AFC East: Unsung MVPs By Team
Mail it in, the NFL MVP will be one of these guys
The 2011 NFL regular season has come to an end.
With this, the typical end of season festivities have begun: the coaching carousel, the clarifying of the 2011 NFL playoff picture, Pro Bowl rosters are announced, Patriots fans start booking Super Bowl tickets (or buying them from Rex Ryan,) and the Bills, for the 12th season in a row, are playing golf. Soon we will eagerly await the onslaught of mock NFL drafts and begin the combine meat market.
Another sure bet is the start of prognostication over season awards.
But while the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, the following players were unheralded lynchpins of their respective franchises this season, whether the Pro Bowl voters recognized it or not.
They were chosen because they don't get the recognition they deserve, whether as a consequence of the position they play, the market they are in or the [lack of] success their teams saw this year.
New England Patriots: Brian Waters
Courtesy Brian Chin, Boston Globe
I know what you’re thinking: How can a guy who was selected for his sixth Pro Bowl—and is a two time All-Pro (2004-2005)—be unsung?
In spite of all his accolades, Brian Waters was a street free agent immediately prior to the start of the season. Even Waters' signing was largely overshadowed by the trades/signings of Chad Ochocinco, Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson.
In another example of the rich getting richer, why there wasn’t a bidding war for Waters’ services and experience in a lockout-shortened offseason is beyond me. Instead, he quietly signed on September 4th with the Patriots.
Stephen Neal retires, Dan Koppen breaks his ankle in Week 1, Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer struggle with injuries all season—but somehow Tom Brady still manages to have arguably the second-best season of his career.
Waters' presence has taken some of the pressure and decision making responsibility off of backup Dan Connolly, provided a stable leadership presence next to rookie Nate Solder, and proved there is still tread on his tires.
New York Jets: Nick Mangold
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Nick Mangold is the highest paid center in NFL history for a reason. The scary part is, considering the regression the Jets saw from their offense, it would have been much worse without Mangold.
Without their starting pivot, the Jets forced Colin Baxter and Matt Slauson into roles they clearly either weren’t comfortable with or weren’t prepared for.The result was a four-sack game in Oakland capped by Mark Sanchez needing a new helmet due to facial injuries, and a performance in Baltimore that resulted in 21 defensive points for the Ravens.
Watching Baxter consistently miss snaps and improperly set blocking schemes forced Matt Slauson to move from guard, and reaffirmed that the team desperately missed Damien Woody.
With Mangold, the Jets averaged 106.5 yards per game rushing and 203.5 passing yards. Without Mangold, they had a paltry 69 yards per game on the ground and 229 in the air.
No running game and more Mark Sanchez would have meant a much worse record than 8-8.
Miami Dolphins: Kevin Burnett
Marc Serota/Getty Images
The fact that Kevin Burnett didn’t make the Pro Bowl is a testament to the 4-3 bias for picking the roster. Four out of six AFC playoff teams use a base 3-4 scheme, and still no change—but I digress.
Signing with the Dolphins on July 29th (breaking the heart of 10s of Bills fans), Burnett is also new to his team. Recording a career-high 105 tackles (83 solo), 2.5 sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown in 2011, he made an immediate impact.
A stat that may interest only me: Burnett has been in the NFL for seven seasons, and his 2011 numbers accounted for over 25 percent of his career production.
Second on the team in tackles, and 13th in the AFC, he anchored a defense that was third in NFL against the rush (95.6 YPG).
Having only won six games this season, the Dolphins were playing from behind in most of their contests, which means opponents were burning clock running the ball. This defense is not only young, but played especially tenacious after Todd Bowles took over, culminating in knocking the Jets from playoff contention.
Buffalo Bills: George Wilson
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
In the tale of two seasons, George Wilson has been one of the few bright spots of note in the Bills defense.
After finishing 2010 with a 3-13 record, the Bills let Donte Whitner leave in free agency and replaced him with the converted former wide receiver Wilson.
Finishing with a combined 106 tackles, Wilson led the Bills with four interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in only 13 games. The fact that he wasn’t chosen for the Pro Bowl is a travesty.
Troy Polamalu is undeniably a great player, but he received this year’s bid more from his name than by merit.
The Bills defense was third in AFC turnover differential at +4, having recorded 27 takeaways—25 percent of which by Wilson alone.
The defense had noticeably more spark with Wilson in the lineup, and whether the difference was a rookie backup or injuries to other positions, the Bills will need Wilson to maintain this level of production if they expect to climb out of the AFC East gutter next season.