The AP Defensive Player of the Year has been awarded to a linebacker four times since 2000. Brian Urlacher was the most recent recipient of this prestigious distinction - leading the NFC’s best defense to a division title and racking up 120+ tackles and 6 sacks in the process. Usually it the defense that makes the adjustments, but in the case of Brian Urlacher and the Chicago Bears, offenses frequently made adjustments against #54 in an attempt to remove him from the play. Obviously that didn’t work too much against Urlacher and the Bears - a defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFL.
Rare is the player who can force teams to scheme against him and still have great success. Even rarer is a player who has won both the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and the AP Defensive Player of the Year in a career. Lawrence Taylor did both in the same year in 1981.
"Best player on the best defense. He should be the defensive MVP," Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown said. "He makes a lot of impact plays, but just him being on the field, teams have to scheme against us. They have to do different things to stay away from him. He's the leader of our team."
The Chargers too have an impact linebacker who was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. His name is Shawne Merriman. A different-type of linebacker than a Brian Urlacher, Merriman nonetheless shares his relentlessness and desire to be the best. He too is a playmaker on defense that teams will be forced to scheme against; if Shawne Merriman is having success on the football field its likely that opposing offenses are not.
In less than a full-season’s worth of starts, Merriman racked up 10 sacks, 57 tackles, and 2 forced fumbles en-route to earning a Pro Bowl berth as the AFC’s best Outside Linebacker. With his rookie season under his belt, a full offseason’s worth of conditioning as well as a firmer grasp of the Chargers 3-4 scheme, there is really no ceiling for what Shawne Merriman can accomplish in 2006. With the way Merriman flies to the ball, he could reach 75+ tackles and close to 15 sacks. His forced fumbles could also increase, resulting in turnovers for a defense that sorely needs help in that area.
Clearly Merriman has a legit shot at the AP Defensive Player of the Year award. But I want to take it one step further and put him in the class of Lawrence Taylor. Not since Taylor won the award in 1986 has the NFL MVP been anything other than a Quarterback or Running back. But looking back at the type of player Taylor was, it is easy to see the similarities that Merriman shares with him.
In 1981, Taylor was drafted by the NFL's New York Giants as the # 2 pick overall. He was named 1981's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press with 9.5 sacks. He produced double-digit sacks seasons consecutively from 1986 through 1990, with his career high of 20 1/2 sacks coming in 1986.
During that 1986 season, Lawrence Taylor lead the #1 ranked rushing defense to the SuperBowl and won it. He played with TE Mark Bavaro who had 1000+ yards receiving, and RB Joe Morris who has 1500+ yards rushing. None of the Wide Receivers on the 86 Giants had over 1000+ yards receiving. The Giants ran the ball well, played well against the run, had a top 10 offense, gave up a ton of passing yard, but didn’t allow touchdowns. They had two players with double digit sack totals. And to top it all off, they drafted 19th overall that year.
The similarities between the Lawernce Taylor’s 1986 Giants and Shawne Merriman’s 2006 Chargers are striking.
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