- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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The 2011 season was an interesting one filled with ups and mostly downs for the AFC East. Only one team finished with a winning record.
But that doesn't mean the AFC East lacked great individual performances. For example, the division produced an MVP candidate at quarterback who threw for more than 5,000 yards and another stellar season from the best cornerback in football.
Here is our All-AFC East Team for 2011:
Analysis: There is no question about this one. Brady set a new career-high with 5,235 passing yards, which surpassed Dan Marino's old record. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (5,476) finished with more yards and has the new record. Brady is the single biggest reason the Patriots are 13-3 and have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. His performance carried New England through injuries and inconsistencies in other areas. Brady will be chasing his fourth Super Bowl title in the playoffs.
Analysis: This might be a controversial pick, because two other running backs -- Reggie Bush and Shonn Greene -- had 1,000-yard seasons. But Jackson was the best running back I watched this season. He simply had some bad luck, suffering a season-ending leg injury. He was on his way to making his first Pro Bowl. Jackson rushed for 934 yards and six touchdowns in 10 games. He had an additional 442 yards receiving. His numbers would be off the charts if he'd played the final six games.
Fullback: Charles Clay, Dolphins
Analysis: Clay was one of the surprise rookies from Miami's draft class. He was a good blocker for Bush, has great hands and knows what to do with the football. Clay caught 16 passes for 233 yards. He averaged 14.6 yards per reception, which is astounding for a fullback. John Conner of the Jets is the best blocking fullback. But Conner is not a receiving threat.
Analysis: The best receivers in the AFC East this season are a pair of Pro Bowlers. Welker had an unbelievable year. He set a new career high with 1,569 yards. He also caught 122 passes and was one of the league's most sure-handed receivers. Marshall, in contrast, wasn't sure-handed. He had plenty of big drops, but still had a good season. Marshall caught 81 passes for 1,214 yards and six touchdowns. What's even more impressive is that Marshall put up big numbers despite Miami's in-season quarterback switch from Chad Henne to Matt Moore.
Tight end: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
Analysis: Gronkowski showed flashes as a rookie. But no one knew he would explode the way he did in his second season. "Gronk" set an NFL record for tight ends with 17 touchdowns. He averaged more than one per game, despite many teams' focus on stopping him late in the season. Gronkowski finished with 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and made his first Pro Bowl. Considering he's only 22, it will most likely be the first of many Pro Bowls.
Center: Nick Mangold, Jets
Analysis: Jets head coach Rex Ryan says a lot of things. But we believe him when he says Mangold is the best center in the NFL. Mangold fought through an ankle injury but had another solid season. He was named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl. The Jets' offensive line was up and down but completely fell apart when Mangold missed two games. New York's entire running game and blocking scheme is built around its center -- and for good reason.
Analysis: Mankins, who made his fourth Pro Bowl, stayed healthy right up until the end and played 15 of 16 games. He should be ready for the playoffs. Levitre was one of my favorite players to watch because of his versatility. He's a very good guard, a solid offensive tackle and struggled at center. Levitre was forced to play all three positions in Buffalo this season because of injuries.
Analysis: Long played through injuries all season. His back bothered him, and he ended up on injured reserve after tearing his biceps. But Long at 80 percent is still better than most left tackles, and he was good enough to make his fourth Pro Bowl in four years. Light gets our last tackle spot over New York's D’Brickashaw Ferguson. The Pro Bowl nod went to Ferguson. But Ferguson struggled at times this season and didn't play up to his usual standards. I think Ferguson got in on reputation and name recognition.
Analysis: No one flinched when the Patriots quietly signed a pair of veteran defensive ends in free agency to bolster their pass rush. Most of the focus was on big-name acquisitions such as receiver Chad Ochocinco and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. But two of New England's best signings were Carter and Anderson. Each finished with 10 sacks, and Carter made the Pro Bowl despite a late, season-ending quad injury. For all of New England's issues on defense, arguably its biggest strength was rushing the passer. The Patriots registered 40 sacks, and Carter and Anderson combined for half of that total.
Analysis: Wilfork, 30, continues to improve with age. He combines strength and smarts to play defensive tackle/nose tackle. Wilfork finished with 52 tackles and 3.5 sacks. But it was his two interceptions this season that were most memorable. Wilfork rumbled for 28 and 19 yards, respectively, on his two picks. The second defensive tackle was one of the most difficult selections. But we went with Pouha over Miami's Paul Soliai. Pouha's numbers were more impressive for a nose tackle. He recorded 58 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. Soliai played well for Miami but registered only 27 tackles.
Analysis: It was a down year for outside linebackers in the AFC East. Wake and Pace were the best of a thin crop. Wake's sack numbers dipped from 14 to 8.5 this season. Teams put more focus on Wake, and he faced more double teams. Pace stayed healthy this season but recorded his lowest sack total (4.5) since 2006. Pace's backup, Aaron Maybin, led the Jets with six sacks.
Analysis: Harris continues to be one of the most underrated players in the NFL. Harris was the Jets' most consistent defensive player outside of Darrelle Revis. He was always around the football and recorded 86 tackles, five sacks and four interceptions. The second inside linebacker was another tough call. But we think Dansby had a slightly better season than New England's Jerod Mayo. A tailback getting 100 yards against the Dolphins' defense was rare, in large part due to Dansby. He established a physical presence in the middle for Miami and recorded 103 tackles and two sacks.
Analysis: What more can you say about Revis? He had another great season for the Jets. He led New York with 21 passes defended, and tied for the team lead with four interceptions. One pick was returned 100 yards for a touchdown. Teams opted to attack Revis more this season, which allowed more chances for him to make big plays. Arrington was this year's version of Devin McCourty. New England gave up a lot of passing yards, but Arrington made the most of his interception opportunities. He led the Patriots with seven picks and had 88 tackles.
Analysis: The safeties struggled in the AFC East this season. But Bell was probably the most consistent in the division. He led Miami with 107 tackles. He also had two sacks and one interception. Wilson played lights out at times, particularly early in the season. He set a career high with 106 tackles and tied a career mark with four interceptions. Wilson did all of this despite missing three games with injuries.
Punter: Brandon Fields, Dolphins
Analysis: Fields was spectacular this season. He averaged 48.8 yards per punt and had 32 punts inside the 20. Fields was the only Dolphins player exciting to watch during Miami's ugly 0-7 start. Fields had a Pro Bowl season. But Oakland Raiders punter and Pro Bowler Shane Lechler is probably the best punter in the NFL.
Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots
Analysis: Fantasy football players fell in love with Gostkowski this season. New England's high-scoring offense constantly put Gostkowski in position to rack up points, and he usually came through. Gostkowski led New England in scoring with 143 points. He made 28 of 33 field goals and all 59 extra points. The pressure of the playoffs always is different for kickers. But Gostkowski has shown no signs that he will be bothered by it.
Return specialist: Joe McKnight, Jets
Analysis: McKnight was a must-see because something exciting could happen every time he touched the ball. McKnight was fun to watch in the open field. He averaged 31.6 yards per kick return and is a Pro Bowl alternate on special teams. His longest of the season was a 107-yard touchdown return. The next step for McKnight is to develop as a running back. With LaDainian Tomlinson a free agent, McKnight could get a chance to backup Greene next season.
The 2011 season was an interesting one filled with ups and mostly downs for the AFC East. Only one team finished with a winning record.But that doesn't mean the AFC East lacked great individual performances.