Players do not develop linearly.
Probably the most important thing to know about maturing young players are those five words. For those who are familiar with statistics in a real-world context as opposed to a sports context, what this means is that the trajectory of a players skills is not necessarily going to look like a bell curve. For those who don't understand bell curves, there's not much to it, the shape helps sum it up pretty well. What it means is that the middle of a player's career is not necessarily his peak, nor are the beginning and end necessarily his lowest points. Some players like Vince Young or Chris Johnson peak early, some like Justin Smith hit a valley in the middle of their careers after dominating early and re-discover that form later on, some, like Kurt Warner, just peak late. An early criticism of Derrick Morgan is that he has fallen into the category of "disappointment" by not performing well early on. I'll admit, it has been a little underwhelming to see a player who was so well refined coming out of college to stumble a bit early on, even if it happens to have a lot to do with injury. But it's 2012, and Derrick Morgan has been a pretty solid player this year. Despite the fact that the defense has been nearly historically incompetent as far as allowing points goes, there have been a few things to cheer for and the improving play of a former first round pick is definitely one of them.
NFL defensive ends can be split into two categories this year: J.J. Watt and Those Who Are Not J.J. Watt. He is a ridiculous outlier so far and has outproduced everyone by a mile, to compare anybody to him this year is just pointless right now, but because you can't just exclude the outliers in this exercise, we're going to include him. In the Those Who Are Not J.J. Watt category, Derrick Morgan ranks near the top in a few categories. Morgan has had a nose for the ball this year. His 17 tackles, six for a loss, rank second in the NFL. Those six TFL are good for third in football behind J.J. Watt, his college teammate Michael Johnson, Jared Allen, and John Abraham, and tied with Jason Pierre-Paul, Cameron Wake, and Matt Shaughnessy. Not bad company to keep. Not only has the quantity of tackles increased, a stat that is sometimes seen more as a number of circumstance, but his efficiency has increased as well. His .83 tackle factor (explained in this glossary) is still not elite, but it is a remarkable improvement from the .54 he posted in 2011 and still has him ranked near the top 15.
As a pass rusher, Morgan has stepped up his game. Quarterback hits are a decent way to measure the pressure applied by a pass rusher, and in that category Morgan is, again, still not elite but a very respectable top 25 player. He has four QB hits on the season. Given the seven he had last year in 13 games, I'd like to think that we're seeing signs of a slow but steady improvement. He only has two sacks, but he is still yet to go up against the weak offensive lines of Indianapolis, Chicago, and Jacksonville. Those are five games in which I expect him to be a difference maker. Also consider that he's only one sack behind names like Jason Pierre-Paul, Julius Peppers, Jason Babin, Cliff Avril, and Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Morgan has take another step to becoming a strong building block on this defense. Last years version was a top 50 player at his position, this years might be a top 15 before all is said and done. He's making progress, he's getting better, and I think he's going to continue to improve through this season. His best days are definitely ahead of him. We saw him finish strong last year and mostly chalked it up to finally be fully recovered from his knee surgery. This year he has continued to play well against the run and started making noticeable improvements in the pass rushing department. Solidifying his spot on the defensive line next to Jurrell Casey, Sen'Derrick Marks, and Mike Martin (who hopefully doesn't pull a Karl Klug and just disappear after a great rookie season) really shows that this team has found a winning formula in recent years drafting some really good defensive linemen.