Over the month of May, we counted down the top 25 players in the AFC East in Boston.com’s Going Deep blog. It was a review of the best players in the division based on my own research and knowledge of these players. Injuries impacted a few players not making the list (don’t hold your breath for Santonio Holmes or Scott Chandler), but other than that, the ranking is based solely on on-field performance and impact.
I ran it by a few trusted writers, but I also ran it by some people with NFL scouting experience, just to make sure I wasn’t being too crazy.
All that being said, this is my work. I’m solely accountable for these opinions.
25: Patriots RB Stevan Ridley
It’s easy to forget that Patriots fans were collectively worried over losing the dependable BenJarvus Green-Ellis last offseason, and while the running game will always take a back seat in New England because of Tom Brady, only in 2012 did we finally begin to see the Patriots’ running game as capable of complementing their passing game.
Traditional stats don’t quite do Ridley justice. He ranked seventh in rushing yards, but only 15th in yards per attempt. Thankfully, Football Outsiders weights their stats based on opponent, and in those marks, Ridley ranked in the top 10 runners in defense-adjusted value on average, yards above replacement, and success rate.
As we all know in New England, though, a running back’s duties go far beyond running the football. No one is going to confuse Ridley for Patriots legend Kevin Faulk, but according to Pro Football Focus, Ridley allowed just two pressures on 47 snaps in pass protection. He wasn’t used in that role very often in 2012, but that could change now that Danny Woodhead is gone (43 snaps in pass protection, three pressures allowed).
On that note, Ridley could rank higher if he were more involved in the passing game. That’s where Shane Vereen comes in. The Patriots have always run a backfield by committee, and Ridley does more than his share.
Did you know? In six games from Weeks 8 thru 14, Ridley had 108 carries for 493 yards (4.56 YPA) and six touchdowns, one touchdown in each game. With that pace for a season, he would have finished in the top five in rushing yards and No. 1 in rushing touchdowns.
24: Bills C Eric Woods
Wood might be higher on the list if he weren’t so frequently subject to the injury report. He has not yet played a full 16-game season in his four-year career, and he has missed nine games over the past two years, including the final seven games in 2011.
When he has played, though, he’s been superb. Quantifying offensive line play can be difficult, but according to Pro Football Focus, Wood allowed two quarterback hurries, one hit and no sacks in his nine games in 2011. He followed that up with another solid line of four hurries, three hits and two sacks in 14 games in 2012.
Let’s not forget his contributions in the running game, where he has anchored a line that has ranked in the top five in yards per carry the past two years. Some of their most successful runs were behind Wood; the Bills earned 4.38 adjusted line yards on runs up the middle according to Football Outsiders.
Now that the Bills are moving on without Wood’s fellow draft-classmate Andy Levitre at left guard, the Bills will be counting on Wood to stay healthy in 2013. He is a key to their line, but without him, things could fall apart quickly.
Did you know? Wood was only the second offensive linemen in Louisville history be taken in the first round. The other is a local legend: Patriots left tackle Bruce Armstrong.
23: Patriots LT Nate Solder
Former Patriots left tackle Matt Light will always have a place in Patriots history, but Nate Solder didn’t make the Patriots long for the days where Light was the anchor of the line.
Solder was penalized just four times all season, while playing at least 150 snaps more than any offensive tackle who had fewer penalties.
After starting 13 games at right tackle, Solder moved to the left in 2012. He anchored a line that allowed Tom Brady to be pressured on just 25 percent of his drop-backs, the second-lowest percentage in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.
Solder himself was highly protective of Brady. He gave up just four sacks while playing the sixth-most pass-blocking snaps among offensive tackles. He allowed just five hurries, six hits and one sack in the team’s final six games. He’s also ultra-reliable, having played more total snaps in 2012 than any other offensive tackle.
Consider the competition he faced last season: Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, Bills defensive end Mario Williams, Colts outside linebacker Dwight Freeney, Texans defensive end Antonio Smith and others. The tests are always tall for Solder at left tackle, but luckily for Solder, he’s a tall guy at 6’8″ and is up to the challenge.
Did you know? Nate Solder was drafted with the 17th overall selection in 2011, the same number pick the Patriots used to draft center Damien Woody in 1999.
22: Dolphins DT Randy Starks
Starks’ ability to get pressure up the middle has allowed him to be a key component in the Dolphins defense despite several scheme changes. Starks (pictured at far left) has lined up as a 3- or 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4 front, and as a defensive tackle in a 4-3.
The Dolphins had a stingy run defense last year, ranking 10th in giving up just a hair over four yards per carry, but Starks’ main contributions came as a pass-rusher. He has nine sacks from the defensive tackle position over the past two years, which puts him eighth in the NFL. His 21 quarterback hurries ranked him among the top 10 defensive tackles in the NFL, and his 11 quarterback hits ranked him in the top five according to Pro Football Focus. He also showed great discipline, and was flagged for just one penalty in 2012.
He is seen as less stout against the run (six missed tackles in 2012), and if he were better in that area, he might rank higher here. He still remains one of the more productive pass-rushing defensive tackles in the game.
Did you know? Starks tied the Titans rookie record for sacks from the defensive tackle position with 4.5 sacks in 2004. The record was broken by Jason Jones in 2008 (five sacks).
21: Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill is the only second-year player on the list, but why? By every standard metric, he was not a good quarterback in 2012 (6.8 yards per pass attempt, 76.1 passer rating, 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions).
As with most rookie quarterbacks, there were some rough outings for Tannehill, including two games with three interceptions. At times, though, Tannehill showed the poise of a veteran signal-caller. There were long stretches of formidable play; in fact, he went four games without throwing an interception twice during the 2012 season (Weeks 5 thru 8, Weeks 12 thru 15). In at least one measure, he was one of the best in the league. When it came to throwing under pressure, only one quarterback had a higher accuracy percentage — Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (accuracy = (completions + drops) / attempts).
He looked more comfortable when the coaching staff opened things up for him and allowed him to use his legs. He’ll get more opportunities with the ball in his hands in 2013, as well, since the coaching staff is reportedly adding more play-action elements to the offense. After adding an arsenal of new weaponry in Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson and Dustin Keller, the Dolphins offense could be headed for big things, but it’ll be up to Tannehill to help them get there.
Did you know? Tannehill wears No. 17, and is the 17th different starting quarterback for the Dolphins since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season — tied with the Washington Redskins for the most in that span.
20: Patriots FS Devin McCourty
It’s been an up-and-down start to Devin McCourty’s three-year career, but 2012 was solid for McCourty no matter where he lined up. According to Pro Football Focus, McCourty allowed 50.9 percent completions into his coverage, even better than his 2010 numbers. He played less at safety, and was targeted less, but in his limited body of work, he allowed six receptions and one touchdown on 15 targets while coming down with three interceptions.
There were moving parts all around McCourty. In addition to acquiring Aqib Talib, the Patriots moved Alfonzo Dennard to the outside and Kyle Arrington to the slot. Things changed for McCourty throughout the season, too, but one thing that didn’t change was his level of play.
With a full offseason to work on his technique at safety, he could quickly develop into one of the top safeties in the league.
Did you know? Since 2006, Devin McCourty has logged more interceptions than his twin brother Jason every year except 2011 (Devin had one, Jason had two).
19: Dolphins WR Mike Wallace
Mike Wallace is the only player included in the list who was signed into the AFC East as a free-agent this offseason, but he is immediately one of the two most talented receivers in the division.
Wallace took the league by storm in his first two years. He averaged 20.3 yards per receptions, the second-highest average in NFL history for any player with over 90 catches in their first two years. His burners have cooled off a bit of late, however, as he has averaged 14.9 yards per reception over the past two years. In 2012, he wasn’t used to the best of his strengths. He matched his touchdown total from 2011, but averaged just 13.1 yards per reception.
Much was made throughout the year of Wallace’s struggles catching the ball, and while six drops on 70 catchable passes is certainly worse than five drops on 80 catchable passes, his drop rate is three percentage points lower over the past two years than it was in the first two years of his career.
The Dolphins offense got a lot scarier when they added Wallace, but it will still be up to Ryan Tannehill to get him the ball.
Did you know? Mike Wallace has the most career receiving yards and touchdowns of any player in the 2009 draft class.
18: Bills DE Mario Williams
Mario Williams got off to a tough start to the 2012 season, and racked up just 3.5 sacks in the first seven games of the season, including five games without a sack. A wrist injury was said to be the source behind his struggles, so it’s no coincidence that he improved dramatically following wrist surgery. He logged seven sacks over the final nine games of the season, and although he was held without a sack in the final three games of the season, he logged 12 quarterback hurries and a hit in those games.
His 12 tackles for loss ranked him 14th in the NFL, and second in the AFC East according to Advanced NFL Stats.
Williams may not yet have proven himself worthy of the six-year, $96 million contract he signed last offseason, but he could see solid production at full health and in a new aggressive style of defense with Mike Pettine at the helm.
Did you know? The Texans were ridiculed for not taking Reggie Bush or Vince Young with the first overall pick in 2006, but Mario Williams was the only one of those three players to play out his full rookie contract (Bush was traded, Young was released).
17: Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez
With their use of two tight end formations, the New England Patriots were the team that sparked an offensive revolution in the NFL. The basis for much of that success is Aaron Hernandez.
He’s not a great blocker, but he is as a matchup nightmare in the passing game for opposing defenses. He’s too big for most defensive backs, and too quick for most linebackers and safeties. Whether he’s lining up tight to the line, in the slot, split out wide, or even in the backfield, the Patriots are able to get more out of him because they know how to get those mismatches. Hernandez’s versatility to line up in so many spots and be an offensive weapon makes the Patriots tougher to defend.
He battled through an early high-ankle sprain last season, but 10 days between games seemed to help as he found stride after Thanksgiving. He had 32 receptions for 304 yards and three touchdowns in the final five regular season games. He added another 15 receptions for 168 yards in the playoffs.
There’s a lot of uncertainty for the Patriots offense in 2013, but they could ride him to big things if he can stay healthy for 16 games for the first time in his career.
Did you know? Despite missing 10 games over the past three years, Hernandez ranks sixth in receptions and fifth in receiving touchdowns among all tight ends.
16: Patriots LG Logan Mankins
Logan Mankins is the only guard on the list, and it’s not hard to understand why. He is the de facto leader for the Patriots offensive line, as their physical “enforcer” on the inside. The attitude and intensity he brings to the game is comparable to legendary Patriots guard John Hannah.
That’s not the only area where he is comparable to “Hog” Hannah. Just like the Hall of Fame guard, Mankins is one of the better pulling guards in the league, which has allowed the Patriots to be successful on screens and runs to the outside.
It’s hard to quantify offensive line play, but in 426 snaps in pass protection, Mankins allowed just 16 pressures, tied for ninth-fewest in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.
One important aspect is the number of games played. Up until recently, Mankins was a mark of consistency. He didn’t miss his first game due to injury until 2011, his seventh year in the NFL. Considering he reportedly played the 2011 season on a torn ACL, the fact that he missed one game that year should earn him some kind of medal for valor. He did, however, miss six games due to injury in 2012.
The Patriots lost guard Donald Thomas in free-agency this offseason, so Mankins’ health could be even more vital than it has been in the past.
Did you know? Elves live in his beard?
15: Bills DT Kyle Williams
The Bills have bounced between 3-4 and 4-3 fronts over the years, but Kyle Williams (pictured right) has found a way to remain successful, and a vital component of the Bills front seven.
His versatility has been part of what’s allowed them to change their minds so much. He has lined up mostly at the 0-, 1- and 3-techniques, but has been spotted at 5-technique as well. He is a rare player with the strength to plug lanes in a two-gap scheme and the agility to split them in a one-gap scheme.
His nine tackles for loss (according to Advanced NFL Stats) tied for fifth in the NFL among defensive tackles. He also logged 45 total pressures (29 hurries 11 hits, five sacks) according to Pro Football Focus. He ranked third among defensive tackles in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity metric in 2012, behind two former All-Pros in the Bengals’ Geno Atkins and the Lions’ Ndamukong Suh.
Williams will have an opportunity to put it all on display — his versatility and his pass-rushing prowess — in Mike Pettine’s new hybrid defense, where he could be used for all of the above.
Did you know? Kyle Williams has 18.5 career sacks, the most for any defensive tackle drafted in the fifth round or later since 2006, and twice as many as second on the list.
14: Jets CB Antonio Cromartie
When Darrelle Revis went down with a torn ACL in Week 3, a seismic shift transpired in the Jets secondary. Kyle Wilson was moved to the outside, and Antonio Cromartie (pictured left) became the team’s No. 1 cornerback, tasked with shutting down a team’s best receiver each week.
He was up to the challenge no matter who you ask.
The dropoff in the Jets’ pass defense was to be expected, but was minimal overall. The Jets still were a top 10 pass defense last year in just about every major category. That is certainly a credit to Rex Ryan, but Antonio Cromartie’s presence was a big part of the new game plan.
The Jets ranked fifth in the NFL against No. 1 receivers according to Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value on average.
Individually, Cromartie ranked 12th in Pro Football Focus’ yards allowed per cover snap and sixth in cover snaps per reception allowed — indicative that he was not only allowing very few receiving yards on average, but very few receptions to begin with.
The Jets drafted Dee Milliner in the first round, but it’s Cromartie who will likely be filling the void left by relocating Revis Island.
Did you know? Antonio Cromartie’s pick-six in Week 1 against the Bills was his first in a Jets uniform, and his first since Week 3 of the 2008 season against none other than … the Jets.
13: Patriots LB Jerod Mayo
Jerod Mayo (51) has only been in the league for five years, but it sure seems like a lot longer than that. He started off with a bang at inside linebacker in the Patriots 3-4, and was voted the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2008 after leading all rookies in tackles with 128.
He was slowed down by a knee injury in 2009, but returned with a purpose and notched a league-leading 114 total tackles, adding two sacks, a forced fumble and was voted first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career.
He has had to adjust to a new position as a weak-side linebacker in the 4-3 over the past two seasons, and really came out of his shell in 2012 when he led the AFC in tackles with 147 while logging a career-high three sacks and four forced fumbles, adding an interception and a fumble recovery for good measure.
The Patriots didn’t send him on the pass-rush very often in 2012, but according to Pro Football Focus, his pass-rushing productivity on a per-snap basis (14 combined pressures on 74 rushes, 18.9 percent) was on par with Von Miller (86 pressures on 436 rushes, 19.7 percent).
Despite endless changes in the Patriots defense, Mayo has remained not just a leader for the team, but one of the better linebackers in the NFL.
Did you know? Mayo’s first career interception came in the 57th game of his career. Since then, he has three interceptions in 25 games.
12: Jets C Nick Mangold
When head coach Eric Mangini and general manager Mike Tannenbaum took over with the New York Jets, center Nick Mangold was drafted in the first round to be a building block for the offense. In 2009, when Mangini was jettisoned and Rex Ryan was named the new head coach, Mangold was still a building block. Now, in 2012, with John Idzik taking over as GM, Mangold is still a building block.
He was voted to four consecutive Pro Bowls and was named first-team All-Pro back-to-back years in 2009 and 2010 as the anchor for a rush attack that ranked first and fourth in the NFL, respectively.
Pro Football Focus has docked Mangold for three or fewer sacks allowed in each of the past five seasons, while consistently facing top talents like Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams, Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks, all three of whom appeared on this list.
Did you know? Mangold was the first Ohio State offensive linemen drafted in the first round since offensive tackle Orlando Pace was taken first overall by the Rams in 1997.
11: Jets LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson
Few offensive tackles have been as good for as long as Ferguson, while getting as little recognition.
Not only has he never missed a start, but according to Pro Football Focus, he hasn’t even missed a snap since Week 17 of 2008. That’s not a misprint, that’s 4,830 snaps from 2009-2012.
He helped block for a rushing attack that ranked first and fourth in 2009 and 2010 respectively. In the passing game, he was the best on an offensive line that allowed quarterback Mark Sanchez to be pressured on just 23.8 percent of drop-backs those years. He ranked in the top 10 offensive tackles in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency four of the past five years.
The Jets have a lot of questions on offense, but if Ferguson plays at the same level he’s shown throughout his career, left tackle should not be one of those questions.
Did you know? Ferguson was the first offensive linemen selected by the Jets in the first round since guard Dave Cadigan in 1988.
10: Dolphins C Mike Pouncey
The Dolphins offensive line could have fallen apart when the team lost left tackle Jake Long for the season in Week 13. Center Mike Pouncey is the glue that held them together, and his teammates certainly agree.
It may be because he is asked to carry out the duties of both a center and a guard. Not only does he call the protections and snap the ball, but he is frequently seen pulling out in space after the snap, an act of quickness and agility not commonly seen among centers.
Pouncey helped pave the way for Reggie Bush’s two best seasons as a true running back, and although there are concerns about the Dolphins offensive line as a unit, very few have any doubt that Pouncey will continue to be a leader for the unit.
Did you know? Mike and Maurkice Pouncey were the first twins ever to both be drafted in the first round.
9: Dolphins S Reshad Jones
The Dolphins secondary has been through a lot of change in the past 10 months, losing both cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, but in 2012, safety Reshad Jones was the glue that kept it from falling apart.
Jones led the Dolphins with four interceptions last year, and also deflected nine passes, tied for second on the team. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed a passer rating of just 38 on throws into his coverage, which ranked fifth among all NFL safeties. He also gave up just one touchdown into his coverage, against Titans tight end Jared Cook.
Despite switching from free safety to strong safety, Jones improved in leaps and bounds this past season. If his career trajectory continues on this path, he’ll remain one of the league’s top safeties for years to come.
Did you know? Jones was one of just three players drafted out of the SEC by general manager Jeff Ireland from 2009-2012, out of a possible 31 draft picks.
8: Bills WR Stevie Johnson
Stevie Johnson erupted onto the scene in his third year in the NFL, and was just the ninth player in NFL history to log at least 80 receptions, 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in his third year. Glancing at the list, he’s in some hallowed company with the likes of Kellen Winslow Sr., Antonio Freeman, Keyshawn Johnson, Antonio Gates and others.
Stevie has been consistently productive since then, and ranks eighth in receptions, 11th in yards and ninth in touchdowns over the past three years. He has not created many big plays, though. In 2012, only 12 of his 79 receptions went for a total of 20 yards or more, and he was targeted deeper than 20 yards on just 11.8 percent of passes thrown his direction, the second-lowest in the NFL (via Pro Football Focus).
There is one hole in his game, however, when it comes to dropping the ball. He had 13 drops in 2010 and 11 drops in 2012, and his rate of dropped passes was among the 10 worst in the NFL.
He doesn’t have the skill set of a true No. 1 wide receiver — the size and speed most people look for in an outside threat — but he has plenty of physical tools in terms of quickness, balance and body control, and along with some of the best route-running skills in the NFL and a great sense of how to get open against certain looks, Johnson is easily one of the league’s most underrated pass-catchers.
Did you know? Johnson has started more games at wide receiver than any seventh-round draft pick since Kevin Walter in 2003 (91 career starts).
7: Bills S Jairus Byrd
What more could you ask for out of a free safety than what Jairus Byrd has given the Bills in his four years with the team?
He is not only the Bills best defensive back, with a team-leading five interceptions in 2012, but he is also the AFC East’s best safety — not just for his sideline-to-sideline range, but his uncanny ability to diagnose plays and get to the right spot in a hurry.
Just ask Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was absolutely robbed by Byrd on this throw to the sideline…and then again just a few minutes later.
Tannehill was hardly the only one who was a victim of Byrd’s ball-hawking skills.
According to Pro Football Focus, Byrd allowed a passer rating of just 56.9 on the season. He was targeted 21 times in coverage and allowed 156 yards (9.8 yards per reception) without giving up a single touchdown.
New Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will love Byrd’s skill set, as it will allow him to run the exotic blitz packages the Jets were known for while he was the coordinator in New York. If the Bills defense creates more pressure up front, that could lead to even bigger things for Byrd.
Did you know? Byrd was the first rookie safety to lead the league in interceptions since Vikings safety Orlando Thomas in 1995. Both players had nine picks, and both were selected with the 42nd overall pick of their respective drafts.
6: Bills RB C.J. Spiller
Very few players made as big of an impact while being as shunned in the game plan as Spiller.
His big play ability cannot be overstated. He earned nearly 40 percent of his rushing yards on carries of 15 yards or more, the third-highest percentage in the league according to Pro Football Focus.c.j. spiller.png
He had the third most total missed tackles in the league (66) despite limited touches, and by PFF’s standards, he was the most elusive back in the NFL.
Sometimes, a “big play threat” at running back can be detrimental at times, when he’s searching for a home run that isn’t there. That can often lead to being tackled behind the line. Not for Spiller, though, who was tackled for a loss on just 16 of his 207 carries (7.7 percent). Other notable backs like Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (51 of 348, 14.6 percent), Texans running back Arian Foster (41 of 351, 11.7 percent) and former Dolphins running back Reggie Bush (31 of 227, 13.7 percent) were tackled for loss far more frequently than Spiller.
Spiller’s production could increase with more opportunities in what will likely be a run-heavy offense with Doug Marrone as the head coach. If he’s able to build on his stellar 2012 campaign, he’ll land in the top five next year without question.
Did you know? Spiller’s average yards per carry in 2012 was higher than Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s all season long, until Week 17.
5: Jets DL Muhammad Wilkerson
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt was unquestionably the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL in 2012, but immediately behind Watt in the hierarchy of 3-4 defensive ends, though, is Muhammad Wilkerson. Were it not for Watt’s incredible season, Wilkerson would have gotten his share of recognition for solid stats across the board: 70 tackles, five sacks, four pass deflections, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a touchdown.
The position of 3-4 defensive end is typically regarded as less than glamorous. That’s because, mostly, they are “space-eaters” whose job it is to occupy as many blockers as possible to free up the linebackers behind them to make plays. With the Jets, however, the onus is on everyone to create pressure in an aggressive one-gap style of defense under Jets head coach Rex Ryan. According to Pro Football Focus, Wilkerson logged 22 pressures, 10 hits and five sacks in 2012, all of which ranked him among the top five 3-4 defensive ends in the league.
His pass-rushing potency was not the only thing that stood out for him last year. Pro Football Focus charted him with 46 “stops” in the running game, the second-most for any 3-4 defensive end. Advanced NFL Stats gave him 71 successes on the season, the second-most for any defensive end. Thus, it seems no matter who you ask, Wilkerson was dominant in 2012.
His talent may not supersede any deficiencies on the Jets roster, but it will certainly go a long way to helping the Jets maximize the pass-rushing potential and overall effectiveness of their 3-4 defense — or any other alignment they choose to run.
Did you know? Wilkerson was the third player in Temple history drafted in the first round, and only the second first-rounder out of Temple to start more than 20 games.
4: Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski
The influx of athletic tight ends in the NFL has run rampant, but Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski set the bar — not just by being one of the most prolific pass-catching tight ends in NFL history, but by being so much more than simply a pass-catcher.
He is a matchup nightmare.
Put a linebacker on Gronkowski, and his speed and quickness creates a mismatch in passing situations. Against a safety, his size is overwhelming, and the Patriots clearly have the advantage when running the ball in that situation.
It would be easy to put Gronkowski in this spot simply by virtue of his 38 receiving touchdowns in the first three years of his career — the third-most for any player in the first three years of their career behind only Jerry Rice and Randy Moss — or the fact that, according to Pro Football Focus, quarterback Tom Brady has thrown just four interceptions in his career when targeting Gronkowski.
Gronkowski’s game goes much further than all that, though. He has developed into one of the better run-blocking tight ends in the game, as well. He has graded out among the top five run-blocking tight ends each of the past three years, and ranked No. 1 in 2011 according to PFF.
If Gronkowski can get healthy this offseason and stay healthy in 2013, he will likely continue his reign of terror on opposing defenses without a hitch.
Did you know? Gronkowski’s 29 red zone touchdown receptions are the most by any player over the past three years — nine touchdowns more than second place, Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez and Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.
3: Patriots DT Vince Wilfork
The plight of Vince Wilfork will forever be the unglamorous role he plays. Even in the Patriots’ 4-3 scheme, he is asked to occupy multiple blockers to free up space for his linemates.
At this point, few teams utilize a nose tackle the way the Patriots do, but nose tackles like Wilfork are a rare breed. On Grantland.com, Chris Brown — author of The Essential Smart Football — wrote about the Patriots defensive versatility and how Wilfork is the engine that makes everything else run effectively. The Patriots defensive scheme is one-of-a-kind, and is tailored to Wilfork’s ability to be effective wherever he lines up.
Sacks are not typically the measure of solid play from Wilfork, but he logged 3.5 in 2011 and three in 2012, hitting those marks for the first time in his career. He also ranked in the top five defensive tackles in success count each of the past two years according to Advanced NFL Stats, a website which tracks the number of times a player was directly responsible for a successful play for the defense.
The Patriots are still looking to find the missing piece at defensive tackle: a solid pass-rusher who can complement Wilfork’s space-eating ability when the team needs to get pressure on the quarterback. With Wilfork at one tackle spot, whoever is lining up next to him will have a much easier job as a result.
Did you know? Wilfork might be the most honest defensive lineman in the game. He once told officials they blew a call in New England’s favor.
2: Dolphins DE Cameron Wake
Why Cameron Wake?
I think the better question is “why doesn’t Cameron Wake get the attention he deserves?”
The answer to that is relatively simple: he plays for a losing team, the Miami Dolphins, a team that hasn’t been relevant since 2008 — the year before Wake joined the team.
Other than that caveat, Wake has it all going for him. Wake plays one of the defensive “glamour” positions as a pass-rushing edge defender, and is one of the best at it in the game right now. He’s put up monstrous numbers, with 43 sacks in his first four seasons, and is one of just seven players in NFL history to have two seasons of over 14 sacks in his first four seasons in the league.
He’s also incredibly scheme flexible, having lined up in the 3-4 as an outside linebacker, and last year in the 4-3 as a defensive end. His versatility gives the Dolphins a world of options in how to execute their defensive scheme next season.
Stats website Pro Football Focus rated him among the best pass-rushers in the league at either spot, so the Dolphins would be getting bang for their buck without question.
The Dolphins made it a priority to improve their pass-rush by drafting DE/OLB hybrid Dion Jordan. How he fits in the defense remains to be seen, but if the two are feeding off one another, the possibilities are frightening for opposing quarterbacks. Wake could be headed for another huge season, and maybe then, he’ll finally get the attention he deserves.
Did you know? According to TurnOnTheJets.com, the New York Jets nearly signed Wake out of the CFL, before general manager Mike Tannenbaum said he didn’t want him, which allowed the Dolphins to swoop in.
1: Patriots QB Tom Brady
I thought about just putting “duh’’ here, but that seemed like a copout for obvious reasons.
Instead, chew on this: Brady is the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for 34 or more touchdown passes and 12 or fewer interceptions in four career seasons. That’s twice as many seasons as Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and 49ers legend Steve Young. Those single-season numbers have been achieved by only eight other quarterbacks in NFL history, and Brady has made it part of his yearly routine.
• His career accomplishments read like a resumé for a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback. We all know about the three Super Bowl wins, the two Super Bowl MVPs and the two regular season MVPs, but his accomplishments span over a decade:
• 334 career touchdown passes ranks fifth all-time
• 2.1 career interception percentage is tied for seventh all-time
• 63.7 career completion percentage ranks ninth all-time
• 44,806 career passing yards ranks ninth all-time
• NFL-record 50 touchdown passes in 2007
• NFL-record 358 regular-season passes without an interception from 2010 to 2011
• NFL-record 0.8 interception percentage in 2010 (for any quarterback with over eight starts in the season)
He has put together these remarkable achievements despite a constantly changing set of circumstances and players around him — especially on the offensive line and at wide receiver over the past five years.
All those things happened in the past, but Brady is still spinning it with the best of them, ranking eighth in yards per attempt (7.6), sixth in passer rating (98.7), fourth in touchdowns (34) and first in interception percentage (1.26) last season.
He has been one of the best in late-game situations, as well. He is tied for ninth all-time with 26 career fourth-quarter comeback victories, and tied for fifth with 37 career game-winning drives when his team was not trailing in the fourth quarter.
As analysts, it’s our job to nitpick, but Brady has left us with very few nits to pick except for questions about waning deep accuracy — questions which are better addressed in the context that a) Brady hasn’t had a deep threat since 2010 and b) he’s been throwing more, not fewer, deep passes over the past few seasons.
There’s nothing left for Brady to accomplish; at this point, anything else is simply adding to a legacy that’s long been cemented.
Did you know? Brady set a postseason record with a 92.9 completion percentage (26-of-28) against the Jaguars in the ‘07-’08 Divisional Round.