35. The emergence of Jason Pierre-Paul: The Eagles fell just short of a playoff spot this year, which in turn got the Giants into the postseason. The difference can probably be traced back to the 2010 NFL draft, when Philadelphia took Brandon Graham 13th overall. Two picks later, New York selected Pierre-Paul. During the second half of 2011, there wasn’t a better defensive player in the NFL. The super-athletic pass rusher had 16.5 sacks, and some clutch swats and blocks in his second season. Without him, the Giants probably aren’t Super Bowl champs. Not bad for a 23-year-old who started playing football only seven years ago. Oh, and Graham has three career sacks, none of which came this year.
34. Maurice Jones-Drew somehow wins the rushing title: Somehow, someway, MoJo led the league with 1,606 yards. Many thought Jones-Drew was running out of gas after injuries hampered him in 2010, but he bounced back to average 4.7 yards per carry and score 11 touchdowns despite receiving zero support from the league’s worst-ranked passing game and arguably the NFL’s most incompetent starting quarterback.
33. The Buccaneers take a season off: The young Bucs were an extremely stylish playoff pick in the preseason after winning 10 games out of nowhere in 2010. But Josh Freeman regressed, and the defense couldn’t stop anybody from start to finish this year. What’s more, they appeared to give up on Raheem Morris down the stretch, which is probably why the young Morris is now jobless and the Bucs are back to square one after winning only four games and finishing the season on a 10-game losing streak.
32. Plax is set free, becomes a Jet: Few benefited from the lockout more than Burress, who was released from prison on June 6, just in time to start selling himself for the late-July return of football. Burress signed a one-year, $3-million deal with the Jets on the fourth day of free agency, and went on to play a decent role, at least considering that he hadn’t played professional football in two and a half years. The 34-year-old Burress caught eight touchdown passes in 13 starts.
31. Gronk!: In only his second season, New England’s Rob Gronkowski had arguably the best season a tight end’s ever had. The 22-year-old broke single-season tight end records with 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. Dude’s already got 132 catches and 28 touchdowns in his career. At the same age, Tony Gonzalez had a grand total of four touchdowns.