New York Jets stars Quinnen Williams and Sauce Gardner are each putting together Defensive Player of the Year resumes
After finishing as the NFL’s 32nd-ranked defense in 2021, the New York Jets have flipped the script, ranking top 10 in almost every defensive category in 2022. This is made even more impressive by the fact that the Jets have faced the league’s second-hardest defensive schedule this season, per Football Outsiders.
There are several contributing factors to this shift. Carl Lawson is healthy, Quincy Williams and Sheldon Rankins have improved, Kwon Alexander and D.J. Reed have been impact additions, and the Jets’ safety play is significantly better.
Both players have been outstanding all season and have cemented themselves in the top 5 of their position groups.
Here is a look at where Williams and Gardner ranked in their respective position groups’ key statistics through Week 9, based on totals and per-snap efficiency (among players with at least 200 snaps).
- Pressures: 35 (1st), 13.5% Pressure Rate (1st)
- Sacks: 8 (1st), 3.1% Sack Rate (1st)
- Defensive Stops: 18 (8th), 4.4% Defensive Stop Rate (22nd)
- Impact Plays*: 47 (4th), 11.3% Impact Play Rate (5th)
- Snaps: 406 (17th)
*Impact Plays are defined as a batted pass, pressure, or defensive stop (which includes sacks).
- Yards: 189 — 0.52 Yards per Snap (6th), 4.1 Yards per Target (3rd)
- Pass Breakups: 10 (1st), 21.7% Pass Breakup Rate (2nd)
- Forced Incompletions*: 11 (1st), 26.1% Forced Incompletion Rate (3rd)
- Passer Rating Allowed: 44.6 (4th)
- Completion Percentage Allowed: 43.5% (4th)
- Snaps: 600 (4th)
*Forced Incompletions are defined as a pass break-up or interception
At 24 and 22 years old, respectively, Williams and Gardner have been among the best players at their positions.
There is no question that they are each playing at a Pro Bowl/All-Pro level. But should they really be in the Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) conversation?
I’ll compare both players to historical Defensive Players of the Year as well as the leading candidates in 2022.
The Case for Quinnen Williams
After being named AFC Defensive Player of the Month for October, Williams has been moving up the DPOY ladder. Back in April, Williams had +17500 odds to win DPOY. To put that in perspective, the Jets had +12500 odds to win the Super Bowl in the preseason.
Now, Williams is tied with four other players at eighth in the NFL with +4000 odds to win DPOY. The only defensive tackle ahead of him is three-time DPOY Aaron Donald, who has +2200 odds. Other defensive tackles in the running are J.J. Watt (+5000), Chris Jones (+6750) and Jeffery Simmons (+7500).
While they’re all excellent players, Williams is the best of the bunch right now:
|Quinnen Williams||Aaron Donald||Jeffery Simmons||Chris Jones||J.J. Watt|
|Pressures (Pressure Rate)||35 (13.5%)||28 (10.1%)||35 (11.0%)||32 (10.4%)||29 (11.1%)|
|Sacks (Sack Rate)||8 (3.1%)||5 (1.8%)||6 (1.9%)||6 (2.0%)||5 (1.9%)|
|Stops (Stop Rate)||18 (4.4%)||26 (6.0%)||16 (3.6%)||10 (2.2%)||14 (3.6%)|
|Impact Plays (Impact Play Rate)||46 (11.3%)||51 (11.8%)||48 (10.8%)||39 (8.7%)||41 (10.5%)|
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Among the top 5 defensive tackles in DPOY odds, Williams leads the way in both pressure rate and sack rate. He ranks second among the group in stop rate and impact-play rate, with Aaron Donald taking a slight edge in each category.
However, Williams’s low defensive stop numbers do not reflect his play on the field. Williams has been a monster against the run, but oftentimes his effort leads to one of his teammates finishing the play (and getting statistical credit) rather than himself.
So yes, Williams is playing like the best defensive tackle in football. But only 13 defensive tackles have ever won the DPOY award, and six of those have gone to J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald.
Can Williams really compare to the dominant run Watt and Donald had from 2012 to 2020?
That is a harder point to argue. Comparing Williams’s 2022 season among Watt and Donald’s six DPOY seasons (for seven total), here is where he ranks:
- Pressure Rate: 6th
- Sack Rate: 4th
- Defensive Stop Rate: 5th
- Impact Play Rate 7th
However, Williams is within striking distance of three of them. Watt’s 2012 and 2014 seasons and Aaron Donald’s 2020 season set a more realistic goal for Williams. In those three seasons, they averaged a 14.7% pressure rate, 3.0% sack rate, 5.6% defensive stop rate, and 14.1% impact play rate. Williams, for comparison, is at a 13.1% pressure rate, 3.1% sack rate, 4.4% stop rate, and 11.3% impact play rate.
Williams is where he needs to be as a pass rusher. The main issue regarding his DPOY candidacy is his low number of defensive stops. Unfortunately for these awards, you need the stats to back your claim. And at this moment, he’s racking up impact plays (in terms of how they are tracked statistically) at too low of a rate in comparison to previous defensive tackles who won DPOY.
While Williams’s numbers have been elite, it’s difficult to argue he’s at the same level as Watt or Donald were. Four out of six of Donald’s and Watt’s DPOY campaigns had at least a pressure rate of 17%, a defensive stop rate of 5%, and an impact play rate of 14%. For Williams to get to that level by the end of this season, he would need to accumulate whopping totals of 51 pressures, 21 defensive stops, and 64 impact plays over the next eight games (based on his current level of playing time).
The biggest thing that will hold Williams back however is his snap count. While I made my comparisons on a per-snap basis, Williams is on pace to play 150 fewer snaps than Donald and Watt’s average. His end-of-the-season totals would be the worst of any DPOY campaign except Donald’s 2017 campaign where he played a similar amount.
While Williams has been playing more snaps with improved efficiency since Week 3, it most likely won’t be enough to overcome the difference.
The case for Sauce Gardner
As of right now, Gardner doesn’t have listed odds for DPOY. That should change soon as he may have a better case than Williams.
There are 10 cornerbacks with listed odds to win DPOY: Patrick Surtain II, Darius Slay, Trevon Diggs, Denzel Ward, Marshon Lattimore, Marlon Humphrey, Jalen Ramsey, Stephon Gilmore, and A.J. Terrell.
However, the race for best cornerback in the NFL is really a five man show between Surtain II, Slay, Humphrey, Ramsey and Gardner. This is how all five compare on a per-snap and per-target basis.
|Sauce Gardner||Patrick Surtain II||Darius Slay||Marlon Humphrey||Jalen Ramsey|
|Yards per cover snap||0.52||0.49||0.60||0.73||0.96|
|Yards per target||4.1||4.0||5.0||7.0||7.2|
|Forced incompletions per target||26.1%||10.3%||13.5%||7.7%||21.1%|
|Passer rating allowed||44.6||65.7||36.2||67.4||104.6|
|Completion % allowed||43.5%||56.4%||45.9%||69.2%||68.4%|
Compared against the best of the best, Gardner more than holds his own.
What separates Gardner from the pack is his absurd forced incompletion rate. Through nine weeks, Sauce forces an incompletion at almost double the rate of Surtain II or Slay.
So, Gardner is playing like a top 5 corner in the NFL, but is that enough to be the Defensive Player of the Year? An award only five cornerbacks have won since 1970?
Statistically, he has a pretty good argument.
When compared against DPOY winners Stephon Gilmore (2019) and Charles Woodson (2009) in addition to Darrelle Revis’s DPOY-caliber 2009 season, Gardner ranks first in the following categories:
- Pass Breakups/Target
- Passer Rating Allowed
Stacked up against those three seasons, Gardner is first or second in just about every major stat that can be used to analyze cornerback play, with the exception being interceptions per target.
Arguments can be made on both sides as corners used to play more man coverage back in 2009. However, the NFL is setting records in yards, passer rating, and completion percentage over the last several years, so it is arguably more difficult to play cornerback today than ever before.
So, against three of the best cornerback seasons of the last 20 years, Gardner still manages to stand out.
So far, we’ve broken down the impressive seasons of Quinnen Williams and Sauce Gardner while comparing them to other top players at their position and historical winners. They each have an argument to be the best player at their position, with only one or two players being comparable.
However, they are racing for Defensive Player of The Year, which has historically gone to edge rushers. The top seven current favorites to win are all edge rushers. Ordered by odds, they are Micah Parsons, Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett, Matthew Judon, Za’Darius Smith, Maxx Crosby, Von Miller, and Khalil Mack.
Compared to all of them, Williams ranks sixth in pressures, second in sacks, fourth in stops, and fifth in impact plays. Out of eight players, Williams finds himself comfortably in the middle which is impressive for a defensive tackle.
However, on a per-snap basis, Williams drops to seventh in pressure and sack rate, fifth in defensive stop rate, and sixth in impact play rate.
Williams has been good, but not quite good enough to beat out the other candidates. While an argument can be made that it’s more difficult to produce gaudy stats as an interior pass rusher, Aaron Donald managed to be the best and most effective defensive player during his award-winning seasons.
Meanwhile, Gardner has been playing at an elite level that is even comparable to the seasons of past DPOY winners. However, those seasons also didn’t have an elite pass rusher who could compete with the top corners.
In 2019 and 2009, only two pass rushers had over a 15% pressure rate and a 3% sack rate. This year has five alone.
Another factor working against Gardner is his interception totals. Interceptions are one of the most important statistics for defensive backs to win Defensive Player of The Year. For evidence, look at the 2009 race between Charles Woodson and Darelle Revis.
While Gardner is forcing incompletions at a high rate, his interceptions per target isn’t close to the level of Woodson or Gilmore. So, while Gardner may force incompletions at twice the rate of Darius Slay, he only gets interceptions at half the rate as well.
The Verdict: Jets simply have two top 20 defenders
At the moment, it’s difficult to argue that either Williams or Gardner should be the Defensive Player of the Year. Arguments can be made that they’re the best at their respective positions, but this year’s edge class is too good to beat.
Still, many things will change over the final nine weeks of the season. Some players will heat up and others will slow down. Both Williams and Gardner helped their odds in the Jets’ most recent win, adding a sack and interception on back-to-back plays in the third quarter.
However, I think every Jets fan would be happy with the consolation prize that their young defenders should be considered in the top 10-15 range among defenders.
Considering Quinnen Williams is only 24 and Sauce Gardner is only 22, they will both be in the conversation for years to come.