Defensive Player of the Year more often than not goes to the best defensive player on one of the best defenses in the NFL. I have a very strong feeling this award will go to media darling Luke Kuechly, the consensus top player on a Carolina defense that allowed the 2nd fewest points in the NFL this season. I don’t think that’s deserved. Kuechly definitely had a great season, but he’s not nearly as flawless as people seem to think he is.
As good as he is against the run, he can struggle in coverage. Only one middle linebacker (the Jets’ Demario Davis) allowed more completions than the 55 Kuechly allowed, as Davis allowed 56. Putting up a ton of tackles is great, but it’s an overrated stat because not all tackles are equal. If you’re tackling a guy after a 9 yard completion, you’re not doing a lot of good. Kuechly also missed 14 tackles, 6th at his position.
Kuechly had just 39 tackles for a “stop” against the run, meaning a tackle within 4 yards of the line of original line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards on 2nd down, or the full distance on 3rd or 4th down. He did this on 325 run snaps, a rate of 12.0% that was 7th among eligible middle linebackers. That’s certainly not bad, but considering his run play is his best attribute, it’s hardly Defensive Player of the Year material and he was helped by a fantastic defensive line eating up blocks in front of him.
All this might sound like nitpicking, but nitpicking is what you have to do when picking a single defensive player for an award. Carolina certainly has a great defense and Kuechly is a big part of the reason why, but he has a fantastic supporting cast. You could make an argument that he’s not even the best defensive player on his team with the way Greg Hardy played this year. Hell, you could make an argument that he wasn’t even the best linebacker on his team with the way Thomas Davis played.
Pro Football Focus had him as their 8th ranked middle linebacker and left him off of their Pro-Bowl team. I don’t know if I would go quite that far (they had a two-down linebacker in Brandon Spikes and a player who missed significant time with injury in Sean Lee above him), but I’d say Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are probably better middle linebackers than he is and you can make arguments that other 3-4 middle linebackers like Derrick Johnson and Karlos Dansby, as well as Detroit’s 4-3 middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch had better years than him. Outside linebacker Lavonte David is also someone I’d vote for over Kueckly and I already mentioned teammate Thomas Davis. I like Kueckly, but there are players who had far better seasons than him this year.
The other guy I could see winning this award, based on the best player on the best defense model is Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. He deserves this award much more than Kuechly, as he actually is the best player on his defense and, with apologies to Darrelle Revis, he’s also probably the best player in the NFL at his position, picking off 8 passes for the 2nd straight year and allowing a 47.3 QB rating against that was the best in the NFL at his position. Sherman would probably get my 4th place vote and it’s hard to compare guys across positions. However, there are 3 guys who I think had better years, but they may fly under the radar because they played on teams that didn’t make the playoffs.
My 3rd place choice would be Gerald McCoy, defensive tackle from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers were, by all measures, a bad team this year, going 4-12, but their defense was easily their best side of the ball. They allowed opponents to move the chains at a 72.95% rate that is higher than average, but not significantly and Gerald McCoy really was able to make a huge impact on Tampa Bay’s defensive line without much help whatsoever from his linemates.
The dominant player on an average defense on a bad team narrative isn’t nearly as sexy as Sherman’s or Kuechly’s, but McCoy graded out, by far, as Pro Football Focus’ #1 defensive tackle, he had 10 sacks, 14 hits, and 56 quarterback hurries, while playing well against the run as well. You’d be happy with those pass rush numbers from a defensive end. You’re thrilled with those pass rush numbers from a defensive tackle who was double teamed on almost every play because of the lack of talent around him. Only two defensive players in the league had bigger gaps between them and the #2 player at his position on Pro Football Focus. Unsurprisingly, those are the two guys I’m going to talk about next.
Robert Quinn would get my 2nd place vote and I think he actually has a good chance to win the award. St. Louis’ defense wasn’t particularly good or anything and the Rams finished 7-9 and outside of the playoffs, but he finished tied for first in the NFL in sacks with 19, which is something voters like to see. Robert Mathis also had 19 sacks, but he doesn’t get much consideration from me because Quinn was easily the best edge rusher in the NFL. Their sack numbers might have been the same, but Quinn had 21 quarterback hits and 51 quarterback hurries, while Mathis had 5 hits and 39 hurries. That’s not much of a contest, which is why Quinn was far and away Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 defensive end, while Mathis was 2nd among 3-4 outside linebackers.
Quinn’s pass rush productivity number of 15.3 was not only far and away the best among 4-3 defensive ends (Cameron Wake was 2nd at 14.0), but only Jerry Hughes, a 3-4 outside linebacker from the Bills of all people, had a higher pass rush productivity at any position and he was at 15.4. Quinn also played well against the run as his 25 run stops on 312 run snaps gave him an 8.0% rate that ranked 14th at his position. As a result, Quinn graded out 3rd at his position against the run, which is part of how he was able to grade out so much higher than everyone at his position. Like McCoy, he was a dominant player on an average defense (73.44% rate of moving the chains against) on a bad team, but he deserves recognition and for more than just his raw sack numbers.
The only player who had a bigger gap between them and the player ranked in 2nd below them on Pro Football Focus is a familiar name, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year JJ Watt. I’m going to preface this by saying there’s a next to zero chance that Watt actually wins this award. The voters hate voting for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, as the only player to ever win it twice in a row was Lawrence Taylor and he did it in a strike shortened season. It’s not going to happen for the first time in a season of regular length with a guy who played on a 2-14 team and didn’t come close to matching his sack total from the year before.
That being said, there’s definitely an argument to be made that Watt had a better year this year than last year. He was the definition of dominant player on an average defense on a bad team. The Texans’ defense was hardly the problem this season, as they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 69.40% rate, above average. They were just consistently saddled with bad field position thanks to an inept offense and “allowed” several touchdowns when they weren’t even on the field, in the form of return touchdowns on special teams and off of turnovers. Watt is by far the biggest reason why they were solid on defense.
Watt didn’t come close to matching the 21 sacks he had in 2012 (11) nor the 15 batted passes (6), but he had 36 quarterback hits and 38 quarterback hurries, as opposed to 25 hits and 30 hurries the year before. Those 36 quarterback hits were by far best in the NFL. Only Quinn with 23 even came close. As a result, Watt had a pass rush productivity number of 12.8 which not only blew out of the water the next best pass rush productivity number by an interior defensive lineman (Gerald McCoy with 11.1), but it blew the 10.8 pass rush productivity number he had in 2012 out of the water as well. Sacking the quarterback is great, but getting to the quarterback consistently, getting in his head and hurrying throws is even better.
Watt didn’t match his absurd 17.1% run stop rate from 2013, but his 13.7% run stop rate was 2nd in the NFL among eligible players behind Kenrick Ellis of the Jets, a part-time player whose name has now improbably ended up in an article about Defensive Player of the Year. Watt also actually had a higher run grade on Pro Football Focus in 2013 than in 2012 and a higher grade overall. He didn’t post the flashy numbers he did in 2012 or play on a good team like in 2012, but the argument can still be made that he played as well or better.
No defensive player in the NFL had a bigger margin between the player who was in 2nd place behind him at his position on Pro Football Focus than Watt in terms of raw numbers and only Quinn had a bigger margin in terms of percentage. However, it’s a very small advantage to Quinn in that aspect and that can be attributed to the lack of real difference makers at 4-3 defensive end this year. Greg Hardy and Cameron Wake both had very good years, but after that the position is pretty devoid of elite level guys.
The field that Quinn blew out of the water at 4-3 defensive end is not nearly as good as the field Watt blew out of the water at 3-4 defensive end. Guys like Calais Campbell, Kyle Williams, Cameron Jordan, and even my Defensive Rookie of the Year pick Sheldon Richardson all had fantastic seasons from the 3-4 defensive end position. Watt was significantly better than all of them. For that reason, in spite of his lower raw numbers and his team’s significantly worse performance this year, Watt is still the best defensive player in football. And that’s what this award should be about.