As we are now in the final month of the NFL regular season, we are starting to really narrow down the list of favorites for some of the NFL’s most prestigious accolades. MVP is the one everyone likes to talk about to get the headlines, but Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes seems to have a stronghold on winning his second league MVP this season.
The award where the competition is really heating up is with Defensive Player of the Year. As of December 9, the top three players with the highest odds to win the award are Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker TJ Watt (+180), Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (+200), and Cleveland Browns pass rusher Myles Garrett (+350). All three of those players are having fantastic seasons, and they are far and away the players with the top odds to come away with the hardware. But there’s another player that isn‘t in that group who not only belongs in their area of odds, but might deserve to be the frontrunner, depending on how you look at it.
That player is Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard.
Howard is having a career year. First and foremost, his nine interceptions lead the NFL. The name of the game on defense, especially at the cornerback position, is takeaways, and Howard is doing that better than any other player in the league. His 17 passes defended is also tied for first in the league. When it comes to coverage stats, Howard is allowing a completion percentage of less than 50% when targeted and is No. 1 in coverage grade, according to Pro Football Focus.
All of that matters because, for the first time in 10 years, we had a cornerback win the award just last year. New England Patriots’ cornerback Stephon Gilmore took home the NFL’s top individual defensive award last year, and there was certainly reason to believe he deserved it. So why is Howard’s name not even in the top three of odds to win the award this year when Howard is having a similar year to that of Gilmore—and a better year in some ways?
Howard already has more interceptions this season (9) than Gilmore did last season (6). Gilmore had 20 passes defended, and Howard isn’t at that number yet (17), but with three games left, he could certainly tie or even surpass Gilmore in that statistic. Gilmore yielded just 49% of his targets to be caught in 2019, and Howard has a similar number this year at 49.3%. Gilmore also gave up just 624 yards in 16 games last season (39 yards per game), and Howard has currently given up less than 600 in 13 games (43 yards per game). Gilmore had the two interceptions that he returned for touchdowns in 2019, of which Howard does not have any this year, but so much of interception returns comes down to luck of where the other players are around you at the time of the pick.
Now let’s bring the other three players from 2020 into this equation relative to how the voting was decided last year.
Donald currently leads the NFL in sacks with 12.5. Now, there is an argument that Donald is just plain the best defensive player on the planet, which I would agree with. But the award voting last year showed a different voting formula than simply giving the award to Donald every year, so that's what I'm going by. Donald also has four forced fumbles this year, which I count as a big part of doing the best job you can as a defensive lineman, but Arizona Cardinals pass-rusher Chandler Jones finished last season with 19 sacks and eight forced fumbles and came in second to Gilmore for the award. With Howard’s numbers similar/better than Gilmore’s, he should be a frontrunner over Donald right now given last year's methodology.
Garrett missed some time this year, but has 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in 10 games played so far—a high sacks-per-game average. But again, going back to last year, Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass-rusher Shaq Barrett had 19.5 sacks and six forced fumbles in 16 games (an even higher sacks-per-game average than Garrett) and finished third in the voting. Barrett’s numbers were superior to Garrett’s, and with Gilmore running away with it compared to Barrett, Garrett shouldn’t be ahead of Howard.
Finally, there’s Watt, which is the big wild card. If you ask me, Watt was snubbed last year. If you wanted to give it to Gilmore over Watt, fine, but for Watt to finish third was crazy to me. In 2019, Watt had 14.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, 36 quarterback hits, eight forced fumbles, eight passes defended, and two interceptions for a defense that was top eight in many categories by the end of the year. This season, Watt is on a higher sack (12), tackle for loss (19), and quarterback hit (37) pace than he had last season, but he has just one interception and one forced fumble, which I think should weigh heavily on the analysis.
If Gilmore won the award over Watt last year—and not just won, won by a margin of 21 votes to 10—how is Howard not even close to Watt, let alone perhaps better?
I am in no way trying to take away from the season any of those other defensive players are having. But there is this trend that we just make Defensive Player of the Year a sack-driven award. If you have a notable name and you get a bunch of sacks, you’re high on the odds list. These three guys are having great years, and I would even say they “deserve” to be recognized as one of the best defensive players in the NFL among their peers. But do they deserve it over Howard? You’d have a hard time convincing me of that right now with three games left.
If you want to make the case that Watt is your frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year right now, as he is the player with the highest odds, you could certainly be validated there. But when you compare the season Howard is having in 2020 to the season Gilmore had in 2019 when he won the award—and take into account who Gilmore won it over—Howard should be, at worst, second in the odds column right behind Watt—if not ahead of Watt right now altogether.
- Aug 22, 2022
- Aug 22, 2022