D'Brickashaw Ferguson (LT, NYJ), Jerod Mayo (ILB, NE), Cameron Wake (OLB, MIA), Stevie Johnson (BUF, WR)
10. David Harris, ILB, New York Jets
David Harris is often overlooked as one of the premier inside linebackers in the NFL. Anyone who watches the Jets knows that Harris is the unquestionable leader and heart of a usually great defense. The former second-round pick has been a starter since his first season in the league (2007), and although he has yet to earn a Pro Bowl trip, his individual statistics and team defense rankings prove that he's All-Pro material.
Harris may have had his lowest tackle number since 2008 (86 total) this past season, but his five sacks and four interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, are impressive for a inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Harris, therefore, proved he's not solely a run-stopper, but can also blitz up the middle and drop back in coverage. And with Bart Scott showing severe signs of regression due to age, the Jets will rely on Harris more than ever to pick up the slack. At age 28, he's entering his prime years, and should continue to be a force in the middle.
9. Fred Jackson, RB, Buffalo Bills
Fred Jackson may be 31 years old, but it's only his sixth "real" NFL season. Because of that, the former D-III star has less wear-and-tear on him than most running backs his age. Last season, Jackson dominated the NFL through 10 games before fracturing his fibula and missing the rest of the year. In those 10 appearances, Jackson rushed for 934 yards and 6 touchdowns while averaging an incredible 5.5 yards per carry. He also caught 39 passes for 442 yards. As such, Jackson was perhaps the No. 1 reason for the Bills' early season success.
Jackson is a rare running back in that he can run, catch, and block; he joins a very small group who can excel at all three things. This season, Jackson won't have to carry the ball 25-30 times a game thanks to the emergence of former first-round pick C.J. Spiller in the Bills' backfield. Spiller came on strong once Jackson went down in Week 11, and should assume a pivotal role in the offense. However, Jackson is still the No. 1 back in Buffalo, and many people expect another fantastic season from him - as long as he's healthy.
8. Vince Wilfork, NT, New England Patriots
Vince Wilfork is unquestionably one of the best defensive lineman in the NFL. He can play 3-4 nose tackle (like most of his career) or 4-3 defensive tackle (like this past year). He is also the heart and soul of the Patriots defense; the epitome of a true Bill Belichick player. Wilfork eats up space in the middle with his 6-foot-2, 335 pound-plus mammoth frame. However, Wilfork also possesses some of the most agile feet for a man of his size - perhaps ever seen. His quickness and first step allows Wilfork to rush the passer and make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
But that's not all: Wilfork apparently can catch the football. His two interceptions were some of the funniest moments in recent years. The big man rumbling down the field against the Chargers and Raiders was a sight like no other. For 2011, Wilfork had his best overall season. He recorded 52 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 2 interceptions, good enough for yet another All-Pro selection. And at 30 years old, Wilfork doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Regardless of personnel or scheme, Wilfork will be asked to resume his role as the leader and captain of a young Patriots defense.
7. Wes Welker, WR, New England Patriots
The diminutive Wes Welker is the best slot receiver in the NFL. No one knows how he'd fare as a flanker or a true No. 1 receiver, but in any case, the former undrafted spark plug has proved his value. Aside from being Tom Brady's favorite target, Welker returns punts and assumes a leadership role on offense. As a wideout, Welker has led the league in receptions in 2007, 2009, and 2011. He is also the only receiver in NFL history to catch 110 or more passes in three consecutive seasons. Lastly, he's been selected to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro in every season as a Patriot.
The 5-foot-8 Welker exploded in 2011 with 122 receptions, 1,569 yards, and 9 touchdowns - his best NFL season. At 31 years old, Welker is not getting any younger. However, his minor stature fits his style well. His quickness, speed, and instincts are as good as ever and show little signs of regressing. The statistics in 2012 might not be as good as last year, but let's not forget that the Patriots have added Pro Bowl WR Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, and Donte Stallworth. Subsequently, Brady will have many options this year, but he should continue to find Welker everywhere on the field.
6. Mario Williams, DE, Buffalo Bills
Super Mario Williams signed his massive $100 million deal with the Buffalo Bills this off-season. The league's No. 1 overall free agent is expected to make an instant impact off the edge in 2012. He will team-up with former Patriots DE Mark Anderson to form one of the league's best pass-rushing tandems. He'll also team-up with defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams to form one of the league's best defensive lines. In any event, Williams will be asked to do a lot with his hefty contract and gargantuan frame (6-foot-7, 290 pounds).
Williams was on pace last season to smash his career-best sack number (14 in 2007): He amassed five in only four and a half games before a season-ending torn pectoral muscle landed him on injured reserve. Now that he's back in a 4-3 defense (Texans switched to 3-4 last year), Williams should be most comfortable and motivated. The physical specimen is barely entering the prime of his career at the age of 27 - his best football is still ahead of him as long as he is healthy. It should be interesting to see where Williams lands on this list after the 2012 season.
5. Nick Mangold, C, New York Jets
Nick Mangold is widely considered the best center in the NFL - and for legitimate reasons. 2011 was Mangold's fourth straight Pro Bowl nod and third straight All-Pro selection. In an offense that has underachieved considerably during his tenure, Mangold, along with left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, has been a consistent bright spot. He is the anchor of the Jets offensive line, a leader on and off the field, and a man with a tremendous beard and flow.
Mangold simply has it all. He has a non-stop motor, quick feet, and excellent strength. As a matter of fact, there's not one negative attribute that stands out. If he isn't superb in one area, he's definitely no less than above-average. Mangold is a gritty run-blocker, a fantastic pass-blocker, and a best friend to QB Mark Sanchez. And while he's a gentleman in the locker room, he happens to possess a mean streak on the field. In 2011, Mangold missed two games to injury. However, those were the only two games he missed in his six years in the league. That said, the 28 year old is in the prime of his career - the best is yet to come.
4. Jake Long, LT, Miami Dolphins
The former 1st overall pick of the 2008 NFL Draft has certainly lived up to the hype. Jake Long has been a man amongst boys since he first entered the league, protecting a medley of starting quarterbacks each and every year. Like Mangold, the 6-foot-7, 320 pound Long possesses all the tools to be one of the best offensive lineman in the league. He's a great run-blocker, a tremendous pass-blocker, and a man with strong character and leadership qualities. His four straight Pro Bowl selections (rookie to present) speak volumes to how good Long really is.
Long is definitely the leader of the Dolphins offensive line, if not the best offensive tackle in the NFL. The Browns' Joe Thomas is arguably neck-and-neck with Long in terms of who is the best, but regardless, you don't get much better than those two. Barring two games this past season, Long has started every game since his rookie year. As a result, there is no reason not to believe that the 27 year old Long will continue to produce at a high-level for the rebuilding Dolphins.
3. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
Some might say that this ranking is a little too high for Rob Gronkowski, only because he is entering his third year in the league while most of the guys on this list have a pedigree and reputation of many productive years. I would tend to agree, but in this case, it really doesn't matter - Gronk is an absolute beast of a football player. In 2011, Gronk set a multitude of single-season records for the tight end position, including receiving touchdowns and receiving yards. He finished the year with an unprecedented 90 receptions, 1,327 yards, and 17 touchdowns. Sure, Tom Brady makes Gronkowski look like a football legend, but there's no reason to believe that he wouldn't dominate if he played anywhere else.
Gronkowski earned his first Pro Bowl nod and All-Pro selection after his incredible season. And if Gronk were 100% healthy for the Super Bowl, who knows how that would have affected the outcome. But with nearly 2,000 yards receiving and 27 touchdowns in two NFL seasons, Gronkowski has taken the crown as the best tight end and football (Jimmy Graham is a close second). What makes his situation even more intriguing is how he and Aaron Hernandez form the best TE duo in the NFL. Nevertheless, the 2012 Patriots will be a sight to see on the offensive side of the ball. The 6-foot-6, 265 pound Gronkowski should continue to cause headaches for defensive coordinators, as well as mismatches for defensive backs, throughout the league.
2. Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets
The trademark/slogan/spot on the field "Revis Island" couldn't be more true. There is simply no defensive back better that Darrelle Revis in the NFL. His statistics against No. 1 wide receivers says it all. The best playmakers in the game can't seem to get open with Revis blanketing them. He's just too darn good. A Larry Fitzgerald or Calvin Johnson might
get the best of him one or two games a year, but that's about it. Heck, it's one thing to say a cornerback is great in zone coverage, but to say he's the best in man-to-man is quite the achievement. It only took opposing quarterbacks three seasons to straight-up stop throwing his way (and I say that with total sarcasm).
Revis has been a Pro Bowler since his second year in the league (2008), and he was also the 2009 AFC Defensive Player of the Year. He's missed only three games in those five years. In 2011, Revis recorded 52 tackles and 4 interceptions in 16 games, including a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against Brandon Marshall and the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football. There's no doubt that performances such as that will persist for Revis; that is, unless quarterbacks continue to refrain from tempting the man. The 27 year old (in July) is merely entering the prime of his career. That's bad news for quarterbacks, and even worse for the New England Patriots once a certain future Hall-of-Famer retires.
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
Surprise, surprise! The No. 1 player in the AFC East - and NFL for that matter - is Tom Brady. Five Super Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl victories, two Super Bowl MVP's, and two NFL MVP's should just about qualify Brady as the best of the best. The list of accolades goes on and on, including seven Pro Bowls and a 100% lock for a first-ballot Hall of Fame induction. Everyone and their mother knows the story and legend of Tom Brady, so there's no reason to indulge in it. The records he's broken, or shattered, are too numbered to get into as well. His career speaks for itself.
In 2011, Brady was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Year after arguably his best NFL season. He logged a career-best 5,235 yards (65.6%), 39 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. His 8.6 yards per completion was a career-best, as well as his three rushing touchdowns. His overall QB rating was an impressive 105.6. His route to the Super Bowl included some incredible performances too. However, Brady is not getting any younger. He turns 35 in August. One has to wonder when he'll hang-up the cleats, but the fact that he's a quarterback and still playing his best football leads many to believe he has at least four or five years left in the tank. It won't be a happy day in New England when that happens, but for now, Brady is keeping the Patriots an annual Super Bowl contender.