- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Let’s wrap up the 2011 AFC West season by giving our annual awards:
MVP: Denver running back Willis McGahee
He was the best player on the surprise division champions. Denver’s running game was ranked first in the NFL and the biggest reason was the terrific season by the 30-year-old, who was one of the best free-agent signings of 2011. The Tim Tebow offense worked best when McGahee was leading the way. He finished the season with 1,199 yards on the ground and he showed great leadership.
Offensive player of the year: San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers
It wasn’t Rivers’ greatest season of his career, but he straightened out toward the end of the season and ended up putting up solid numbers. If Oakland running back Darren McFadden didn’t get hurt in October, when he was on his way to this honor (or perhaps the division MVP), he would have been serious candidate. But it goes to Rivers, whom I still believe is the best overall player in the division.
Defensive player of the year: Kansas City linebacker Derrick Johnson
He is one of the more underrated players in the NFL. He is a tackling machine and a timely playmaker. Johnson was brilliant in 2011 as he had a career-high 131 tackles. Along with fellow Pro Bowl linebacker Tamba Hali, Johnson is the centerpiece to a potentially standout defense.
Coach of the year: Denver coach John Fox
Fox made his impact felt immediately in Denver. A player’s coach, Fox’s easy personality was exactly what the team needed after the Josh McDaniels disaster. The Broncos went from 4-12 to 8-8 and winning the AFC West. Fox helped guide a defensive resurgence and he adjusted well to playing with Tebow. This is a growing program and Fox is a big reason why.
Comeback player of the year: Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil
There were concerns that Dumervil would be rusty and unable to make an impact in Fox’s 4-3 defense. No worries. After overcoming several inquires early in the season, Dumervil finished strong and he ended up with 9.5 sacks. Dumervil missed all of the 2010 season with a pectoral injury. But he came back strong and teamed with rookie Von Miller to become one of the best pass-rushing pairs in the NFL.
Most improved player of the year: Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey
Heyward-Bey deserves a lot of credit for the progress he made in 2011. I think he was one of the most improved players in the NFL. After catching just 35 passes in his first 26 games, Heyward-Bey had 64 catches for 975 yards in 2011. He still showed he has some issues with dropped passes, but his strides were huge and he took over some games. I can’t wait to see if can continue to make big progress.
Offensive rookie of the year: Oakland guard Stefen Wisniewski
Wisniewski looked like he was a 10-year veteran as a rookie. He is a natural player who is both athletic and intelligent. Born to be a Raider as the nephew of former Raiders great offensive lineman and current assistant coach Steve Wisniewski, Stefen Wisniewski upheld his family name well. There were times in the season when he simply took over. He was a steal at the No. 48 overall pick.
Defensive rookie of the year: Denver linebacker Von Miller
This was an easy one. Miller won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. The No. 2 overall pick in the draft was dominant before he broke his thumb in late November. He finished with 11.5 sacks. Miller needs to improve as a run-stopper, but he appears to have limitless potential and is already a team leader. Denver has to be thrilled with this pick.
Executive of the year: Denver’s John Elway
It’s early, but the results have been promising. Elway doesn’t seem to be one of those playing legends, front-office-disaster types. He has proven to be humble and hard working in his new role. Elway’s choice of Fox as coach was a winner and Denver had success in the draft and in free agency. No one expected Elway’s first year as Denver’s football leader ending up in the second round of the playoffs.
Specialist of the year: Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski
This is a significant award because I believe this may be the premier special-teams division in football. Janikowski stuck out as the best specialist in a division of specialist stars. He opened the season in style by tying the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal in Week 1 at Denver and he showed great consistency all season. He is a true weapon.
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