2012 PFF Defensive Player of the Year

With the playoffs around the corner, Ben Stockwell examines the Defensive Player of the Year nominees and gives the PFF winner plaudits.

| 4 years ago
2012-DPOY-FEATURE

2012 PFF Defensive Player of the Year


After four months in the fall we have reached the end of another NFL regular season, and that means that it’s time to hand out the end of season awards. Unlike MVP voting which becomes a vote based around a lot of hypothetical circumstances and the perceived ‘value’ of an individual player, the award for Defensive Player of the Year is simply a matter of deciding who was the most outstanding defensive player in the league this season.

I say “simply” because this season has seen a number of defenders hit a purple patch the like of which we have never before seen in our five seasons of analyzing games. In any other year any one of five or six players would have a fair shout to be considered the league’s DPOY, but in reality three players have separated themselves this season, and one player has simply made this award his own from very early on.

In a league where veteran players are revered, and within the last 24 hours one of the greatest defensive players of all-time has called an end to his career, this year’s Defensive Player of the Year candidates all prove that in spite of the league supposedly becoming all about offense there are still some freakish defensive talents emerging. Our three top players were all drafted this decade, and even extending into our honorable mentions only one of those entered the league before 2010.

So, without further ado, here is our pick for Defensive Player of the Year, and worthy mentions to the extraordinary chasing group.

Defensive Player of the Year

J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

It should surprise absolutely nobody to find out that our pick as the league’s outstanding defender for the 2012 NFL season is J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans. In the past two seasons Justin Smith demonstrated just how utterly destructive a defensive end can be in a 3-4 scheme, but from the very first week of this season Watt has taken that dominance to a whole new level that before the season you might not have thought possible.

As we reach the climax to the season, Watt has become the first player to earn a single-season grade of +100.0 or more, a grade that no 3-4 defensive end had previously gotten even half way toward in a regular season. Previously a position that was perceived to be all about run defense and setting up other players by occupying blockers, Watt has followed Smith’s example and taken the theory that a 3-4 end can be the most disruptive player on the defense to new heights.

The base stats are there for all to see but they are worth repeating: as a 3-4 end he led the NFL in sacks (both by the NFL’s count and by our own count), he added 24 QB hits to those 21 sacks, batted 15 passes, recorded 72 defensive stops and missed only two tackles all season. The unbelievable level of his play and, more to the point, the consistency of his utter dominance, was nothing short of breathtaking.

The only time this season that Watt was ‘slowed’ — in relative terms — was in Chicago during Week 10 when conditions under foot, and a concerted effort by the Bears to slow him down, led to his lowest single game grade of the season of +1.9. Even then he still managed to record three pressures (a hit and two hurries, respectable numbers for most 3-4 defensive ends) and a pair of stops in the run game. For the rest of the season he graded below +5.0 only twice more, and you start to see the context there when you consider that in Smith’s ground-breaking 2010 and 2011 campaigns he graded above +5.0 only four times in each regular season.

This season was, simply put, dominance on a level that we have never seen before — outside of a couple of players that we are about to talk about. Watt was equally destructive as a run defender and as a pass rusher. His 76 total quarterback pressures are bettered only by Cameron Wake (87), Von Miller (86) and Geno Atkins (78), while his Run Stop Percentage of 17.1 is the best in the league, even beating that of rookie tackling machines Lavonte David (14.6%) and Bobby Wagner (14.4%) among defenders playing at least 200 snaps of run defense.

By any measure that you want to take to the season that Watt has just put forth, there is no weakness. If what you want is highlight-reel plays, then as a disruptor against the pass (both in terms of getting his hands to the quarterback and to passes) he is unmatched. If you are looking for consistency, the only time his performance has dropped by his own exalted standards was in a rainstorm in the Midwest when he still played well by anyone else’s standards. If you want big performances against quality opposition, then look no further than his games against the likes of Baltimore (+4.5), Denver (+5.0), and New England (+6.1) as proof that he is anything but a player who simply takes advantage of favorable matchups. Whether you are a fan who likes to look at the numbers or look at the tape, the only conclusion we or you could possibly come to is that J.J. Watt is more than deserving of this year’s Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Flip the page to find the runners up…

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • http://twitter.com/ItsJustWerner Kurt Werner

    I thought he and JJ Watt and “Peanut Tillman” were competing for the honor most of the season. Why does he not get even an honorable mention?

    • http://twitter.com/shimbomba Shim

       because PFF have an infatuation with Geno Atkins and pass rushers. Tillman should be right up there for what he did twice to Calvin alone. No one else could get near Calvin and he’s held him to ~100 yards and 0 TDs in two games

      • http://twitter.com/ItsJustWerner Kurt Werner

        I wouldn’t go that far because many players’ grades have toileted because of their poor run defensive skills, which Atkins was great in both. Plus they have Sherman (CB) in as an honorable.

        I’m just curious not only as a homer, but, like I said, I remember the articles depicting this race as between Tillman and Watt.

      • Hu

        Having an “infatuation” with the best DT in the league is not that bad, isn’t it?

        So Tillman should be DPOY because of two good games against Megatron?  Atkins had 16 monstuous games against anyone he was linening up against.

        I know Bengals are not playing in a big market, but to say that Tillman was better than Atkins you must really have been doing something else than watching football this year.

        • http://twitter.com/ItsJustWerner Kurt Werner

           He said “right up there,” not that he should be DPOY.

          And you can’t belittle those two great games against the second runner-up OPOY. I don’t agree that those can stand on their own, but Megatron wasn’t the only player to be held to such low performances for not just the WR, but the QB (obviously). Most notably is how rare a QB would even pass his way if they weren’t passing to someone like Johnson or Fitzgerald.

          The positions are different, so “I’ did not say Tillman was better than any of them. I will easily admit Tillman lacked the awesome consistency at times of a player like JJ Watt. But he did have a season that not just the homer in me is excited about.

          • Hu

            Well, I was not reacting to your commentary but to his, wich is plain childish and stupid : “my favorite player is not as good as I think he is?  It must be Profootball focus “infatuation” which is responsible”.

          • http://twitter.com/shimbomba Shim

             Well they do have an infatuation with Geno Atkins, you’re mental if you think they don’t.

            and I didn’t say Tillman should be DPOY but he should have at least a mention in this race without question. Tillman isn’t ‘my favourite player’ so that argument of yours goes right out the window

            Sherman over Tillman for one is just bordering on ridiculous. Also, it’s not just his job on Calvin but how many other CBs in the league do you know that force as many turnovers as Tillman? The answer is none.

          • Hu

            So just GO AWAY.  I’m a paying customer here and I am tired of stupid homers like you invading the comments portion of the site to badmouth the work of those guys, wich is pretty incredible.

            You are better at grading players and have no “infatuation”?  Start your own website, fool.

          • http://twitter.com/shimbomba Shim

            Stop crying there buddy

        • Izach

          actually its argueable, atkins was a beast but till man was a beast too, he had his share of INT plus FFs and good in coverage and tackling for the whole season, him not getting a metion is shocking at least, noone was better than watt tho so its a mute point we are essentially argueing for the first loser in 2nd place so oh well

      • JJ

        Richard Sherman is a pass rusher? weird.

  • Darnell

    Crazy year for defenders. Most other years it would be a slam dunk for those seasons Aldon Smith and Richard Sherman had (historically great). But Watt,Atkins and Miller too – just phenomenal on the highend for defensive performances.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RJQJE6K3HLHOOZCBQSPUA76B6I Bobby Socks

    I watched the Bengals play today….Geno Atkins was miscast as a “playmaker”. I am cancelling my subscription to PFF and doing laundry when they rank polayers again.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RJQJE6K3HLHOOZCBQSPUA76B6I Bobby Socks

    Tillman was more effective at changing the outcome of games than Geno Atkins was…..”No one watches Bengals games” because much of what we saw again today. A very average football team.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RJQJE6K3HLHOOZCBQSPUA76B6I Bobby Socks

    The players voted Tillman and Jennings the starting CB’s…..Sherman not even a starter based on what the players voted…btw.

    • Neil Hornsby

      Those would be the same players that endorsed Jeff Saturday as a Pro Bowl center I assume.

  • Grant

    Even though I am a Cincinnati Bengal’s fan, I do agree that Watt should win and Atkins should come second. Although they were both consistent all year and the best at their positions in pass rushing and stopping the run, Watt was just so amazing that it is almost impossible not to give him the award. I am not taking anything away from any of the other candidates like Sherman, Miller, Wake, Smith and Tillman, but Watt’s and Atkins’ seasons were just a bit better. I think the fact that Atkins plays in a small market hinders his chances but Watt deserves to win anyways.