Nick Shook uses the eye test and Next Gen Stats to assemble his personal 2022 All-Pro Team. Below, he presents his defense.
It's difficult to tell the story of the 2022 49ers without including Bosa near the start of the tale. Sure, the three quarterbacks have played an important part, but none has been as consistently important to San Francisco's fortunes this season as Bosa, the NFL leader in sacks (18.5), who also leads all edge rushers in quarterback pressures (73). The difference he makes comes in all shapes and sizes, from routine takedowns of Matthew Stafford in the 49ers' two meetings with the Rams to forcing quarterbacks into game-changing turnovers without even touching them. Opposing tackles must be aware of where No. 97 is at all times. After earning his third Pro Bowl bid in four years, Bosa should be leaving NFL Honors with some fancy new hardware.
With respect for Haason Reddick, who had a career-best campaign, Garrett was my clear No. 2 edge rusher this season. The former No. 1 overall pick finished with the second-most QB pressures in the NFL (72), three turnovers caused by pressure and 13 run stuffs. Like Reddick, Garrett posted 16 sacks this year. Unlike the Eagles defender, though, no other Browns player had more than three, while Reddick was one of four Eagles to hit double digits. Garrett also fell just 0.5 sacks shy of joining T.J. Watt, J.J. Watt, Bruce Smith, DeMarcus Ware, Derrick Thomas and Reggie White as the only players with 75-plus sacks over their first six seasons (since 1982). That's elite company, fitting for a premier player who's proven to be among the most consistent edge rushers int he NFL. He's earned a third-straight All-Pro selection.
We're not relying solely on sacks in judging defensive tackles for this spot (Lawrence had 7.5, if you were wondering), instead looking for who has the most complete résumé. Before we dive into the data, though, we have to consider the film, and few DTs showed up more than Lawrence. The 25-year-old has become a foundational piece of New York's defense, functioning as an immovable object who also likes to wreak havoc from time to time. Lawrence finished in the top seven in total stops (plays that result in a negative EPA for opposing offenses), and, among that group of seven, recorded the most turnovers caused by pressure (3). Speaking of rattling passers, he pressured QBs on 12.1 percent of his pass-rush snaps -- third-best at his position, behind only Quinnen Williams (13.4%) and Javon Hargrave (13.2%). Lawrence is fulfilling every part of his job at a premier level, and now that the Giants have returned to the playoffs, perhaps folks will start to give him his due.
It's a New York double feature on the defensive interior! Williams, a former third overall pick, had been making small strides over his first few seasons, but had yet to fully break out. Oh, did that change in 2022. Williams blossomed into a consistent problem up front, helping the Jets go from the 32nd-ranked defense in 2021 to No. 5 this season. The fourth-year pro finished with the highest QB pressure rate (13.4%) among all defensive tackles (min. 250 snaps), recording 12 sacks and tying with Dexter Lawrence for the most QB hurries (29) entering Week 18, per Next Gen Stats. Williams recorded 42 stops, just 10 behind Lawrence, seven run stuffs and three turnovers caused by pressure. Like Lawrence, Williams is a force. And he's only 25 years old.
A change in scenery and another trip around the sun didn't stop Wagner in 2022. Sure, the 32-year-old didn't fit in Seattle's youth movement, and his move south didn't produce the title chase he was likely expecting, but there's something to be said for returning home and flourishing. And that's precisely what Wagner did. The eight-time Pro Bowler piled up 140 tackles (including 10 for loss), five passes defensed, two INTs and a career-high six sacks. Injuries decimated this Rams team, contributing to its 5-12 record, but Wagner was a constant in the lineup, starting all 17 games. No stranger to the All-Pro Team, Wagner deserves his seventh selection after a strong 2022 campaign.
The Cowboys are now moving Parsons to the line so often, we've encountered some classification confusion. Is he a linebacker? An edge rusher? Truthfully, he's both, and certainly capable of more than just rushing the passer off the edge. For a second straight year, Parsons finds himself on this list -- and for good reason. Parsons went from runaway Defensive Rookie of the Year to All-Pro candidate by serving as a three-down linebacker with sideline-to-sideline speed and a penchant for wrecking games. He's forced three fumbles, recovered three fumbles (including one returned, incredibly, for a touchdown against Chicago), defended three passes and recorded 65 tackles (including 14 for loss). He won't rank among the best pass-covering linebackers because he typically spends those downs rushing the passer. And when it comes to getting after quarterbacks, he's one of the best, improving on his 13-sack total from 2021 by half of a sack in 2022. Add in his 70 QB pressures -- third most in the entire NFL -- and five turnovers caused by pressure, and you have the most well-rounded defender in the league.
Atlanta has to wish it had a do-over with Oluokun, who left the Falcons for the Jaguars last free-agency period and promptly racked up a league-leading 184 tackles in his first season in Jacksonville. Surprised? You shouldn't be, as Oluokon led the NFL in tackles last year, too. In his first season in Duval, the 27-year-old finished as the only linebacker with 100 -- count them, 100 -- stops in 2022, tacking on 21 run stuffs, 12 QB pressures and 25 hustle stops (when a defender covers 20-plus yards of in-play distance from snap to tackle), per Next Gen Stats. He proved to be an absolute dynamo of a linebacker and one of the reasons why the Jags are hosting a playoff game Saturday after ending last season with the league's worst record.
Bradberry might now wow when you look at the traditional stats, but the Next Gen data -- plus the tape -- suggest the veteran deserves a spot on this year's team. Bradberry boasted both the best receptions allowed over expected (-10.6) and targeted expected points added (-32.8) among DBs this year, meaning he took away opponents' chances of successful plays -- and, thus, points -- at a higher rate than any other player at his position. Quarterbacks completed just 45.9 percent of their passes when Bradberry was the nearest defender (39 catches on 85 targets) despite the data suggesting that rate should've been closer to 58.4 percent. The -12.5 percentage-point difference in expected completion percentage ranked No. 1 among all cornerbacks in 2022. So don't even bother with interception totals when it comes to the Eagles corner; he's clearly doing an excellent job on a per-play basis.
Gardner's impressive rookie season confirmed he's more than a dude with a sweet nickname. The first-year player out of Cincinnati crushed in several advanced metrics, including CPOE, where he ranked second to only James Bradberry (-8.4% vs. -12.5%); both outclassed the competition, with the next closest cornerback (Patrick Peterson) coming in at -2.9%. Similarly, Gardner finished second to Bradberry in target EPA (-28.8 vs. -32.8) and receptions over expected (-6.8 to -10.6). Gardner is quickly building a reputation as a cornerback quarterbacks don't want to attack. Those who tried to challenge the 6-foot-3 defender learned the hard way, as evidenced by his league-best 20 passes defended. So pay attention, passers, and don't throw in Sauce's direction.
It's a little tricky to assess safeties using Next Gen data, because the position is not targeted directly nearly as often as cornerback. But we don't need to rely on advanced metrics here. In fact, when I think of evaluating safeties, the first thing that comes to mind is the player's impact in the turnover department. And Fitzpatrick is the definition of a ballhawk. The fifth-year playmaker shined on an incredibly opportunistic Pittsburgh defense, which led the league in interceptions as a team thanks, in part, to Fitzpatrick leading the league among individual players with a career-high six. His first interception of 2022: a pick-six off Joe Burrow on Pittsburgh's opening defensive series of the season. Many of the Steelers' forced turnovers were a product of a pass rush that enjoyed a revelatory effort from Alex Highsmith (especially when T.J. Watt missed time due to injury) and a swarming secondary that deflected plenty of passes, leaving them to be picked off. Fitzpatrick, who ranks fourth in total takeaways (24) since entering the league, always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, sliding underneath passes or catching them off deflections for game-turning plays. The three-time Pro Bowler finished the year with 94 tackles and matched a career-high in passes defended, with 11.
Like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Poyer remains one of the game's most prolific ball magnets. The veteran had four picks, eight passes defensed and a ballhawk rate of 30.8 percent (the percentage of targets where the nearest defender made a play on the football via a pass defended or interception) -- tied for second-best in the league. He also posted the best targeted EPA (expected points added) among all safeties (-24.5), per Next Gen Stats. Poyer did all of this while missing Micah Hyde for all but the first two games of 2022. That's quite the campaign for a safety who's been in the league for a decade.
Although this DB spot doesn't exist on the "official" AP All-Pro Team, I'm adding it as a way to acknowledge the prevalence of nickel and dime packages in today's game.
Early in the season, it became apparent Hufanga was going to play an important role in San Francisco's secondary. What none of us realized was just how impactful he would prove to be. Hufanga opened the season with 11 tackles and an interception at a rain-soaked Soldier Field in Chicago, a performance that signaled his arrival in Year 2. Three weeks later, he demonstrated his ability to make the big play on the big stage when he read Matthew Stafford's intentions for a decisive pick-six in a Week 4 win over the Rams in prime time. When it comes to the Next Gen Stats, the numbers support what the tape suggests: Hufanga is a stud. The safety owns a CPOE of -13.2 percent, a targeted EPA of -12 and a ballhawk rate of 22.5 percent. Hufanga is a heat-seeking missile of a safety, who, at times, allows his aggression to take him out of plays. But the 49ers will accept those occasional misfires if he keeps playing at such a high level.
Sometimes you have to throw the advanced metrics out the window and revel in the beauty of a booming punt. Stonehouse had plenty of those in 2022, leading the NFL in average punt distance (61.6 yards) and finishing second in total punts (90). The rest of his numbers aren't quite as good as, say, the Raiders' A.J. Cole, but watching the Titans rookie punt was a real treat. Stonehouse's massive leg dug Tennessee and its 30th-ranked offense out of numerous field-position holes throughout the season. So, yeah, I'll gladly overlook some of the accuracy numbers in favor of the deep ball here.