Every year, the Associated Press recognizes outstanding individual defensive performance with the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. Past winners include Hall of Famers like Lawrence Taylor (3x), Reggie White (2x) and "Mean" Joe Greene (2x). Each of these players was a game changer, and their selfless, smashmouth play at the toughest positions helped their teams win big.
As usual, there are a number of strong candidates this season. However, an elite few have set themselves apart.
Certain defensive positions are enjoying their renaissance this year. 3-4 defensive ends and defensive tackles are the strongest they've ever been, with stars like J.J. Watt, Justin Smith, Vince Wilfork and Haloti Ngata shredding opposing blockers. However, no trench dweller of this breed has taken home the D.P.O.Y.A. since Warren Sapp in 1999.
Is this the year?
Maybe, or maybe not. Out of the past 10 award winners, five have been linebackers and four have been defensive backs (three safeties and one cornerback). True to the NFL's pass-happy evolution, playmakers in the secondary and sack artists have been far more apt to take home the gold lately.
This season will probably be more of the same. With that in mind, here are 2012's top candidates for AP Defensive Player of the Year:
Coming into the season, Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton stressed that he wanted one of his players to "step up" and take the reins.
His goon squad had already established themselves as a group with first-rate potential, featuring stars like Calais Cambell, Darnell Dockett, Adrian Wilson (when healthy) and Patrick Peterson. There's no shortage of playmaking ability, but outside of a hot start, his corps has continued to underachieve.
To help right the ship, Horton wanted one of his players to take on a leadership role. And for the most part, Daryl Washington has done just that.
This season, Arizona's defense has been the team's strength. Despite their offense's struggles, the D' ranks among the game's best at beating up the air attack. Their NFC-worst running game keeps the defense on the field much longer than most teams, yet the Cardinals have still allowed the fourth fewest passing yards, and they're fourth in the NFC in total yards allowed.
After a recent four-game losing streak cooled them off, they're still clinging on to a .500 record. Not too bad for a team without either their starting running back or QB for most of the season. And their defense is a big reason that their playoff hopes are still alive.
Of all the defensive stars on their team, the player that's stepped up the most is Daryl Washington. The third-year linebacker has answered Horton's call, and he's taken charge and kicked his game in to an All-Pro gear.
This season, Washington's record of eight sacks tops all NFL inside linebackers by a large margin (five), and he's on pace to break the Cardinals' franchise record set by Simeon Rice. He also paces the position in quarterback hurries (10), and tackles for loss (10). All in all, his remarkable rushing contributions have helped Arizona post the highest sack rate (10.3 percent) in the league.
Washington isn't just adept at getting to the QB, he's also an unstoppable force in run defense. The Cardinals have allowed the fifth fewest rush yards per carry to his side of the field—toward the right tackle and end—and Washington's tackling ability is largely to credit. He has the second most tackles in the league, and more solo takedowns than any other middle linebacker.
Among the game's elite pass rushers, Washington is the most productive tackler and run stopper. First of all, he's missed just 11 of his 68 tackle attempts this year, remarkable considering how often he's blitzing. He has more tackles than any other top pass rusher (at any position).
Of course, tackles alone aren't an effective indicator of performance. But Washington's position-leading 1.49 tackle factor speaks volumes about his play-making ability.
Tackle factor (TF) quantifies how many more/fewer tackles a player accounts for out of his team's total versus others at his position (same scheme). Washington's 1.49 mark suggests he's not only above average (the league-average mark is 1), but he's the best tackling 3-4 inside linebacker in the game right now. Paired with his sack total, his tackle factor suggests he's making a larger contribution to his defense than any other linebacker.
Though he plays for a .500 team, there's no denying Washington's value. To sum up his total contribution, he ranks second among NFL inside linebackers in positive expected points added (+EPA) and second in positive win expectancy added (+WPA). Both of these statistics (explained) indicate that Washington's performance is having a more valuable real impact on his team's success than his peers'. In short, he's the most valuable inside linebacker in the NFL this season.
The defensive line is full of talent this season, and Geno Atkins is pretty obviously the best of the best at his position.
The 2012 crop of defensive tackles is probably the best it's been in a decade. The usual suspects, Pro Bowlers like Vince Wilfork, Haloti Ngata, Kyle Williams and Ndamukong Suh, are still playing at their peak performance, while newcomers like Jurrell Casey and Gerald McCoy have established themselves as stars.
Geno Atkins might actually be outperforming all of them. The former fourth-round pick out of Georgia has racked up seven sacks and 17 quarterback hurries, both the most at his position.
Tabbed as one of the AFC's most dominant groups in the offseason, the Bengals' defense is in the midst of a disapointing campaign. They've been mediocre in defending both the pass and rush, and poor performance from their linebackers and corners has killed their ability to pressure the quarterback.
Though his teammates Manny Lawson and Rey Maualuga have been shredded by opposing running backs, Atkins has done a remarkable job making up for their incompetence. The Bengals as a team allow 4.39 yards per carry to opposing running backs, and they're one of the worst in short yardage situations. But on runs to Atkins' part of the field, the left tackle (from the offense's view), the Bengals are allowing just 3.56 yards per carry, one of the best rates in the AFC. And considering they've faced top-shelf inside rushers like Trent Richardson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice in a large portion of their first-half games, Atkins' performance seems even more impressive.
Atkins is one of the most well-rounded defensive tackles, and his playmaking ability makes him a defensive MVP on paper. He's second at his position in positive expected points added (+EPA), and third in win probability added (+WPA). Both stats effectively describe his unbelievable playmaking impact on his team. Compared to his peers, Atkins accounts for much more of his team's scoring and wins.
The Seahawks defense has emerged as one of the game's best overall units. They're third in the NFC in yards allowed per game in 2012, and adjusting for strength of schedule, they rate third in the NFL overall.
A large portion of the credit for the Seahawks' success should go to their defensive backs, specifically to Richard Sherman. The former fifth-round pick has broken out in a big way this season, shutting down opposing wide receivers with aggressive press coverage and hard hits.
When taking all of his contributions into account, he's arguably the best NFL coverage corner right now. He's tied for second in the NFL with three interceptions, and fourth in pass deflections (11). And, of NFC corners that have played at least 75 percent of their team's snaps this season, Sherman ranks third, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 59.1 QB rating on passes to his side of the field (source: ProFootballFocus.com).
What's most impressive about Sherman's play this season is the lack of penalties he's drawn. Despite playing 530 snaps this season, he's accounted for just two flags (both declined), while other star corners have killed their teams in that area. Supposed shutdown corners like Nnamdi Asomugha (five penalties and three accepted), and Dominique Rogers-Cromartie (7-1) have crippled their teams with pass interference calls.
Sherman also has 36 tackles in 40 attempts this season, and his two forced fumbles ties him for second among NFC corners. And, despite playing for one of the best run-stopping defenses, opposing quarterbacks just can't force the ball past him. He's allowed just 53 percent of passes thrown his way to end in completions.
Though Sherman is a left corner, he's still contributing at a star level. Playing against the Packers, Patriots and Cowboys this season, he's had to cover many of the best receivers in the game. And in each game he's turned a top-shelf wide-out in to a much more mediocre performer.
Against the Cowboys, he reduced Miles Austin's catch percentage from 59 percent to 55 percent, then Brandon Lloyd's from 55 to 50 percent when the Hawks played the Patriots. And he held Jordy Nelson to just two catches in Week 3.
Facing the Rams on September 30, he picked off Sam Bradford and held Danny Amendola to a season-low 9.2 yards per catch. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he shutdown Randy Moss, holding him to one catch in four targets, even though Moss was averaging a 66 percent catch percentage in his other games.
Unlike 2012's other Pro Bowl-bound corners—Tim Jennings, Devin McCourty, Antoine Winfield for instance—Sherman plays much more physical football.
At 6'3" and 200 pounds, he big for a corner, and his added size and strength makes him a force both against the run and in press coverage. That's exactly what the Seahawks like about him. He fits in to their hybrid scheme perfectly, using his size to smother play-making receivers up close, or drop back and lay a brain-jarring hit as the ball approaches. They don't rush the quarterback as much as most teams, instead they focus on jamming receivers and punishing the run.
But beyond pure on-field performance, Sherman's competitive, smash-mouth demeanor fits the star defensive player mold perfectly. A couple of weeks ago, after picking off Tom Brady and helping his Seahawks beat the Patriots, he taunted the reigning AFC Champions following the game. His nasty, in your face moment caught plenty of criticism, but it also helped cement the Seahawks' place in the spotlight.
With Darrelle Revis and Charles Woodson injured, and Nnamdi Asomugha underperforming, the 2012 cornerback crop has a number of new playmakers stepping up. Patrick Peterson has evolved in to an elite player, while Richard Sherman's hard-hitting, in-your-face playmaking has thrust him in to the spotlight.
But of all the newcomers, Tim Jennings is quietly having the greatest overall season. He's teamed up with Bears' veteran Charles Tillman to help the Bears field the NFL's seventh-ranked defense. Their pass coverage has been phenomenal, and Chicago has held opposing QB's to a league-best 62.0 passer rating.
This season, the 5'8" speedster has broken out after years of solid but unspectacular play. Sliding in to the Bears' starting left cornerback spot, he's racked up a league-leading six interceptions and 13 pass deflections. He's the first Bears player to record a pick in four consecutive games since Dave Duerson in 1986.
The Bears' cover-2 scheme is designed to force opposing QB's into interceptions and mistakes. In order for the attack to work properly, the defense needs vicious pass-rushing defensive ends and smart, versatile cornerbacks.
Chicago couldn't have found a better fit for their defense than Jennings.
Small, maneuverable and hard-nose, Jennings is tasked with covering a large radius, and his speed and sure-tackling skills make him ideal in that regard. He's impossible to beat in zone coverage, armed with premium wheels and leaping ability. A long-time veteran of the scheme, he's also blessed with a surplus of football IQ. He uses his instincts and second-nature feel for the game to read plays and cut off receiver's routes with a pick.
Like Tillman, Jennings doesn't get the respect he deserves. Cover-2 corners aren't usually regarded as impact players. Only recently have QBs stopped forcing the ball Tillman's way. But now that they've turned to Jennings, he's made them pay with picks. "The Hawk" has held quarterbacks to a remarkable 38.6 QB rating (according to ProFootballFocus.com), the lowest mark among starting defensive backs in the NFL. He's allowed just 51.4 percent of passes in his direction to be completed this season, which is especially impressive for a number-two corner with young safeties (that play deep) behind him.
For a pint-sized corner, Jennings is also exceptionally valuable in run support. He's made 39 tackles and 10 stops this season. He rarely lets the play get by him, and he's posted a 1.11 tackle factor, which is the fifth-best mark among NFL cornerbacks.
Tim Tebow is a great player, and he no doubt played a lead role in Denver's remarkable playoff run in 2011. But the Broncos' true 2011 MVP was Von Miller, and this year he's putting together an even better performance.
The Broncos defense ranks third in the AFC in yards allowed per game. Paired with their budding offense, their D' has made them one of the game's best teams. And of any of their players, Von Miller is almost undoubtedly their most important contributor.
Miller leads the Broncos' elite pass-rushing attack. He paces 4-3 outside linebackers in sacks with six, and with 11 QB hits. Even when he's not adding another takedown to his resume, he still manages to wreak havoc on the passing game. His 23 quarterback hurries ranks second among NFL linebackers, and leads all 4-3 backers. Actually, his hurries total more than triples Sean Weatherspoon's second-place figure (seven).
But Miller isn't just a one-dimensional pass rusher, he's also a run-stuffing monster. Denver's defense yields just 3.75 yards per rush (4.18 is league average) and the unit rates among the best in open-field tackles and second-level yards allowed—both areas that rely on their backers.
Though a sack-happy defense will be prone to giving up yards to the edges, Miller has done an extraordinary job attacking opposing running backs. He leads all linebackers with 14 tackles for loss, and his 25 stops (his tackle resulting in a failed offensive play) is eighth in the NFL.
Miller's 28.5 +EPA tops outside backers in his scheme, and he continues to be one of the most valuable players to his team. He's truly an impact player, and he makes contributions when they matter most. Plus, unlike Atkins or Washington, Miller's team is playoff bound and his entire defensive unit is performing at an elite-level.
Wake is one of the most unheralded players in football. The former CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player, has now been the top pass rusher in two professional football leagues. After racking up 39 sacks in two seasons in Canada, Wake has dominated in the NFL.
According to ProFootballFocus.com's stat pass rushing productivity, there's no better edge rusher in football than Wake since 2009. He's lived up to the reputation this season with his finest overall campaign. Though he didn't record a sack until the fourth game of the season, he leads all defensive ends with 7.5. He also paces the position with 11 quarterback hits, and his 27 hurries rank third.
Wake has caught fire lately. After collecting 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles in his last four games, he recently took home honors as AFC Defensive Player of the Month.
But he's not just a top-notch pass rusher. Wake is a great all-around football player. He hasn't drawn one penalty flag this season, and he's made contributions to the run-stopping game as well. He has seven tackles for loss (third among 4-3 ends), and his 19 stops lead the NFL. A sure tackler, he's also made 15 of 17 solo tackles he's attempted.
Besides their pass rush, another bright spot of Miami's defense is their ruthless run defense. Wake is the star of that area too. To runs on his area (the left tackle from the offense's perspective), Miami is allowing just 1.5 yards per carry, yet they're yielding at least 3.79 yards per rush on all of their other gaps.
Overall, Wake's production is the best at his position, and he's one of the most valuable defensive players in the league. He's outperforming superstars like Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware and Julius Peppers annually, and his 2012 campaign is shaping up to be his best.
But at the end of the day, there's one man that stands above the rest.
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt isn't only the best player at his position, but by every measure he's by far the the most valuable defensive player in the game this season.
First of all, it should say enough that he leads the NFL in sacks as a 3-4 defensive end. In the 3-4 scheme, the end is moved into the interior and is designed to beat up (multiple) blockers and collapse the pocket for the faster edge pass-rushing linebackers. But Watt is redefining the position.
Watt's 9.5 sacks leads the NFL, and he's out-performed top-shelf specialists like Clay Matthews (9.5 sacks), Cameron Wake (7.5), and DeMarcus Ware (7.5). And, even when he doesn't take-down the quarterback, he's still crippling the opposing team's air attack. He's hit the opposing quarterback 16 times this season, second to Cameron Wake's 17 among all defensive ends.
But Watt's contributions aren't nearly limited to killing the quarterback. He's a superb run-stuffer and his ability to shutdown the passing game is multifaceted. He's made 15 tackles for loss this season, and his 10 passes defensed leads all non-defensive backs by a huge margin. Lance Briggs, the second-place holder, has just six pass break-ups, barely more than half of Watt's total.
Watt does a lot of other amazing things in run defense besides making stops in the backfield. He's one of the best ends at tying up blockers and collapsing the pocket. On runs to his side (the right end from the offense's view), running backs are averaging just 1.73 yards per carry, less than half of the league average mark of 3.89. Though Brian Cushing's absence has killed Houston's effectiveness up the middle, Watt has still managed to help hold runs on the right tackle to 3.84 yards per carry (league average is 4.04 yards).
For anyone who's at all critical of Watt's real-world value, rest assured he's not just a stats guy. Watt's 1.38 tackle factor (explained) suggests he makes a much larger portion of his defense's tackles than even his most skilled peers—Muhammad Wilkerson (1.07), and Chandler Jones (1.02). That alone speaks volumes, especially considering the Texans' D' ranks as one of the NFL's top-three.
But wait, there's even more. Watt's contributions are even more phenomenal. His 62.6 positive expected points added this season (+EPA) leads both his position and NFL defensive players. As far as ends go, he's the best overall playmaker in at least a decade, and his +EPA (explained) nearly doubles Jason Pierre-Paul's second-best 33.7 mark.
Watt isn't just the NFL's best defensive player; he's re-writing history books. Since passes defended were tracked 20 years ago, no player has recorded more than 14 PD and 14.5 sacks, and Watt is on pace to shatter those numbers.
Watt is trying to follow Reggie White, Warren Sapp and Bruce Smith into the record books as the NFL's top defensive player. Since 2000, the only defensive lineman to have won NFL D.P.O.Y. are Jason Taylor (2006) and Michael Strahan (2001). But Watt's performance is arguably even better than either of those two.
At the half-season point, he's not just the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, he's making a strong case to become the fifth defensive player to win NFL MVP since 1986.