Awards season in the NFL.
This is the time to make those near-impossible personal preference decisions as to who the best players are at each position. A thankless task but one that often opens up some worthy debate. Pro Football Focus’ core group of analysts have each picked a guy they think warrants consideration for the Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year Awards. Offering these names for discussion, we invite your thoughts on the matter. In the comments field below, let us know who you’d pick and why.
Candidates for Offensive Player of the Year
Sam Monson: Rob Gronkowski, TE, NE
The NFL has been trending towards a new breed of tight end: super athletes that pose matchup nightmares for defenses and allow teams to rack-up yards in the air throwing to super-sized wide receivers. Rob Gronkowski is different, and better. He is as good as any of these receiving tight ends, but he also in-line blocks like an offensive tackle. He is the prototype tight end and has been head and shoulders above any other in the NFL this season. He shows a good feel for zone coverage, can run away from man coverage, and makes incredibly difficult catches look routine with huge hands and an impressive frame. His NFL-record 15 touchdowns speak for themselves, but he is also averaging 15.2 yards per catch (on 75 receptions) and has a realistic shot at breaking the all-time single-season yardage mark for a tight end to add to his touchdown mark. This has been a season for the ages for Gronkowski purely as a receiver, but the extra dimension he brings as a run blocker distances him from any other challenger.
Ben Stockwell: Jason Peters, LT, PHI
The effect of offensive linemen on an offense is often overlooked and when attention is turned their way, it is often to the unit as a whole, which devalues the more important players on the line. Nowhere is this more true than in Philadelphia where, on the strongest offensive line unit in the league, one man stands out as a game-changer who completely alters the Philadelphia offense to help make best use of their explosive weapons. That man is Jason Peters who, this year, has finally put it all together–not just in flashes, but on a consistent basis and not only as a pass protector, but in the running game too. His pass protection has been as good as any in the league; conceding only three sacks and one hit to his quarterbacks. He uses that mobility extremely well for LeSean McCoy on run and screen plays as well. In combination with Evan Mathis, the left side of the Eagles’ line has the ability to stretch a defense laterally like no other. Peters’ athleticism and hustle also allows him to work further downfield, playing a key role in allowing McCoy to have gained 39.9% of his yards on a league-leading 19 rushes of 15 yards or more. It’s for the difference that Peters makes to everyone else around him that should see Peters given more recognition than a lineman usually receives.
Neil Hornsby: Aaron Rodgers, QB, GB
OK, so this is just a straight lock right? I don’t have to do anymore than put the name Aaron Rodgers on the page and I win. Well, while in a world where hype and conventional wisdom reign supreme, that may still be the case, but at PFF we hold ourselves to a much higher standard. In doing that, I hope you’ll agree Rodgers still comes through.
The first point I’d make is that he just doesn’t have bad games. Never once this year have we rated him as less than average; he either wins the game for his team or has others around him lose it. Not once this season has he played badly enough to lose. That in itself is quite incredible, but isn’t it just what Tom Brady was doing last year? Playing high-percentage, low-risk football with a great supporting cast and reaping the rewards. Nothing could be further from the truth because what Rodgers does is absolutely not without jeopardy; it’s just that his execution is at such a high level it looks cold and clinical. Case in point, he throws deep (over 20 yards) the ninth-most in the NFL, but completes by far the largest percentage of those passes–an otherworldly 60.3%. Many quarterbacks would take that overall, but on passes over 20 yards it’s almost unbelievable. I won’t bore you with the base numbers because you can get them anywhere but they all point to one thing … this is simply the best season any quarterback has ever had.
Khaled Elsayed: Drew Brees, QB, NO
I was a little surprised that nobody went for Calvin Johnson, and came close to picking him but how do you look past Drew Brees? Arguably playing better football than any quarterback in the league at the moment, Brees is exceptionally accurate and does a great job working within the limitations of the Saints’ offensive line. His ability to get rid of the ball quickly avoids taking a lot sacks; not the easiest thing to do when your tackles are Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief. That he’s avoided sacks and managed to maintain the second-highest Accuracy Percentage under pressure (65.6%) is a credit to the type of groove Brees is in now. Aaron Rodgers may have quarterbacked a team with a better record, but the former Charger has had to do more to make his Saints competitive, and that, for me, is why Drew Brees should be your Offensive Player of the Year.
Candidates for Defensive Player of the Year
Sam Monson: Von Miller, OLB, DEN
Von Miller might be enjoying the best rookie season in more than a dozen years. The last time a rookie stepped straight on an NFL field and instantly made a case to be the best player at his position in the league was Randy Moss back in 1998, and Miller is making that kind of impact. Used as a dual-position player in Denver’s 4-3 scheme, Miller has been a force as a pass-rusher on third downs and passing situations, but is also playing extremely well against the run on early downs … and if that was all he did, he would still be deserving of a Pro-Bowl selection. Miller’s +55.0 grade is well out in front of any other 4-3 OLB, and more than double all bar one other player (Oakland’s Kamerion Wimbley at +31.5). As a pass-rusher, Miller has notched 12 sacks, 19 more knockdowns, and 28 additional pressures as he has been able to constantly overmatch offensive tackles and harass the opposing quarterback. Von Miller is the first player that teams need to account for on that Denver defense and if they don’t do so, they’re going to find him in the middle of every play they want to run. Forget Rookie of the Year, Von Miller is the Defensive Player of the Year!
Ben Stockwell: Derrick Johnson, ILB, KC
The level of play at inside linebacker this season at the very top has been simply astonishing with no less than five players putting in performances to a level that would be worthy of All-Pro consideration. While the likes of Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Brian Cushing, and Ray Lewis have put in those displays on playoff-bound teams, Derrick Johnson is not getting the same recognition playing for the underachieving Chiefs. His every-down play shedding blocks in the running game is as good as any of the other four in this group and his ability in coverage is strong as well, allowing only 68.9% of passes his way to be completed. However, for Johnson it’s the marquee plays and what he has meant to the Chiefs in key situations that establish him just that half step above the others who are playing so well this season. Plays such as his series in Oakland in Week 7: at a crucial juncture of the game, Johnson made all four stops on a goal-line stand inside the Kansas City 5-yard-line to keep the Raiders out of the end zone and off of the scoreboard. It’s for his down-to-down consistency and his ability to carry the Chiefs’ defense in critical spots that Derrick Johnson is the one player from a group of five exceptional inside linebackers who merits the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Neil Hornsby: Terrell Suggs, DE, BAL
At PFF we love balance. We like it when tight ends block and when linebackers can cover; while we understand the value of one-dimensional players in a game where there is unlimited substitution, there is still inherent weaknesses for an offense to work on. What makes Terrell Suggs special is that he simply doesn’t have any limitations that offensive coordinators can scheme for. He can dominate as a pass rusher as his 13 sacks, nine hits and 32 hurries so far in 2011 will attest, does very well in the limited number of times he drops in coverage (about four per game) and is without peer as a 4-3 run defender. I’ve often said that if Jarret Johnson is on the same side as Suggs, teams that run to that side are mad and the play-caller should be fired; it’s suicide. It’s bad enough with the DE there on his own. In the days where many ends see outside contain as a reason to “lean” on tackles and take a rest there is no such thing with Suggs. Outside contain equals force and nothing describes better the way he fights to get back inside his man and make the play.
He is the ultimate role model for any who play the position; a feared pass rusher who also makes running to his side of the field an act bordering on stupidity.
Khaled Elsayed: Justin Smith, DE, SF
Has there been a better player in football over the past three years than Justin Smith? The clear No. 1 3-4 end in football, Smith is so good you can place him over any member of an offensive line and the results are likely to be the same: complete domination. Not only a guy who has the motor and durability to play an awful lot of snaps, Smith delivers consistently, leading our 3-4 rankings by a massive +17.8 over the nearest challenger. If you’re looking at the main reason why, you only need to see how much pressure he gets; six sacks, 10 hits and 44 hurries–a number bettered only by Julius Peppers, Chris Long, Cameron Wake and Clay Matthews … all guys who play outside where pass rushing numbers are traditionally far greater. What I like about him is he can beat you inside, swat you out of the way as he goes around, or just bull rush you. How do you prepare for a guy who can beat you every which way? Throw in some top-notch run defense and you have one of the most active players in the NFL, making his presence felt nearly every time the ball is snapped. He may not have flashy numbers or get as much air time as the other guys, but Smith just gets the job done. That’s why he’s my Defensive Player of the Year.