There were so many great moments and players during the 2011 season but not all of them could be captured in all of our top five lists. So this is the Best of the Rest — the notable moments that couldn't find a home on our lists.
Really Valuable Offensive Player: The Falcons offense started off slow and didn't show the performance in the postseason they'd hoped, but around the mid-point of the season, Matt Ryan and the offense seemed to find the right gear and began posting franchise-best numbers. Ryan was the leader of an offense that finished in the top-10 in total offense in the league and was the benefactor of numerous weapons on that side of the ball. Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner all had terrific seasons, but Ryan's 2011 set personal and franchise records. Ryan also showed showed one of the intangibles that Atlanta loved about him as they considered using their first-round pick in 2008 to add him to the team. The quarterback's toughness was on display all season, getting up from sacks and hits that could have put other QBs out of commission. Ryan showed he's a true franchise quarterback and the incoming new offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, won't have a tough time using Ryan to engineer an offense that will only continue to improve.
Really Valuable Defensive Player: This one is a tie. Linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Curtis Lofton showed they're two of the best young linebackers in the league in 2011 and they had the stats and production to back it up. Both LBs were among the league leaders in key linebacker statistics and 'Spoon and Lofton were the catalysts for a run defense that finished sixth in yards allowed per game, reaching as high as second at one point during the season. The two are cornerstones to build around for new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
Really Valuable Special Teams Player: Head coach Mike Smith often speaks highly of special teams ace Eric Weems, describing him as a core special teams player because of his work as a returner and on coverage teams. He had another fine 2011 season, but a newcomer proved to be Atlanta's best special teamer this season. Rookie linebacker Akeem Dent didn't have an opportunity to make much of an impact on defense, but his presence was felt on special teams. Dent led the team with 19 special teams tackles and was named to Pro Football Weekly's all-rookie team.
Most Improved Player: When a player is drafted in the first round, he's expected to come in and compete for a starting job and make an impact from the beginning. Weatherspoon, 2010's first-round pick, didn't have the rookie season he expected, slowed by typical rookie lessons and injuries, but in his second season he showed he is developing into one of the most complete 4-3 linebackers in the NFL. He had 115 tackles with four sacks and eight passes defensed. Weatherspoon, in typical elite-level linebacker fashion, did much of his best work behind the line off scrimmage. In addition to his sacks, he had 14 tackles for loss.
Best Season Performance by an Underrated Player: Not many outside of Atlanta know the name of Corey Peters. The defensive tackle from Kentucky was a slight head-scratcher as a third-round pick in 2010, but played solidly. He took it up a notch this season and became a key player on Atlanta's defense. In addition to Peters' three sacks and six tackles for loss, the big guy in the middle had three pass deflections, showing the kind of head's up play that his coaches now expect from him. In Week 15, Peters picked up a fumble and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown. In the endzone, he showed the celebration pose fans have come to know and love: The Bernie, a limp-arm-and-neck homage to the character from the film "Weekend At Bernie's."
Most Intimidating Player: In what was considered a down year for him, John Abraham still had 9.5 sacks and showed why he's still one of the most dominant and feared pass rushers in the NFL. With the retirement of Jason Taylor, Abraham is now the current active leader in sacks in the league. Slowed by injuries throughout much of the season, Abraham turned his pressure up late in the season to reach his stat mark. He also added four forced fumbles. Against elite-level left tackles, Abraham performed well, but he often made young offensive tackles in 2011 look silly. The coaching staff moved Abraham around the line, rushing him from various positions to give opposing offenses fits and his run defense is still one of the most underrated parts of his game.
Comeback Player: In 2010 Harry Douglas was one season removed from a season-ending knee injury. While he was healthy for all 16 games, he was clearly working his way back to the health that he had when he showed so much promise as a rookie in 2008. 2011 was a turning point for the young wide receiver and his stats don't tell the true story about what he accomplished during the season. Being on the field every week was still an accomplishment Douglas often spoke of appreciating and on an offense loaded with weapons, he began to find his niche. Working out of the slot, Douglas helped pick up the slack when some of Atlanta's other offensive weapons were covered or taken out of the game plan. He caught a catch for a first down on just over 50 percent of his catches and he came up big in some critical moments during the season on third down.
Keep Your Eye On: Second-year corner Dominique Franks quietly turned some heads late in the season. A fifth-round pick in 2010, Franks wasn't asked to do much last season, but injuries and his consistent play in practice allowed Franks some opportunities this season. He was active for 14 games this year and started four of the final games of the season. His comfort level in the defense improved as his time on the field grew. He closed the season with four straight games with a pass defended, ending with five on the season. He also had two interceptions, both coming in the season's final two games. Franks could be a natural fit in Nolan's aggressive secondary scheme and he appears to be headed in the direction of cashing in on his sleeper status in 2012.
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