It always seemed like a two-man race to me, with Houston Texans 3-4 defensive end J.J. Watt and St. Louis Rams 4-3 DE Robert Quinn right at the top. Indianapolis Colts pass rusher Robert Mathis was my third guy, Carolina Panthers hyped up linebacker Luke Kuechly in fourth, and then a host of players behind them. I wasn’t the only one who thought the Defensive Player of the Year vote was a race between Quinn and Watt, but neither player won the award. It was Kuechly who took home the DPOY after winning the Associated Press’s vote, and it’s a bit of a travesty to see that Watt received just two votes (somehow Richard Sherman had more despite not being decisively better than Darrelle Revis at corner) and Quinn just six (Mathis and Thomas had more).
Fist, let’s take a look at Kuechly’s numbers. There’s no doubt that he’s one of the best linebackers in the game, but was he really better than Lavonte David? He’s rangy and arguably the smartest LB in the league, but he isn’t a whole lot better than teammate Thomas Davis either. That shouldn’t be perceived as a knock on Kuechly, but rather an assertion that Davis’s play on the field is overshadowed by the comeback storyline and the hype surround the Boston College product in the middle of the defense. It’s great that Kuechly racks up a lot of tackles, but it’s far more important to look at how many of those tackles weren’t simply “garbage” tackles.
“Success count” is a stat used by Advanced NFL Stats that measures how many “successful” plays a defender contributed, and it’s an awful lot like measuring “successful” runs to evaluate running backs. Instead of just compiling a list of tackles, which is very misleading and essentially led to Kuechly winning the DPOY, SC (success count) measures how many successful plays a player contributed. Kuechlhy was tied for eighth with Danny Trevathan among all linebackers with 85 successful plays, and I honestly don’t know how people can state that Kuechly was a better player than NaVorro Bowman, who is way better than Kuechly in coverage, at LB this past season.
Let’s take a look at the numbers Robert Quinn and J.J. Watt put up, because the only other impressive thing about Kuechly’s totals are his ten tackles for loss (he had seven passes defended, but he’s a mediocre coverage LB at this stage).
Quinn, of course, was second to only Robert Mathis in sacks, as he had 19 to Mathis’s 19.5. Mathis didn’t have as much talent around him and simply carried the Colts pass rush, but the impressive thing about Quinn is how quickly he notched his pressure. His sacks had significantly more yards for loss, and he was so dominant with his speed and arsenal of moves as a 4-3 DE (a harder position to rush the passer from) that his pressure could come right off the snap. Quinn is one of the most explosive players in the NFL, and his own pass rushing production should overcome any knocks due to the talent around him. Plus, he is also a very solid run defender, and that’s something that can’t be overlooked.
Using quarterback hits to evaluate pass rushers leads to a more holistic picture than simply using sacks, and Quinn had 32 QB hits. Mathis, by the way, had 21.
But if you ask me who the Defensive Player of the Year is, then I will say that it is J.J. Watt. He easily received the highest grade from the Pro Football Focus this past season out of all the players in the league, and the scary thing is that he received an even better grade than he did in last year’s sensational season. Even though he didn’t have the sack totals to match last year’s numbers, his play across-the-board was even more impressive. And if you are docking him because his team won just two games, then I think you are doing things wrong. It’s not Watt’s fault that the offense was inept and most of the rest of the players on defense (especially the safeties) stunk. In fact, Watt’s play considering the lack of talent around him should make his accomplishments all the more impressive, because he was the one desperately trying to free things up for his teammates. If you don’t adjust for position, Watt is the best player in the NFL, and the advanced stats back it up.
Remember that stat “success count”? J.J. Watt was responsible for 104 successful plays, and the next-best DE, Rob Ninkovich, had 68 of them. That’s a massive gap, and there were only two linebackers (Kiko Alonso and Lavonte David) who had more. It’s important to note that it is much, much easier for an inside or middle linebacker to have a higher SC total than a defensive end, let alone a 3-4 DE who spent almost all of the season facing double teams. Brian Orakpo was praised for notching 18 QB hits (as he should be) while facing some more double-teams as a 3-4 OLB, so Watt needs to be praised ten times as much for excelling against the kind of competition he faced.
Another crucial stat to look at is QB hits, and Watt was easily the league leader in this statistic with an incredible 46 of them. Yes, 46 as a 3-4 DE. The next-best player at hitting the quarterback in 2013 was Quinn, but his 32 were still 14 off. By comparison, that gap of 14 is the difference between Cameron Jordan‘s 22 QB hits and Tyson Alualu‘s eight. Quinn did edge out Watt in tackles for loss 23-22, but that’s clearly not a big difference and is all the more impressive for Watt considering the position he plays.
It’s easy to get caught up in the superficial stats, and that’s exactly what the AP voters did in what was a jocular vote. I honestly can’t take their choices seriously, especially since the break down of the votes was ridiculous. Quinn had six? Six? Watt had just two? Kuechly is a great player and was certainly in the discussion, but I find it hard to believe that he and Earl Thomas (the third-place guy) received a combined 26.5 votes compared to the eight combined votes that Watt and Quinn received. Both Rams and Texans fans should feel extremely upset at this lopsided vote, because it lacks all reason and goes against both the “eye test” of the tape and the “analytics” test provided by statistics that go beyond the simple box score. All the players who received votes are excellent players and shouldn’t be criticized, but this vote is about finding the very best defensive player of the season. Kuechly, Mathis, and Thomas were great, but did they really deserve to be the three highest vote-getters? Mathis deserved to be in third, but I have a hard time finding a case for Kuechly or Thomas, who might not even have been the best safety this past season.