A league-best Browns defense is deservedly boosting Myles Garrett's Defensive Player of the Year case

2T36KWW USA. 22nd Oct, 2023. October 22, 2023: Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Myles Garrett (95) and Indianapolis Colts offensive lineman Bernhard Raimann (79) battle at the line of scrimmage during NFL football game action in Indianapolis, Indiana. Cleveland defeated Indianapolis 39-38. John Mersits/CSM/Sipa USA. (Credit Image: © John Mersits/Cal Sport Media/Sipa USA) Credit: Sipa US/Alamy Live News

Myles Garrett has been one of the favorites to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year all season despite the competition for that award never being fiercer.

He is on pace to record the best single-season PFF grade for an edge rusher, so that case certainly has merit.

But the record he will break if he achieves a new benchmark? His own grade from last year.

The big difference between this season and a year ago — when Garrett received precisely zero of the 50 votes for Defensive Player of the Year — is the defense around him and the shift in perception that has brought.

Cleveland’s 2022 defense was a middle-of-the-pack unit at best, but the 2023 defense is the best in football and has, at times, threatened a record-setting pace.

The Browns attacked the defensive side of the ball hard in the offseason, making improvements in personnel at every step. Free agency produced additions such as Dalvin Tomlinson and Ogbo Okoronkwo, trading brought over Za’Darius Smith and the draft added Isaiah McGuire. That’s far from an exhaustive list.

Last season, Jadeveon Clowney — now with the Baltimore Ravens — accounted for 29 pressures over the whole season, the second-best mark on the team after Garrett’s 73. Za’Darius Smith is already at 20 through seven weeks of 2023, and 12 different players have registered at least three pressures on defense.

The extra pass rush up front has had a knock-on effect on the secondary that was being lit up a season ago. Now, a talented group doesn’t have to cover for as long and can rely on the quarterback being under duress far more than in 2022.

The addition of Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator has also made a big impact on the overall performance of the unit relative to last season.

In short, the situation surrounding Garrett has dramatically changed, and improved, from last year.

That might be contributing to Garrett’s improved performance, but he was already playing like the best edge rusher in the NFL. The big difference has been in perception and, arguably, the outcome of individual pass-rush wins.

That’s not to say Garrett isn’t winning more often this season — he is — but the biggest discrepancy comes in the results from those wins. His sack rate last season came out to 3.96% of his pass rushes. This year, it’s 5.52%.

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A season ago, Garrett tallied an absurd 45 pass-rush wins that never got a chance to become pressure because the ball came out before he could impact the quarterback. He has 12 such plays this season, on pace for 34 over the season. Three forced fumbles this year is already one more than he had a year ago, and he’s halfway to matching his total of defensive stops already.

Garrett has been playing like a Defensive Player of the Year for several seasons now, but his surrounding environment this year means he is producing better results with a similar level of play. Including this season, the past three years have resulted in an overall PFF grade for Garrett that ranks among the top seven single seasons for edge rushers.

Despite that level of consistency, the past two Defensive Player of the Year awards have been runaway wins from Nick Bosa in 2022 and T.J. Watt in 2021. Each player led the league in sacks in their winning year, and a cynic might suggest that’s the easiest way to secure the award in a given season.

Fortunately, Garrett has eight sacks this season, one behind Danielle Hunter with one fewer game played. He is tied with three other players, but he is in as good a position as anybody to pace the league in sacks this season, and he has already put together some of the game-changing, signature plays that voters like to see. Last week, he jumped clean over the line to block a field goal as well as notched multiple strip-sacks and posted one of the best performances of the season.

PFF has long taken criticism for highlighting Garrett's performance relative to other edge rushers because he hasn’t been able to match players such as T.J. Watt in impact plays. This season is showing that it wasn’t necessarily his fault, and oftentimes those signature plays are dependent on independent forces outside of a pass-rusher’s control. This year, those factors and influences are better for Garrett than they have been at any point in his career, and consequently, this is the most impactful version of Garrett we have ever seen.

Garrett may have deserved the award for a while, but the 2023 Browns defense may be the reason he wins it this season.


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