The AFC East blog continues its rankings Monday of the top 40 players.
No. 36: Rob Ninkovich, LB
Team: New England Patriots
2011 Stats: 74 tackles, 6.5 sacks, two interceptions
Analysis: Ninkovich is a nice story of a self-made player who earned his way on the field. Patriots coach Bill Belichick doesn’t care where you came from. If you’re smart, always play hard and don’t make many mistakes, the Patriots will find a way to get you on the field. Ninkovich was one of those players who fit in well with the Patriots. He worked his way into the starting lineup, and by the end of the season he was one of New England’s best pass-rushers. A full year of starting experience will go a long way for Ninkovich. New England’s 31st-ranked defense needs a lot of work. But the linebacker corps of Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Ninkovich could have a bright future together.
No. 35: Brandon Fields, P
Team: Miami Dolphins
2011 Stats: 48.8 average, 30 inside 20
Analysis: Those who read the AFC East blog regularly know that Fields is one of my favorite players to watch. He had only one bad game that I can remember in 2011. I thought he deserved a Pro Bowl nod. He averaged 48.8 yards per punt and was great at pinning opponents inside the 20. Punting in Miami all season probably helped his numbers a bit. But Fields played a big role in Miami's special teams and defense consistently winning the field-position battle.
No. 34: Mark Sanchez, QB
Team: New York Jets
2011 Stats: 3,474 yards, 26 touchdowns, 18 interceptions
Analysis: Sanchez is the first AFC East quarterback listed in "Walker's Fab 40." His statistics improved marginally in key areas. But many observers think he took a step back this past season. The Jets thought they could run the offense through Sanchez in 2011. New York started the season throwing the football 30-40 times a game and things didn‘t work out. New York head coach Rex Ryan opted to go back to ground-and-pound football to protect Sanchez. It put the Jets back in playoff contention, but the team couldn't hold it together down the stretch. There are no excuses for Sanchez next season. He has to prove in 2012 that he can carry an offense. Otherwise the Jets have little chance of winning a championship.
No. 33: Mark Anderson, DE
Team: New England Patriots
Stats: 29 tackles, 10 sacks
Analysis: Anderson burst on the scene as a lesser-known free agent who really produced. He provided a much-needed pass rush for New England's struggling defense and tied for the team lead with 10 sacks. Anderson exceeded expectations and more for the Patriots in a contract year. Anderson now is an unrestricted free agent who could cash in on his productive season. The Patriots need all the pass-rushers they can get and will try to make a good pitch for Anderson. But there is no guarantee New England can keep the veteran defensive end.