With only two games left in the season, talk surrounding the 2014 NFL Draft and the upcoming offseason awards will inevitably start to pick up. Just yesterday, Peyton Manning was announced as Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year,” the first of many awards likely waiting for the Denver signal caller after his performance this season. The “Big 3,” league-wide awards that are commonly debated include Most Valuable Player, Offensive Player of the Year, and Defensive Player of the Year. Since the days of Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, the St. Louis Rams have, for all intensive purposes, been left out of the conversation, marred by horrendous records and players that were, frankly, not that talented. However, that may have changed this season!
Currently there are four likely “leading” candidates for the Defensive Player of the Year Award: J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, Luke Kuechly, and Robert Mathis. Here is our ranking of those four players…
1. Robert Quinn, 4-3 DE, Rams
The Defensive Player of the Year is, purportedly, given to the league’s “most outstanding defensive player at the end of year.” If that is the case, than there are few that can measure up to Robert Quinn this season.
The dominating third-year player is a leader in nearly every quantifiable, impactful defensive category this season, including:
- 2nd in sacks (15.0)
- 1st in forced fumbles (7)
- 4th in fumble recoveries (2)
- 3rd in hits on the quarterback (20)
- 2nd in hurries on the quarterback (48)
- 1st in total quarterback disruptions (83)
According to Pro Football Focus, the “industry standard” for complex statistics and player grading, Robert Quinn is sporting the 2nd-highest overall grade of any player in the NFL this season (offense or defense), has the top overall pass rushing grade, and is ranked 4th overall among 4-3 defensive ends against the run.
However, raw statistics may not even truly measure his effect on games this season. One can easily pin-point Robert Quinn’s massive effect on the outcome in all three of the St. Louis Rams victories over current division leaders in the NFL. Against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts (leaders in the AFC South, 9-5), Quinn’s strip-sack on the opening possession of the game led to a scoop-and-score touchdown by Chris Long. Against the Chicago Bears (leaders in the NFC North, 8-6), Quinn managed a strip-sack-recovery-touchdown on Josh McCown, halting any comeback attempt from Chicago and icing the win for the Rams. Lastly, against the Saints (leaders in the NFC South, 10-4), well just watch…
— Nathan Kearns (@nkearns12) December 15, 2013
The only argument against Robert Quinn is that he is playing for a sub-.500 ball club. However, the Rams are still 1) a Top 15 defense, in terms of points per game allowed, 2) play in the toughest division in the NFL, with three teams above .500, and 3) have the second hardest strength of schedule this season, trailing only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Moreover, there are several players that have won Defensive Player of the Year honors while playing for non-playoff teams, including Jason Taylor (2006, 6-10 record) and Michael Strahan (2001, 7-9 record); who are, coincidentally, the last two 4-3 defensive ends to win the award.
2. Robert Mathis, 3-4 OLB, Colts
If individual numbers are the key to taking home the hardware, then Robert Mathis can certainly make a case for himself this season. Currently, Mathis leads the league in sacks at 16.5, and trails only Robert Quinn with six forced fumbles on the season. However, outside of sacks, the Indianapolis Colts’ new 3-4 outside linebacker has not dominated in many other aspects of the game. He ranks outside the Top 10 at his position in hits on the quarterback and hurries, and has registered only 36 defensive stops on the season; even the Rams’ rookie outside linebacker, Alec Ogletree, has been more productive in that category, currently sitting at 37 on the season.
Mathis’ is as one-dimensional as they come, which is indicative of his position within the Colts’ scheme, playing only 4% of his snaps in coverage this season. Robert Mathis does have the name recognition, plays for a “playoff team,” and is the league leader in sacks. Outside of that, he has no case…
3. J.J. Watt, 3-4 DE, Texans
If the Houston Texans were winning this season, J.J. Watt would likely be the front-runner for the award. He is the epitome of dominance in the NFL, and may be one of the only defensive lineman in the league that can genuinely take away one side of the football field with his play. Pro Football Focus has Watt graded as their top overall player in the league, leading all player in run defense and trailing only Robert Quinn as a pass rusher. That is certainly not surprising given the individual defensive numbers he has compiled this season.
His 10 sacks this year pale in comparison his numbers from the previous season, but that does not mean he has been any less dominant. Currently, Watt is ranked 2nd overall in defensive stops (trailing only Lavonte David), and leads all 3-4 defensive ends in tackles, battled passes, hits on the quarterback, and total quarterback disruptions. However, the Houston Texans offensive failures have drastically diminished his “shots” at the quarterback, and their overall failures as a team are likely the sole reason that Watt will not repeat as the Defensive Player of the Year.
4. Luke Kuechly, 4-3 MLB, Panthers
If you choose to use yards allowed as a reliable metric for a defense’s performance, the Carolina Panthers are ranked No.2 overall in the NFL; slotted at No.5 in passing yards allowed, and No.2 against the run. However, using that same metric, both the Giants and the Texans are Top 10 defenses in the league, despite both squads giving up over 25.0 points per game. The Panthers are ranked No.2 in points allowed per game, giving up an impressively-low 14.9 points per contest this season. However, they are also near the bottom of the league in strength of schedule, having played only six games against teams with .500 records or higher.
In games versus teams with a winning record, the Panthers have managed a mere 2-3 record, and have allowed 20.2 points per game.
The rationale behind listing all of these “team rankings” is that they are the foundation of any argument for Luke Kuechly as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Those who support Kuechly will argue that he is the “leader” and “best player” (which is highly debatable, in and of itself) in one of the top ranked defenses in the NFL… and thus, should be considered.
However, if the argument is to be made that “best player” on the best defense in the league should be given consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year, than defensive starts like Richard Sherman (unquestionably the best player in the No.1 ranked Seahawks’ defense) and Patrick Willis (the top ranked inside linebacker in the league playing on the No.3 ranked 49ers defense) should be higher on the list than Luke Kuechly.
However, if the award is to be given to the “most outstanding defensive player ” based off of individual achievements, Kuechly doesn’t even deserve to be in the discussion at all this season…
Individually, Kuechly’s performance does not warrant the attention of any of the other three players on this list. Statistically, the second-year linebacker does not lead any position-relevant category. He ranks outside the Top 5 in combined tackles, outside the Top 10 in solo tackles, outside the Top 10 in defensive stops, and has not forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, or scored a defensive touchdown this season. Kuechly does have a decent “all-around” resume, including two sacks and three interceptions this year. However, he has also allowed a 79.9% catch rate (8th-worst among qualifying inside linebackers) and two touchdowns in coverage this season; consequently, Pro Football Focus currently has Kuechly ranked as their 32nd-best coverage inside linebacker, and their 13th-best overall inside backer.
There are not enough subjective, qualitative measures in the world (i.e. “making his team better”) to form a valid argument why Luke Kuechly should receive the award over these other players. Period.