As always, WPA and EPA will be my measure of performance, rather than yard or sack totals. I'm going to look at how each player stacks up against their peers at the same position. The idea is a little like the concept of the replacement player. The most valuable player would be the one that offers the most value above the next best alternative. Still, because the effect of the passing game is so magnified in today's game, this would always be the number one QB. So let's put each position on the same level and see who most stands out above the pack.
Rather than stare at an eye chart of numbers, I made a visualization that plots the top 32 performers at each position. Each player's total WPA is plot on the vertical axis and total EPA is plot on the horizontal axis. I'm not looking at over- or under-performance like when we were looking at 'clutch' play. In this analysis, I'm just looking for the players who show up at the top right of the plot. All numbers are from the regular season only.
There are two additional tabs that simplify things a bit by ranking each player by WPA and by EPA.
And because it's easy and fun, I've included past years too. You can even select 'all years' and see the top 32 at each position since 2000. The WPA Rank and EPA Rank bar charts are especially cool because they identify performance on multiple teams according to team color.
Once you've perused the top players at each position for 2012 and seen how far above the pack they are, we can start handing out the awards.
Most Valuable Player
There can be no debate. JJ Watt is the 2012 MVP. Call him a DT, DE, 3-4 guy, 4-3 guy, or whatever you want. His production is double the next best DE and a light year ahead of the rest of the pack of top defensive linemen. 109 Success Count, 68 tackles and 12 assists (39 of which for a loss), 1.36 Tackle Factor, 22 sacks, 16 passes defended, 43 QB hits, and 4 forced fumbles.
Offensive Player of the Year
Calvin Johnson broke the record for total receiving yards in a season. Despite my aversion to yardage totals, Johnson's season was truly productive. Andre Johnson kept pace in terms of WPA, but Calvin stands apart furthest from the pack at his position--more than Peyton Manning or Adrian Peterson.
Defensive Player of the Year
With JJ Watt taking the MVP award, that leaves the field open for another defender. Von Miller, Lawrence Timmons, and Rhonde Barber are in the discussion, but Geno Atkins gets the award. Vince Wilfork gave him a run for his money at the DT position, but Atkins stands apart from the blob of other DTs more than the other top defenders stand above the pack at their position. 58 success count, 39 tackles and 15 assists (18 for a loss) for a 0.94 TF, 14 sacks, 2 passes defended, and 3 forced fumbles.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Vick Ballard deserves some attention. Doug Martin too. But both had too many unsuccessful attempts that weighed down their overall production. This leaves us with the obvious candidates, rookie QBs Robert Griffin the III, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson. A case could be made for any one of the three. I'm going with Luck because of his total WPA. This suggests that of the three top rookie QBs, he had the worst team around him.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
LB Luke Kuechly will probably win the actual award, and he would be very deserving. His little Panther logo is right next to Lawrence Timmons' Steeler logo in the top right corner of the WPA-EPA plot. Kuechly led all LBs with 105 SC and a TF of 1.56. He notched 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 8 passes defended, 1 QB hit, and 12 tackles for losses.
Comeback Player of the Year
I won't pretend I've been tracking all the players who have come back from injuries or other ailments this season. We all know it will come down to Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson. Stats aside, I'd give it to Peterson. He was able to make an enormous impact as a RB, which isn't easy to do, as the running game withers in the modern game. The Vikings had an average defense, a below average passing game, but its running attack was its sole virtue. Peterson willed his team into the playoffs, even as it had little reason to be there. Manning's accomplishment is also amazing, but the Broncos were a solid team from top to bottom, and solid QB play is naturally magnified. Manning will probably win it though.
Offensive Play of the Year
0.73 WPA: Blane Gabbert's 80 yard TD pass to Cecil Shorts, down by 1 with 56 seconds to play against the Colts.
Defensive Play of the Year
-0.62 WPA: No, it's not the butt fumble, but it is a Mark Sanchez fumble against the Patriots. In overtime, with 2nd and 10 from his own 28, Sanchez was strip sacked by Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham. Ninkovich recovered, giving the Patriots an easy FG for the win.
Coach of the Year Mike Mularkey, formerly of the Jaguars, gets it for going for it on 4th and 10 late in OT against Houston. Screw the tie, Mularkey was going for the win. It didn't work out for JAX that day, but Mularkey gets the award all the same. So there you go. A perfectly reasonable QB-free slate of season awards. If forced, I'd give the QB of the Year Award to Matt Ryan for his combination of EPA and WPA. He was best in neither, but right up there in both.