PFF’s 2015 Season Superlative Awards

Best blitzer? Most elusive? Senior Analyst Steve Palazzolo answers these questions and more with PFF's 2015 superlative awards.

| 8 months ago
(AP Foto/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

(AP Foto/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

PFF’s 2015 Season Superlative Awards


With an incredible amount of information in the database at PFF, we can dig up a unique perspective on every single player. While the overall grades tell a strong story, the complexion of the grade is just as important: What does a player do best? Who is the best deep passer? Best against the blitz? Best blitzer?

Those questions, and much more, can be answered with PFF data in our 2015 superlative awards.

Best Deep Passer: Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

Deep passing stats are often skewed by the quality of the wide receiver, as downfield throws involve more tracking, hand fighting, and positioning than shorter throws. So looking at the stats is not always the best way to determine the best deep-ball thrower, but our grades take into consideration the timing and ball location of each throw, as well as crediting the quarterback for well-placed passes that are dropped. For that reason, Roethlisberger was the league’s best downfield thrower, as he consistently launched well-placed passes all season. He led the league with a +27.4 grade on passes thrown at least 20 yards in the air (0.0 is average).

Runner-up: Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals

Best Intermediate Passer: Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals

This is where Palmer dominated, grading at +45.1 at the intermediate level. Between the numbers, he was 58-for-79 for 998 yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions, good for a passer rating of 130.1.

Runner-up: Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Best Short Passer: Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Brady is always among the league’s best in the short game, and he topped the grades again in 2015. His accuracy percentage of 84.4 percent ranked fifth in the league, and his 22 touchdowns led the NFL.

Runner-up: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

Best Under Pressure: Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals

Palmer’s +14.6 grade under pressure led the league, and his passer rating of 92.2 ranked second.

Runner-up: Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Most Elusive: Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Martin rejuvenated his career by grading as our top runner while also leading with an elusive rating of 65.7. He forced a league-high 57 missed tackles and picked up 3.1 yards after contact per rush.

Runner-up: Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

Best Hands: Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys

With all due respect to Jeremy Maclin of the Kansas City Chiefs (two drops in the last two seasons on 184 catchable passes), Witten didn’t drop any of his 77 catchable passes, so he gets the nod. Credit Maclin, however, who turned his once perceived average hands into the league’s best among wide receivers.

Runner-up: Jeremy Maclin, Kansas City Chiefs

Best Deep Threat: Allen Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars

No wide receiver helped his quarterback as much as Robinson, who led the league with 672 yards on deep passes, a PFF record dating back to 2007. Whether running away from defenders or leaping over them to extend a drive, Robinson made big plays happen all season long for the Jaguars.

Runner-up: Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills

Best Slot Receiver: Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks

Baldwin ran away with all of the slot awards this year, leading in yards (1,007), touchdowns (12), and yards per route run (2.46). He also caught a league-high 83.1 percent of his slot targets.

Runner-up: Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals

Most Disciplined: Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers

Norwell played 834 snaps without committing a penalty, the only guard to play at least 500 snaps and avoid any flags.

Runner-up: Rob Havenstein, St. Louis Rams

Iron Man: James Laurinaitis, St. Louis Rams

With 1,183 snaps, Laurinaitis saw more action than any linebacker in the league, and for the seventh straight year of his career, he played more than 99.0 percent of team’s snaps.

Runner-up: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

Best Tackler: Corey Graham, Buffalo Bills

Graham had only three missed tackles on 104 attempts, one every 35.7 attempts. It was the best rate among linebackers and safeties.

Runner-up: K.J. Wright, Seattle Seahawks

Ball Hawk: Delvin Breaux, New Orleans Saints

Breaux had 15 passes defended and three interceptions, getting his hand on 22.0 percent of his 82 targets to lead the league.

Runner-up: Johnathan Joseph, Houston Texans

Best Blitzer: Dont’a Hightower, New England Patriots

Hightower led all linebackers with a 94.0 pass rush rating, picking up four sacks, two hits, and 18 hurries on 116 rushes. Even though some of that came as a pure edge rusher, few linebackers attack the “A” gap like Hightower.

Runner-up: Anthony Barr, Minnesota Vikings

Best run-stopping safety: Reshad Jones, Miami Dolphins

Jones set a PFF record with 38 run stops, and he finished with the top grade against run among safeties.

Runner-up: Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • Brit

    Reshad Jones sets a record for most run stops in a season for safety. He’s adds 5 INTs and 2 TDs to that impressive stat and still doesn’t make the Pro Bowl? LOL.

    • enai D

      He can join the club- Harrison Smith finished the season as PFF’s top-rated safety despite missing several games, after finishing as the 2nd best safety last year, and has yet to go to a Pro Bowl as well. If you don’t got that name-brand recognition (see: Berry, Eric) you’re bound to get snubbed. These fan-voted all-star games are a joke anyways, far more of a popularity contest than a legitimate recognition of merit.

      • Izach

        I will say berry was was just as good as anyone, just because they don’t do well PFF funky grading system doesn’t means they weren’t good or that those other guys were actually better, I’d say Harrison smith deserved a nod but saying berry and Thomas werent worthy either is just ridiculous,

        • enai D

          I didn’t say they’re not good or didn’t have good seasons. But they certainly didn’t have BETTER seasons than Harrison Smith.. so what made the difference, what put them in the Pro Bowl and not Smith? Very simple- name recognition, that’s it. Berry being the feel-good story of the year didn’t hurt either. Face it, the Pro Bowl is a popularity contest, nothing more.

          • Izach

            I agree it’s a popularity contest, but Harrison smith didn’t have a much better if even at all better than berry, jones or Jenkins, Kam or Thomas, sure Kam and Thomas have the “legion” of boom status, and berry was a feel good story but none of them were significantly better or worse than the others smith was a good tackler but mostly due to his team setting him up for such a role, if you want to go play by play sure he made less bad ones (which gets rewarded in PFF system) AP his ratio or good to neutral to bad plays is better, but there’s more to football that generic made up stats like stops.

          • enai D

            Hmm, that’s odd because alot of people- including PFF- thought that Harrison Smith DID have a better year than any of those guys (and that’s even with his missed games).

            And if you think that Smith is a good tackler “mostly due to his team setting him up”, there’s a surefire fix for such a misconception- actually watch a Vikings game. Guy is as sure a tackler in the secondary as you can find.

          • Izach

            That’s my point he’s a good tackler but so are all the guys mentioned, he just get more opportunities than the next guy and gets a lot of solo chances due to scheme, I’m not saying smith is bad just that there are multiple good Safeties in the league and all of those guys mentioned had comparable years, maybe you should go watch Kam, jones, and berry more instead just declaring your teams safety the best. Plenty of articles/publications/websites out there to support either/or/both our points. But here’s a very tough truth, the media in general is lazy, when 2 or more things being equal, they would much rather give awards praise and such to players and ppl who are already established rather than be bothered with the burden of proving something new was better. Example of tom Brady and let’s say Kirk cousins have the exact same stats and records and everything both all pro level the award will go to Tom because it’s easier to say “he did it again” than prove Kirks year wasn’t a “fluke” it’s the same in this situation, all hose safeties had equally great years maybe Harrison did better in one spot but the other did better in another spot, but overall they were pretty equal so the award goes to the ppl who have been there before, only time the media changes that is if there is a good narrative/story to be had, like with cam newton and 15-1 panthers if can had same stats or even better stats but panthers were say 10-6 no story MVP would hands down be Brady, but because there’s a story to be had they have a battle.

            Wow long winded but point for most part made

          • enai D

            I have watched all of those players several times each this season alone (heck, any casual NFL fan tuning into the playoffs each year has seen more than their fair share of the Seattle safety duo). The eye-test confirms what PFF and many other informed sources say- there isn’t anyone playing better at the safety position than Smith, and there really isn’t even anyone playing AT his level. All these other guys are still great safeties, they’re just not quite on the level Smith has been over the past season or two. And yet, still no national recognition for one of the very best defensive players in the league (at least, outside of analytic sites like this).

            And its not just the media, its the fans, and the fact that these all-star games end up recognizing popularity and legacy over current merit is a strong argument against removing the fan vote- or, at the very least, for not treating pro bowl/all star entries as a recognition of merit at all, and just call it what it is.

          • Izach

            That’s where we disagree, I I think smith has been great but he’s been great in a different way then the other guys, and his way benefits his PFF score, but others play in a way that PFF doesn’t account for, especially guys like berry or Thomas, their grade is often penalized due to their role and responsibilities in their scheme, Smith is good but not better than any of those guys.

          • enai D

            Unfortunately this bit about Smith being good “due to his team setting him up” doesn’t make alot of sense and sounds awfully hand-wavey- until this year, he’s been on a below average defense. In 2014=2015 the defense was OK, and the year before that it was historically terrible. If anything, you have things backwards here- Smith makes him teammates look good, not so much the other way around. And while obviously Zimmer’s scheme uses Smith quite a bit as a blitzer and allows Smith to collect sacks and get good PFF grades as a pass rusher, this doesn’t really account for his elite coverage skills or virtually unmatched efficacy vs. the run.

          • Izach

            First off smith is good in coverage but nothing special, he doesn’t make mistakes but also isn’t asked to do the same things others are, I’m not saying his teammates make him look good just that the scheme asks him to play a role and he does it well, and he gets more opportunites than the next guy due to that, and PFF grades are cumulative so a dozen decent plays (1pt) are worth the same as a half dozen great ones (2pt), and half dozen neutral ones (0.0pt) which means defensive grades can be skewed by usage within scheme and offensive gameplans.
            The issue is becomes when teams avoid certain players they grade neutrally simply due to being so good offenses avoid him.

          • enai D

            Smith is good in coverage but nothing special? Lol, ok, now I know for sure you not only haven’t watched Smith play, but didn’t even bother to check any of the relevant stats… Check PFF’s coverage ratings. Or just look at opposing QB stats vs. his coverage. What you’re saying isn’t even factually accurate- Smith is elite in coverage. So he’s the best vs. the run, one of the best in coverage, and the best or one of the best on the blitz. No surprise he’s the best overall.

            And this bit about Smith “getting more opportunities” than the other top-end safeties is still really vague and hand-wavey. No reason to think he gets any more opportunities than the other top end safeties competing for those pro-bowl/all pro spots.

          • Izach

            Like I said PFF grades don’t take into account difficulty, so yes Harrison grades greatly in what he’s asked to do but I already said that. He’s isn’t asked to do the same things on coverage that a player like Thomas or berry are asked to do.

            PFF also doesn’t accurately account for zone/man or attribute blown coverages correctly either it’s been well documented by NFL players/team writers/ current and former coaches.

            And in case you didn’t know PFF combines all categories evenly which inflates players grades say Harrison is a +5 in coverage +10 vs run, and a +10 in pass rush his overall is a +25 even if of his 1000snaps 500 are in coverage, 480vs run and 20 on on blitz. Vs a safety that has a +12 in coverage, a +9 vs run and a -1on blitz that’s guys overall would be a +20 even if he spend 650 snaps in coverage 345vs run just 5 on blitz. In that situation 98% of time Harrison is a +15 player and the other guy is a +21 player 99.5 of the time, yet Harrison’s grade is incredibly higher despite not being incredibly that much better.

          • enai D

            Still just waving your hands about- you raise these possibilities without stating any reason for thinking them to actually be the case. Not only that, any of these things you mention could just as easily be tipping the grades in favor of Berry or Thomas, instead of Harrison Smith. Its equally possible that Smith grades as the best safety, despite the fact that he’s given more difficult assignments, or despite the fact that Berry or Thomas (or someone else) have benefited from the way PFF compiles their grades. So its equally possible that Harrison Smith’s grade is THAT MUCH MORE impressive than it already is.

            In any case, so far your argument is summed up thusly:

            Its POSSIBLE that Harrison Smith isn’t actually the best safety in the NFL this year because its POSSIBLE that PFF’s method has unduly benefited him.

            Needless to say, not a very strong argument (most notably because possibility=/=actuality). Lacking anything more credible, I’ll stick with the stats, the PFF grades, and the eye-test; the guy who looks like the best safety, is rated as the best safety, probably IS the best safety.

          • Darnell

            As good as Harrison is, the problem, while unfair, is that to beat out a perennial probowl stallwart (Thomas, Berry, Chancellor types) he would have to either have a DPOY type season or play for a 12-13 win team.

            Heck, Jeff Saturday made the probowl as a Packer. It is really tough to unseat the regulars.

            I believe Earl backed out though, was Harrison not next in line?

          • Izach

            Agreed it’s like boxing you have to ACTUALLY BEAT the champ to be the champ, you can’t tie or in this case be on the same level as the allpros and say hey I’m that good too, you have to beat them to be them that’s for all-pro

            With probowls it’s about stats (because most fans either vote their players or the stats leaders) or the popularity of the player and sometimes both.

          • Izach

            Agreed it’s like boxing you have to ACTUALLY BEAT the champ to be the champ, you can’t tie or in this case be on the same level as the allpros and say hey I’m that good too, you have to beat them to be them that’s for all-pro

            With probowls it’s about stats (because most fans either vote their players or the stats leaders) or the popularity of the player and sometimes both.

          • enai D

            You have to do more than just beat them, you basically have to completely dominate them. If the unestablished player plays only SLIGHTLY better than the established Pro Bowler, they’re still not going to make it. This was precisely Harrison Smith’s problem this year.

          • enai D

            He should be, I don’t remember how he finished. But you’re definitely right, once a guy gets established as a name-brand, pro bowl player they have a sort of momentum or inertia that makes it difficult for them to unseat- even when play on the field would dictate otherwise, as in the Harrison Smith case. Heck, I know firsthand- Adrian Peterson made the Pro Bowl this year, and while he had a good year he probably shouldn’t have been the starter, and his reputation had alot to do with his selection. But he was probably only the 4th or 5th most deserving of a Pro Bowl spot on his own team (Smith, Barr, and Linval Joseph all easily more deserving)!

            As I’ve said several times now, these distinctions are FAR more about popularity and reputation than current merit, else Harrison Smith would have been a Pro Bowl starter and All-Pro.

          • Izach

            No I’m not saying It’s a possibility I’m saying that IS WHATS HAPPENING, and using hypothetical scenarios to show you, the reason I think these things I’d because I’ve actually done the study of those players and have seen them in action. While yes you could argue the opposite, but that’s reactive to what the evidence suggests, it’s like saying he looks guilty because someone set him up, so let’s reverse the evidence to prove he’s innocent, it doesn’t quite make sense the other way when you just ignore the facts.

          • enai D

            What facts? What evidence? All you’ve raised are possibilities- that its POSSIBLE that the way PFF compiles their rankings benefits Smith over and above other players like Berry or Thomas.. that its POSSIBLE that Harrison Smith benefits from scheme or teammates in a way that others do not. The problem is that you haven’t provided a single shred of evidence that any of these possibilities are actual (or, as I said, that the reverse is true and that all these things are hurting rather than helping Smith)- and where we’ve mentioned relevant evidence, the evidence is AGAINST these claims. We’ve been here a while, I’d say its long overdue that you actually produce/cite these supposed facts you’re basing these claims on, else I have to conclude there are none.

          • Izach

            See I was under the assumption you actually watched tape, but you just read articles and believe what you read. The fact that PFF grades or formed the way I mentioned IS evidence, the fact that you refuse to any real research into the matter illustrates that perfectly.

            With probowls you’d have an argument for fan vote and popularity I’ve agree there. With all-pro it’s a different story those guys are football writers not just fans voting for their favorite the are more objective than the next guy, not perfect but better than the next, they use sites like Football outsiders, PFF and other sites, they watch film, they keep records, they monitor storylines, they don’t let injury affect who they pick (like the probowl), and they still picked 5guys better and it’s hard to argue.

            Pro football reference has Harrison smith as a value of 6 this year where as reggie Nelson is a 10 earl Thomas on a down year as an 8 Woodson as an 11

            Tyrann as a 10 berry as a 12

            The associated press has all 5 of those guys rated higher than Harrison smith not only that but guys like jones and Jenkins are a 7-6 respectfully. And they use a comprehensive statistics based formula to judge players to their peers in their over the eras, some years guys have 17-20s.

            multiple other sites support my view, and you’ve only used PFF which I’ve already proven is a beyond flawed grading system .

            Given those example I used earlier PFF has 1 guy a +25 when he averages a 7.5 the other guy they have a +20 when he averages a per play average on +11 those are just examples but proves their grading system is flawed overall, love them for their stat collecting but hey are flawed

          • enai D

            More of the same- still not a single shred of evidence that PFF’s “flawed” grading system benefits Harrison Smith more than anyone else (or even that it does NOT benefit other safeties over and above Smith), still not a shred of evidence that Smith benefits from scheme or teammates in a way that others do not- just a bunch more hand-waving and attempts at changing the subject (obviously, bringing up a different sites ratings is irrelevant to how/whether PFF’s grading system unduly benefits Smith, i.e. in a way it doesn’t benefit any other top-end safeties). I guess have to assume at this point that you’re never going to substantiate any of these claims?

          • Izach

            I can’t literally give you more proof, if you can get l their subscription (as they stopped offering it) you can do it yourself. I can’t get access to that data anymore than you can, they used to make it available but don’t anymore for money and PR issues. I have an understanding of how their system works based on what I’ve been told by them and I project what I see in those players film, maybe I’m off a bit but the basic workings of those examples stands true, if you refuse to understand that, there is no enlightening my friend. Just understand those basic concepts the next time you check there grades

          • enai D

            I’m not sure what you don’t get about this- I understand how PFF’s grading system works, but you can’t conclude which players benefited (relative to other players) from the grading breakdown without comparing their actual numbers. Without the numbers, all you can do is raise the possibility that so-and-so’s grade is misleading, due to unduly benefiting from PFF’s method. But as you admit, you don’t have the numbers, so all you’re left with is raising the possibility that Smith’s final score is misleading.

          • Izach

            We are already past PFFs grading, you believe in it, you hold it in high regard. They say he’s the best, so it must be true, Since PFF grades are absolute.

            I finally concede maybe you should email madden so he gets a 99 in everything too.

          • enai D

            Lol silly strawman. As you admitted, you weren’t able to substantiate your claims with the necessary stats/grades required to make them stronger than a mere possibility.

          • Izach

            On a side note good use “unduly” not a often used term on football discussions

          • enai D

            (and since you mentioned a players teammates “setting them up”, its probably worth pointing out that, whereas the other safeties we’re talking about play with other elite players in the secondary- including Seattle which has THREE elite/all pro level starters- Smith has no such help in the Vikings secondary.. Terrance Newman shocked people by being a passable CB at his age, and Xavier Rhodes bounced back after a brutal start to the season, but if you take Harrison Smith away the Vikings secondary is still below average at best- take Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor away, and the Seattle secondary is still really really good if not elite)

          • Izach

            Actually that’s worse off, if you better players around you that means you have either less chance of making plays(as they are already being made by your teammates) and being the best on a poor means the opposing offense will stay away from you or game plan against you. While yes having a poor team leads to more “stats” your way they are usually of the “clean up” variety which is why most football ppl don’t look at tackles as the best way to judge defenders.

          • enai D

            Lol you need to get your story straight, your argument is becoming less and less coherent as time goes on here

          • Izach

            My entire point is he is in a scheme that fits his strengths perfectly, thus he is maximizing his given talent, where he lacks his teammates make up for, which benefits everyone, it was the same with any player that has a very specific style Troy, Ed, Dawkins they all played on teams that capitalized their unique talents. That doesn’t mean he is as good as them just noting that when a player is in a good scheme for they maximize their opportunities, if Ed Reed was asked to be the run stuffer Harrison is he’d fail I smith was asked to be the ball hawk Reed was he’d fail just the same, my point was to look past “just the scheme”.

            Harrison is asked to do certain things and he’s does that terrifically, other safeties are asked to other things and they do those things just as well to be quite honest. My point is they are all good, to say one is better because a flawed website has him as the best is not the route to go IMO.

          • Chris

            Your entire point is that Smith plays a lot of cover 2 and 2 man in Zimmers scheme, so his role is much simpler than Earl Thomas playing deep in cover 3 or Kam playing various underneath coverages as well as other 2 deep roles.

            I would agree with this. Smiths role is simpler, and it sets him up for success better. It’s always easier to play zone instead of man. However be careful, that same argument is why everyone argues Sherman isn’t as good as Peterson.

          • Izach

            It’s not just zone vs man tho, it’s slot more than that, what kind of zone, size of zone, priorities in run support, the strengths of those he plays with vs his strengths do they match up, when they do play man who he has, it’s not just man vs zone. There is more to scheme fit than just zone vs man.

            As for the Peterson Sherman debate, Sherman doenst just play zone, Hawks do both, Peterson finally had an elite year he’s always had the talent/potential but until this year has just been good, Sherman had a down year and it was still on a borderline elite level. IMO you can’t really go wrong with either now, but i like Sherman’s length a bit more but Peterson has the more dangerous athletic ability and return skills

          • Chris

            Peterson was the best man corner I saw this year (Bengals fan).

            I would blame some of Sherman’s struggles this year based on Kams absence/lingering injuries.

            I also think Norman is a great zone guy but isn’t as good in man. He works in their system though.

          • Izach

            Norman was very good at both this year but a couple bad games after the head shot were his only issues.

          • Izach

            I do think Hawks whole scheme was off with Kams replacement being so horrible for 2 games lol but Sherman was back to his normal self after that rough start

    • Justinius Maximus

      He shouldn’t have, but I get your point, considering neither Harrison Smith nor Malcolm Jenkins were selected.

    • VfJ

      Not that Jones isn’t good but…
      teams were running on phish all year cause they sucked and were behind most of the time…

  • Devin

    Some of the credit for Hightower’s success in blitzes should go to Matt Patricia for knowing exactly when to dial up those blitzes.

  • jon

    Antonio brown doesn’t get best hands? Your fucking nuts

    • Cant FixStupid

      So giving the guy with 0 dropped passes the “award” over the guy with 2 is “fucking nut”??