NFL Cornerstones: Defensive End

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you guys agree.

The selection- J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Honorable mentions- Jason Pierre-Paul, Ryan Kerrigan, Robert Quinn, Junior Galette, Muhammad Wilkerson

Defensive ends in the NFL tend to be some of the most athletic, physically built human beings alive. They fly around the line of scrimmage with the intent to blow up plays and create problems for the offense at the point of attack. No one does that better than J.J. Watt. The Texans’ defensive end has been arguably the best player in the NFL over the past three years. He definitely has been on the defensive side of the ball, earning the Defensive Player of the Year award in both 2012 and 2014. Watt, at only 25 years old, has years to come of playing at an elite level. He has proven his worth in the NFL.
Watt over the course of his career has racked up 57 sacks. In just four seasons, that is an incredible number. He is averaging just over 14 quarterback takedowns per year. Watt also penciled himself into NFL history this season. The three time All-Pro became the first player in the league history to record multiple 20+ sack seasons. Watt is a menace along the line of scrimmage even when he cannot reach the quarterback. He has tallied 37 tipped passes at the line, including 10 this past season, most among defensive linemen this year.

As a run defender, Watt has proven his worth as well. The 3-time Pro Bowler has registered 53 run stuffs in the past 3 seasons. Each year he has recorded at least 15 as well showing his consistency dominance at the line of scrimmage. He is strong enough to hold off offensive linemen, disrupting the flow of the rushing attack. Watt’s 79 total tackles were the most by a defensive lineman in 2014. He has a knack for flying around and making plays.

The Houston superstar seems to thrive on the big plays as well. Watt has generated four fumbles over each of the past three seasons. He also led the NFL this year in fumble recoveries with five. Watt even pulled in an interception, which, along with one of his fumble recoveries, he returned for a touchdown. Watt had two defensive touchdowns this year, not to mention three more on offense as a tight end. That is a testament to Watt’s versatility and freakish athletic ability.

Watt truly has very few weaknesses. He is an elite pass rusher and a dominant run defender. He creates big plays that take the pressure off the offense. He kills drives with his batted passes. Watt has managed to find a way to do it all. The other thing that makes him invaluable is his consistency. He has registered at least 10 sacks in each of the past 3 campaigns. He has tallied the same number of forced fumbles. Watt does not have amazing years every now and then. He, year in year out lays down an unparalleled level of punishment on his opponents. Watt off the field is an excellent face of the franchise. He has never had any issues with the media or with his teammates. He is an intense leader that expects the same level of hard work that he puts in from everyone else.

Plenty of other defensive linemen in the NFL are playing a high level and making a huge impact on their team. The reality is thought that Watt plays on a completely different level all of his own. He rarely dominants a certain category on the stat sheet. He is much more likely to rank in the top three of every relevant category though at his position. He is a complete player. Many prospects joining the league now are better suited as either a run defender or a pass rusher. It is uncommon to find a player who ranks among the elite at both. Watt is one of those rare players who fits both labels making him a no-brainer at this selection.

For more Cornerstone selections, click here.

Assigning NFL Honors

The fourth annual NFL Honors ceremony is a week from tonight in Phoenix, Arizona. The ceremony is a big publicity event that the NFL has modelled similar to the Grammy’s or Oscar’s announcing all of the various award winners for the season. Like all award shows, there are tons of celebrities and a comedic personality hosting the show, this year being Seth Meyers. The real reason fans tune in though is to see who has been given the big awards for the year. Here is who I think should take home this year’s batch of trophies.

AP Most Valuable Player: Tony Romo, Cowboys
This has been one of the most difficult to determine MVP races in a few years. My pick this year though has to be Romo. The Cowboys’ quarterback finished the year with the best completion percentage, highest yards per attempt average and top passer rating. He did all of this while battling through a tough back injury that plagued him throughout the season. Romo also took care of the ball throwing only nine interceptions. What really validates Romo as the MVP was his five game winning drives, which tied for the league lead. He led the Cowboys to their first playoff berth since 2011 as well. He was the best player in the league this year.

AP Coach of the Year: Bruce Arians, Cardinals
If I had told you that the Cardinals were going to win the NFC West this year back in September, you would’ve laughed at me. While they did not win it, only losing on a tiebreaker with Seattle, they finished tied for the best record in the league and made the playoffs despite losing the first two quarterbacks on their depth chart. That is a testament to the hard work of Arians. His team managed 12 wins this year despite having one of the most banged up offenses in the league. The Cardinals defense was simply incredible in some games this season and Arizona’s coach found some creative ways to move the ball offensively. Even when backed up against a wall, he succeeded. There is no doubt that Arians was the best coach in football this year.

AP Offensive Player of the Year: LeVeon Bell, Steelers
You can argue DeMarco Murray all you want, but when you play behind the road grading line that he had this year, you should do well. Plus the guy fumbled it five times this year. Meanwhile, Bell never fumbled the ball on any of his 290 carries or 83 receptions. Bell also averaged the same number of yards per carry so it stands to reason that he could have had Murray’s same production if had the same number of attempts. What really sets Bell apart is his versatility; he was a threat on the ground and through the air. Bell finished only 46 yards from scrimmage behind Murray, despite having 73 fewer touches. Bell was impressive and effective on his way to being the best offensive player in the league.

AP Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, Texans
This one is absolutely no contest. Watt was far and away the best player on the defensive side of the football this season. He finished the season with over 20 sacks, the most tackles by a defensive lineman and the most pass deflections by a defensive lineman as well. He was a disruptive force yet again with his big play ability, scoring two defensive touchdowns, one on an interception and one on a fumble recovery. Watt showed a knack for forcing turnovers as well with his four forced fumbles and five recoveries. It is not set in stone, but this is the most sure thing at the NFL Honors ceremony.

AP Offensive Rookie of the Year: Odell Beckham Jr., Giants
And he only needed 12 games to do it. He could even make a case as the best overall receiver this season. Beckham had over 90 catches, 1300 yards and 12 touchdowns. Every single one of those totals ranks in the top 10 for the NFL this season. The Giants’ rookie also had the most receiving yards per game by any player in the league. He also had the highlight reel catch of the decade thus far. No one deserves the award more than the New York wideout and I think he will walk away with it next Saturday.

AP Defensive Rookie of the Year: C.J. Mosely, Ravens
People are clamoring for Khalil Mack here but I think Mosely had the better season. The Ravens linebacker racked up 133 tackles this year, good for seventh in the NFL. He also had 3 sacks, 2 interceptions and a forced fumble. He became the backbone of a stout Baltimore rush defense allowing the fourth fewest rushing yards per game. He was also named a Pro Bowler, the first Ravens rookie ever to be named one. Considering Ray Lewis played for this franchise, that is downright impressive.

AP Comeback Player of the Year: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
You have to look at Gronk and wonder, “Wait he was hurt last year?” The Patriots tight end looked fairly fluid with how he moved around the field this season. His credentials for the award speaks for itself. He finished with the fourth most receptions, the most receiving yards and tied for the most receiving touchdowns among tight ends. He made some spectacular catches and proved once again that he is a very solid blocking tight end. Gronk roared back to life this year and should be awarded for his triumphant comeback.
Those are all of the top awards. There are several other ones to be named that night but these are the ones that are the most talked about. So now, I want to know if I got them right. Let me know what you think.

Determining the NFL MVP

Week 17 concludes the NFL season tomorrow and usually by this point, we all have a good sense of who the league MVP will be. For example, last year it was obvious that Peyton Manning would be named the most valuable player following his record-breaking performance where he topped the single season passing yards and passing touchdown records. Manning is still in the mix this year but it definitely not as clear-cut. I figured it would be fun to have a breakdown of some of the candidates for this year’s award.

We will stick with the reigning MVP from a year ago and start with Manning. The Broncos quarterback began the season right where he left off in the previous one (well minus the Super Bowl) and looked like he was on his way to his sixth MVP award. He averaged 305 yards and 3 touchdowns per game over the first seven he played. Then the Broncos visited New England and Peyton had his worst performance of the season at that time. In the seven games since the trip to Foxboro, Peyton has averaged only 269 yards and 2 touchdowns per game. Those are still good numbers, but they do not scream MVP either. Not to mention after throwing only three interceptions in the first seven games, he has thrown 12 in his last eight appearances. Sure Manning is still in the conversation but I do not think he is a legitimate contender this season. He does have a game against Oakland tomorrow, which he beat up to the tune of 340 yards and 5 touchdowns, but I do not think he will repeat the performance.

To another former league MVP, Aaron Rodgers might have the best chance to win this year’s trophy. He has been nothing but efficient so far this year, save two games in New Orleans and Buffalo. Rodgers got off to a “rocky start” or about as rocky as it ever gets for the Packers’ quarterback. Rodgers only has two games this year where he has thrown two interceptions. He has never thrown more than that all year and only has five in total on the season. Rodgers has also been the focal point of an offense that averages the second most points per game behind only the Patriots. The Packers’ game against Detroit tomorrow could be crucial to his MVP chances. He struggled the first time he played the Lions throwing for only 162 yards and 1 touchdown in a loss. Putting up a good performance against one of the best defenses in the league could cement Rodgers as the front-runner for the award.

It is time to look at the surprise of this year’s MVP race, Tony Romo. If I had told you this time last year that Romo would be a top candidate for this year’s award, you would have laughed at me. Romo has had a very good campaign though and has lead what many felt was a talent deprived Dallas Cowboys team to an 11-4 record so far this year. The things that stand out for Romo are his league leading completion percentage (70.3) his league leading yards per attempt (8.49) and his league leading quarterback rating (114.1). The things that hold Tony back are his yards per game average of 243, which ranks 18th in the league and the existence of Demarco Murray. Murray has rushed for the most yards in the league by over 400, which puts a bit of a damper on Romo’s campaign for most valuable player with teammate who has stolen a lot of the spotlight and offensive production. Still, Romo has a great touchdown to interception ratio (4:1) and has been stellar in the month of December. I think heading into the final week of the season, Romo is Rodgers’ greatest competition for the award.

We have a defensive player on this list as well. J.J Watt is having a season to remember, mainly due to the highlight reel has put on which includes two defensive scores and three offensive touchdown catches. Watt has been great though on the defensive side of the ball. He has recorded the most tackles by a defensive lineman this year, tied with Jason Pierre-Paul at 72. The Texans’ superstar also ranks second in sacks, just a half sack behind the league leader with 17.5 on the year. Watt also has the most pass deflections by a defensive lineman with ten. He has additionally racked up three forced fumbles and a league-high five fumble recoveries. The issue is that Watt has not done enough to even guarantee that his team will be in the playoffs. It is hard as a defensive player to make such a huge impact that you can carry your team. Watt definitely has my vote for defensive player of the year but I do not think he will be the league MVP.

I am including one darkhorse candidate as well who has not really garnered much media attention as an MVP option but I think he deserves to be in the conversation. LeVeon Bell has been the most complete back in the NFL this season. He rushed for over 1300 yards, caught 77 passes for 774 yards and scored 11 total touchdowns. His 1341 rushing yards rank second only behind Demarco Murray. His 77 receptions are tied for 21st among all players, not just running backs, and are the most by any back. His 774 receiving yards also rank second only behind Matt Forte among running backs. His 4.8 yards per carry land him third among players with more than 200 attempts. Bell also has not fumbled the ball this season. So, the guy never turns the ball over and he has generated more yards from scrimmage than any other player except Murray, by only 35 yards mind you. Bell racked up over 225 yards of offense and accounted for 3 total touchdowns the last time he met the Bengals. If he can even come close to reciprocating those numbers, he has a chance at being in the conversation for MVP.

There are other players you can make cases for in the MVP race, (most notably Tom Brady or Murray) but these are the ones I think have the best chance to win it. It will be interesting to see how Week 17 affects this tight race. I am curious to know who you think should be the MVP. Feel free to comment and tell me why. Enjoy watching on Sunday.