For the last five years, the debate between who the best non-pass rushing linebacker in the NFL often volleyed between Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly. The most annoying part of this argument, for Seattle Seahawks fans, is that Kuechley has a Defensive Player of the Year award, and Wagner does not. It’s just an award, it barely means anything, it does not guarantee that one player is better than another by any stretch ...
But damn it, Kuechly has one, Wagner has not really come that close. That should end in 2017, if there’s justice in this world.
The fact that we’re even talking about two competing linebackers both boasting a DPOY award is a little insane. Kuechley was drafted ninth overall in 2012 (of course, some Seahawks fans wished for Seattle to move up for him) and Wagner went 47th that same year. The two were instantly among the best players at their position and both have had historically significant careers with slight setbacks due to injury. Kuechley has four Pro Bowls, three first team All-Pro nods, and a concern surrounding concussions. Wagner has three Pro Bowls, tow first team All-Pro nods, and seems to be getting better with each passing year.
He does not have an award that says he was the best player, out of 100s, in one given season though. He could be a couple months away from finally getting that after a half-decade of dominance. These are the players most likely to stand in his way, not including Kuechly, who has three interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and a touchdown, but is lost in the shuffle between a number of exceptional seasons:
Everson Griffen, DE, Vikings
12 sacks, three forced fumbles, 18 pressures (through Week 11), 35 tackles
In the positive column for Griffen is that he’s tied for the NFL lead in sacks and he’s an established veteran who is second in the league in sacks dating back to the start of 2014. Only Von Miller has more than Griffen in the last 3.5 years, which is to say that he’s an underrated player who some voters may feel is deserving of an award like this at a time when he’s on pace for 16+ QB takedowns and the Vikings are in first place. He’s also been consistent, recording a sack in all but one game this season, that coming against Andrew Whitworth and the LA Rams.
On the downside though, Griffen doesn’t have much else to say for himself outside of sacks. His 18 pressures (number from FootballOutsiders which won’t update for this week until Tuesday, but he had two sacks, four tackles, and three QB hits against the Lions) is good, but not elite. It’s way behind leader Aaron Donald (37 through Week 11) and actually second on Minnesota’s defensive line behind Danielle Hunter, who had 30 pressures through 11 weeks. Griffen may also get overshadowed by playing on a defense with Hunter and Linval Joseph providing him help up front and Harrison Smith likely getting some credit from some voters as being the best player on the Vikings defense. He also didn’t look great in coverage:
Everson Griffen received his first target of the season against the Lions ... it didn't go all that well pic.twitter.com/hxsmzijpqr— BJ Reidell (@RobertReidell) November 24, 2017
Griffen could lead the NFL in sacks and Minnesota could go 13-3 or so, but he lacks the punch outside of that one statistic to truly be a DPOY.
Calais Campbell, DE, Jaguars
11.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one touchdown, one batted pass, 26 pressures (pre Week 12), 42 tackles
Seahawks fans know how valuable Campbell is to a defense, but it wasn’t until he got to Jacksonville on a $60 million contract that many began to regard him as an elite defensive player worthy of such an award. Before this year, Campbell’s career-high in sacks was nine and he rarely got credit as being the most integral part of Arizona’s defense, as people often pointed to guys like Patrick Peterson, Chandler Jones, or Tyrann Mathieu. But now on a defense that’s even more talented than the Cardinals, Campbell is getting at least as much as he’s due for being the veteran leader of the NFL’s best pass defense.
Campbell had a touchdown recovery in the fourth quarter on Sunday that put Jacksonville up 17-16 on Arizona, though they ended up losing 27-24. His presence has surely helped Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, and Dante Fowler thrive up front, while Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are likely provided with easier thwarting opportunities because of the pressure in the front seven. The Jags rank first against the pass by DVOA, though that was prior to losing to Blaine Gabbert.
Of course, it’s the fact that he plays with Ngakoue, Jackson, Fowler, Ramsey, Bouye, Myles Jack, Telvin Smith, Barry Church, and Marcell Dareus that could hold him back from winning DPOY. An argument made against many Seattle players in the last five years, including Wagner. It also hurts the chances for Bouye and Ramsey (arguably the top two corners this season) to win it, as well as Ngakoue, who has 10 sacks and SIX forced fumbles. To give the award to Campbell would be understandable, but playing in a sea of Pro Bowl and All-Pro players could drown him out of the competition.
Aaron Donald, DT, Rams
29 tackles, six sacks, 37 QB pressures (pre-Week 12), three forced fumbles, two batted passes, one fumble recovery
One thing to remember about NFL awards voters is that they are not living in a bubble and forced to only consider the stats. They, like you and me, are aware that Donald is perhaps the most dominant defensive player in the game. Having six sacks from the defensive tackle position is impressive enough, but voters also know how often he gets double-teamed and how unblockable Donald is on a play-to-play basis. Now that the Rams are 8-3 and in first place and marching towards their first playoff berth in 14 years thanks in large part to a top-five defense (DVOA), it’s an easy opportunity for them to give a DPOY award to a player who we all assume is going to the Hall of Fame. Add into that the fact that Donald sat out plenty of time over a contract dispute and is still dominant, why not plug him an award while he’s young and healthy?
However, it’s also interesting that in spite of how good Donald is, and how much credit we give to players like Michael Brockers, Alec Ogletree, and Mark Barron, the Rams are only 20th against the run by DVOA, and 30th in yards per carry allowed. Their pass defense is great, in large part due to the presence of Donald pushing up the middle and commanding double-teams, but they aren’t very good against the run. Also, his numbers are not dominant, traditionally speaking. The last true defensive tackle to win the award was Warren Sapp in 1999, and that year he had 12.5 sacks. Donald will be lucky to get into double digits. In a season where there could be over 20 players with at least 10 sacks, will they give it to a defensive lineman who had 8.5?
Joey Bosa, DE, Chargers
10.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, one batted pass, 25.5 QB pressures (pre-Week 12), 47 tackles
You had that feeling with J.J. Watt. You had that feeling with Aaron Donald. And now you have it with Bosa: That we’re witnessing the early seasons of one of the best defensive players of his generation, a Hall of Fame-level talent from the jump. Bosa has 21 sacks in 23 career games and he didn’t even sign an NFL contract until weeks into his rookie season. The Chargers are 5-2 over their last seven games, with Bosa recording eight sacks in that time. It’s the story that every beat reporter wants to latch onto — LA’s turnaround from 0-4 to maybe making the playoffs — and adding a DPOY award for Bosa would seem a fitting bowtie to that headline. He could be the best defensive player in the game and given that he was in college two years ago (as a suspended athlete), it’s quite the story.
Even Zack Martin can't handle Joey Bosa. pic.twitter.com/2fgMZDqoDe— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) November 24, 2017
That being said, is Bosa as valuable to his team as Wagner is to Seattle, and are the 5-6 Chargers “more worthy” of having a DPOY candidate than the 7-4 Seahawks? Bosa plays alongside Melvin Ingram, who himself has 33 QB pressures (7.5 more than Bosa) and 8.5 sacks. Cornerback Casey Heyward was a legit DPOY candidate last year and quietly Heyward is still among the NFL’s best, leading the league with 16 passes defensed to go with his four interceptions. It’s fair to say that with a recent winner like Khalil Mack, voters tend to give extra credit to players who have less help around them than most. It also didn’t seem to matter to voters that the Raiders defense was bad and that they had one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL. This also feels similar to Watt’s three DPOY awards, as the Texans rarely had a star alongside him those years; in 2015 and 2014, Watt was the only Pro Bowl player on Houston’s defense, and in 2012, Johnathan Joseph was the only other Pro Bowler alongside Watt.
Ingram and Heyward are likely Pro Bowlers, while safety Tre Boston also has four interceptions. Also like the other LA team, the Chargers are straight doodoo against the run.
Kevin Byard, S, Titans
Obligatory mention because he leads the NFL in interceptions, but Byard is not going to win DPOY unless voters really felt like being that lazy; half of his interceptions are against the Browns and two others are off of Joe Flacco.
Cam Jordan, DE, Saints
10 sacks, seven batted passes, two forced fumbles, one interception, one touchdown, 46 tackles, 24 QB pressures (pre-Week 12)
Jordan may be a bit of a dark horse in this race because his all-around numbers are actually better than Campbell or Bosa, but he gets a fraction of the attention. This is in spite of the fact that the New Orleans defense is maybe the biggest story of this season.
The Saints were eighth in DVOA on defense going into Week 12, including fourth against the pass. You look at what else New Orleans has on that side of the ball and the Mack 2016 comparisons begin to round into shape; who else will be a Pro Bowl player from the Saints defense? Marshon Lattimore is playing fantastic, but being a rookie with two interceptions, it could be tough for him to break through that barrier among cornerbacks. Jordan is the clear leader/star of a defense that is actually pretty good and on a team that is 8-3, maybe two wins shy of what they’ll need to make the playoffs after a three-year drought.
The biggest negative for Jordan may just be that lack of attention. He doesn’t get talked about as much as Bosa, Donald, Campbell. And what if he finishes with 11-12 sacks while other defensive linemen have 15-17? The batted passes statistic is also a huge difference and a longstanding part of his game (Jordan has only once had fewer than five in a season) but maybe one that doesn’t get as much attention. If he reeled off a string of sacks to finish with 15, Jordan could be the frontrunner. If he stays below the radar, he may not rise above the established superstars in the race.
Chandler Jones, DE, Cardinals
12 sacks, two batted passes, one forced fumble, 40 tackles, 26.5 pressures (pre-Week 12)
The fact that Bill Belichick didn’t want to keep Jones long-term is only further complicating my longstanding beliefs about Belichick doing little wrong. I mean, the Patriots had Jones, Jamie Collins, and Dont’a Hightower, and the player they chose to keep was Hightower. They gave Stephon Gilmore $65 million. They traded Jones to the Cardinals at a time when a raise was certainly due, but his five-year, $82.5 million deal looks relatively fair right now, and is certainly more desirable (to me) than having Gilmore and Hightower (four years, $33.5 million).
Jones is tied with Griffen for the league lead in sacks and he’s consistent, only going without a sack twice this season. He’s known to be dominant and he’s having his most dominating season. That being said, like with others on this list, what is he really doing outside of the sacks department?
Arizona’s defense is not very dominant and he’s really the only player on it who is having a great season. That sort of puts him in the Mack category, but the Cardinals are 5-6 and not likely to make the playoffs. Jones could have 18 sacks but if Arizona goes 7-9 and he doesn’t have a dominating stat line outside of that, I don’t see him winning the award or coming that close to it. Now, if he was still on the Patriots ...
Bobby Wagner, LB, Seahawks
100 tackles, 76 solo tackles, six passes defensed, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, one touchdown, 1.5 sacks, one safety, 8.5 QB pressures (pre-Week 12)
Bobby Wagner, best LB in the NFL pic.twitter.com/7vkxqiPHcs— Ryan Smith (@PFF_Smith) November 26, 2017
Consider Luke Kuechly’s 2013 season when he won DPOY: 96 solo tackles, 70 assisted, 166 total tackles, four interceptions, eight passes defensed, zero forced fumbles, zero fumble recoveries, two sacks. Also we must consider that the Panthers went 12-4, including winning 11 of their last 12 games, so they were hot around the time of voting. Carolina had the second-ranked defense by points and yards, and they had one other Pro Bowler (Greg Hardy), plus Charles Johnson (11 sacks) and rookies Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei.
Wagner is on pace for 145 total tackles, including 110 solo efforts, 14 more than Kuechly had that year. He has already matched Kuechly in takeaways from 2013, with four each. He has a touchdown and a safety, unlike Kuechly. One more full sack, and he’ll have more than Kuechley had that year. So the main difference — and note that Wagner has five more games left to go — is that the Panthers’ defense was all-around better that year than Seattle’s has been in 2017 (ninth in points, eighth in yards, ninth in DVOA) and he had considerably more assists.
Bobby Wagner deserves to be in the DPOY discussion with his play this year! pic.twitter.com/iJ8DpsqX3V— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) November 27, 2017
Wagner’s PFF grade means absolutely nothing (he leads all defensive players in this category, but please let’s move on) however Sam Monson makes a compelling case for Wagner as the DPOY outside of his whatever.whatever grade.
The average NFL linebacker this season gives up a passer rating of 106.1 when targeted, but throwing the ball into Wagner’s coverage is yielding a rating more than 20 points lower at 84.0. His read and react skills are equally applicable dropping into zones or locking onto his receiver in man coverage as they are coming up against the run.
On the blitz, Wagner is a surprisingly effective pass-rusher. With the Seahawks struggling a little more this season as a pass-rushing unit than they have in the past, Wagner has been sent on the blitz 40 times through 12 weeks. He has 14 total pressures and two sacks on those plays, generating pressure on more than a quarter of his rushes.
Normally Wagner would also get lost in the shuffle of playing on the Seahawks defense, but now he’s doing so without Richard Sherman or Kam Chancellor or Cliff Avril. I mean, you could argue that Seattle went into the year with eight stars starting on defense, and that’s three of them. The losses of Sherman and Chancellor may be recent, but Wagner only seems to be getting better and more dominant in the interim, while the Seahawks defense has held up despite the changes.
Additionally, Earl Thomas has missed two games, Shaquill Griffin has missed one, Jarran Reed has missed one, and Sheldon Richardson has missed one. Wagner remains the constant and for the most part Seattle continues to keep teams out of the end zone; eight of 11 opponents have been held to 18 or less. He also has reputation on his side, falling shy of the DPOY voting in 2016, and making the All-Pro first team in 2014 and 2016. If he gets first team All-Pro in 2017 and adds a DPOY to his resume, at age 27, (say that 100 times fast just to feel warm inside) then his Hall of Fame shot is going to skyrocket.
All world play by @Bwagz54 showing why he is the best at his position in the NFL. And he is.— Rich Eisen (@richeisen) November 26, 2017
Bobby Wagner is running an absolute parallel career with Wilson and we don't talk about it enough. He's rewriting as much franchise history as Wilson is. TALK ABOUT BOBBY DAMN IT!— Joshua Kasparek (@DarthKripple) November 27, 2017
Also, unlike most teams on this list, the Seahawks aren’t garbage against the run, ranking 11th in DVOA going into Week 12 and steadily improving as the year has gone on, only allowing one team since Week 3 to go over 100 yards on the ground and that was Deshaun Watson’s fault.
Overall, the DPOY voting is often hard-pressed to overlook things like sacks and interceptions, but there’s also proven to be room for Kuechly, James Harrison, and Brian Urlacher to win the award. Wagner has to be the next guy in line to do that among linebackers. The competition is legitimately good, but as of now they do not have a legitimate argument to be ahead of him.