Editor’s Note: As the NFL releases its major awards this week we’ll re-run our choices for comparison’s sake. This originally ran Jan. 7.
After weeks and weeks of telling you Kyle Williams was the defensive player of the year I had a change of heart. The last two weeks Williams struggled while another defensive lineman who doesn’t get the credit he deserves surged on.
But while my vote went out to the 49ers’ Justin Smith after watching him bully Alan Faneca in Week 17 (capping off a great season), I was overruled by my colleagues, who had Williams as the best defensive player they’ve seen throughout the year. And I’m okay with that.
The top guys in our Defensive Player of the Year awards were in a class of their own. They didn’t get the media hype or the highlight-reel plays shown over and over again. No, what they did was show up — whether the eyes of a nation were on them or not. They put in some of the best performances we’ve ever seen, and we can do nothing but salute them and the rest of the guys who made this list for some truly fantastic football.
1. Kyle Williams, DT, Buffalo Bills (+45.0)
Finished the season leading all defensive tackles in stops and QB disruptions. Not bad for a guy who got next to no press. There hasn’t been a tackle better when it comes to getting in the backfield this year. Williams has made the Pro Bowl as Richard Seymour’s injury replacement, a richly deserved reward for an outstanding season.
2. Trent Cole, DE, Philadelphia Eagles (+45.9)
Cole has been good for a long time, even if it often gets overlooked in the constant QB circus that is the Philadelphia Eagles. Cole was pushed into second on the stat sheet by a man below him, but was a far greater force in run defense.
3. Justin Smith, DE, San Francisco 49ers (+44.9)
If I was a left guard and saw the schedule with “49ers” on it I’d get to work. … get to work on making some sort of excuse as to why I can’t show up to work. Smith is relentless and has terrorized many a guard this year.
4. Tamba Hali, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs (+52.1)
As pure pass rushers go, we should all hail Hali. The man is another guy who has just gone about his year victimizing quarterback with a combined 31 sacks and QB hits, which when added to his pressure stats give us 95 QB disruptions on the year.
5. James Harrison, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers (+41.8)
If you wanted to build a prototypical outside linebacker in the 3-4, you’d take some of Harrison’s DNA and clone him. The only thing you have to dislike it the amount (and nature) of the penalties he has given up. Otherwise he’d have been higher up on my ballot.
6. Quintin Mikell, S, Philadelphia Eagles
We know people will look at the big plays of Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu and wonder just how we can overlook either and opt for a guy like Mikell. Well Mikell has made more plays in coverage than any other safety and is a league of his own coming up to support in run defense. Watch him and you’ll learn to appreciate him. He’s that good.
7. Charles Johnson, DE, Carolina Panthers (+43.5)
Want to know which defensive end had more quarterback disruptions than any other? Charles Johnson with 81. Want to know which defensive end had more defensive stops than any other? Charles Johnson with 48. Just because he played for a terrible Carolina team doesn’t mean his remarkable year should go unnoticed.
8. Julius Peppers, DE, Chicago Bears (+42.0)
One of the better redemption stories of the year is one that doesn’t immediately resonate. As a Panther Peppers was peppered with criticism for not putting in 100%, 100% of the time. As a Bear, Peppers doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet, but the work he does has made the Bears defense one of the best.
9. Lawrence Timmons, ILB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Two Pittsburgh linebackers make it, with Timmons finishing the year as our highest ranked inside linebacker. Blitzes as well as any and a real force in run defense. In a year where Patrick Willis had injuries and a slow start, Timmons took his opportunity to shine.
10. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Dallas Cowboys (+41.8)
A slightly odd season for Ware, who was his usual self rushing the passer but merely average when it came to the other elements of playing outside linebacker. Still deserved more press than he got, even in the failure of a season Dallas had.
In the Discussion: Cameron Wake (Dolphins), Antoine Winfield (Vikings), Brandon Flowers (Chiefs), Champ Bailey (Broncos) and Antonio Garay (Chargers)