Bobby Wagner LB DPOY

Defensive Player of the Year: Linebackers

  • Awards
  • Bobby Wagner
  • Defensive Player of the Year
  • Deion Jones
  • Demario Davis
  • DPOY
  • Fred Warner
  • Linebackers
  • Middle Linebacker
  • NFL
  • NFL Awards
  • NFL Honors
  • Outside Linebacker
By Mitchell Wolfe January 11, 2021 0 Comment
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As the 2020 NFL regular season draws to a close and moves into the playoffs, it is time to start discussing awards. Obviously, the Defensive Player of the Year award is one of the most coveted individual awards. The NFL’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award has changed to a quarterback-exclusive honor. Therefore, the Defensive Player of the Year award is the highest achievement a defender can reach in a given season.

Over the next week, this series of articles will detail several players with the strongest cases for the Defensive Player of the Year. Each article will tackle (pun intended) a different position group. During the week of the NFL Honors awards presentation, a final list will be made with the most deserving candidates.

In the previous pieces (Edge Rushers and Interior Defensive Lineman), TJ Watt and Aaron Donald made the final list. This piece will discuss the most-deserving linebackers.

Note: All statistics from Pro Football Reference

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Demario Davis, New Orleans Saints

16 games, 16 tackles, 1032 snaps at 99%. 119 tackles (t-14th), 73 solos (t-16th), 10 TFLs (t-8th), 12 QB hits (2nd among LBs), 4 sacks (t-5th), 5 passes defended (t-6th among LBs). 52 targets, 36 completions (69.2%), 7.2 yards/completion (9th lowest among LBs), 5.0 yards/target (11th lowest among LBs), 106.2 passer rating against. 8 hurries, 4 QB knockdowns, 16 pressures (t-2nd among LBs). PFF Grades: 78.1 Overall (6th), 78.8 Run Defense (6th), 82.2 Pass Rush (5th), 68.4 Coverage (23rd).

Having just turned 32, Demario Davis is the elder statesman among this group of linebackers. But his seniority certainly has no negative impact on his play. Rather, Davis is playing at such a high level that he deserves recognition and could be a deserving candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Davis played extremely well down the stretch as the season approached its end. Of this group of linebackers, he recorded the most pass-rush snaps (135), good enough for fifth-most among all linebackers. He was also very effective in rushing the passer, recording four sacks (5th-most among LBs) and 16 pressures (2nd-most). Davis’ PFF Pass Rush grade was also very good (82.2, 5th); furthermore, he was also one of only four linebackers with two categories of grades over 75.

Ultimately, Davis most likely did not force enough turnovers to be considered for Defensive Player of the Year. While tackles and sacks are all very good, turnovers are necessary to make a strong case for DPOY. Davis recorded no interceptions, fumbles forced, or even fumbles recovered. Additionally, Davis struggled slightly in pass coverage this season. After an All-Pro campaign in 2019 where he was dominant in pass coverage, Davis regressed a bit in 2020. While his yards/completion and yards/target numbers were top-ten in the league, he allowed almost 70% of passes to be completed against him, along with a 106.2 passer rating against. Therefore, Davis mostly likely did not do enough to win Defensive Player of the Year.

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Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons

16 games, 16 starts, 1042 snaps at 96%. 106 tackles (t-22nd), 73 solo (t-16th), 9 TFLs (t-9th), 10 QB hits (4th among LBs), 4.5 sacks (t-4th among LBs), 6 passes defended (t-5th among LBs), 2 interceptions (t-2nd among LBs), 1 TD, 1 forced fumble, 1 recovered. 54 targets, 40 completions (74.1%), 9.6 yards/completion, 7.1 yards/target, 114.9 passer rating against. 5 hurries, 5 QB knockdowns, 15 pressures (3rd among LBs). PFF Grades: 68.7 Overall (16th), 59.3 Run Defense (34th), 75.0 Pass Rush (18th), 70.6 Coverage (17th).

Despite playing on one of the NFL’s worst teams in 2020, Deion Jones turned in another high-quality season. The question is: was it DPOY-worthy? Jones did a solid job in all facets of the game. For the fifth season in a row, Jones recorded multiple turnovers. Additionally, he rushed the passer a lot more this season than in the past and performed very well. He recorded career-highs in sacks, QB hits, and pressures.

Unfortunately, the Falcons’ performance as a team has more bearing on Jones’ DPOY campaign than his own. Every Defensive Player of the Year since 2014 (JJ Watt, first time) played on a playoff team; no player on a losing team has won the award since 2006 (Jason Taylor, Miami Dolphins 6-10). Obviously, neither of those players were traditional linebackers. Furthermore, for Jones to have a legitimate chance at the award, he would need to have significantly better stats than his positional counterparts. Thus, Jones did not do enough to overcome his team’s lack of success and secure Defensive Player of the Year.

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RoQuan Smith, Chicago Bears

16 games, 16 games, 1016 snaps at 95%, 139 tackles (6th), 98 solo (2nd), 18 TFLs (2nd), 6 QB hits (t-7th among LBs), 4 sacks (t-5th), 1 forced fumble (1 recovered), 7 passes defended (t-4th among LBs), 2 interceptions (t-2nd). 80 targets, 50 catches (62.5%, 8th-lowest among LBs), 5.8 yards/completion (2nd lowest among all defenders), 3.6 yards/target (4th lowest among all defenders), 0 TDs, 58.9 passer rating against (7th lowest). 5 hurries, 2 QB knockdowns, 11 pressures (6th among LBs). PFF Grades: 67.2 Overall (19th among LBs), 39.8 Run Defense (77th), 74.8 Pass Rush(18th), 84.0 Coverage (4th).

RoQuan Smith was surprisingly snubbed from the Pro Bowl. But his statistics make him an interesting candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. The Bears selected Smith in the top-10 in the 2018 NFL Draft, and he was expected to make an immediate impact, as the heir apparent to the elite lineage of Bears’ linebackers. After two solid years, Smith broke out in a big way this year. He recorded the second-most solo tackles and tackles for loss among all defenders. Smith was also excellent in coverage, allowing the second-lowest yards per completion among all defenders and the seventh-lowest passer rating against. This is also born out in Smith’s PFF Coverage grade, an 84.0, which ranks fourth among linebackers.

Smith’s case, however, illuminates some of the flaws in counting statistics, and also with PFF Grades. As previously mentioned, Smith racked up tons of tackles this year. However, as I discussed with Khalil Mack in the Edge Rusher’s piece, I believe the Bears’ defensive structure forces running backs up the linebackers. This might inflate Smith’s tackle numbers, while also possibly deflating his PFF Grade. The discrepancy between his ascendant tackle numbers and his abysmal PFF Run Defense grade is very peculiar. Obviously, PFF grades are not the be-all-end-all, but it also illustrates the problem with only using raw counting statistics. In Smith’s case, a tackle for a gain of two is equal to a tackle thirty yards downfield. Regardless, due to his ability to rack up statistics in all phases of the game, Smith has put together a strong case for DPOY.

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Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks

16 games, 16 starts, 1142 snaps at 99%. 138 tackles(7th), 81 solo (10th), 7 TFLs (t-11th), 11 QB hits (3rd among LBs), 3 sacks(t-7th), 1 fumble recovered, 8 passes defended (t-3rd among LBs). 81 targets, 52 completions (64.2%), 9.4 yards/completion, 6.0 yards/target (24th among LBs), 2 TDs, 88.9 passer rating against. 1 hurry, 7 QB knockdowns, 11 pressures (6th among LBs). PFF Grades: 83.2 Overall (3rd among LBs), 90.0 Run Defense (1st), 83.9 Pass Rush (4th), 69.2 Coverage (21st).

Bobby Wagner has been among the best linebackers in the NFL for almost a decade. Perhaps this could finally be the year he wins Defensive Player of the Year. Wagner led all linebackers in snaps this year, and he was once again extremely effective in all facets of the game. Once again, he was elite in run defense, ranking in the top-ten in combined and solo tackles. Wagner also led all linebackers in PFF grades for Run Defense, with a 90.0. Additionally, he was the only linebacker with two categorical grades above 80.

Based on the statistics and grades, Wagner struggled a bit in pass coverage. But I think this can be explained. Wagner did allow almost 10 yards per completion, and his pass coverage grades ranked only 21st in the NFL. But, his passer rating against was only 88.9. While Wagner’s PFF Coverage grade lagged behind his others significantly, this can be explained by factors’ outside Wagner’s control. Throughout the season, Seattle’s defense dealt with many injuries, especially in the secondary. This could force Wagner to play more coverage snaps than normal (675, led all LBs), along with forcing him to cover wide receivers. Therefore, while Wagner’s Coverage grade suffered, it could be due to being put in a bad position by his defensive scheme. The Seahawks were knocked out of the playoffs on Sunday, but DPOY remains a regular-season award, one Wagner surely could win.

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Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers

16 games, 16 starts, 971 snaps at 94%, 125 tackles (10th), 79 solo (t-11th), 5 TFLs (t-13th), 7 QB hits (t-8th among LBs), 6 passes defended (t-5th among LBs), 2 interceptions (t-2nd), 1 forced fumble, 2 fumbles recovered. 61 targets, 38 completions (62.3%, 6th lowest among LBs), 7.1 yards/completion (10th lowest among all defenders), 4.4 yards/target (9th lowest), 69.7 Passer Rating against (15th lowest among all defenders, 4th among LBs). 9 hurries, 6 QB knockdowns, 16 pressures (t-2nd among LBs). PFF Grades: 88.6 Overall (1st among LBs), 68.1 Run Defense (13th), 76.3 Pass Rush (12th), 91.1 Coverage (1st).

Fred Warner is among the best young linebackers currently in the league. In a season where the San Francisco 49ers defense regressed from their Super Bowl-form, Warner’s play could earn him the Defensive Player of the Year award. Warner forced multiple turnovers again this year and recorded a new career-high in total tackles. He also excelled in pass coverage, leading all linebackers in PFF’s Coverage grades (91.1), along with ranking in the top-ten across more advanced pass coverage statistics. Warner led all linebackers in the Overall grades as well, along with ranking in the top-fifteen in Run Defense and Pass Rush.

However, as discussed with Deion Jones earlier, missing the playoffs and winning Defensive Player of the Year typically do not mix. Furthermore, like Wagner, injuries throughout the 49ers’ defense may force him to cover up others’ mistakes or play in roles he’s not especially comfortable in. In this case, injuries along the defensive line could force Warner to play in the box more as a run defender. Regardless, Warner played so well across all phases of the game that he made a strong case for DPOY.

Prediction

In these player profiles, there were detailed positives and negatives for each of their cases for Defensive Player of the Year. There is one more fact that weakens all of their cases, however. A traditional off-ball linebacker has not won the award since 2003 when Ray Lewis won his second. As the NFL becomes more pass-heavy, less and less emphasis is given to elite linebacker play, as defensive lineman rush the quarterback and defensive backs create turnovers or lockdown elite receivers. Linebackers are then left to basically clean up whatever is left, and get targeted by genius offensive play-callers.

With all that being said, Bobby Wagner is the most qualified among this group. As discussed with Jones and Warner, to win DPOY, a player must be on a winning and, ideally, a playoff team. This disqualifies Jones and Warner, and even possibly Smith. Even though the Bears made the playoffs, and Smith performed remarkably well, he might not be enough of a household name to take home the award.

This leaves Wagner and Demario Davis. Of the two, Wagner has nearly equal or better statistics in every category, especially the more analytical ones. Furthermore, Wagner has more name recognition and might get a “career-achievement/recognition bump”. Thus, Bobby Wagner is my selection among the linebacker group to represent them in the race for DPOY.

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I cover and write about the NFL, the NFL Draft, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. I am originally from Hershey, PA and was raised a Pittsburgh sports fan. I went to Boston College for undergrad and am currently finishing a Master's degree in Sports Business at Temple University, concentrating in Sport Analytics.

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