It wasn’t easy. Not by a longshot.
My decision to voice my support for linebacker Khalil Mack over Rams’ defensive tackle Aaron Donald for my defensive rookie of the year took some considering. And while most of the statistics favor Donald, there are some things that won’t show up in the box score, and gave Mack the edge.
It’s true, Donald played better than any defensive tackle in the league this year. While Mack was dominant, making the argument that he was the best linebacker in football is daunting — lightly put.
Nine sacks in 12 starts, six quarterback hits and 28 hurries. 36 total defensive stops, plays resulting in offensive failure, and include sacks. That’s incredible, though Buffalo’s Marcell Dareus had more sacks, Donald beat him out in the three other categories mentioned.
And he’s a rookie.
No, the case for Mack wasn’t cut and dry at all.
Judging two different players, in two different positions — even if Mack has been used primarily as a pass rusher — takes an eye for film and the ability to look beyond the basic numbers.
What Mack does to really set himself apart is in coverage. Quarterbacks had an 83.3 rating when throwing in his direction per Pro Football Focus, better than all but one other linebacker in the league who played 60 percent or more team snaps.
The only one to beat him there was Seattle’s Bruce Irvin, one of the best overall players in the league.
Mack had 48 stops. He hurried the quarterback 40 times, and hit signal callers 10 times this season. In coverage, he allowed catches on 66.7 percent of passes in his direction, tied for tops in the league at his position.
The percentage might not sound great straight away, but consider that Von Miller allowed 100 percent of passes for completions, and Minnesota rookie linebacker Anthony Barr allowed a whopping 91.5 percent for catches.
And while Mack was rushing the passer, he was often the biggest focus for opposing offensive lines, being double teamed or chipped in route to his havoc-wreaking tackles.
Yes, I voted for Mack.
And at the risk of being called a homer, which will surely happen on Twitter at some point soon, he is the most deserving candidate. The competition was fierce, no doubt.
Donald is one heck of a player, as is Baltimore’s C.J. Mosley and Barr. They should all have fine careers.
But Mack is the guy. At least this year.