL and should do for many more years to come.
Honorable Mentions – Jimmy Graham (New Orleans Saints) Jason Witten (Dallas Cowboys).
Joe Thomas – Cleveland Browns
If you took a poll of all NFL coaches and asked them for one player they would want to build their offensive line around, you would get a very limited range of answers, and Thomas’s name would be repeated a lot. He is arguably the Browns greatest reason for optimism in the coming seasons as should they manage to find a franchise quarterback, they can rest assured that his blindside is well protected.
Honorable Mentions – Jake Long (Miami Dolphins) Tyrone Smith (Dallas Cowboys) Jason Peters (Philadelphia Eagles).
Marshal Yanda – Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens’ guard has long been underrated, and generally considered to not be quite at the level of the likes of Carl Nicks, Steve Hutchinson and former teammate Ben Grubbs. That was until last season. Yanda was equally impressive in both pass protection and run blocking, and his parity in these two skills are what earns him the pick over some of his contemporaries.
Honorable Mentions – Carl Nicks (formerly New Orleans Saints, now Tampa Bay Buccaneers) Steven Hutchinson (Minnesota Vikings) Josh Sitton (Green Bay Packers).
Ryan Kalil – Carolina Panthers
Realising that Kalil will be a contentious decision given that he is not considered as ‘elite’ a center as some other centers in the league, but his play last season, with a rookie quarterback in Cam Newton, deserves some serious recognition. Other top players at the position such as Scott Wells and Chris Myers have the added security of being surrounded by a top quality offensive line, a luxury which Kalil does not enjoy in Carolina.
Honorable Mentions – Scott Wells (Green Bay Packers) Chris Myers (Houston Texans) Nick Mangold (New York Jets).
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