2014 PFF Defensive Player of the Year
Despite the outcome of the Defensive Player of the Year Award seeming like a formality, there were a number of top-notch defensive performances throughout the league in 2014. At PFF, we’ve watched every snap multiple times to look beyond the traditional statistics and perhaps dig a little deeper into widespread perceptions.
This group of finalists is not an unfamiliar bunch to PFF regulars, but a few of them took their respective games to a new level in 2014. Last year’s award was a bit closer at the top, but this year featured an almost-interchangeable No. 2 through No. 5, so the decisions weren’t easy when we mulled them over at PFF headquarters.
As always, it’s important to note, we’re not just listing our top-graded defensive players and calling it a day. A lot of thought and analysis went into creating this list as not all position groups are graded on the same scale and not all players bear the same responsibility within their respective schemes. That said, here are your Top 5 defensive players for 2014:
4th Runner Up
Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina Panthers
Last year’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year. We took some heat for not putting him in the mix for our award and even more grief for calling him overrated last spring. It’s not that we didn’t think he was a good player last season – he was among the league’s best linebackers – but we didn’t feel he was the best defensive player in the league, therefore, we felt he was overrated. Seems simple enough.
As for this season, Kuechly continued his strong play, perhaps kicking it up a notch to finish at +28.4 (finished at +11.1 in 2013), tops among inside linebackers on the year. He’s always been a strong run defender – instinctual enough to find the right gap, yet more than capable of shedding blocks at the second level – but he added to his game with a career-high +15.8 grade in coverage. He led all inside linebackers with six passes defensed and dwarfed the competition with 38 stops (tackles forcing an offensive failure) in the passing game. His ability to keep the ball in front while sprinkling in the big plays led to his big coverage grade spike (+4.0 in 2013).
As for the run game, he graded at +10.8, ranking second in Run Stop Percentage at 12.3%. As a tackler, he missed only one of every 15.7 attempts, good for seventh-best at the position, and he was extremely efficient as a blitzer, ranking second in Pass Rushing Productivity at 20.8 (three sacks, one QB hit, 10 hurries on 54 rushes). There’s a perception around the league that the linebacker position is losing value, but that only holds true for those incapable of affecting the game on all three downs. Well-rounded seasons like Kuechly’s hold immense value and that’s why he’s in this year’s Defensive Player of the Year conversation.
3rd Runner Up
Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
Since coming into the league in 2011, Miller has been one of the best defensive players in the NFL, capable of harassing the quarterback while playing stellar run defense on the edge. He finished at +54.0 on the season, an outstanding final tally that has almost become standard practice for Miller. He’s extremely consistent, grading negatively only once, and he has the ability to take over games as he did in Week 7 (+6.2) and Week 10 (+7.9), just to name a couple of his outstanding games.
As a pass rusher, Miller ranked second among edge rushers with a +33.6 grade to go with a Pass Rushing Productivity of 11.8. He finished with 15 sacks, 11 QB hits, and 47 hurries, while posting only two negative grades as a rusher all season. In the run game, it was more of the same as he beat up blockers to the tune of a +22.0 grade, rarely getting beat on the edge. Miller may be the most well-rounded edge defender in the league when combining pass rushing and run stopping and he continued to terrorize offenses in 2014.
2nd Runner Up
Chris Harris, CB, Denver Broncos
One of the players to take the next step this seasons, Harris may finally getting the due he’s deserved after a few years as one of the league’s most underrated players. Our top-graded cornerback finished at +28.4 including a +27.2 grade in coverage. He was targeted 89 times, allowed 46 catches (51.7%) for only 356 yards (7.7 yards/completion, 4.0 yards/attempt). He got a hand to 10 passes, intercepted three more and did not allow a touchdown all season. Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 47.8 when throwing into his coverage. Any way you slice it, Harris has had one of the best coverage seasons we’ve seen, dating back to 2007.
Perhaps most impressive about Harris is his ability to excel both outside and in the slot. He originally made his mark with Denver as their slot corner, but as they’ve expanded his role the last couple years, he’s handled the transition smoothly. He leads the league allowing only 0.57 yards/cover snap and has matched that with an identical 0.57 mark when covering the slot. That versatility has proven valuable on Denver’s defense and it’s earned Harris the nod as the second runner up for PFF Defensive Player of the Year.
1st Runner Up
Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
It’s unfortunate that a season like Houston’s almost fell under the radar, but being the best non-Watt is nothing to sniff at. Like Harris, Houston went from very good player to among the league’s elite this season.
He finished with 23 sacks (PFF’s total, we give full credit for full sacks and track separately from the NFL), eight QB hits, and 56 hurries on his way to a +37.6 pass rush grade to lead all edge rushers. His Pass Rushing Productivity of 15.7 is the best we’ve recorded since 2007. His late run at the NFL single-season sack record got him some much-deserved publicity, but like Miller, it was his consistency that stood out as he posted only two negative grades and recorded at least four pressures in all but four games.
In addition to the pass rushing, throw in a +8.1 mark against the run and a penalty-free season, and Houston’s +51.1 overall grade was an impressive across-the-board effort. Houston continued to improve in his fourth year in the league and he’s doing his best to ensure that the class of 2011 goes down as one of the deepest defensive drafts of all time (along with the other Top-3 finalists on this list).
Defensive Player of the Year
JJ Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Not much of a drum roll for this one. For the third straight year, Watt earns PFF Defensive Player of the Year. We’ve touted his jaw-dropping grades and statistics for a while now, but he continues to break the scale, despite opposing offenses doing their best to account for him on every snap.
Watt’s +107.5 overall grade is the first to crack triple digits in the PFF era and while it’s not always fair to compare across positions, it may be best to compare him to the next best grade at his position… Jets DE Sheldon Richardson and his +39.9.
As much as I touted Miller and Houston for their consistency and ability to take over a game, Watt takes that to an entirely new level with record-setting games of +15.0 in Week 4 and +16.2 in Week 16. His +91.9 pass rush grade looks like a misprint and his pass rushing totals look like that of an entire team as he notched 21 sacks, 44 QB hits, and 54 hurries while adding 10 batted passes, a skill for which he’s become famous.
It’s almost embarrassing to look back and think that we had some concerns that new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel would change his role and perhaps make him play more stout against the run rather than using his athleticism. Instead, the opposite is true as Watt moved around and was deployed as an edge rusher more than ever, making tackles pay all season long.
While pass rushing gets the accolades, he’s also one of the league’s best run defenders, making plays up and down the line and often shedding blocks by the time the running back is receiving the handoff at the mesh point. His +17.8 run grade ranked fourth among 3-4 defensive ends, as did his Run Stop Percentage of 10.6%.
It’s one thing to look at the sack total and immediately assume a player had a good season, but it’s Watt’s every-down effect that makes him special. No matter how many blockers are being deployed his way, he still finds a way to post off-the-charts production in a manner that we’ve certainly never seen during the PFF era and perhaps haven’t seen in a generation. Moreso than even the sack totals or the touchdowns that Watt added to his resume this season, that every-down effect is the true catalyst behind his MVP candidacy and one look at PFF grades gives a great visual of why he’s even in the conversation this season.
See the other awards we’ve handed out this week:
2014 PFF All-Pro Team
2014 PFF All-Pro Special Teams
2014 PFF Stephenson Award (Best Player)
2014 PFF Offensive Player of the Year
2014 PFF Defensive Player of the Year
2014 PFF Matthews Award (Best Offensive Lineman)
2014 PFF O-Line Rankings
2014 PFF Rookie of the Year
2014 PFF Offensive Rookie of the Year
2014 PFF Defensive Rookie of the Year
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