MIKE WRIGHT, DL
Who knows where things would’ve been for the Patriots defense without the steady, consistent and durable Wright? And who would’ve thought you’d be saying that at the beginning of the year?
Wright’s been a decent player for the Patriots in the past, but kicked things up a notch this year when the team needed him most. Richard Seymour was traded right before the season, and Vince Wilfork, Jarvis Green and Ty Warren all battled injury, leaving Wright as the only guy who was always there on the interior for the defense. He started nine games, registered five sacks, had a couple passes defensed, a fumble caused and a fumble recovered, and played extensively at both end and nose tackle.
Is he a star? No. But he’s developed into a starting-caliber end who was able to move inside seemlessly when Ron Brace proved to be woefully unready for the pros. Plus, he’s disruptive enough to contribute on third down, adding another layer of versatility to his game. So that four-year, $7.5 million deal he inked last March looks like an absolute bargain for a player that might be limited, but has made himself awfully valuable.
OLB TULLY BANTA-CAIN: OK, this is pushing it a little bit, since he’s improving on the way he performed somewhere else. But the cupboard isn’t exactly stacked in this department. One of 49ers coach Mike Singletary’s first moves after getting the job full-time last year was to whack Banta-Cain, a free-agent bust who came in to help the pass rush, and finished his two years in San Francisco with a total of four sacks. Then he returned to Foxboro, where he was from 2003-06 and, well, things changed quite a bit.
Banta-Cain was able to emerge as the team’s best pass-rushing threat (OK, maybe that’s not saying much), registering 10 sacks. He struggled in the running game, and had bouts with over-aggression, but like Wright did on the line, Banta-Cain brought something that the team really needed. It should be interesting to see what happens if he does make it to the free-agent market in March.
RB BENJARVUS GREEN-ELLIS: You have to look a little closer to figure this one out … After all, Green-Ellis is a guy who 26 carries this year after carrying it 74 times as a rookie. Here’s why I think this BJGE has made serious progress: He’s gotten more and more meaningful snaps as time has gone on, and he’s remade himself as a blocker, which isn’t easy for someone who really was a pure tailback in college.
When the Patriots brought in a second back to help protect in shotgun sets, it was usually Green-Ellis. When Sammy Morris wasn’t the lead fullback in the I, it was Green-Ellis in there. Now, I know that I’ll get the numbers tossed back at me here. But the fact that this guy was able to remake himself into that type of player — and earn enough trust in that regard to be a blitz pick-up guy and protect Tom Brady — at 215 pounds speaks volumes about the work he’s put in.
Yesterday: Comeback Player (Tom Brady)
Today: Most Improved
Tomorrow: Rookie of the Year
January 21: Special Teams Player
January 22: Defensive Player
January 23: Offensive Player
January 24: MVP