PFF's Best Player Award: Aaron Donald No. 1
In most sports, the Most Valuable Player is inherently also the best player. In football, though, nearly all of the Most Valuable Players honorees are quarterbacks—such is the state of the modern game. The MVP award has become something that only quarterbacks—and the occasional running back, if that season’s QBs play poorly enough—can win. The best players, though, can play any position, and deserve a level playing field come award time.
Instead of handing an award to a quarterback or running back when other players at less glamorous positions enjoyed superior seasons, we at PFF also recognize the best overall performance of the NFL season each year, regardless of position, and bestow the Dwight Stephenson Award to that player.
The award is named after a player who pre-dates Pro Football Focus, but does not pre-date the site’s ethos. Dwight Stephenson played only eight NFL seasons for the Miami Dolphins, but was a five-time All-Pro and was selected to the All-Decade team of the 1980s. More importantly, you only need to throw on a couple of minutes of tape to see that he was something special.
This award comes with no positional bias whatsoever. A guard has every bit as much chance to win it as a cornerback, pass-rusher, quarterback, or any other player. All they need to do is dominate and perform during the regular season.
For the past three seasons of existence, the award has been won by J.J. Watt on each occasion.
Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams
As a rookie, Aaron Donald was PFF’s highest-graded defensive tackle. In his second season, he didn’t just take a step forward, he broad-jumped into the area previously reserved only for Watt, a player universally acknowledged now as generationally great and one of the best to ever put on pads. Donald out-graded Watt this season, and by the end of the year, it wasn’t even particularly close.
Donald ended the season with 79 total pressures, a batted pass, 51 defensive stops, and 30 plays in which he beat his blocker, but the ball was out before the play could result in pressure. Donald was the single-most disruptive force in the NFL during the 2015 season.
Watt may have edged Donald in several statistical categories (89 total pressures, 59 defensive stops), but the Texan has become far more of an edge defender than an interior player this season. Watt played outside the tackle on 63.9 percent of his passes, and was only really an interior player on base downs. Why is that important? Statistically speaking, edge defenders generate more pressure than interior players. Not because they are inherently better, but because they have more space to work with and a lower chance of multiple bodies to negotiate. Of the top five players in total pressures this season, only one is an interior rusher, and 16 of the top 20 in that category are edge players. Donald also saw 92 fewer pass-rushing snaps than Watt over the course of the season, meaning he simply saw fewer opportunities to post these ridiculous numbers. Donald’s season with 92 additional pass-rushing snaps projects to 14.6 additional hurries, or enough to put him 3.6 clear of Watt.
None of this is meant to diminish Watt, who remains a dominant player, but the fact is that between performance and injury, he didn’t have the same type of year he has had in the past, despite the sack total suggesting otherwise. Donald, however, didn’t just take advantage of Watt playing at 80 percent of his previous best, but posted a grade over the season that rivals any year we have ever seen from Watt.
It seems incredible to suggest that any defensive player had a better year than Watt so soon after trying to convince everybody that he was one of the greatest defensive players to ever play the game, but Donald’s season was just that good.
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Coming into this year, the best cumulative receiving grade PFF has ever given to a WR over the course of a season was a +27.4 to Andre Johnson in 2012, and the best mark any receiver has attained in a given season has averaged pretty steadily around +22. So, when I say that Antonio Brown finished this season with a +37.6 cumulative overall grade, you get some idea of just what that means in context. That grade is 137 percent of the next-best mark we have ever seen, and 171 percent of the average best mark we see from a receiver over the season.
Brown caught 136 passes for 1,871 yards and 10 touchdowns, despite missing Ben Roethlisberger for parts of the season and catching passes from a Michael Vick/Landry Jones tag-team of awfulness.
Brown’s stats projected to a full-season of healthy Roethlisberger are: 158 catches for 2,114 yards and 15 touchdowns. That would be the greatest single-season from a receiver in NFL history, and much of it was done against the best players the league has to offer trying to cover him. CB Chris Harris Jr. hadn’t given up a touchdown in 36-straight games before he faced Brown, and never surrendered 100-plus receiving yards in his career. Brown lit him up for two scores and 12 catches for 137 yards on 13 targets.
Brown isn’t just the best receiver in the game, but has a case as the best player, period.
Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals
Carson Palmer led the league in average depth of target, at 11.3 yards down field. That’s almost double the average of some quarterbacks, and 3 yards further than the league average every single time he puts the ball in the air. Despite the deep chances down the field, he still finished the season completing 63.6 percent of his passes, throwing 35 touchdowns to only 11 interceptions, and posting the highest PFF grade of the season among quarterbacks. His efficiency within the offense this season was implausibly good. When you break down the causes of incomplete passes, he was only inaccurate on 19.8 percent of deep passes this season (the league average is 32.7 percent) and a ludicrous rate of 8.8 percent of intermediate passes (while the league average is 17.6 percent).
Other quarterbacks may have slightly prettier numbers, but when you factor in what Palmer is being asked to do by Bruce Arians’ hyper-aggressive offensive scheme, his numbers defy belief and are truly spectacular.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
If not for time missed with an injury, Kuechly could have really pushed Donald for this award, and when he was fully healthy this season, he was on different level than any other linebacker in the game. One of the few players that is able to staunchly cover the traditional “matchup problem” players in coverage, Kuechly also finds his way to the football against the run better than anybody, ending the year with 59 stops (sixth-most, two away from third) despite missing three games.
Teams had a passer rating of only 57.8 when targeting Kuechly, compared to the average given up by linebackers of 102.5. Kuechly was PFF’s highest-graded linebacker in both coverage and versus the run.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Watt broke his hand and still ended the season with a grade better than we have seen from any other 3-4 defensive end since PFF has been grading. He led the NFL in total pressures, sacks, batted passes, and led all defensive linemen in defensive stops.
In any other season, Watt would be collecting his fourth consecutive Dwight Stephenson Award, and we would be talking about renaming it in his honor, but in 2015, his performance was stunningly only good enough for a runner-up spot.
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Thanks to the support from the Ohio Film Office.