- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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We are down to the very best players in the AFC East.
Here are our rankings for Nos. 5-8:
No. 8: Brandon Marshall, WR
Team: Miami Dolphins
2011 stats: 81 receptions, 1,214 yards, 6 touchdowns
Analysis: Marshall said it himself: If he had an elite quarterback, he would be mentioned among the best receivers in the game. I didn't like how he virtually threw Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore under the bus, but you can't disagree with his rationale. Besides a penchant for a few drops, Marshall has rare attributes for a receiver. He has size, strength, decent enough speed and he competes hard all the time. The Dolphins started 0-7 and Marshall never quit. He was dedicated all season and put up great numbers with Moore and Chad Henne as his quarterbacks. Marshall also lit up the Pro Bowl with a record four touchdown receptions. It's further proof of how dangerous Marshall can be with a great quarterback. The Dolphins are searching for one this offseason.
No. 7: Jake Long, LT
2011 stats: 14 starts
Analysis: When healthy, Long and Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns are the NFL's two best left tackles. Both have similar skills, but Long had arguably his most inconsistent year in 2011. Long didn't complain about his various injuries, but it certainly affected his play all season. He eventually tore his biceps muscle in December and was knocked out for the season. Long is the complete package as a left tackle — talent, work ethic and smarts. The only thing holding him back lately is health, which makes you wonder if injuries are becoming chronic with Long.
No. 6: Vince Wilfork, DT
Team: New England Patriots
2011 stats: 53 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 entertaining interceptions
Analysis: Wilfork, 30, is starting to get up in years. But the eight-year veteran is coming off arguably the best season of his career. He set a career high with 3.5 sacks, something not typically asked of him, and he also had the two most exciting interceptions in the NFL last season. Wilfork had a chance to return both picks and ran through a few tackles along the way. For all of New England's issues on defense, Wilfork is certainly not one of them. He is the best overall defender the Patriots have and one of the best defensive players in the division.
No. 5: Nick Mangold, C
Team: New York Jets
2011 stats: 14 starts
Analysis: It's debatable if Long is the best left tackle in the NFL. But in my book there's no debate that Mangold is the league's best center. Mangold has all the attributes you want in a center. He's physical, smart and has enough athleticism to move in open space. New York built its entire offensive line around Mangold. That's part of the reason why the group fell apart when Mangold missed two games with an ankle injury. Mangold played with a bum ankle nearly the entire second half of the 2011 season and still played at a Pro Bowl level. He's one of the toughest and best offensive linemen in football.