One-man avalanche Myles Garrett should be a rare NFL defensive MVP

<span>Photograph: Tommy Gilligan/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Tommy Gilligan/USA Today Sports

The NFL’s MVP award is a proxy for the league’s best quarterback. At least that’s the way it’s evolved over the last 20 years.

The reason for picking a winner typically slots into one of three cliches: validating a young star’s legitimacy; confirming an old guy has still got it; or handing it to a consistent performer having a career year (hooray for Matt Ryan!).

It makes sense. No player is more valuable than the quarterback. They exert an unusual amount of control over the sport. Football is a game of physical real estate acquisition, and among 22 moving pieces, only the quarterback has the ball in his hand on every snap of offense. No player at another position could have more value than that.

Related: Tommy DeVito makes $44,000 a game and lives with his mom. It makes sense

The last time a non-quarterback won the MVP was in 2012, when running back Adrian Peterson rushed for more than 2,000 yards. The last defensive player to win the MVP was Lawrence Taylor back in 1986. It was a different time. Four years earlier, a kicker – A KICKER! – won the award.

But this season should signal a reset. Offensive production is down leaguewide. None of the preseason MVP favorites have lived up to expectations. And those that have, beyond Brock Purdy, fall below the compelling narrative threshold.

If ever there was a season when a non-quarterback should win the award, it is this one.

Rattle through the typical candidates and they all fall short. Patrick Mahomes has been let down by his receiving corps. Jalen Hurts, Trevor Lawrence, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert haven’t quite lived up to preseason expectations, or have been hamstrung by inconsistencies around them. Josh Allen has fallen out of contention after turnover struggles. CJ Stroud is a rookie. Joe Burrow is injured. Dak Prescott, though playing some of the best football of his career, will be dinged by the Cowboys’ record versus the league’s best. Jared Goff, Tua Tagovailoa and Purdy will not be able to shake the idea that they are merely products of very good systems.

Of the quarterbacks, Hurts and Jackson have the best cases. But by their lofty standards, neither has been transcendent. Buy a data nerd a beer, and they’ll point to Hurts ranking behind Purdy, Allen and Prescott in the EPA+CPOE composite. Jackson sits behind Goff, Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins. Even Mahomes is currently outside the top five.

The MVP should reward the game’s most impactful player – and serve as a shorthand for the story of the season. In a year when offensive output has declined, a defensive player should be rewarded. You can make a case for Micah Parsons, Nick Bosa or Maxx Crosby. But this year’s MVP belongs to Myles Garrett.

His Cleveland Browns have the most overwhelming defense in the league. Scratch that, they have the most overwhelming single unit in the league. Through 11 weeks, Cleveland’s defense tops the charts in every key metric: EPA per play, success rate, passer rating conceded, sack percentage, third-down conversion percentage.

EPA per play is a measure of down-to-down impact (stick with me). In a normal year, a defense hitting the -0.1200 mark would put them tops in the NFL. The Browns currently sit on -0.2060, twice as good as the best defense from a year ago. For context, the gulf from the Browns in first to the Ravens in second this season is the same as the distance between the Ravens in second and the Steelers in ninth.

Those are team stats, but everything Cleveland do on defense flows from Garrett.

Since the Browns drafted him No 1 overall in 2017, Garrett has been among the three-best pass-rushers – he leads the NFL in sacks over the past five years combined. But Garrett has hit a new level this season. He leads the league in sacks and pass-rush win-rate. He is the only player in the Top 10 in pass-rush win rate and run-stop rate. He tops the table in pressures per rush. And he leads the NFL in wait-did-I-just-switch-over-to-a-Marvel-movie highlight clips.

Garrett is a one-man avalanche. He wins in every way you can imagine – and some you cannot. He dusts dudes off the snap, using his first step to blow by blockers. If he doesn’t win out of his stance, he crashes his extend-o arms into a pass protectors’ chests and chucks them away with glee.

Try to beat Garrett to the edge, and he can swoop back inside. Set up narrow to try to close the corridor to the quarterback, and he can dip-and-rip around the outside. Sink to the right spot, and here comes the locomotive; people bounce off Garrett as if there is a forcefield around him.

The 27-year-old has every tool at his disposal – and he’s thinking two steps ahead of those trying to stop him. Even when Garrett tells blockers what he’s going to do before the snap, they cannot keep up. Look at this:

That is nonsense.

Garrett can win with smarts, bulldozing force or evasive footwork. When a player can do everything – and he knows he can do everything – it frees him from worrying about silly things like protection schemes or an All-Pro tackle lined up on the other side. To top it off, Garrett plays with maniacal effort.

For opposing offenses, there are no good answers, and that’s because the simplest answer – double-teaming – is a bad one, too. It leaves one-on-ones across the board for every other defender and Garrett breaks double-teams at a league-leading rate; he has been double-teamed on 32% of his snaps this season and still tops the rankings in pass-rush win rate.

No defender commands so much attention while being so unblockable. Beyond unleashing a T-Rex on the field, there’s no way of slowing Garrett down. Keep up his current rate, and the single-season sack record is within reach.

Garrett gives Cleveland’s defense an organizing ethos: speed and chaos. New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is one of the most brilliant minds in football, and even he has defaulted to let them try to deal with Myles as his schematic drumbeat. Schwartz is a savvy tactician, unafraid of bucking football orthodoxy, but he’s steered clear of some of the league’s fancier innovations because Garrett has allowed him to stick to his usual principles: rush with four, stretch the defensive line as wide as possible and give his best players the freedom to what they do best: run around and hit things.

Everybody thinks that they lived in the golden age of pass rush. It’s not our fault that we happen to be right. In any other year, you could make a case for Parsons, Crosby, or Bosa doing the Defensive Player of the Year-MVP double. But this isn’t a normal year. Garrett is the best show going; his tape against Pittsburgh last week, when he destroyed the Steelers, is for mature audiences only.

The Browns are tied for the second-best record in the AFC. ESPN gives the team a 7% chance at claiming the No 1 seed and a first-round bye. And this with Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a fifth-round rookie, at quarterback after Deshaun Watson’s season-ending injury.

The fact that Cleveland are still in the postseason hunt at all is only due to fielding the league’s best defense. And that defense only sits at the top of the pile because of Garrett. That makes him a pretty valuable player, whichever way you look at it.