If you can only do one thing in the NFL, make sure you do it fantastically. Chicago’s Devin Hester is almost exclusively a punt-returner, but he’s the best punt-returner there’s ever been. Dallas’ Dan Bailey is just a place-kicker, but he’s only missed once in a season in which seven of the Cowboys’ 11 games have been decided by four points or fewer.
And for the New England Patriots, Jerod Mayo continues to be the best pure tackler on the team. He might lag behind tight ends, he might rarely pick off a pass or blitz the quarterback, but he doesn’t allow yards after receptions. He stops running backs cold. He doesn’t allow big plays.
The Patriots made Mayo a captain before the 2010 season – the best of his four-year career, earning him both a Pro Bowl and an All-Pro selection. A league-leading 175 tackles, two sacks, five defensed passes, a forced fumble and three recoveries – all last season, Mayo sent a stern, painful message to opposing teams: “don’t test me.”
Mayo hasn’t done nearly as much for the Patriots this season. He leads the front seven with 52 tackles, but that’s where his contributions stop. An early-October MCL injury that cost him two games might be in part responsible.
Some would argue Mayo’s poor numbers reflect a down season for the 10th-overall 2008 draft pick. Quite to the contrary: Mayo’s fewer tackles are a testament to just how good he really is.
Teams no longer challenge Mayo by throwing against his coverage. Quarterbacks know that even if the receiver catches the ball, he won’t get much after the catch. And a receiver worrying about Mayo’s shoulder crashing into his chest is way more likely to bobble the pass.