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J.J. Watt Has Already Won the Defensive Player of the Year, Even if Aldon Smith Breaks the Sack Record and Watt Doesn't

J.J. Watt has been so dominant all season long that we tend to just acknowledge it and move on. It’s very rare that defensive player wins the award–you have to go back to Lawrence Taylor in 1986. He would make a fine candidate in this season where several others are in contention, but I do not think he will get that. He should, however, run away with the Defensive Player of the Year.

On Sunday, Watt sacked Andrew Luck three times and pulled into a tie with Aldon Smith of San Francisco for the sack lead, at 19.5. Both men are now 3 sacks from tying Michael Strahan’s 2001 sack record in the final two games.

It doesn’t matter, though, whether Smith finishes ahead of Watt in one respect. He’s not passing Watt for Defensive Player of the Year, and that will be true whether he breaks the sack record and Watt does not. Football is not the milestone sport that baseball is. We saw last year that Aaron Rodgers easily won the MVP over Drew Brees, even though Brees broke Dan Marino’s season passing yard record. All around play matters, and Watt has been a singular disruptive force in ways beyond sacks, from pressures to batted balls and interceptions, to playing the run.

Advanced NFL Stats has J.J. Watt at 2.71 Wins Added for this season. Pittsburgh linebacker Lawrence Timmons (+2.03) is the only other individual defensive player above 2 wins. Daryl Washington of Arizona is second at linebacker, and has probably had the more impressive feat of reaching double digit sacks while playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense. Aldon Smith, meanwhile, is actually the fourth 49er on the list, behind Ahmad Brooks, Navorro Bowman, and Patrick Willis. Smith plays his role and plays it well, but I think you could make serious arguments about who the best defensive player on San Francisco is.

Eight players have previously had twenty sacks or more in a season, a group that Smith and Watt are likely to join. Only three of them won Defensive Player of the Year, and when looking at the rationale, you can see that Watt will run away with the award, regardless of where he finishes in additional sacks.

  • Michael Strahan, 22.5 sacks in 2001: won DPOY. Next closest in sacks was Peter Boulware at 15, so Strahan was 6.5 sacks and one Brett Favre lay down better than anyone else.
  • Jared Allen, 22.0 sacks in 2011: Terrell Suggs won DPOY. DeMarcus Ware was 2.5 sacks behind Allen, and Suggs had 14 sacks and forced several key fumbles.
  • Mark Gastineau, 22.0 sacks in 1984: Kenny Easley won DPOY. Gastineau set the record for the newly minted sack, with Andre Tippett 3.5 sacks behind. The award went to Easley, who intercepted 10 passes (two for touchdown) for the playoff bound Seahawks.
  • Reggie White, 21.0 sacks in 1987: won DPOY. If you are dominant, you win the award. White had one of the most dominant seasons ever by a defensive lineman. Remember, in 1987, a lockout resulted in three games being played by scabs, and in missing another. White had 21 sacks in 12 games, 8.5 more than any other player (Dent, Tippett).
  • Chris Doleman, 21.0 sacks in 1989: Keith Millard won DPOY. Showing that selectors put position as a factor, Doleman lost out to his teammate Millard, who played defensive tackle and still recorded 19 sacks from that interior position, only two behind Doleman.
  • Lawrence Taylor, 20.5 sacks in 1986: won DPOY and league MVP. LT won his third DPOY award in 1986 with another dominant performance, so dominant that Phil Simms is a broadcaster.
  • Derrick Thomas, 20.0 sacks in 1990: Bruce Smith won DPOY. The most similar case to this year, where Thomas, a pass rush demon, finished ahead of the all-around lineman Smith in sacks, but just barely. Bruce Smith’s 19 sacks by a 3-4 DE were the record until Watt passed him on Sunday.
  • DeMarcus Ware, 20.0 sacks in 2008: James Harrison won DPOY. Ware had 2.5 more sacks than Joey Porter. Harrison won the award while having 16.0 sacks for Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh.

With Watt putting up one of the most dominant performances ever for a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, and Von Miller also establishing a new record for an OLB playing in a 4-3, I don’t even think Aldon Smith finishes top three in voting for the award. J.J. Watt will win it easily, and the only thing in doubt is who will end up with the most sacks.

[photo via USA Today Sports Images]

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