There are a lot of valid candidates for defensive player of the year this season—unlike last year, where J.J. Watt nearly won the award unanimously, there isn’t a clear-cut player who was leaps and bounds ahead of his competitors while also contributing for a successful team.
Luke Kuechly of Carolina is a leading candidate, as is Robert Quinn and his amazing season in St. Louis. Robert Mathis led the NFL in sacks at age 32, and Earl Thomas has led Seattle’s secondary to new heights in 2013—all of them are deserving of respect and consideration for the award.
For San Francisco 49ers fans, the leading candidate has to be NaVorro Bowman, who has had the best season of his career.
And he has a very strong case.
First of all, statistically, this is Bowman’s greatest season ever. His 118 tackles and five sacks were both career highs, as were the four fumbles he forced. He’s ending on a great note, as well, earning the NFC Defensive Player of the Month award for December.
Bowman is the first player since sacks have been an official NFL stat to rack up at least 45 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, a touchdown, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery all in the same month. That’s not only an amazing month, but it would be a solid season in and of itself—only 27 players have put up those numbers in a full season since the sack was introduced—and Bowman managed that in a month.
Bowman’s grade at ProFootballFocus (subscription required) is 20.0, leading all inside linebackers—he’s 4.5 points clear of his nearest competitor, Patrick Willis. More than half of that number comes from his pass-rush ability, where his grade of 11.3 nearly doubles his nearest competitor, Jerrell Freeman. In addition to his sack total, he has added three quarterback hits and 14 hurries and has been masterful at disrupting pass plays, even when he doesn’t end up getting credit for the sack.
He’s not just a one-trick pony, though. In the run game, his 67 stops—plays where a solo tackle created an offensive failure—are second among middle linebackers and third among all defensive players.
His coverage abilities are solid as well, with four passes defensed to go along with a pair of interceptions. He’s fifteenth among inside linebackers in passes completed against him, as well, allowing only 5.6 yards per attempt when he’s targeted.
Even in areas that aren’t his forte, he’s among the tops in the league.
Nor are his high grades just the idiosyncratic metrics of one site—Advanced NFL Stats has him tops among inside linebackers in win probability added, and Football Outsiders mentioned his performance several times, making him one of their Madden Ultimate Team cards in Week 4.
He has the bonus of being a key contributor on a playoff team—a squad that ended the regular season on a hot streak, racking up six consecutive wins. He’s racked up a series of highlight-reel plays, too, which help influence the voters. Most notable, of course, was his interception return for a touchdown in the final game at Candlestick Park.
That’s the kind of play that can stay burned into a voter’s mind when they’re filling out their ballots.
Then there's the compelling narrative to complement Bowman's numbers—the fact that he stepped up for other prominent defensive mates who were out of the lineup also helps his cause. In the two games in which both Willis and Aldon Smith were sidelined, Bowman emerged as the leader both of the linebacker corps and the defense as a whole.
His performance against St. Louis in Week 4 was particularly notable. In his best pass-rushing performance of the season—Bowman brought down Sam Bradford twice and pressured him on five additional dropbacks as he led the team to victory, snapping a two-game losing streak.
You can go overboard when touting Bowman and his impact this season. His play on the field speaks for itself, but stories like the passing of the torch from Willis to Bowman might influence voters, especially when there isn’t one clear player head-and-shoulders above the rest.
What does Bowman think about his chances at the award? As reported by the AP, he has stayed humble (h/t The Sacramento Bee):
It means a lot. When I came into this league, I was drafted in the third round. When you're drafted in the third round, people don't expect much out of you...It took a part out of me and put a chip on my shoulder and had me wanting to prove myself. That's what I've been doing. I learned a lot from Pat, but I don't want to stay in anyone's shadow. All of those things played a part. It just shows I'm getting better every single year, I'm not staying the same. A Defensive Player of the Year has to be consistent.
While Bowman winning the award would be something of a long shot—never underestimate the power of the almighty sack, especially when a veteran player like Robert Mathis is leading the league—it would also be deserved. Bowman’s having the best season of his career and, at only age 25, his best is probably still yet to come.
Whether or not he ends up with the award, Bowman has solidified his place among the elite players in the NFL.