As both fantasy owners and fans can attest, the 2011 NFL regular season was both exciting and strange all in the same breath.
Following an offseason shortened by lockout, injuries were at an all-time high and some of the game’s best turned in surprising sub-par performances.
A former rushing champ nearly lost his starting role while the Madden ’12 cover boy actually did. A former Super Bowl MVP saw himself relegated to his team’s fourth option and two top-three finishers in receiving yards last season have hardly eclipsed half of their 2010 yard totals with two games left to play.
For the following list of 10 players, 2011 has not been so forgiving. For some, this marks the end of a road, while for others, it's just a speed bump.
Carolina Panthers kicker Olindo Mare is a 15-year veteran of the NFL and one of the longest tenured kickers in the game.
While he struggled in past years, Mare dominated for three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, including a successful field goal streak of 30, earning a lucrative four-year, $12 million contract this offseason with Carolina.
It turns out that Mare’s not as good as the Panthers had hoped.
This season, the former Dolphin has knocked through just 76 percent of his kicks, ranking 27th among kickers with at least 15 attempts. More frustratingly, however, Mare also missed a game-winner earlier this month vs. Atlanta and a 31-yard game-tying field goal vs. Minnesota back in October.
An 11-year veteran in the league, 10 of which as a starter, LaDainian Tomlinson has overcome all odds stacked up against him as an NFL running back and is a lock for Canton in the near future.
At 31 years old, what Tomlinson did for the New York Jets last season was truly remarkable. After teammate Shonn Greene proved unable to retain starting duties in 2010, Tomlinson amassed over 1,280 yards from scrimmage, scoring six times to lead the team to a wild-card berth.
While the former Charger has remained an important part of the Jets offense in 2011, it has become increasingly clear that his days in the NFL are numbered.
Still a terrific pass catcher, injuries have finally caught up with Tomlinson and slowed his production this season. Nine shy of 100 touches this season with two games to go, this will be the first time in his career that Tomlinson posts fewer than 240.
It’s hard to knock a guy currently on pace for his second straight 950+ yard season, but St. Louis Rams WR Brandon Lloyd simply has not been as good of a wide receiver as he was in 2010 with the Denver Broncos for one reason: new quarterback Sam Bradford.
While he continues to make unbelievable one-handed grabs and has easily become the Rams' top target, Bradford’s inconsistency on the deep ball (31.7% completion rate on passes of 11+ yards) has limited Lloyd’s breakout potential.
Overall, Lloyd is a good playmaking wide receiver but with a quality deep-throwing quarterback like Kyle Orton (46.2% completion rate), he is borderline elite.
This season, Lloyd solidified my opinion that his 2010 outbreak was legitimate, but with Bradford, he’s unlikely ever to be that good again.
If anyone wishes they could redo the 2011 regular season, it would be San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers, hands down.
It’s been a mind-numbing year for the eight-year veteran out of NC State, filled with heartbreaking losses, untimely fumbles and lots of interceptions.
His 17 interceptions and 7 fumbles are both already career-highs and his seven multi-interception games this season is just one fewer than the three previous seasons combined.
Until recently this month, Rivers simply did not look like himself. Early in the season, he was severely missing targets, making questionable decisions and even looked rattled at times in the pocket, something we hadn’t seen from him before.
Already locked in for his fourth straight 4,000-yard campaign, Rivers has recently calmed but he certainly backed out of the top tier alongside Brees, Brady and Rodgers this season.
Only one player in the NFL this season has over 80 targets and 0 touchdowns. He also is the only receiver in the NFL with at least 40 catches for an average length less than 10 yards (8.8) He also misses his quarterback very much.
In his first two seasons, Indianapolis Colts WR Austin Collie quickly became one of QB Peyton Manning’s favorite targets, posting 118 catches, 1325 yards and 15 touchdowns over the two years.
Now in his third season, without Manning, Collie has been utterly forgotten by QBs Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky in favor of field stretchers like Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon.
Under Manning, Collie has proven that he’s not a bad receiver, but his forgettable 2011 season brings to question whether he is a product of the system and QB or just in a one-year funk.
Last season, 23-year-old quarterback Josh Freeman was a true marksman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leading all NFC passers with just 6 interceptions to go along with 25 touchdown passes.
Entering the 2011 season, expectations were high for the 2009 first-rounder, as many expected him to take another leap forward, perhaps even joining Manning, Brady and Rodgers. Instead, 2011 has been a nightmare for Freeman.
From his failure to beat the blitz (8 interceptions when facing five or more pass rushers) or inability to link up on the deep ball (4 TDs, 11 INTs on passes of 11+ yards), Freeman has resembled little of what he looked like last year leading the Buccaneers to a 10-6 finish.
Certainly some of the blame lies on the rest of the offense, but there’s no question Freeman has had his struggles this season as well. Regardless, I still believe Freeman is one of the top young quarterbacks in the league. It’s just not his year.
Back in October, the Jacksonville Jaguars extended wide receiver Mike Thomas for three more seasons, an $18 million deal, with $9 million guaranteed. I’m pretty sure that is the only reason that the team hasn’t cut him yet.
After leading the Jaguars in both yards (820) and receptions (66) last season, Thomas has been an utter failure in 2011, catching just 40 balls for 391 yards and a score.
Call it the honeymoon after a big contract or say it’s the switch to rookie QB Blaine Gabbert; either way Thomas has been bad this season.
After being praised for his work ethic and personality this offseason, Thomas has since looked effortless (not in a good way) on the field. He’s been unable to develop any sort of relationship with Gabbert, which is a shame, considering Thomas may be the only quality receiver on the roster.
We’ve seen two different Thomases the last two seasons, but we’ve also seen him working with two different quarterbacks: one who was accurate and one who isn’t. It’s unclear what we’ll be getting from him in 2012.
There has been a changing of the guard at wide receiver this season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it’s former Super Bowl MVP and future Hall of Famer Hines Ward who has felt the brunt of it.
While Ward continues to perform when he sees the field, Pittsburgh’s passing game this season has been all about its two youngsters: Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace.
Brown and Wallace provide the Steelers with a pair of speedy pass-catchers who can break open the game at a moment. You don’t have to look much further than their yards per catch numbers to understand: Brown – 16.8, Wallace – 16.4, Ward – 8.8.
Ward is still a tremendous pass blocker and has great hands, but it’s clear that his role with the Steelers is much more about his leadership abilities than playmaking.
After pulling down 65 passes for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Williams was considered one of the league’s top young weapons.
After falling to the fourth round in the 2010 NFL Draft due to makeup concerns, Williams had erased many doubters' minds, looking like a budding star,
After spending much of his locked-out offseason in Buffalo rather than in Tampa with teammates, Williams looked nothing like last year. With six dropped passes already, Williams has looked undisciplined, failing to run clean routes or to gain separation from defensive backs.
Head coach Raheem Morris pointed out that Williams, the team’s field stretcher, has seen fewer targets this season due to the pocket collapsing before he finishes his route.
But in watching him a few times this season, it seems that he’s not finishing his routes because he’s not expecting to see the ball his way.
All in all, everyone should be much more down on Williams in 2012.
Lastly, another 2010 Pro Bowler who has completely fallen from grace is Jacksonville tight end Marcedes Lewis.
Last season, the 27-year old UCLA alum finished tied for first among all tight ends with 10 TDs and in the top 10 in both receptions and yards. This season, he’s pulling down fewer than 3 catches per game and has eclipsed 50 yards in a game just twice.
I am certainly of the belief that Jacksonville QB Blaine Gabbert is the worst starting quarterback in the NFL, but only so much of Lewis’ struggles can be blamed on that. For one, most rookie QBs tend to fall back on their tight ends, but Lewis has simply been unable to even earn Gabbert’s trust for that.
With 0 touchdowns to his name in 2011, Lewis has been a tremendous disappointment.