In case you hadn’t noticed, PFF isn’t awarding an MVP this season. In most sports the most valuable player is inherently also the best player. In football the most valuable players are all quarterbacks, such has been the development of the game. The award has lost all meaning. It has become a quarterback only award that an occasional running back can squeeze his way into if his quarterback is bad enough. The best players, though, can play in any position.
Instead of handing an award to a quarterback or running back when other players at less glamorous positions enjoyed far superior seasons, we decided to simply recognize the best overall performance of the NFL season each year – the best player in football – and bestow the Dwight Stephenson Award to that player.
The award is named after a player who pre-dates Pro Football Focus but does not pre-date the site’s ethos. Dwight Stephenson played only eight NFL seasons for the Miami Dolphins, but was a five-time All-Pro and was selected to the All-Decade team of the 1980s. More importantly, you only need to throw on a couple of minutes of tape to see that he was something special.
This award comes with no positional bias whatsoever. A guard has every bit as much chance to win it as a cornerback, pass-rusher, quarterback or any other position. All they need to do is dominate and perform during the regular season.
Let’s take a look at the candidates this year.
4th Runner Up
Marshal Yanda, G, Baltimore Ravens
Evan Mathis missed half the season with an injury, leaving a void at the top of the guard rankings and the feeling that we wouldn’t be seeing any guard celebrated in any of the end of season awards. Marshal Yanda had other ideas. He dominated from Day 1 and is the only guard we have seen grade at a comparable rate to Mathis over the past few seasons. He finished the season with a +43.4 grade and surrendered just 16 total pressures on the season.
The next best grade from a guard came from Mathis on just nine games at +25.8, and then T.J. Lang was third at +23.1 with a full 16-game season. Injuries along the Baltimore line late in the year also forced Yanda to play the final game of the regular season (and subsequently the Wild Card game against Pittsburgh) at right tackle. That is normally a big ask for an interior player to kick out and hold up on the edge, but Yanda surrendered just two total pressures there against Cleveland and earned a +1.4 grade for his pass protection in that game.
Yanda’s season was consistent enough to earn just one negative grade all year – a -0.1 (i.e. almost exactly average) against the Jaguars in Week 15. He graded in the green in 14 of his 16 games.
3rd Runner Up
Chris Harris, CB, Denver Broncos
If I told you before the season that a cornerback was going to post a +28.4 grade for the regular season – the closest thing we have seen to Darrelle Revis’ superhuman 2009 – you would have guessed it would be Richard Sherman, or maybe even a rejuvenated Revis himself. You would not have guessed it would be a guy coming off a torn ACL in January, but that’s exactly what Chris Harris has just done, parlaying his play into a richly deserved new contract in Denver.
Harris was the best corner in football this season and displayed the versatility to play outside as well as in the slot, something few defensive backs do. He finished the season beaten for not a single touchdown on 89 targets. He allowed a catch on 51.7% of the passes sent his way and quarterbacks throwing into his coverage earned a passer rating of just 47.8, a mark trailing only Vontae Davis among starters.
Perhaps my favorite stat about Harris this season though is that he surrendered just 7.7 yards per catch, better than any other corner with a significant number of snaps, and half a yard clear at the top of that list. He surrendered 46 catches, but those went for just 356 yards total in the season despite 1,004 snaps of play.
Chris Harris was the best corner in the league this year, and wasn’t far off the best year by a corner PFF has seen.
2nd Runner Up
Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
You won’t find a guy notch over twenty sacks more quietly than Houston did this season. He finished the year with a four-sack performance against the Chargers to give him 23 by our count (we award split sacks as full-credit sacks for the defender).
Houston was one of the most consistent and devastating pass-rushers in the league this season, earning 12 green-graded games and failing to register a sack in just three games. Only once was he shut out in terms of pressure – back in Week 2 against Peyton Manning’s Broncos.
He finished the year with a +51.1 grade, almost twice as much as the next best 3-4 outside linebacker (Pernell McPhee at +26.0) and graded positively in every facet of play PFF measures. Houston has quietly become one of the league’s most dominant players, and has consistently improved since entering the league. In a testament to his drive and ability, he also played more snaps than anybody else at his position, notching 1,057 plays this season without showing any slowdown. In many years Houston would have been the league’s best defensive player and had a good case for any number of awards.
1st Runner Up
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
The man who would most likely win any conventional MVP award by virtue of being a quarterback, Rodgers can’t manage better than a runner up spot in the Stephenson Award this year. That’s not to say Rodgers wasn’t good – to get as close as he did to this award means he was, in fact, scintillating – but it wasn’t quite good enough when all positions are viewed with equal weight.
Rodgers cemented his spot as the best quarterback in football, making himself the new prototype for the position with his blend of intelligence, arm talent, athleticism and uncanny ability to make plays when they count.
Rodgers threw just five picks all season to 38 touchdowns as he remained one of the league’s most careful quarterbacks at the same time as carving up opposing defenses for big gains. His ability to avoid the crucial turnover is just one of the things separating him from the pack, as is his physics-defying ability to flick passes downfield on the run to his receivers.
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are both capable of fantastic play on their day, but nobody is playing as consistently as Rodgers at the pinnacle of elite quarterback play. He would be a worthy MVP, and is a worthy runner up in the 2014 Stephenson Award.
2014 Stephenson Award Winner
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
When all is said and done the Dwight Stephenson Award may end up being renamed in J.J. Watt’s honor. This is the award’s third season in existence and the third straight year it has been won by Watt. If anything, this season was even more convincing a victory than each of the past two.
It’s beginning to get difficult to explain just how much better than his peers Watt is. Zero is designed to be the ‘average’ PFF grade. There were 20 3-4 DEs with a grade lower than zero this season. Only 27, including Watt, graded above zero. The second-best of those was Sheldon Richardson with a +39.9 grade, nine sacks, 54 total pressures and 32 defensive stops. Watt posted an insane +107.5 grade, 21 sacks, 119 total pressures and 61 defensive stops. He also had 10 batted passes, four forced fumbles, an interception, a defensive touchdown, a safety… oh, and he scored three receiving touchdowns moonlighting as a tight end in goal-line packages.
Watt is so far out on his own in terms of play that he breaks every graph we create to try and illustrate it, extending axes and generally sitting off on a data point all to himself. He is completely redefining what we thought a defensive player was capable of, and is only getting better.
This season Watt moved around more than ever before, becoming a true edge-rusher more than an interior presence. His highlight reel is mind-blowing, and reminds you of watching NFL players when they were back in high school – he is just bigger, faster or stronger than everybody that is being tasked with stopping him, often all three at once.
We are truly privileged to be watching one of the best players to ever lace up cleats in action.
J.J. Watt is the now three-time winner of the Dwight Stephenson Award. He is the best player in football, period.
See the other awards we've handed out this week:
2014 PFF All-Pro Team
2014 PFF All-Pro Special Teams
2014 PFF Stephenson Award (Best Player)
2014 PFF Offensive Player of the Year
2014 PFF Defensive Player of the Year
2014 PFF Matthews Award (Best Offensive Lineman)
2014 PFF O-Line Rankings
2014 PFF Rookie of the Year
2014 PFF Offensive Rookie of the Year
2014 PFF Defensive Rookie of the Year
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam