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…
First Runner Up
Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
As much as Watt was re-writing what we thought was possible as a 3-4 defensive end, another man in the AFC was giving us pause for thought about what a defensive tackle could do in the NFL. Emerging from a 2010 draft class stacked with talented defensive tackles, Geno Atkins slid all the way down to the fourth round and was the 15th defensive tackle chosen. Ever since he entered the league, Atkins has seemingly been on a personal mission to prove that he should have been mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy at the very top of the first round, not having to wait for more than 100 picks to pass before his name was called.
Atkins has grown in stature and performance in each of his three seasons in the league, but the one constant is that he has been the highest-graded defensive tackle from that 2010 draft class in all three years. Even in a 2012 season which saw the Top 2 from that class emerge as elite NFL players, Atkins still topped them, and by a distance.
Atkins has always graded well as a pass rusher, but his run defense has often been suspect and fixing that, along with finding an extra gear as a pass rusher, propelled him to new heights as an utterly destructive player this season. This week’s Analysis Notebook threw the spotlight on a trio of plays that have made Atkins what he is, and it all comes down to an unstoppable blend of speed and power that have allowed him to take up permanent residence in opponents’ backfields.
As mentioned above, Atkins finished third in the league for total quarterback pressures with 78, a simply astonishing number and feat for a defensive tackle, but he also brought that penetrating ability to his run defense to turn in what was comfortably the highest run defense grade among 4-3 defensive tackles in 2012. As a penetrating defensive tackle it is often all too easy to hinder your team in run defense by leaving big gaps behind you for teams to exploit, but in spite of being the most disruptive defensive tackle in the league, he doesn’t do this and takes out far more run plays than he allows to develop. Combined with his unbelievably consistent pass rushing you have a defensive tackle of rare ability, production, and consistency; the kind that Atkins’ peers from the 2010 Draft, Misters McCoy and Suh, were supposed to become before him.
The only thing that holds Atkins back from challenging Watt for the overall honor are their comparative starts to the season — while Atkins’ start was far from slow, it wasn’t Watt’s. He finished the season playing with such unbelievable consistency and with some crucial performances in must-win games for the Bengals that it pushed Watt hard and helped Atkins to second place in our ballot. With performances like his +9.6 grade against the Steelers, a game in which he took apart David DeCastro, there won’t be many players queuing up to slow down Atkins in the playoffs.
Second Runner Up
Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
The man Atkins just edged past for second place on our ballot was Von Miller whose season has been extraordinary, but he is perhaps somewhat overshadowed by a certain No. 18 on the other side of the ball in Denver who is in contention for the big individual award. Miller has been one of the key factors in turning what was already an excellent defense last season into an even better one this season.
Ever since he entered the league, Miller has been an absolutely unstoppable force of nature as a pass rusher who moonlights as a 4-3 outside linebacker in base defense. There are a few other players, like Kamerion Wimbley, who have played this role before, but unlike them Miller has never really been found out in terms of his play in base defense. When you get him into sub packages you just have to sit back and enjoy, or if you’re an opponent just buckle up tight and do the best you can.
His most impressive move as a pass rusher is an almost unblockable dip move that brings with it so much strength and balance that even when pass protectors get their hands to him they struggle to stop or even halt his momentum. Perhaps because of a lower sack number and not being perceived to be in the race for the single-season sack record, he was overlooked at times this season for Aldon Smith, another freakish athlete from the 2011 draft class, but in our eyes that doesn’t accurately reflect the relative merits of their seasons.
While Smith has had a fine year (more on him later) and does an excellent job of turning his pressure into sacks, his consistency simply isn’t at the same level as Miller’s. Like Atkins and Watt who also blow you away with their pass-rushing numbers, the under-appreciated fact about Miller is that, like the other two leading DPOY candidates, Miller is a tremendously rounded defender. On the occasions (146 snaps this season) that he plays in coverage, Miller is not often found out to give up too much (8.7 yards per completion, only one pass completion of 20 yards or more) and his work in run defense is also extraordinary. When he is defending the edge he does a good job of containing runs, but like Atkins he regularly turns his penetration against the run into stops with a Run Stop Percentage only just outside the Top 10 for 4-3 outside linebackers.
In an extraordinary season for these three defensive players, the mark of how close this race was is that for Miller third place was literally a matter of him having three disappointing games (though only one of them negatively graded) in the final six weeks of the season, where the other two maintained their pace all year long. The good news is that like Atkins and Watt we get to see even more of Miller in the postseason.
Cameron Wake, DE, Miami Dolphins
It is a rare year when a 4-3 defensive end isn’t front and center when it comes to considering the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, but with Jason Pierre-Paul struggling to put up the sack numbers to match his exceptional run defense, one defensive end stood alone as a bastion of excellence: Cameron Wake. In his first season playing in a 4-3 defense Wake started out like a runaway train and was only locked down a couple of times during the season (including a Week 17 re-match with Sebastian Vollmer). Wake has been a productive pass rusher ever since he entered the NFL, but this season continued to show that his tag as an unreliable run defender is unwarranted; contributing 23 stops in run defense (tied for eighth-most among 4-3 DEs) and helping the Dolphins to the stingiest run defense in the league on rushes off right tackle and right end this season.
Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks
When the league lost its one true shutdown corner, Darrelle Revis, for the season all the way back in Week 3 you would have been excused for thinking that a defensive back wouldn’t figure in the reckoning for Defensive Player of the Year. Well, if that was the case you didn’t figure on Richard Sherman building on an exceptional rookie season and stepping forward to fill Revis’ void very nicely. Sherman cut his penalty count almost in half from his rookie campaign (from nine down to five) and blended shutdown coverage figures (+26.4 coverage grade, 41.1 passer rating against) with an ability to play the ball (eight interceptions, 15 pass defenses) that was among the league’s best.
Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers
This was the name on everybody’s lips for the last month of the season, mostly due to his potential chase for the single-season sack record. However, without that accolade in his possession, and in our opinion even if he had got it, his résumé for the full season and his consistency across the season never matched up to the three players discussed in detail above. His transition to being a full-time starter was a roaring success, but if you take out that one game against a dreadfully overmatched Chicago Bears offensive line, Smith is never in the conversation and even with it included he was only ever going to be an honorable mention in this extraordinary season of individual defensive play.
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben