The 2013 season was a year of fine defensive performances and even though the league continues to become even more pass-happy and offensive records continue to fall, defenders have risen to the challenge. The MVP this season seems like a formality with Peyton Manning the odds-on favorite, but there is a good case to be made that all of the most dominant seasons this year came from defenders.
There are plenty of great seasons to choose from, but in truth the award itself is a two-horse race, with two defenders standing head and shoulders above not only everybody at their respective positions, but above the other award candidates as well.
Several players are going to fall into the category of ‘in any other season…’ when we discuss their credentials. It’s worth remembering everybody mentioned on this list had a great season, and critiquing their candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year is less an indictment of them as it is an endorsement of the standard set by some.
So let’s dive into how the PFF ballot looks for DPOY:
2nd and 3rd Runners Up
Gerald McCoy, DT, and Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
We here at PFF think the DPOY this year is clearly a two-horse race. Still, there are another two candidates whose seasons are worthy of discussion above the rest of the field. While they aren’t quite in the running for the award itself and they both play in the same team. Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David have both had All-Pro caliber seasons and been the best players at their respective positions in the NFL, but neither has quite hit the heady heights of the players above them.
Both ironically had impact plays all around this year despite very little help around them. That seems silly to say given that they have each other, not to mention Darrelle Revis, on the team. Tampa Bay seems to have secured itself one stud at every level of the defense, but each guy has very little help from elsewhere in their unit. Revis has been trapped in a zone scheme that hangs him out to dry while other players fail to hold up their end of the bargain. David has been a stud while the other full-time starter, Mason Foster, has struggled. Tampa Bay plays in sub-packages most of the time and no other LB has more than 275 snaps and McCoy has been dominant with nobody else inside taking pressure off him.
McCoy’s grade this season grade is a massive +56.3 but the rest of the Tampa Bay defensive linemen have combined for a -84.4 grade with every single member grading negatively. Even J.J. Watt in Houston has Antonio Smith to keep a defense honest, but opposing blockers have had literally nobody in Tampa Bay to distract them from focusing on McCoy, and he has still been unstoppable. He finished with 80 total pressures and that is a figure bettered by only four other players who are composed of three edge rushers and Watt – almost twenty better than the NFL’s sack champion Robert Mathis, as an interior rusher.
David has been similarly dominant behind him but is held back as much by his position as anything. Though interior rushers can at least in theory affect most plays, there are plenty of plays that a 4-3 OLB has no hope of ever influencing. Teams can avoid a stud at that spot more easily than any of the guys at the line of scrimmage and David has done close to as well as he could have been expected to. His 53 defensive stops are 18 clear of the rest of the pack at his position and the rate at which he notched those stops was comfortably better than the rest.
Both David and McCoy had fantastic seasons, worthy of consideration, but neither can quite live up to the standard set this season for DPOY.
1st Runner Up
Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams
Everybody always knew that Robert Quinn had supreme talent, but this year was the first time we’ve seen him unleash all of it all year long. He became the most devastating edge rusher in the game, speeding around tackles to the quarterback at a rate we haven’t seen since Dwight Freeney was at his peak. Quinn’s burst off the line and ability to turn the corner at full speed propelled him to 91 total pressures on the year, a league-leading figure.
His grade was a ridiculous 280% better than that of the next best player at his position, Miami’s Cameron Wake, himself a pretty fearsome pass rusher. Quinn was in a league of his own when it comes to edge pressure. He routinely turned the corner on tackles in two seconds, the kind of time that destroys passing games.
While all the numbers stack up for Quinn there is another side to his play. His grade is built primarily on absolutely destroying bad offensive tackles. He eviscerated players not at his level like nobody we have seen in recent years. He had five games this season that rank in the top 1% of grades PFF has ever given and a trio of three games. The problem is that against better opposition he is relatively quiet. He wasn’t blanked in any games this season as a rusher, but individual players did successfully keep him quiet. Joe Staley contained him in the first San Francisco game with his sack coming from chasing the QB down from behind and Michael Roos limited him to just a single hurry against him in the Tennessee game.
To some extent this is the nature of the beast. Good offensive tackles tend to get the better of good edge rushers, but it is probably worth noting that while Watt had just one relatively quiet game Quinn had five, with three negative grades as a pass-rusher.
Like Watt, Quinn was toiling on a team that wasn’t winning many games, but he also dominated to a degree we have not seen in recent years at his position. Quinn has a legitimate case for DPOY and in most other years would be the easy choice. This season he just misses out on PFF’s award.
Defensive Player of the Year
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
The Defensive Player of the Year award last season was a close run race between J.J. Watt, Von Miller and Geno Atkins. The numbers suggested it was Watt in a landslide, but all three put together absolutely ridiculous seasons and Watt was just a hair in front of the competition. He had the gaudy statistics – the sacks, the batted passes – but it was a closer race than most people thought. When you look beyond the blunt tool of raw numbers, his performance play-by-play wasn’t in a league of its own when compared to the other two.
This year the same principle is true but in reverse. Watt this season doesn’t have the gaudy numbers. He only sacked the quarterback 11 times, he only has 6 batted passes, but in play-by-play grading terms his season has actually been better than a year ago. As good as the seasons have been by everybody else in the NFL, J.J. Watt has been just a little bit better, even if this time the statistics don’t back it up.
He has been a one-man wrecking crew inside on that Houston D-line and moves around throughout games to make it extremely difficult for offenses to focus in on shutting him down. The Texans have used him outside in a four-man line more this season and he has dominated there as well, proving too quick and powerful for tackles as well as guards.
Last year Watt broke the PFF grading system with a season total of +101.6, but this year that total finished up at +111.6, a full 10 grading points better.
As bad as the Texans have been at times, they would be a whole lot worse without Watt. Their defense is stacked with players who have had a season’s worth of clean up tackles on plays that Watt has destroyed in the backfield.
Sadly for Houston one man cannot make a defense, and as dominant he has been it simply hasn’t mattered at times. If an offense wants to badly enough they can just run away from a player all day long. The Rams handed Watt his poorest grade of the season (a still better than average +0.2) by doing exactly that.
They ran away from where he lined up, they double teamed him at times, and when they didn’t they made sure that they were passing too quickly for him to get to the quarterback. The point, though, is that in order to contain J.J. Watt you need to completely change your offense. He affects games like no other defender.
Right now Watt is the best defender in football, and the best player period in the NFL. He deserves his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award and it’s a testament to the seasons of others that it’s not a slam-dunk selection.
We’ve been through the realistic candidates for PFF’s DPOY award, but that is far from the list that will be discussed by everybody else at large, and might not even include somebody who wins the AP award, as frightening as that is.
Several fantastic seasons don’t appear on our shortlist because they fall some way short of the unbelievable level set by those that did, but that isn’t to dismiss their achievements.
– Luke Kuechly put up a monster game against the Saints but couldn’t match that level consistently throughout the season. NaVorro Bowman was the class of the inside linebacker group this year but he didn’t separate himself from the pack enough to earn the nod.
– The Seattle pairing of Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas both put together fantastic years, with Thomas in particular finally justifying the hype that has surrounded him for a while. Neither player has dominated as consistently as those on this list, however, and occasionally got beaten on plays where they seemed to switch off.
– Robert Mathis led the NFL’s sack list, but only generated 61 total pressures, a figure matched or exceeded by twenty-five players, some of whom with many fewer snaps rushing the passer. His candidacy is built on the back of a few key statistics and big plays, but the consistency wasn’t there throughout.
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