Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was the best player in the NFL last season, right? Well, Pro Football Focus doesn't think so.
PFF, which grades players via film study and produces a rating for each, came out with its top 101 players of the 2013 season. No. 1 wasn't NFL MVP Manning. Instead, the top player in 2013 was also PFF's top-ranked player in 2012, which is a pretty remarkable feat.
Houston defensive end J.J. Watt is on a pretty nice roll.
Watt beat out everyone in PFF's list (Manning wasn't even No. 2; he was third behind Rams defensive end Robert Quinn). Manning probably was the best player in football last year, but PFF's ranking treats all positions equally in its ranking. The site even states quarterback is the most valuable position, and given that, Manning was clearly the NFL's top player over the entire season. But this is an objective look at who had the best rating with its criteria regardless of position, and Watt was No. 1 for the second straight year. He also was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
It's very difficult to boil down football into precise analytics. Results in baseball are very clear; there are one-on-one battles between pitchers and hitters that can be easily quantified. Football relies on all 11 players producing a result. If the left guard gets badly beaten off the snap, Manning can't do his job, and his receivers won't produce anything on that play even if they've cleanly beaten the coverage. You can argue with the methods or the results of sites like PFF, Advanced Football Analytics or Football Outsiders, but they do a great job of trying to dig deeper into the game and producing data to help understand the game on a different level, even if the stats aren't perfect.
That brings us back to Watt. Even if you disagree with the methodology, a cold tally of the PFF numbers has ranked Watt the best player in football two years in a row. He didn't win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award last year, but partially for the ridiculous reason that Watt was on a terrible Texans team and winner Luke Kuechly was on a very good Panthers team. Cam Newton vs. Matt Schaub helped decide the award for best defensive player in the NFL. Whatever.
Watt should only continue to get better. He just turned 25. And his PFF rating was far and away the best in the NFL last season at plus-111.6. Quinn was just 77.2. PFF said Watt had the highest grade they've ever recorded, even better than Watt's 2012 score. Adding top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney to the defense at outside linebacker this season will take some attention off Watt. Watt has a pretty good chance of pulling off a PFF three-peat as the NFL's higest-rated player next year.
Watt surely isn't underrated. Even casual fans know who he is by this point. But based on the hard data, he may be far better than we even give him credit for.
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