The NFL will not only be crowning its best team this weekend, but they will honor their best players on Saturday night in Indianapolis. One of those awards is the Defensive Player of the Year.
In each of the last two years, the award was won by a defensive back, with Troy Polamalu winning in 2010 and Charles Woodson in 2009. That is all but guaranteed to change this year, as all of the realistic candidates are linemen or linebackers.
Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
Justin Smith, DE/DT, San Francisco 49ers
Terrell Suggs, LB, Baltimore Ravens
DeMarcus Ware, LB, Dallas Cowboys
Justin Smith has to be the guy here. No defensive player in the NFL had the overall impact on his team that Smith had on the 49ers.
The constant double-teams that he drew kept offensive lineman from getting in to the second wall of 49ers defenders. That allowed for players like Patrick Willis to record 97 tackles (in 13 games), while NaVorro Bowman had 143.
When opponents passed on the 49ers, the attention Smith drew allowed for Aldon Smith to be in favorable matchups, and he was one-half sack away from the rookie record.
Despite being double-teamed all year, Smith also recorded 58 total tackles on the season while forcing three fumbles. He anchored the defense that led the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed by 15 yards per game.
The other options had more sacks than Smith (Allen 22, Ware 19.5, Pierre-Paul 16.5), but none of them were as impactful as Smith. Unlike all of those players, much of Smith's value came against the run, while those players are all used primarily as pass-rushers.
Still, against the double-teams, Smith managed an impressive 7.5 sacks.
How the voters will screw it up:
The emphasis on defense in the NFL certainly revolves around sacking the quarterback, which does not favor Smith. Most defenses are built from the outside in while the 49ers are more the opposite, which is not going to help Smith's cause.
Allen did have a fantastic season, threatening Michael Strahan's single-season sack record. If Minnesota's team or defense was better, he would be the logical pick here.
Still, logic rarely wins at these events. Allen was great at getting to the quarterback all year and the voters will honor him for it.
Kevin Patra of the NFL Network tweeted that Suggs was the winner.
I stand behind my vote for Smith, although Suggs is a marvelous talent. He harassed quarterbacks all season long and was an integral part of one of the only defenses in the league as good as San Francisco's.
Smith had more of an overall impact on the team because of the constant double-teams, which Suggs never dealt with. Still, his 2011 season was tremendous. Unlike any of the other finalists (other than Smith), his influence led one of the game's best defenses.