- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here is the best of the best. This is the final installment of "Walker's Fab 40" for 2011.
No. 4: Haloti Ngata, defensive lineman
Team: Baltimore Ravens
2010 stats: 63 tackles, 5.5 sacks
Last year's rankings: No. 10
Analysis: Ngata moves up six spots this year after posting his second consecutive Pro Bowl season. He recorded 63 tackles and a career-high 5.5 sacks. A case can be made that he is the NFL's best defensive lineman, and he likely will become the highest-paid player at his position by Baltimore this offseason. Ngata has a rare combination of size, strength, good feet and agility. He commands double-teams and keeps offensive linemen off Baltimore's linebackers. And when Ngata is blocked by a single player, he usually shrugs them off and stops the ball carrier or gets to the quarterback. If Ngata continues to improve, he has the potential to be one of the NFL's most dominant players on defense.
No. 3: Ed Reed, safety
2010 stats: 33 tackles, eight interceptions
Last year's ranking: No. 3
Analysis: Who else can spend the first six games on the physically unable to perform list and still lead the NFL with eight interceptions? Reed continues to be a quarterback's worst nightmare. No one is better at reading a quarterback's eyes, anticipating passes and then picking them off. Often his picks come in bunches. The future Hall of Famer had three multi-interception games this season. The Ravens do a great job of allowing Reed, 32, to stay on the back end as the last line of defense. A nerve injury in his neck has prevented Reed from making a lot of big hits. But occasionally Reed will come up and remind people that he can still dish out punishment. In Week 16 against the Cleveland Browns, Reed knocked tailback Peyton Hillis (No. 13) out the game with a hard shot to the ribs. Reed also had another big hit in the wild-card win against the Kansas City Chiefs.
No. 2: Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
2010 stats: 3,200 yards, 17 touchdowns, five interceptions
Last year's ranking: No. 2
Analysis: Offseason turmoil turned into in-season triumph for Roethlisberger. He overcame a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy to lead the Steelers to Super Bowl XLV. Roethlisberger, who was never considered a workout warrior, worked extremely hard in the offseason and during his suspension in an effort to make it up to his teammates and the Steelers organization. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said Roethlisberger has never been better than this season, and we agree. Roethlisberger threw for 3,200 yards and 17 touchdowns in 12 games. But a key area where he has improved is reducing turnovers. Roethlisberger plays a backyard style but his five interceptions were by far the lowest of his career. At 28, Roethlisberger is now entering his prime and is really building a strong case for the Hall of Fame.
No. 1: Troy Polamalu, safety
2010 stats: 63 tackles, seven interceptions, one sack
Last year's ranking: No. 1
Analysis: The top three didn't change in this year's "Walker's Fab 40." Polamalu finished in the top spot for the second year in a row after winning the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award with another great season. Polamalu solidified his spot as the best defensive player in the league. There is no player like Polamalu in the NFL. He blitzes and hits like a linebacker and covers like a corner, making him the ultimate chess piece for Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Not only does Polamalu make big plays, but he makes them to close out games, and that's what separates him from other good players. His sack and forced fumble against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (No. 14) gave the Steelers the AFC North division title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Health concerns are the only Achilles' heel (no pun intended) for Polamalu. His physical and reckless style often results in injuries, as Polamalu was hampered by ankle and Achilles issues at the end of the season.
That is the conclusion of our second annual "Walker's Fab 40" in the AFC North blog. For a recap, check out the full thread here and let the debate begin!