Justin Simmons Was 2019’s Most Valuable Defensive Player, Per PFF

The dog days of summer are upon us, and the regular season is still over a month away. During this lull in the NFL calendar, the fine folks over at Pro Football Focus have been working on a Wins Above Replacement stat, or WAR. According to this metric, Denver Broncos star safety Justin Simmons was the most valuable defensive player in football.

PFF: Justin Simmons the Most Valuable Defensive Player in Football

WAR is far from a perfect stat, but it’s a good measure to show just how good Simmons was in 2019. Now, it’s also worth mentioning that “most valuable” does not necessarily mean “best”. Nobody would argue that Justin Simmons is a better player than Aaron Donald, but Simmons’ work in coverage is more valuable than Donald’s work in the trenches. PFF performed a study a while back suggesting that pass coverage is more important than pass rush, and the analytics community seems to agree with that conclusion.

As one might expect from the 2019 Defensive WAR leader, Justin Simmons had a season for the ages last year. While taking his game to another level, Simmons started all 16 games, recording four interceptions, 15 pass breakups, two tackles-for-loss, and 93 total tackles. Traditional stats don’t tell the whole story, as most of a safety’s impact cannot be accounted for in traditional stats. According to PFF, Simmons ended the season with the second-highest grade among safeties, trailing only Anthony Harris by the smallest of margins. As seen in the tweet above, Harris was the third-most valuable defender in the league last year despite having a higher grade. This difference probably comes down to total snaps, as Simmons saw the field more often than Harris.

Simmons was supposed to hit free agency in the 2020 offseason, but John Elway used the franchise tag to keep him in town. The two sides couldn’t come to a long-term deal, so Simmons will play on a one-year, fully-guaranteed deal before testing the market in 2021.

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