In a year where defenses have taken back some of the power in the NFL, you don’t have to look very far to find outstanding individual performances. As we head down the back stretch of 2022, the race for Defensive Player of the Year is wide open. So let’s have a look at what the numbers tell us about which players have the best arguments to be in the running…
The edge rushers and all-around DTs
Since 2014, defensive linemen who get after the quarterback have dominated the DPOY award. Only one non-rusher (Stephon Gilmore) has taken home the trophy with JJ Watt winning twice, Aaron Donald three times and Khalil Mack and TJ Watt filling out the rest of the list.
Sacks will always rise above all the other statistics when it comes to capturing enough attention to win an award, but it doesn’t always tell the entire story. This year has a clear example of that with New England’s Matthew Judon. He’s put together a terrific season with 11.5 sacks, which is two ahead of the next best player. However, his underlying stats aren’t as impressive as some other rushers.
First, Judon isn’t double-teamed as often as the top-notch stars. Per ESPN’s Seth Walderother sack leaders Micah Parsons, Myles Garrett, Nick Bosa and Za’Darius Smith are drawing more attention from opposing offenses.
That group has also been more consistent on a play-to-play basis. Sacks can come in bunches but pressure impacts offenses throughout an entire game. Parsons, Garrett, Bosa and Smith are four of only five players who have at least eight sacks and a pass-rush win rate of at least 20%, per PFF. The only other rusher in that category is Baltimore’s Justin Houston. Judon’s win rate is only 16.9%, which is still a solid mark but ranks 21st among starting rushers.
Smith and Parsons may have the best argument of the elite group. The Vikings’ star is currently leading the NFL in total pressures by 10 over the next rusher. Parsons doesn’t have as many pressures but he has 60 coverage snaps and a strong 82.1 PFF grade in coverage. He’s also rated as an above average run stopper. Nick Bosa, Brandon Graham and Montez Sweat are the only other edge players outside of Parsons with top-15 pass rush grades and above average run defense.
Speaking of run defense, we have to weigh that more heavily when evaluating DPOY candidates on the interior of the defensive line.
Here are the only DTs with elite pass rush grades and above average run-stuffing by PFF: Chris Jones, Dexter Lawrence, Quinnen Williams, Aaron Donald, Jeffrey Simmons.
Of that collection of beasts, Jones, Lawrence and Donald have top-five pass rush win rates. The gap between these three is very thin. If there has to be a tiebreak, Jones’s sack total, which is No. 1 among all DTs, would be the separating factor for DPOY.
Linebackers and secondary
Between 2000-2010 it wasn’t unusual to see a linebacker or defensive back win DPOY. Depending on what you call James Harrison (LB or pass rusher), either eight or nine of the DPOY’s in that time span were linebackers. Ray Lewis twice, Derrick Brooks, Brian Urlacher, Ed Reed, Bob Sanders and Troy Polamalu got all the flowers in those days. But the linebacker position has been devalued with the decrease in emphasis on the running game in recent years, so Luke Keuchly in 2013 is the last linebacker to win.
The bar might be too high for any traditional linebacker to gain enough attention, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few worthy candidates on paper.
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Long gone are the days of using tackle totals to evaluate linebackers. Now we can look at how much they play, how they are used and how they grade in key areas. This year there are only three linebackers who have above average PFF grades in run defense, tackling, pass rush and coverage. They are Bobby Wagner, Fred Warner and Demario Davis.
Buffalo’s Tremaine Edwards is a below average run defender but ranks No. 1 in coverage grade, third in pass rush grade and 12th in tackling. Philadelphia’s TJ Edwards is third best overall and ranks ninth in total pressures among off-ball linebackers. He also has the second lowest passer rating allowed into his coverage, behind Matt Milano of the Bills. Tennessee’s David Long deserves consideration with his 17 pressures, third ranked run defense and 83.4 rating allowed (seventh best).
None of these LBs are going to get the buzz, but Wagner’s overall PFF grade is more than five points ahead of the rest and he’s the only linebacker in the top 15 among all defensive players in the NFL.
There are also only two corners in the top 15: Patrick Surtain II and Sauce Gardner.
Luckily we, as a society, haven’t just moved past tackle stats for linebackers but also interception numbers for corners as being the only determining factor of greatness. Surtain II doesn’t have a pick but has allowed just 6.8 yards per reception, which is the best in the NFL. Gardner has a league-best 10 pass breakups and ranks third best in snaps per target. These two up-and-coming stars are among only five players who grade higher than 80 by PFF and have 300-plus coverage snaps.
Now here’s a wild development: One of the comparable corners in the NFL to Surtain II and Gardner is Patrick Peterson. He’s fourth in snaps per target, third in coverage grade, ninth in QB rating allowed and second in PBUs.
Peterson has been a dream fit for Ed Donatell’s system. The fact that he’s playing man coverage only 12% of the time (per PFF) might take away from getting attention but he’s the No. 1 graded zone corner in the NFL.
Without the INTs, it will be difficult to garner enough attention, but all three corners are making massive impacts on their teams.
At the safety position it would probably take someone putting together an absurd number of splash plays to put their name in the mix. There are only two players with INT-PBU-Sack totals high enough. The Eagles’ Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and San Fran’s Talanoa Hufanga are the only two players with nine splash plays. The next highest is six.
The age of two-deep safeties may have somewhat diminished the opportunities for safeties to have the same type of impact as a Bob Sanders or Troy Polamalu.
So what we can take away from the DPOY race is that the voters will likely have lots of options but the pass rushers are likely to dominate the attention. Considering that defenses these days are routinely playing deep and relying heavily on their pass rush to fluster opposing offenses it might only be right that the best D-linemen gets the award. But considering the players involved it will be an extremely tight race to the end.