Originally written on NESN.com  |  Last updated 11/16/14
The 2012 NFL season has been just as much about young pass rushers as it has been about rookie quarterbacks. While Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson are battling it out for offensive rookie of the year honors, second-year defenders Von Miller, Aldon Smith and J.J. Watt are each fighting for defensive player of the year. With three games to go, all three players are within reach of Michael Strahan‘s 2001 record of 22 1/2 sacks. Smith is on pace for 25, Watt for 21 and Miller for 20. The 49ers’ Smith may have the best chance at the sack record, but that doesn’t mean he should automatically win defensive player of the year. Still, one of those three players should take home the award. Smith is your pretty traditional pass rusher, but that’s not a knock on him. Simply, there have been other players like him, and there will be more like him in the future. In the league right now, DeMarcus Ware or Clay Matthews could be considered similar players. All three are every-down players who are good against the run but incredible at turning the edge and getting to the quarterback. All three also play outside linebacker in their team’s base 3-4 alignment and line up at defensive end in sub packages. In today’s NFL, those players are more valuable than they have ever been before. Passers are dropping back at record rates, and because of that, elite players are needed to get after them. Luckily, pass rushers are one of the best positions that can be judged from statistics. Pro Football Focus measures sacks and also quarterback hits (plays where the pass rusher still connects with the quarterback but doesn’t get there in time for a sack) and quarterback hurries (plays where the pass rusher generates pressure but doesn’t hit the quarterback). Sacks are the most impactful result for a pass rusher, but they’re not the only one. All pressure generated forces quarterbacks to throw the ball away, rush a throw, make a bad decision or affect play calls. Smith may lead all NFL players in sacks, but he’s not the leaders in total pressures. Smith has 10 QB hits on the season and 29 hurries for 59 total pressures. Cameron Wake actually leads the NFL with 76 total pressures, but he’s also only been asked to drop into coverage 23 times versus Smith’s 77. The Broncos’ Miller has 16 sacks, 13 QB hits and 45 hurries for 74 pressures. Miller may also be the most complete player in the NFL. He’s not only one of the best pass rushers in the league, but he’s an elite run defender who’s also proficient in pass coverage. Miller has dropped back in coverage 117 times, and he’s allowed 16 receptions for 152 yards with an interception. Miller plays strong-side linebacker in the Broncos’ 4-3 defense — a position usually saved for the “worst” player in a linebacker corps. Miller has essentially redefined the position. In Denver’s base defense, he’s either filling his gap or setting the edge in the run game or dropping back into coverage or blitzing up the middle or from the edge. When the Broncos get into a sub package on obvious passing downs, he turns into a seven-technique defensive end, rushing the passer on the line (outside the tight end’s shoulder). Due to Miller’s versatility, he brings more to the Broncos’ defense than Smith does. He may not actually sack the quarterback more, but he provides much more in run defense, he can drop back in coverage better and he actually pressures the QB more than Smith, despite taking less snaps rushing the passer. Watt is also a player redefining his position. Watt, like Miller, is a three-tiered player who is effective rushing the passer, stopping the run and, in his own way, defending the pass. Watt is the best pass rusher and run defender at his position (in base defenses: five-tech defensive end in a three-man front, in sub packages: three-tech defensive tackle in a four man front) in the NFL. He’s also the best pass defender due to his long arms and play awareness (that’s why the call him J.J. Swat). The Texans’ defensive end has 16 1/2 sacks on the season with 21 QB hits and 23 hurries for 61 total pressures — also more total pressures than Smith. Watt — once again, like Miller — may not sack the quarterback more than the 49ers’ defensive end, but he gets after the passer more, is impossible to budge against the run and can affect the passing game even when he can’t get by the offensive line. While you can at least offer a player comparison for Smith, there is no one in the NFL asked to do as much as Miller or Watt. Those two players are just as important to their team as 30 NFL quarterbacks are to their offense — Tom Brady and Peyton Manning being the exception. If Brady and Manning weren’t having such fantastic seasons, Watt or Miller would be more than deserving for the league’s MVP. While Smith may go down in record books as the single-season sack leader, that doesn’t mean he should win the defensive player of the year award. Defense can be difficult to gauge from one single statistic, and while the sack is one of the most successful outcomes a player can have, it’s not the only one. Smith is good against the run, but he’s nowhere near as stout as Watt and Miller. While players like Watt and Miller are redefining their positions, Smith is just playing his at the highest current level. Setting the single-season sack record is a very impressive feat — if he gets there — but with defense, sometimes you have to look deeper to find the more dominant players. And in this case, that’s either Watt or Miller. Photo via Facebook/San Francisco 49ers
MORE FROM YARDBARKER

CM Punk opens up about leaving WWE, says he'll never return

Manny Pacquiao responds to Floyd Mayweather diss

Australian cricket player dies from head injuries

Wrigley Field bleacher renovation may be delayed

Yankees wanted Rollins but Phillies' price was too high

Pop misses game for medical reasons; Messina takes over

LIKE WHAT YOU SEE?
GET THE DAILY NEWSLETTER:

John Beilein upset with ESPN for late start time to game

Tyson Chandler felt like Knicks' scapegoat at times

Fred Jackson has 'no respect' for Donte Whitner

Devon Still responds to unpaid child support allegations

Diamondbacks sign Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas

Josh Gordon felt alienated by some in Browns organization

Things to be thankful for in the NBA this season

Eric Berry sends out Thanksgiving message

WATCH: Ronda Rousey talks about Eminem referencing her

WATCH: Dwayne Harris dirty hit on Nolan Carroll sparks fight

Steelers turned down chance to be called 'America's Team'

Report: Small chance Raiders-Rams could be moved to Indy

Todd Gurley begins rehab after surgery on knee for torn ACL

Brodeur to practice with Blues

OSU player posts Michigan player's girlfriend as his 'WCW'

Jim Harbaugh's family may not eat turkey thanks to NBC

Ole Miss' The Grove threatened by Mississippi State fan

Is it time for the Redskins to move on from Robert Griffin III?

NFL News
Delivered to your inbox
You'll also receive Yardbarker's daily Top 10, featuring the best sports stories from around the web. Customize your newsletter to get articles on your favorite sports and teams. And the best part? It's free!

By clicking "Sign Me Up", you have read and agreed to the Fox Sports Digital Privacy Policy and Terms of Use. You can opt out at any time. For more information, please see our Privacy Policy.

WATCH: Ronda Rousey talks Eminem

CM Punk opens up about leaving WWE

Wrigley renovation may be delayed

Steelers could have been America's Team

John Beilein upset with ESPN

Should Washington move on from RG3?

Dominic Raiola fined for cheap shots

Game of the week: Kansas City Chiefs vs. Denver Broncos

Rose leaves with injury again

WATCH: Pierce signs for fan during game

Report: McCoy to start over RG3

Braxton Miller headed to Oregon?

Today's Best Stuff
For Bloggers

Join the Yardbarker Network for more promotion, traffic, and money.

Company Info
Help
What is Yardbarker?

Yardbarker is the largest network of sports blogs and pro athlete blogs on the web. This site is the hub of the Yardbarker Network, where our editors and algorithms curate the best sports content from our network and beyond.