Nick Shook uses the eye test and Next Gen Stats to assemble his personal 2021 All-Pro Team. Below, he presents his defense.
After taking down Baker Mayfield four times in a Week 17 win over the Browns, Watt found himself ahead of everyone else in the NFL in sacks and staring history in the face. Then with one sack of Tyler Huntley a week later in the season finale, Watt tied Michael Strahan's single-season sack record (22.5). Watt also posted 60 quarterback pressures, a 16.3 percent pressure rate, 13 run stuffs (tackle for 1 or fewer yards on run play), 54 stops (tackle on a play that results in negative EPA for offense) and three turnovers caused by QB pressure. Add in the fact that he played just 65 percent of the Steelers' defensive snaps, and you have a complete résumé. Watt has built a very strong case for Defensive Player of the Year.
It's really difficult to leave Robert Quinn and his 18.5 sacks off this list, but it's even tougher to overlook Hendrickson's production in his first season in Cincinnati. The free-agent acquisition has proven Cincinnati's investment wise, ranking second in the league in quarterback pressures with 79 and producing the NFL's best QB pressure percentage at 19.4 percent. He's caused five turnovers via pressure, tying him with four others for the most in the NFL, and he's added 28 stops (tackle on a play that results in negative EPA for offense) and 14 sacks to his résumé. He might be lacking in total tackles (34), but Hendrickson has been incredibly effective when it comes to rushing the passer and has helped transform the Bengals from AFC North cellar dwellers to division champions. That's more than enough to earn him this nod.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is again squarely in the running for the award because of the same style of play that has propelled him to a future place in Canton. Donald is wrecking shop for the Rams, racking up 64 quarterback pressures despite playing inside, where the number of blockers attempting to stop him outnumbers those typically faced by edge rushers. No matter for Donald, who commands double teams and makes opposing offenses pay for daring to block him with a single lineman. Donald has 12.5 sacks to his name, 71 stops and 21 stuffs. He's responsible for one turnover caused by pressure, and the only slightly underwhelming (which is very much relative) stat is his QB pressure percentage of 10.8, which is a product of playing a position that calls for him to be on the field for more snaps than pure pass rushers. In fact, no qualifying front-seven defender has played more total defensive snaps than Donald's 1,001. He is consistently elite and as valuable as ever. The Rams are fortunate to have him.
Simmons is ascending toward elite status, even if folks don't give him his due because of the position he plays. Simmons' résumé this season is similar to that of Donald, starting with his QB pressure percentage of 10.6 (on 549 pass rushes). Simmons is responsible for 45 stops, 11 run stuffs, one turnover caused by pressure and 8.5 sacks. His performance against Los Angeles was his best of the season, repeatedly putting center Brian Allen in a clown suit on national television and harassing Matthew Stafford, who threw two interceptions and was sacked by Simmons three times in the Titans' 28-16 win over the Rams. That game gave everyone a look at Simmons' potential. He's only getting started, and he was an egregious Pro Bowl snub.
One of the best draft picks in recent memory, Parsons will be the runaway winner of Defensive Rookie of the Year in February. He has become a game wrecker in his first NFL season, displaying sideline-to-sideline ability against the run and pass, and proving himself as a devastating pass rusher. His 13 sacks rank sixth in the NFL and is the best mark for an off-ball linebacker who also happens to line up on the line in certain situations. His greatest, most enticing strength coming out of Penn State was his pass-rushing ability, which has clearly carried over to the NFL, but he's more than just a pass rusher -- Parsons is a foundational piece for a Cowboys defense that has turned things around in a big way, and he's just getting started.
I snubbed Smith from the Pro Bowl snubs list, but I won't make that same mistake twice (so stay out of my mentions, Bears fans). Smith is tied for second among all linebackers in run stuffs with 19, and he's tallied an incredible 88 stops on 963 total defensive snaps. Add in six quarterback pressures, four hurries and three sacks, and you have a three-down linebacker living up to his status as a first-round pick out of Georgia. Oh, and we can't forget his one interception, three passes defensed and 163 total tackles, the fifth-most in the NFL. The Bears struggled in 2021, but they had a few defenders put together fantastic seasons. Smith is certainly one of them.
Kendricks often doesn't get the recognition he deserves (for whatever reason), but he's not going overlooked here. He recorded 69 stops, seven stuffs, 143 tackles, seven QB pressures and five sacks in 2021. Add in 17 hustle stops and a 6.2 percent sack rate -- the highest in the NFL (minimum 75 pass rushes) -- and you have a strong résumé that might be a little surprising to some. Kendricks is the only player with 100-plus tackles and five-plus sacks. Consider that for a moment while processing the fact that he's deserving of this honor.
Say what you will about Diggs' coverage ability on a per-snap basis (I've said plenty: read about it here), but leave any rebuttal about his interception total at home. Diggs led the league in interceptions with 11 and at one point, was intercepting a pass per game. His 21 passes defensed are the second most in the NFL. That combination alone would have earned him this spot, but what do the Next Gen Stats say? Well, they're pretty convincing. Diggs ranks fourth in targeted EPA at -23.3, third in ballhawk rate (meaning he's made a play on the ball -- interception or pass defensed -- on 24.4 percent of all targets), is allowing an opposing passer rating of 60.9 as the nearest defender, and is turning away expected completions at a rate of -7.2 percent. Diggs is averaging 2.8 yards of separation, which is enough space to fit a pass to an intended target, but his innate ball skills and speed allow him to close that separation in time to consistently make plays on the ball. Eleven times, those plays on the ball resulted in takeaways for Dallas, which has been vitally important for the Cowboys this season: In games in which Dallas records a takeaway, the Cowboys are 11-2. Without a takeaway, they're 1-3. Diggs has clearly made a difference in only his second season.
Jackson's first season spent without Stephon Gilmore has erased any doubts folks had about his viability as a No. 1 corner. Jackson ranks second in the NFL in interceptions with eight and leads the league in passes defensed with 23. A quick scan of the Next Gen Stats tells us that he owns a great ballhawk rate -- the fourth best in the league, in fact -- at 24 percent. He's also second in targeted EPA at -27.1, and is erasing expected completions at a rate of -8.9 percent. Opposing quarterbacks have posted a passer rating of just 48.4 when throwing in his direction. It turns out, he's a pretty darn good corner even without Gilmore in the mix.
Byard's red-hot ride into November boosted his numbers toward the top of the safety class enough to keep him there through the new year. Byard ranks third among safeties in targeted EPA at -21, eighth in ballhawk rate (minimum 25 targets as nearest defender) and is tied for the most interceptions with five. He's been a key part of Tennessee's defense, which has defied expectations and advanced metrics analytics when it comes to DVOA. The numbers don't matter to the Titans, who will point to their win-loss record as proof that they can get the job done in unconventional ways. Byard stands as a perfect example of just how effective Tennessee is, even if the Titans still don't get the respect they deserve. He was certainly deserving of the second Pro Bowl selection of his career.
This wasn't a name I totally expected to include in this list, but I also can't argue with placing him here. The Next Gen Stats make an undeniable case for Poyer, who is tied with Byard, teammate Micah Hyde and the Giants' Xavier McKinney for the league lead in interceptions among safeties with five. He's also the owner of the league's top total EPA mark among safeties at -30.6, significantly ahead of any other qualifying safety (minimum 25 targets as nearest defender). Poyer owns a ballhawk rate of 33.3 percent, the third-best mark among all safeties, and he's erasing expected completions at a rate of -16.9 percent. Add in nine passes defensed and an incredibly low passer rating allowed as the nearest defender (19.4), and you have quite a résumé for a safety most don't immediately think of when pondering the league's best at the position. Perhaps that should change after the 2021 season.
I really wanted to put second-year corner A.J. Terrell here, because he's improved significantly despite Atlanta's struggles, but Douglas has been so crucial to Green Bay's defensive improvement this season. I couldn't leave him off this list in favor of an ascending youngster. Douglas wasn't even with the Packers until October and only made his way to Green Bay because the Packers desperately needed a replacement at corner following injuries to Jaire Alexander and Kevin King. They stumbled upon a diamond, as Douglas has proven to be a pivotal player in their run to the NFC's top seed. Douglas has appeared in 12 games this season for Green Bay and has intercepted opposing quarterbacks in a third of those games, racking up five picks and returning two for touchdowns. The 27-year-old has vaulted up the Next Gen leaderboard in this stretch of red-hot play, posting a ballhawk rate of 20 percent and the sixth-best targeted EPA at -22.7. He has 13 passes defensed to his name and is shutting down QBs, allowing a passer rating of just 48.5 as the nearest defender and denying -6.9 percent of expected completions. Oh, and he has a penchant for making clutch plays, sealing wins over Arizona and Cleveland with timely interceptions in the final moments of close games, and returning an interception for a game-sealing touchdown in a victory over the Los Angeles Rams. Talk about a productive in-season pickup.
The Seahawks had more than their fair share of offensive struggles in a difficult 2021 season, meaning Dickson had plenty of opportunities to show off his leg. He's certainly fulfilled the expectations set for him, dropping 43 of his 86 punts inside the 20, and forcing 22 fair catches on the year. Dickson posted a net punting average of 42.1 yards, didn't allow a punt return touchdown and led the league in 50-plus-yard punts with 21. He's also the owner of the fifth-longest punt in the NFL this season at 80.5 yards, per Next Gen Stats. There have been more accurate punters in the league -- Philadelphia's Arryn Siposs has had a great year -- but no one has a more complete résumé than Dickson.