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Top 10 of 2011: Boston Athletes of the Year

12.22.11 at 5:10 pm ET
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Jacoby Ellsbury finished second in the American League MVP balloting in 2011. (AP)

Bruins goalie Tim Thomas was an obvious choice for WEEI’s 2011 Sportsman of the Year. With the veteran leading the team to its first Stanley Cup title since 1972 after a standout regular season, he stood above all other candidates.

That being the case, plenty of other Boston athletes deserve praise for memorable 2011 seasons in which records were broken, awards were won and individual performances were etched in fans’ memories. So, we present our list of the Top 10 Boston Athletes of 2011.

10. Keegan Bradley, PGA

A Vermont native who graduated from Hopkinton High School in Massachusetts, Bradley burst onto the scene in 2011 with his shocking victory at the PGA Championship, leading to his being named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. Bradley beat Jason Dufner in a playoff at the Atlanta Athletic Club on Aug. 14 and became only the third man to win a major on his first try.

9. Geoffrey Mutai, Boston Marathon

Sure, it’s only of passing interest to many Boston sports fans, but the best individual performance of 2011 might have been Mutai’s victory in Boston on April 18. The 29-year-old Kenyan not only shattered the Boston Marathon course record by almost three minutes, he ran the fastest marathon in history, blazing to the tape in 2:03:02. Mutai would go to win the New York City Marathon in November, also setting a course record there.

8. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox

The Red Sox’ biggest offseason acquisition came to town with high expectations, and he did not disappoint. Gonzalez was a force throughout the season, abusing the Green Monster like he’d been hitting at Fenway his entire life and reminding Red Sox fans of the value of having a strong defensive presence at first base. Aside from home runs (27), he posted career highs in almost every other major offensive statistic, finishing the season with a league-best 213 hits, a .338 average, a .410 on-base percentage, a .548 slugging percentage and 117 RBIs. He received a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger for his efforts.

7. Rajon Rondo, Celtics

He might not be part of the Big Three, but Rondo is becoming the driving force for the Celtics offense and defense. That was evident last season, when the All-Star and NBA All-Defensive first-teamer averaged a double-double with 10.6 points and a career-high 11.2 assists a game while averaging 37.2 minutes (also a career high). Rondo was spectacular when it mattered, recording a triple-double (including a franchise-record 20 assists) in a Game 3 victory over the Knicks in the playoff’s opening round. In the second round against the Heat, he dislocated his left elbow during Game 3 but dramatically returned to the game and, barely using his injured left arm, managed to spark the C’s to their only victory of the series.

6. Luke Kuechly, Boston College

Coming off a 2010 campaign in which Kuechly led the nation in tackles and was named a unanimous All-American, the BC linebacker was primed for a big 2011 season. And did he ever deliver. Despite BC struggling to a 4-8 mark, Kuechly had arguably the best single season by a defensive player in school history, recording 191 tackles (102 solo) to break the ACC and BC single-season records he had set in 2010. The junior also is the league and school’s career tackles leader with 532. Kuechly won a host of national honors, including the Butkus Award, the Lombardi Award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Lott IMPACT Trophy.

5. Tom Brady, Patriots

There’s not much to be said about Brady that hasn’t been said before. It’s just another incredibly highly productive season for the Patriots quarterback. After finishing 2010 by adding another MVP trophy, the 34-year-old opened the season by passing for 517 yards and four touchdowns in a victory over the Dolphins. He is on pace to break the league single-season record for passing yards, chalking up a career-high 4,593 with two games to go while throwing for 35 touchdowns. Oh, and he’s led the Patriots to the best record in the AFC at 11-3.

4. Zdeno Chara, Bruins

Chara did not win another Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defenseman in 2011, but he’ll take the other trophy he won: the Stanley Cup. After leading the league in plus/minus with a plus-33 during the regular season, Chara again led in that category in the playoffs with a plus-16. The incredibly fit Slovak averaged 27:39 of ice time during the B’s run to the Cup. The captain of the league’s best team — and the 2011 winner of the Mark Messier Leadership Award — is the symbol of what the Bruins are: hardworking, selfless and above all, winners.

3. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots

Already a folk legend in New England, Gronkowski — better known as “Gronk” — has transformed from a red zone force to a full-field playmaker. In his second year, Gronk has become a top target of Tom Brady. With two games remaining in the season, Gronkowski already has broken the NFL single-season record for most touchdown receptions by a tight end with 15. He has 75 receptions overall, with 1,141 receiving yards. On top of that, he’s considered one of the best blocking tight ends in the league.

2. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox

Coming back from a rib injury that forced him out for nearly the entire 2010 season, Ellsbury was overlooked by some coming into the 2011 season. That was fine for the center fielder, who had one of the best years ever for a Red Sox player both at the plate and in the field.  While known for his blazing speed on the basepaths and his consistent bat, Ellsbury changed the perception people had of him in 2011, hitting .321 with 32 home runs and 105 RBI. In the field, Ellsbury was flawless, committing zero errors en route to winning a Gold Glove. Ellsbury finished second in the American League MVP voting, behind only Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander.

1. Tim Thomas, Bruins

After they tried to trade him in 2010, the Bruins now have to be hoping the 37-year-old Thomas decides not to retire anytime soon. Read DJ Bean‘s feature about Thomas to see what the goalie has to say about his future in Boston.

Read More: adrain gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Luke Kuechly, rajon rondo