A few weeks back here at The Journal we channeled the late great John Madden to name a 2021 All Madden team; a difficult exercise and one that required us to make terribly difficult choices. We think that the most difficult among them was at the Defensive Tackle position where the generational/all-time talent Aaron Donald had to occupy one spot, and Vita Vea occupied the second spot.
However there's a case to be made, and one that Madden himself would likely pain over, for Cameron Heyward. Heyward had a truly fantastic season this year, one which was an outlier among defensive tackles recently, and Heyward certainly plays with a style that Madden would surely appreciate.
We've covered in recent articles the value, and frequently the lack of value, associated with tackle statistics as they've been compiled. However in the last few years—and certainly since around 1999 - play-by-play compiled tackle statistics are actually quite reliable.
Heyward this year tied with Christian Wilkins of the Miami Dolphins to lead all DTs with 89 tackles per play-by-play statistics. This is an exceptional measure of activity for a defensive tackle. Of course, we value all sorts of characteristics of interior line play, and there's no question that Aaron Donald is the most disruptive interior defender of 2021, and the last 40 years.
However, activity and participation in plays is important too, and this is where tackles are meaningful. In fact, we would argue that tackles are a more meaningful measure of activity for an interior lineman than they are for a linebacker, or certainly for a defensive back.
Tackles for an interior alignment indicate that the first line of defense was making the stop, tackles for Linebackers typically mean that either the first line didn't make a stop, or a scheme was designed for the first line to take up blockers and Linebackers to clean up. Tackles for defensive backs often mean a very poor front seven, or a scheme that brings safeties into the box to act as quasi-linebackers.
In fact, Cam Heyward's 89 tackles in 2021 are the most we've seen in many many years, how does this fit in context? A simple Pro Football Reference query suggests that Heyward’s 2021 was the 34th best DT season in their database for DTs. But recall that tackle stats pre-1999 are often dubious, when team tackle numbers from the PFR query are replaced with play-by-play numbers Hayward and Wilkins jump to #8 overall.
Names that remain in the Hayward neighborhood are the likes of Tim Krumrie, maybe the best Nose Tackle of the late-80’s, Cortez Kennedy who won Defensive Player of the Year despite being on a losing team, the mammoth Ted Washington who was a serially underrated journeyman who starred for 7 teams over 17 seasons and Ray Childress one of the most versatile linemen of the ’80s and ’90s. Of those seasons Ted Washington’s 1996 still means that Hayward and Wilkins were as active as any DT in the last 25-years.
Here is a chart so you can see what we mean.
"TT" means "team total"
"TT" means "team total"
"PBP" means tackles from play-by-plays or gamebooks.