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NFL Defensive Player of the Year: Three shining stars from the 2021 regular season

By Nat Coombs

Published: 11:56, 7 January 2022

The NFL has loaded the deck in recent years to encourage offense: high-scoring shootouts are far more compelling, they argue, than attritional 13-7 grinds.

In the RedZone age of fast cut, short form highlights — and the resulting limited attention spans — a 67-yard strike from quarterback to speedy receiver gets a lot more eyeballs than a perfectly executed smothering of a running back for no gain.

This shift is also the result of an increased focus on player safety, but there’s no doubt that the NFL in 2021 is geared towards helping offenses score as many points as possible. It must be said, however, that, while these changes were taking place, the spread offenses that are so popular in the college game, along with the dual threat quarterbacks that thrive within those offenses, were also organically finding widespread adoption. These changes in the offensive game have presented NFL defenses with a whole set of challenges with which to contend. As a result, certain defensive positions have seen their significance skyrocket in recent years. 

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As one would imagine, cornerbacks and pass-defending safeties are in high demand. Unlike in years past, these days a team requires not only a pair of solid corners and an able-bodied backup, but genuine strength in depth. That’s because teams now routinely drop into nickel and dime packages that call for a greater number of quality defensive backs. Hybrid, versatile players like Isaiah Simmons of the Cardinals or Minkah Fitzpatrick of the Steelers, who can line up in multiple positions and handle a variety of matchups, are hugely influential. Additionally, ballhawks like the Cowboys’ Trevon Diggs — players who are not the most capable all-round defenders but are adept at disrupting opposing offenses and creating turnovers — are more highly valued than ever before. 

Similarly, defenders that can consistently get to the opposing quarterback elite edge rushers — like TJ Watt, Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett — are now among the league’s valued players. While elite pass-rushers have always been valued, this group now sit alongside quarterbacks and wide receivers as the best-paid in the league. It’s the only defensive position about which this can be said.

Conversely, the diminishing emphasis on the ground game compared to years past means that certain types of players are seen as less vital to a top defense. For instance, big tackles who occupy space and attention, plug running lanes are not quite in the demand they were in years past. Of course, there is always going to be a place for tackles capable of attracting a lot of attention and freeing up pass-rushers around them — the Bucs’ Vita Vea is a prime example — but the immobile space-eaters are now largely a thing of the past.

Even with the odds stacked in favour of offenses, there is no shortage of individual defensive standouts shining bright.

Here are my Top 3 (Defensive) Players of the 2021 NFL regular season. 

TJ Watt

Watt is the heavy favourite to land Defensive Player of the Year — and with good reason. With 1.5 sacks against the Ravens on Sunday, Watt would break the great Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5 sacks. You have to like his chances of doing it, as the Ravens will either be without Lamar Jackson, or (due to a lingering ankle injury that’s hampered him in recent weeks) starting a diminished version of their franchise quarterback.

These days, it’s difficult to imagine a non-QB winning the league MVP award. However, one could construct such a case for Watt, given his immense significance to the Steelers’ defense. That defense — powered by Watt — is largely responsible for the Steelers remaining in playoff contention until the season’s final week, despite a subpar offense. Remove Watt from the mix and the Steelers are nowhere near the same team. 

Micah Parsons

With Dak Prescott back marshalling an offense stacked with playmakers, we all assumed the Cowboys would score plenty of points. The defense, however, was a different question. Dallas’ defense in 2020 was one the NFL’s worst. As a result, the unit was overhauled for 2021, and loaded with young, untested talents. Whether they could be competitive, let alone a strength of the team, was a legitimate concern. This group has shown, unequivocally, that yes, it is on par with its offensive counterpart. It’s been a group effort, of course, but the main difference maker has been Micah Parsons.

A tough tackler with speed, and the ability to both line up in pass coverage and rush the passer, Parsons has been a revelation. With a game remaining in his rookie season, he could break the NFL rookie sack record. It does remain to be seen if he plays, as, at the time of writing, he is on the Covid-19 list. 

Regardless, Parsons is a lock for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and will get strong consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. He, along with teammate Trevon Diggs, is thriving in former Legion of Boom era Seahawks Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s scheme.

Thanks to these two embodiments of the prototypical new-era defensive player, the ‘Boys have leapt to the top of the NFL in Defensive DVOA (as per Football Outsiders), and are the league’s premier big-play defense.

I just do a lot of very different things on defense that change the game. I never play just one position,” says Parsons. 

With 84 tackles, 13 sacks and a league-best 20 tackles for loss, it’s tough to disagree.

Myles Garrett 

The rehabilitation of Myles Garrett, the #1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has been one of the big stories of the season. An undeniable talent, Garrett was dogged early on in his career by ill-discipline — most notably with the “indefinite” suspension he picked up in the 2019 season following a violent altercation on the field with Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph.

He bounced back with an excellent season in 2020 (12 sacks, 10 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles), but he’s really kicked on in 2021. His dual cases for Defensive Player of the Year (and even as a dark horse for MVP) have tailed off due to a recent hamstring injury. Nevertheless, he’s still chalked up 15 sacks — a single-season franchise record — and 16 tackles for loss, and has been the unquestioned leader of a Browns ultra-talented defense. 

NFL Week 18 predictions

Kansas City @ Denver
Dallas @ Philadelphia
Green Bay @ Detroit
Indianapolis @ Jacksonville
Washington @ New York Giants
Chicago @ Minnesota
Tennessee @ Houston
Pittsburgh @ Baltimore
Cincinnati @ Cleveland
San Francisco @ LA Rams
Carolina @ Tampa Bay
Seattle @ Arizona
New England @ Miami
New Orleans @ Atlanta
NY Jets @ Buffalo
LA Chargers @ Las Vegas

NFL Week 18 accumulator
Full predictions @ 432/1 with Sky Bet
Odds correct at time of publication.
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Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season.


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