Explaining Why Hawks' Sherman and 49ers' Smith Aren't Legitimate DPOY Candidates

Jon Heath@http://twitter.com/JonHeathNFLContributor IJanuary 2, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 18:  Cornerback Richard Sherman #25 of the Seattle Seahawks looks for directions against the San Francisco 49ers in the first quarter on October 18, 2012 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.  The 49ers won 13-6.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

UPDATE (1/2/13, 6:15 p.m. ET):  It has been brought to my attention by several sources (including Mike McCandles in the comments) that the AP voters cast their ballots right after the regular season, eliminating the validity of much of this article.

For that I apologize.  It does raise a question in my mind.  When the voters cast their ballots right after the regular season, why wait five weeks to announce the winners?  This is something the league should consider changing.

With the 2013 NFL Playoffs approaching, bloggers and fans are buzzing about 2012 NFL awards.  One of the hot topics is the Defensive Player of the Year race, where four main candidates have all helped their respective teams reach the postseason.

The first candidate—if you can call him that—is San Francisco's Aldon Smith. Although dubbed a one-trick pony by some critics, Smith's sacktastic season is hard to overlook.

In regular season play, Smith recorded 19.5 sacks and 18 tackles for losses, ranking in the top four in both statistical categories.  Unfortunately for Smith, he has seen a falloff in production since Week 15.

Over the final three weeks of the season, Smith recorded just nine tackles (one for a loss) and was unable to add any more sacks to his season totals.  Entering the playoffs on a flat note is not promising for Smith, especially considering that postseason play could ultimately swing DPOY voters.

The AP awards will be given out the night before Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, giving candidates for every award potentially five more weeks to solidify their résumés—which could make or break a DPOY candidates' chances by going all the way or being eliminating early in the postseason.

In the case of Smith, even if he does play in all three potential postseason games and increase his sack totals, his peak has already been reached. Smith had a fantastic run, but his performance bottomed out at the end of the season, which all but eliminated his chances of taking home DPOY honors.

The second candidate is Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who had one of the best seasons among all defensive backs in 2012. The numbers are on Sherman's side (64 tackles, 24 passes defended, eight interceptions, three forced fumbles and a sack), but history is not.

When it comes to defensive awards, voters value sacks higher than any other statistical category, similarly to how voters value quarterbacks higher than every other position when voting for league MVP awards. It is not the best method of voting, but it dominates voters' opinions.

There's just something about quarterbacks leading their teams and throwing remarkable touchdown totals and pass rushers bringing down quarterbacks while racking up historic sack numbers that catch our fancy, leaving us desiring more.

Exhibit A:  In 2006, former Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor was dominating games, seemingly reaching the quarterback every play while totaling 13.5 sacks (a high season total back in the day) batting down eight passes, intercepting two passes and forcing an astounding nine fumbles.

Over in Denver, cornerback Champ Bailey was having a remarkable season of his own, recording 85 tackles, breaking up 11 passes and intercepting 10 passes while gaining respect as one of the league's top tackling cornerbacks against the run.

At the conclusion of the 2006 season, Taylor was named the Defensive Player of the Year, despite the fact that Bailey tied for the league lead in interceptions and proved to be extremely effective against the run. Voters have always overlooked cornerbacks in favor of pass rushers, and that trend will likely continue in 2013—unjust as that may be.

That unofficially eliminates Sherman from DPOY contention, leaving two remaining candidates.

The third and fourth candidates are Denver's Von Miller and Houston's J.J. Watt, who has all but officially accepted the DPOY award. Entering wild card weekend, Watt is the clear choice to win the award, but that could change during postseason play.

Over the past three weeks, Miller has recorded eight tackles (four for losses) and 2.5 sacks, numbers that shy in comparison to Watt's 17 tackles (nine for losses) and 4 sacks during the same time frame. If Miller is going to draw serious consideration to win the award, he will have to out-produce Watt in the playoffs.

If the suddenly struggling Texans are eliminated from the playoffs early in the postseason, it will be easy for Miller to emerge as the most dominant defensive player of January. Otherwise, Watt will run away with the award, earning nearly all of the available votes to win DPOY honors.