Nick Shook uses the prism of Next Gen Stats to assemble his personal 2020 All-Pro team. Below, he presents his defense.
Watt leads the NFL in sacks (15), disruptions (80), disruption rate (among those with at least 40 disruptions, at 18.4%), and is tied with Aaron Donald for the league lead in QB pressures, with 71. His pressure rate is the second-highest in the league at 16.3 percent (minimum 200 pass rushes), and his penchant for timing snap counts is visible in his average get-off of 0.72 seconds, among the best in the NFL. The only piece of Watt's resume that isn't glowing is turnovers caused by pressure, of which he only has two this season. The rest is as good as it gets for defenders in the league this season, and proof of Watt's leap into the elite class of edge rushers.
Garrett is right next to Watt in the rankings of the league's top edge rushers. Garrett trails Watt by just 10 disruptions (Garrett missed two games this season and battled the effects of COVID-19) and three sacks, but he leads the league in turnovers caused by pressure with seven. His 56 quarterback pressures are tied for fourth-most in the NFL, and his average get-off is nearly as quick as Watt's, trailing the Steelers star by just 0.02 seconds. Garrett wins with rare athleticism, speed and power. An opponent who looks away from him figures to suffer the wrath of a Garrett disruption. A turnover might come from it, too.
Our own Omar Ruiz said it best in a tweet: Donald is an annual Defensive Player of the Year candidate and should probably win the award more often than not because of his consistently elite play. Donald is again near the top of Next Gen Stats' pass-rushing metrics, tying with Watt for the most QB pressures (71). He also owns the highest pressure rate (13.9%) among all interior defensive linemen (min. 200 pass rushes), which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Donald's 79 disruptions trail Watt by only one, and he's the only interior defensive lineman in the top 10 in total disruptions. Donald is the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL, making an edge rusher-like impact while fighting through traffic on every down.
Buckner's first season in Indianapolis has helped elevate the Colts' defense from a bend-but-don't-break unit headlined by Darius Leonard to one with playmakers at every level. Buckner's 44 quarterback pressures are the fifth most among interior defensive linemen, as are his 45 total disruptions. Buckner, who recorded 9.5 sacks, is among the league's best in run stuffs (10) and total stops (tackles that result in a successful play for the defense based on yards to go by down). He has one of the most complete Next Gen resumes among all interior defensive linemen and proved the Colts wise in sending a first-round pick to San Francisco for him last offseason.
Cunningham finished 2020 as the NFL's leading tackler with 163, and it's about time he receives the recognition he's due. Cunningham registered 10 disruptions and three sacks to go along with 11 hustle stops. His 14 run stuffs are the eighth-most among linebackers, and he also recorded two passes defensed and a forced fumble in 2020 as part of a defense that finished dead last against the run. As evidenced by Cunningham's run stuffs, that's no fault of his, as he did his best to make up for his teammates' struggles.
Smith was even better than Cunningham in a few of the metrics listed above. Smith recorded 16 run stuffs -- tied for second-most among inside linebackers -- while also finishing with 13 disruptions, 13 QB pressures, four sacks and 20 hustle stops. His best two statistics, 71 stops and -20.7 expected points added allowed as the closest defender, landed him second among all linebackers in both categories, compiling a complete Next Gen resume.
White's numbers jump off the page, much like his play leaps off the screen. White finished with 21 QB pressures (second-most among inside linebackers), 17 hurries, 17 hustle stops and nine sacks to go along with 140 tackles and 63 stops in 2020. His 13 run stuffs land him right among the league's most effective linebackers, and his hurries are tied for the most at his position. His nine sacks are most impressive among a group of linebackers that typically doesn't get after the quarterback nearly as much as its edge-rushing counterparts, and White's four passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery made for a heck of a year. It's stunning he's not a Pro Bowler.
Howard was the best player for a Miami team that narrowly missed the playoffs. He led the NFL in interceptions with 10, making multiple highlight grabs to pick off opposing quarterbacks, and registered 20 passes defensed, which were also the most in the NFL. Howard's per-target impact was better than anyone else in the league, accounting for -30.1 expected points added when identified as the closest defender, meaning quarterbacks who threw Howard's way saw their team's scoring (and winning) chances diminished by him more than any other defensive back. His completion percentage allowed over expectation was also excellent at -6.8 percent, the fifth-best rate among cornerbacks targeted 50 or more times. Howard was simply awesome this season, and the Next Gen numbers back it up.
Speaking of CPOE, allow us to introduce you to Alexander, the league's fourth-best corner in that department (min. 300 coverage snaps) at -7 percent. His EPA allowed as the closest defender was second best to Howard's at -28.5, and his 4.5 yards per attempt as the closest defender was also second best among corners. And when it came to attempting to fit a pass into the hands of a receiver covered by Alexander, the space to do so was rather narrow, with Alexander forcing a tight-window target on 42.3 percent of his targets, the best rate in the NFL among corners. Green Bay spent a first-rounder on Alexander in 2018 as it attempted to remake its secondary, and he's proven to be well worth that investment.
Safeties' sample sizes are smaller in the Next Gen realm because they aren't seen as the nearest defender on targets as often as corners, due to the nature of the position they play, but Gardner-Johnson had a breakout year. When passes came his way, he posted an EPA allowed of -21.6, the best among all safeties. He also recorded 11 passes defensed as the closest defender, the second-most among safeties, and a completion percentage over expectation of -13.9, the fourth-lowest among safeties with at least 30 targets this season. Gardner-Johnson isn't a lockdown corner, but he's proven to be a shutdown safety in 2020.
Bates is right there with Gardner-Johnson in the most important Next Gen coverage metrics. His -16.3 EPA allowed as the closest defender is the second best among safeties, trailing only Gardner-Johnson, and his 15 passes defensed were the most in the league among safeties. Bates also had three interceptions and a completion percentage over expectation allowed of -9.8 (sixth best among safeties), making him one of the league's best safeties.
Rhodes had quite a bounce-back season after struggling in his final season with the Vikings. Rhodes returned to prominence in Indianapolis, where he posted the best CPOE as the nearest defender among corners this season at -12.6. He posted a targeted EPA of -13.8 to go along with 12 passes defensed and two interceptions. Quarterbacks who threw Rhodes' way finished with a passer rating of just 64.4.
WRITER'S CORRECTION: After discovering my own tabulation errors of the fine Next Gen Stats, I had to recant my original punter selection of the Rams' Johnny Hekker. Below is the updated, final pick.
This was a close one between Dickson and Detroit's Jack Fox, two punters who have eerily similar numbers in many categories. The one difference that led me to give the nod to Dickson: punts downed inside the 20. Dickson led the NFL in this category with 32, while Fox lagged behind with 26. Fox did own a better hang time, per Next Gen Stats, topping Dickson's 4.31 seconds with an average time of 4.69 seconds, and the two tied in 50-plus-yard punts with 11 each. Dickson had the best average punt distance of anyone with at least 45 punts -- Corey Bojorquez was the best in average distance, but thanks to Buffalo's offensive prowess, he only punted 41 times all season -- and owned a 50-plus-yard punts accuracy percentage of 45, meaning he was both strong and accurate in 2020.