Written by- Jack Bourgeois
The 2017 season has seemed to be a resurgence year for the defensive side of the ball. Not only did 3 of the 4 top defenses make it to the NFL’s Conference Championship round, but they all did it with little help from their offense. Minus Brady, the conference round QB’s featured Case Keenum, Nick Foles and Blake Bortles, something even the boldest of predictions couldn’t have possibly imagined. Does this mean teams don’t need a franchise QB anymore? Nope, it means what it’s always meant, DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS! It just so happens that Tom Brady has had some really good defenses over the years to go along with being the G.O.A.T. Since 2013 the number one ranked scoring defense has at least made it to the Super Bowl. And if not for Malcolm Butler’s game winning interception in the final seconds vs Seattle in 2014, the top defense would have won the last four championships. So, it’s safe to say it’s no longer just an offensive driven league, and clearly franchises have noticed this trend, putting more money and draft equity into their defenses than ever before. This year alone the Jaguars and Vikings have spent a combined $71,000,000 more on their defense, than their offense (according to OvertheCap.com).
So why is it in a year dominated by defense is there no one talking about the Defensive Player of the Year? Is it because last season’s winner Kalil Mack wasn’t as electric? Or the winner of three of the last five J.J Watt was hurt? Along with two thirds of the legion of boom, and other big names such as Dont’a Hightower, Cliff Avril, Ryan Shazier and Eric Berry all seeing IR. It’s certainly been a rough year for the NFL’s biggest stars and seems as if there just isn’t a clear cut winner like years past. No records were close to being broken, no stat lines jumped off the paper, and no one ran away with the award. This year’s voting process will be more arbitrary than ever, as it is extremely difficult to weigh these performances in such a close race. Let’s look at 2017’s top DPOY candidates to see if we can decipher player performance and team success from the statistical analysis.
The Dark Horses
Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota Vikings
Solo Tackles- 61 (T-15th)
Passes Defended- 12 (T-4th)
Interceptions- 5 (T-3rd)
Touchdowns Allowed- 0 (1st)
Pro Football Focus Grade- 98.4 (1st)
Arguably the best player, on the best team, with the best defense. If your criteria is as simple as that, then Harrison Smith should easily be crowned the league’s top defender. Possibly the most versatile playmaker on the defensive side on the ball, Smith was asked to line up all over the field, from box safety, to slot corner, to passer rusher, to linebacker, there was nothing his coaching staff couldn’t ask of him. The Vikings had teetered back and forth with the Jaguars all season long for the top spot. With All Pro players like Emerson Griffin and Xavier Rhodes, they rightfully took the title as the number one ranked D in the league. Both teammates were voted into this year’s Pro Bowl, but somehow Smith was left out, even though he’s unanimously looked at as the best player on his team. SERIOUSLY??? How does Pro Football Focus have him graded as the NFL’s best safety, yet the man can’t even get a few votes?
Along with the highest grade amongst his position, he also is the 1st player in PFF’s 12 year history to record 5 interceptions, allow 0 touchdowns and have 25 or more stops in a single season. He’s statistically had the greatest year compared to anyone in the league when looking at historical rankings, so why isn’t he getting the respect he deserves? In the past 10 years 3 safeties have won the award, Troy Polamalu, Charles Woodson, and Bob Sanders. It’s ok to say that the safety position is given more respect in the DPOY Award, than it is in Pro Bowl or Hall of Fame voting, where only 4 safety’s in the history of the game have ever even been given a gold jacket. Seems like both Harrison Smith, as well as his position are massively disrespected if you ask me.
Cameron Jordan, DE, New Orlean Saints
Solo Tackles- 48 (4th)
Sacks- 13 (3rd)
Passes defended- 12 (1st)
Pro Football Focus Grade- 96.2 (1st)
Cameron Jordan quietly had his best season to date. Setting a career high in sacks, tackles, and doubling his previous totals in passes defended. The Saints were top 10 in scoring defense for the 1st time since 2013, and are coming off a 3 year stint of having the worst defense in NFL History. Too bad the entire defense couldn’t earn comeback player of the year, because it’s been a tremendous turn around.
The addition of Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite Marshon Lattimore, as well as rookie corner Marcus Williams has seemed to be a huge help for New Orleans front seven. Though clearly Lattimore has been the biggest factor in revitalizing the Saints defense, and if you’re not even the best player on your defense, you couldn’t possibly be the best in the NFL. Hats off to Cameron Jordan and the entire New Orlean Saints team for having one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of the league. It was sad to see their season end the way it did.
The Stat Sheet Winners
Darius Slay, CB, Detroit Lions
Photo By Jake Roth/USA Today Sports
Solo Tackles- 60 (12th) All ranked by individual position*
Passes Defended- 26 (1st)
Interceptions- 8 (1st)
Pro Football Focus Grade- 88.1 (15th)
Pro Bowler Darius Slay was one of the premier shutdown corners in the league this year, raking in both the most Interceptions and passes defended in the NFL. He was a matchup nightmare and someone you definitely wanted to avoid in fantasy matchups. He allowed only 3 touchdowns all season, but also gave up 60 receptions for 721 Yards (according to PFF). Though Slay’s performance is noteworthy, and amongst the best on paper, neither him or his team did enough to be considered contenders this year. The Lion’s were 21st in points allowed and 27th in yards, all while missing the playoffs with another 9–7 record.
If you look closely at the data, you see a glaring correlation between inflated defensive totals and bad rushing teams. The Detroit Lions offense was dead last in the run game, inherently forcing their secondary to see the 5th most passing attempts in the league, allowing Darius more opportunities to make plays on the ball. With all that being said, he simply wasn’t the most feared corner in the league, and his defense was near the bottom of the pack. Not enough to warrant DPOY.
Chandler Jones, OLB, Arizona Cardinals
Solo Tackles- 52
Sacks- 17 (1st)
Passes Defended- 3
QB Pressures- 76 (4th)
Pro Football Focus Grade- 87.3 (15th)
Chandler Jones was traded to the Arizona Cardinals from the New England Patriots in 2016 for only a 2nd round pick. Since then Jones leads the league in sacks with 28 and is 3rd in quarterback hurries, behind only Kalil Mack and Von Miller at the outside linebacker position. He owns this season’s sack title with 17 and ended 5th in run stops per PFF’s numbers. If we take a deeper look into the statistics s, we find that Chandler was number one in pass rushing snaps and chalked up 81 more pass plays than the next closest OLB. Once more, finding a direct link to the 3rd worst rushing team and total defensive plays. Add that to a 19th ranked scoring defense, along with an 8–8 record that caused the Card’s to miss the playoffs, and it seems hard to call him the player of the year on his side of the ball. He is without a doubt the best 3–4 outside linebacker of the year, a Probowler, a 1st Team All Pro, and nightmare for any blocker off the edge, but the sack leader doesn’t make you a shoe-in for DPOY.
Bobby Wagner, ILB, Seattle Seahawks
Solo Tackles- 97 (T-1st)
Passes Defended- 6
Pro Football Focus Grade- 96.7 (1st)
Believe it or not Bobby Wagner might actually be the most important player on the Seahawks defense. Somehow after losing both Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, the Seattle D didn’t become a complete dumpster fire. Due in large part to Bobby Wagner, who lead the league in combined tackles over the past 2 years, as well as rated PFF’s 2nd best coverage linebacker in 2017. The 1st Team All Pro controls the center of the field like no other. He can cover man to man, rush the passer, and dominate against the run game. Wagner has 133 combined tackles while missing a majority of 2 games. This year marks his 6th straight season with 100 plus tackles, a rare accomplishment of dominance and durability. He was playing out of his mind and had his team in playoff contention down the stretch, but a late season hamstring injury tempered both his team’s chances, as well as his lock for DPOY. Had the Seahawks not coincidentally lost their final 4 games, the same time Wagner re-aggravated his hammy, his argument for Defensive Player of the Year would be even more valid. When the best ability is availability, it’s hard to vote for a player who battled through injury. Plus 9–7, missing the playoffs, and having a not top 10 defense doesn’t help either. A great year from a great player on a subpar team.
The Clear Cut Favorites
Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Solo Tackles- 52 (55th)
Passes Defended- 17 (T-10th)
Interceptions- 4 (T-4th)
Pro Football Focus Grade- 92.6 (2nd)
Jalen Ramsey is the most feared and respected cornerback in the NFL, and it only took two years’ time. His ability to shut out the league’s best wideouts has been put on display all season long. He showcased his 63.7 QBR allowed, while being top 10 in targets against, and only surrendering 47 receptions for 573 yards and 3 touchdowns all year according to Pro Football Focus. Not only is he the number one corner in the game but he’s also the league’s best trash talker (at least since Steve Smith retired). From guaranteeing a Super Bowl victory, to getting under the skin of A.J. Green, who ended up swinging on him out of pure frustration back in week 9.
Ramsey meets all the requirements to be crowned the DPOY. He’s the leader and tone setter of the second ranked defense, who’s number one against the pass, and number two in points given up. The 1st Team All-Pro corner and 1st time Pro Bowler owns the 2nd highest grade amongst all CB’s. His team was one game away from heading to the Super Bowl after a game winning interception Wildcard Weekend by Jalen, and collectively holding Big Ben to a 53.0 QBR in the Divisional Round. The kicker (no pun intended) being that Jalen isn’t the only DPOY candidate on his team; last off season’s “biggest” free agent signee Calais Campbell has also tallied up career bests across the board and is going to give his partner in crime a run for his money.
Calais Campbell, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Solo Tackles- 47 (4th)
Sacks- 14.5 (1st)
Passes Defended- 3 (T-16th)
Pro Football Focus Grade- 94.0 (4th)
Forced Fumbles- 3
QB Pressures- 73 (5th)
Calais Campbell signed a massive 4 year 60 million dollar deal, with half of that fully guaranteed. A huge price to pay for a 31 year old defensive end, who was widely believed to be past his prime. Guess the Jag’s got it right, one week into wearing teal Calais was crowned the Mayor of Sacksonville, after chalking up a franchise record 4 sacks. He finished the year with 14.5, tied for 2nd overall behind former teammate and fellow DPOY candidate Chandler Jones.
The Jag’s 6’8” 1st Team All Pro was a wrecking machine in 2017, playing every position across the line; Tallying up the most pressures and sacks on a team that lead the league in both categories. Campbell’s got the stats, the league’s respect, a top ranked defense, is a team leader, and was one stop away from a trip to the Super Bowl. Surely enough to brag about, but does the fact that he shares the field with Jalen Ramsey, as well as two other Pro Bowlers in Malik Jackson and A.J. Bouye affect his vote? It’s hard to say, the race is so tight that it truly could be anyone’s award to win, though Calais undoubtedly takes the cake for 2017’s biggest offseason acquisition.
Aaron Donald, DT/DE, Los Angeles Rams
Solo Tackles- 32 (10th)
Sacks- 11 (2nd)
QB Pressures-91 (1st)
QB Hurries- 66 (1st)
Pro Football Focus Grade- 99.7 (1st)
Aaron Donald owns every single statistical category possible amongst interior D-lineman since entering the league in 2013. He’s a 4 time Pro Bowler, 3 time All Pro, Defensive Rookie of the Year, and one of, if not the most dominant players in the game today. Aaron had a slow start to the season, a hold out forced him to miss all of training camping, as well as week one. Slow start or not, Donald finished with the 2nd most sacks of any interior lineman and took the honor of Pro Football Focus’s highest grade of any player in the NFL with a 99.7. The film doesn’t lie either, as Donald terrorized quarterbacks and offensive lineman of the NFC West; sealing the division title with a master performance week 15 in Seattle. The Rams star ended the game with 5 tackles, 3 for a loss, a forced fumble and 3 more sacks, securing the rams a playoff berth and proving he has every right to be in this conversation.