defensive player of the year

Defensive Player of the Year Race: Edge Rushers

  • Defensive Player of the Year
  • DPOY
  • khalil mack
  • Myles Garrett
  • NFL
  • NFL Awards
  • NFL Honors
  • TJ Watt
  • Za'Darius Smith
By Mitchell Wolfe January 5, 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 (DPOY) 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 DPOY 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.

This first piece will introduce the most deserving Edge Rushers in the NFL.

Note: All statistics from Pro Football Reference

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Za’Darius Smith, OLB, Green Bay Packers

16 games, 16 starts, 858 snaps at 84%, 52 tackles (t-9th among Edges), 35 solos (t-5th among Edges), 12 TFLs (t-6th overall). 12.5 sacks (t-3rd overall), 23 QB hits (8th overall), 2 passes defended, 4 forced fumbles (t-3rd overall). 13 hurries (t-8th overall), 9 QB knockdowns (t-10th overall), 35 pressures (7th overall). PFF Grades: 76.7 Overall (15th among Edges), 60.5 Run Defense, 86.0 Pass Rush (7th among Edges), 55.1 Coverage.

In his second year in Green Bay, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith continued producing excellent numbers for the Packers defense. He is tied for the third-most sacks in the NFL this season with 12.5. Smith also ranks seventh in pressures (35) and eighth in QB hits (23). His four forced fumbles are tied for the third-most in the league and tied for second among edge rushers. Additionally, his PFF grade for Pass Rush, 86.6, grades out as the seventh-best among edge defenders.

While Smith’s pass rush statistics are among the best in the league, his 60.5 PFF grade in Run Defense indicates he is not as effective at stopping the run as he is rushing the passer. Obviously, edge defenders are primarily tasked with getting after the quarterback. But setting the edge against the run is also very important. Therefore, while Smith would normally have a very strong case, based on the quality of his competitors, he most likely will not win Defensive Player of the Year this season.

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Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns

14 games, 14 starts, 757 snaps at 70%, 48 tackles (t-13th among Edges), 33 solos (t-7th among Edges), 10 TFLs (t-8th overall). 12 sacks (4th overall), 18 QB hits (t-12th overall), 2 passes defended, 4 forced fumbles (t-3rd overall), 2 fumbles recovered (t-2nd). 11 hurries (t-10th), 6 knockdowns (t-13th), 30 pressures (t-12th). PFF Grades: 89.5 Overall (4th among Edges, 9th among DL), 73.8 Run Defense (18th among Edges), 90.0 Pass Rush (4th among Edges, t-6th among DL), 75.2 Coverage. 26% Pass Rush Win Rate (2nd among Edges + all DL).

Myles Garrett missed multiple games this season, albeit resulting from COVID-19. Therefore, his stats lag a little behind his competitors. However, Garrett still consistently played like a top-five edge defender. His pass-rush win rate of 26% ranked second among all defenders. In addition to posting very good statistics, Garrett’s PFF grades were excellent; he ranked in the top-five among Edges and top-ten among all defensive lineman with his Overall and Pass Rush grades. Additionally, Garrett’s Run Defense and Coverage grades were much better than Smith’s.

Ultimately, Garrett most likely did not affect the quarterback enough (based on the statistics) to make a winning case for Defensive Player of the Year. While he recorded the fourth-most sacks this season, his other pass-rushing statistics (QB hits, hurries, knockdowns, and pressures) all ranked outside the top-ten. Furthermore, another AFC North player to be discussed later posted better statistics than Garrett in almost every category.

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Khalil Mack, OLB, Chicago Bears

16 games, 16 starts, 894 snaps at 84%, 50 tackles (t-11th among Edges), 29 solos (t-11th among Edges), 11 TFLs (t-7th overall). 9 sacks (t-9th overall), 13 QB hits (t-17th overall), 3 forced fumbles (t-4th overall), 2 fumbles recovered (t-2nd overall), 3 passes defended, 1 interception. 16 hurries (t-5th overall), 4 QB knockdowns, 30 pressures (t-12th overall). PFF Grades: 92.3 Overall (1st among Edges, 2nd among all DL, 2nd among all defenders, 5th among all players), 91.7 Run Defense (1st among Edges and all DL), 90.8 Pass Rush (1st among Edges, 3rd among all DL), 66.5 Coverage.

Based on his PFF grades alone, Khalil Mack would normally be a shoo-in for Defensive Player of the Year. Mack ranks first among edges in Overall Grade, Run Defense, and Pass Rush. His overall grade was also good enough to rank as the second-best defensive player overall and the fifth-highest player graded. Mack’s counting statistics also measure up quite well. He recorded 11 tackles for a loss (TFLs) and nine sacks, tying for eighth- and ninth-most, respectively.

Based on PFF and his tackle numbers, it seems that Mack is asked to spill runners to linebackers on the second level. RoQuan Smith, one of the Bears’ inside linebackers, is among the league leaders for total and solo tackles. Furthermore, Mack’s pass-rushing numbers are down (at least by his standards). Therefore, despite his excellent grades, he does not seem likely to capture Defensive Player of the Year, an award that is almost solely based on raw defensive statistics.

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TJ Watt, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers

15 games, 15 starts, 855 snaps at 84%, 53 tackles (t-8th among Edges), 43 solos (t-3rd among Edges), 23 TFLs (1st overall). 15 sacks (1st in NFL), 41 QB hits (1st overall), 2 forced fumbles (t-5th), 7 passes defended (t-1st among Edges), 1 interception. 20 hurries (t-2nd overall), 19 QB knockdowns (t-2nd overall), 55 pressures (1st overall). PFF Grades: 91.6 Overall (2nd among Edges, 3rd among Defenders, 11th overall), 90.1 Run Defense (2nd among Edges, 2nd among all DL), 90.4 Pass Rush (3rd among Edges, 5th among all DL), 71.2 Coverage (22nd among Edges). T-1st Pass Rush Win Rate (29%) among Edges and all DL.

As a Steelers fan, it is difficult to remove my homer hat. But it is impossible to ignore the dominance of TJ Watt. In only 15 games, Watt recorded 23 TFLs, 15 sacks, 41 QB hits, 55 pressures, and 7 passes defended. He ranked first among edge defenders in all these categories and even finished first among all defenders in all of them (except passes defended) as well.

Watt recorded nine more QB hits and twelve more pressures than the next closest defender in those categories. He tied the league lead for pass rush win rate at 29%, according to ESPN. Watt’s penchant for forcing fumbles dropped off from last year (eight in 2019 vs. just two in 2020). But he still showed a remarkable acumen for recording sacks in key moments.

Khalil Mack was the only other edge defender that graded higher than Watt in Run Defense and Pass Rush. But Watt’s raw statistics are better in every single category (except fumbles forced), despite playing one fewer game. Watt’s supporting cast is certainly better than Mack’s, even after season-ending injuries to Bud Dupree and Devin Bush. Regardless, Watt is more than deserving of the Defensive Player of the Year award, following in the steps of his older brother, JJ.

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I cover and write about the NFL, the NFL Draft, and the Pittsburgh Steelers for the Brawl Network. 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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