There’s no use in deluding ourselves — this week’s slate of games is pretty terrible. After maybe the most anticipated prime-time matchup of the season last Sunday, the most we have to look forward to in Week 8 is a Cowboys-Lions game in which the main appeal is a chance at 80 total points and about 800 yards of offense. Doug Marrone’s return to New Orleans doesn’t exactly have the same appeal as Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis.
I believe, though. Together, we can get through this. The marquee pairings might be underwhelming, but there’s always something worth watching, even if this week those things were a little harder to find.
For someone who loves both giving awards and pro football, I should love the NFL MVP race. And maybe I would, if it weren’t completely devoid of fun and/or intrigue.
Bill Barnwell wrote about this in detail amid last year’s uncharacteristically murky race, but here’s the gist: The NFL MVP is the Best Quarterback Award, barring a mind-blowing, record-shattering season by a running back. In the past 20 years only seven non-QBs have won the award, and each time, it’s taken an historic effort to do it.
Adrian Peterson needed the seventh 2,000-yard season ever. Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis each needed one too. Shaun Alexander broke the single-season rushing touchdown record during his MVP campaign in 2005. LaDainian Tomlinson broke that record the following year. You get the idea.
Scattered throughout the channel-flipping madness that is Week 1 was a sight that had become familiar by late Sunday afternoon. Whether it was in Carolina, St. Louis, New York, or New Orleans, former first-round defensive linemen seemed to be making plays constantly. Rams defensive end Robert Quinn (2011, 14th overall) sacked Carson Palmer three times, causing fumbles on two of them. Muhammad Wilkerson (2011, 30th overall) had a sack for the Jets, and his linemate Sheldon Richardson (2013, 13th overall) added several key stops in the run game. Cameron Jordan (2011, 24th overall) looked to be acclimating nicely to the Saints’ new 3-4 defense, and each of the past two players drafted 14th overall (Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers and Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei) were impressive in anchoring their teams’ run defense.
Each of these teams (aside from Carolina, which had a more than respectable showing against Seattle) won Sunday, and in doing so, appeared to add even more evidence that winning teams are built from the lines out. It was all enough to make me wonder — when it comes to defensive lines, is that adage actually true? There are some who look at the 49ers’ turnaround and note that San Francisco made an effort to invest heavily in its offensive line, spending three first-round picks in four years to build what may be the best group in football. There are some teams who’ve made a similar choice on defense, most notably the Rams, who’ve drafted three defensive linemen in the first round since 2008 (to go along with Quinn and Brockers, St. Louis also has Chris Long, taken second overall in ’08). My question was whether this strategy has actually worked historically, whether a first-round defensive lineman actually makes an appreciable difference in how a team’s defense performs overall.
The All-22 All-Star Team is an attempt to provide some insight on the NFL’s 22 most underappreciated players. Some will be All-Pros who haven’t fully gotten their due; some will be names few casual fans have ever heard. All will, for one reason or another, have been overlooked.
After just two seasons, the 2011 defensive draft class already looks historic. Some are already sending Aldon Smith, Von Miller, and J.J. Watt to Canton, and somehow, it doesn’t feel all that ridiculous. That trio leads the group, but it’s rounded out by players who are, if not era-defining mega-talents, at least stars in their own right. The Lions' Nick Fairley figures to ride a strong finish to last season into a monster 2013, the Redskins' Ryan Kerrigan deservedly went to the Pro Bowl a season ago, and the Cardinals' Patrick Peterson has already been to two. None of them, though, deserves to have his name mentioned as the best player of that second tier. That’s a distinction that belongs to Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. Taken 30th overall two years ago, the Temple product has gone largely unnoticed playing a position devoid of stats on a bad team. The most impressive of Wilkerson’s numbers is probably nine. That’s the amount of alignments, on either side of the ball, Wilkerson is asked to play in the Jets' defense. Success in the NFL can often be as simple as being very good at one thing. Wilkerson is very good at about a dozen, and it could soon make him one of the league’s most indispensable defenders. He isn’t there yet. But after this season, Wilkerson’s name may belong right alongside Miller, Smith, and Watt.
Watching back through this week's games, I did the best I could to single out a few guys whose performances I hadn't yet mentioned this season. Calais Campbell was everywhere in the Cardinals' win. Muhammad Wilkerson is the Jets' only saving grace. Brandon Graham keeps showing why the Eagles traded Justin Babin. Each had one of his better games of the season, but I still couldn't help feeling that it all seemed a bit dishonest.
This post was supposed to be an appreciation for the best in offensive and defensive line play each Sunday, and if that's what it is, then no one really mattered this week except J.J. Watt. I've said just about everything I can about Watt this season, and that's why this time, I'm not saying anything. Here, simply, are the five best moments from Watt's 10-tackle, three-sack Sunday afternoon. Just take it all in, people. We're watching something here.