Which Defensive Players Have a Legitimate Shot at NFL MVP?

Dan Van WieContributor IIIJune 20, 2012

Which Defensive Players Have a Legitimate Shot at NFL MVP?

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    Which players truly have a legitimate chance of winning the NFL Defensive Most Valuable Player award in 2012?

    While there are plenty of individuals that have the potential to win, we are only interested in trying to narrow down the list to the 10 players who have the most realistic shot at winning the award this year.

    The next slide will provide an overview of every NFL Defensive MVP winner from 1990-present. You will see how few times anybody has been able to win this award a second time in the past 22 years.

    If you have an idea you would like to volunteer for consideration, feel free to leave it in the comments section.

Past 22 Winners of the Defensive Player of the Year Award

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    Here are the past winners from 1990 on, listing the player, their team, their position, where their team's overall defensive ranking was in the NFL that year and how well their team performed that season:


    1990 Bruce Smith Buffalo Bills Defensive end 8 Lost Super Bowl XXV
    1991 Pat Swilling New Orleans Saints Linebacker 2 NFC Wild Card
    1992 Cortez Kennedy Seattle Seahawks (2) Defensive tackle 10t 2–14 no playoffs
    1993 Rod Woodson Pittsburgh Steelers (5) Cornerback 3 AFC Wild Card
    1994 Deion Sanders San Francisco 49ers Cornerback 8 Won Super Bowl XXIX
    1995 Bryce Paup Buffalo Bills (2) Linebacker 13 AFC Divisional
    1996 Bruce Smith
    Buffalo Bills (3) Defensive end 9 AFC Wild Card
    1997 Dana Stubblefield San Francisco 49ers (2) Defensive tackle 1 NFC Championship
    1998 Reggie White
    Green Bay Packers Defensive end 4 NFC Wild Card
    1999 Warren Sapp Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2) Defensive tackle 3 NFC Championship
    2000 Ray Lewis 
    Baltimore Ravens Linebacker 2 Won Super Bowl XXXV
    2001 Michael Strahan New York Giants (4) Defensive end 14 7–9 no playoffs
    2002 Derrick Brooks Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3) Linebacker 1 Won Super Bowl XXXVII
    2003 Ray Lewis Baltimore Ravens (2) Linebacker 3 AFC Wild Card
    2004 Ed Reed Baltimore Ravens (3) Safety 6 9–7 no playoffs
    2005 Brian Urlacher Chicago Bears (3) Linebacker 2 NFC Divisional
    2006 Jason Taylor Miami Dolphins (3) Defensive end 4 6–10, no playoffs
    2007 Bob Sanders Indianapolis Colts Safety 3 AFC Divisional
    2008 James Harrison Pittsburgh Steelers (6) Linebacker 1 Won Super Bowl XLIII
    2009 Charles Woodson Green Bay Packers (2) Cornerback 2 NFC Wild Card
    2010 Troy Polamalu Pittsburgh Steelers (7) Safety 2 Lost Super Bowl XLV
    2011 Terrell Suggs Baltimore Ravens (4) Linebacker 3 AFC Championship

    Ray Lewis, Bruce Smith and Reggie White were the only repeat winners of the award during the past 22 years. You will note that your team doesn't have to make the playoffs to win the award, but I think it does help your chances. Every defensive position is represented in the last 22 winners.

    List of prior winners courtesy of Wikipedia.com

Aldon Smith

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    As a rookie in the NFL in 2011, Aldon Smith made a huge impression on the NFL, finishing with 14 sacks, which tied him with 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, for No. 5 in sacks in the NFL. That's pretty heady stuff for a rookie.

    Due to how good the San Francisco 49ers defensive unit is, Smith will again be in a prime position to cash in on sack attempts because you can't block all of the 49ers star players on defense. Smith has the strength, size and athleticism to take advantage of mismatches and is quick enough to nail quarterbacks for a big sack.

    It's conceivable that Smith could have a sophomore slump, but I would be surprised if that happened. The defense has too many veterans around to let that happen, and Coach Harbaugh will keep him on his toes—expect another big year from Aldon Smith.

Mario Williams

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    Due to the big six-year, $96 million contract he signed with the Buffalo Bills during the 2012 offseason, defensive end Mario Williams is now the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.

    If Williams can play to that level, he will become the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The Bills defense is poised to take a significant jump in the rankings in 2012, and if that happens, Williams will undoubtedly be recognized as the key figure responsible for that jump.

    Williams came up with 14 and 12 sacks in 2007 and 2008. In 2012, Williams will have the benefit of playing next to two very good defensive tackles in Marcell Dareus and All-Pro Kyle Williams.

    On the opposite side, Williams will have a strong pass rush coming from either Mark Anderson or Shawne Merriman. This defensive line will be causing all kind of matchup problems for offensive line and blocking schemes. Mario Williams should be in a great position to clean up a very high number of sacks in 2012.

    The other thing that is in Williams' favor is that the Bills will allow him to flip from the right defensive end over to the left defensive end, taking advantage of specific matchups. That degree of flexibility will also come in handy and maximizes the impact he should make on the defense.

    If the Bills are able to break their streak and reach the playoffs, Mario Williams could be one of the main reasons for that accomplishment. He's a player to watch in 2012. By the way, sleeper picks from this defensive front seven include Kyle Williams and Shawne Merriman. They could have monster years.

DeMarcus Ware

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    Another player who will be viewed in a favorable light, especially if his team does well and goes deep into the playoffs, would be linebacker DeMarcus Ware.

    Ware has been a steady top-10 sacks leader in the NFL, and his ability to turn the corner and bend allows him to make sacks that other players physically aren't able to match. Ware combines strength with speed, quickness and agility to come up with his power rushes that offensive tackles can't stop.

    As of July 31, Ware will turn 30 years old. He has registered double-digit sacks in each of the past six years, which demonstrates he's anything but a one-hit wonder. His high caliber of play, combined with his ability to produce solid numbers year after year warrants him strong consideration for the defensive MVP.

    One other consideration is that Ware has been a first-team All-Pro selection in four of the past five years. That is another indication about how strong his performance has been. If the Cowboys win it all this year, Ware could easily get the needed votes.

Troy Polamalu

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    Troy Polamalu just keeps on rolling along. The Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro safety will need to come up big again in 2012, if the Steelers defense is going to be a top-five unit in the NFL.

    They have lost a number of veterans from 2011, and while it's true that they have been grooming those replacements, you never know how they are going to perform week in and week out when the pressure is on them.

    Polamalu has been voted to the first-team All-Pro team four different times and has been named first team in three of the past four years. He seems to have an uncanny ability to know exactly where the play is going, and his anticipation skills help to set him apart from his peers.

    At 31 years old, Polamalu is still in great shape, but in the not too distant future, the years of pounding and wear and tear will take a toll on his body. The reactions will slow down a little bit at a time, and the next thing you know, he has lost a step. For 2012, he's still a viable contender for NFL Defensive MVP, but that window might be closing in the next year to two.

Haloti Ngata

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    You won't find any other Ravens defensive players on this presentation, but I think if there's one Ravens defender who's capable and is ready to win the NFL Defensive MVP award, it's Ngata.

    Defensive tackles as a general rule of thumb, don't often win this award. They don't usually generate a bunch of stats, so it's sometimes difficult to measure the impact that they have on the game. But if you ask an experienced All-Pro like Ray Lewis, he would be sure to tell you that he appreciates what Ngata does just fine.

    Ngata excels at tying up offensive linemen so that the linebackers can make a play on the ball. In addition, Ngata is also more than capable of penetrating the offensive line and causing some chaos in the backfield.

    Ngata has been a first-team All-Pro for each of the past two seasons and will be a force in the middle of the Ravens' defensive line for years to come.

Jason Pierre-Paul

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    What a difference a year makes. In the span of one short year, Jason Pierre-Paul exploded on the scene. His stats in 2010 weren't really anything special, but they were enough to give the Giants a hint that Pierre-Paul could become something more. In his rookie year, Pierre-Paul had 30 tackles and 4.5 sacks.

    Then, it 2011, the light bulb went on. The tackles went up from 30 to 86, and the sacks rose to 16.5 from 4.5. That's just a huge step up in growth.

    Now with two years under his belt and a Super Bowl ring on his finger, Pierre-Paul should have tremendous level of confidence coming into the 2012 season. The sky is the limit for JPP, and it would not be a surprise if he captures the NFL Defensive Most Valuable Player award at least once before his career ends.

    With all of the talent on the New York Giants defensive line, it's truly difficult to keep the entire line off the quarterback, so somebody is usually in a position to beat a single-team block. If single-team blocks are still happening in 2012, Pierre-Paul could lead the league in sacks.

Jared Allen

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    Jared Allen continues to display tremendous sack skills year after year. Allen came just one-half of a sack short of tying the all-time NFL record held by Michael Strahan of the New York Giants.

    Allen had 22 sacks in 2011, and his goal for the 2012 season is to come up with the sack record, as per this article from ESPN 1500 Twin Cities.

    2011 wasn't just a one-hit wonder. In 2009, Allen was No. 2 in the league in sacks, as he came up with 14.5 sacks for the season. Whatever schemes offensive lines throw up at him, he finds a way to persevere and push through.

    Further testament to Allen was that he was able to put up the huge season despite playing for a Minnesota Vikings team that was eliminated from the playoffs much earlier in the year.

    While we don't know if Allen will be able to reach the sack record, we do think that he will be a player who's considered for the NFL Defensive MVP award.

Nnamdi Asomugha

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    Nnamdi Asomugha will be one of the keys to the Philadelphia Eagles defense becoming better in 2012. The Eagles loaded up with talent on the defensive unit in 20111 but really never got the unit going until the second half of the season to show what they can do.

    In 2012, there are no excuses. The team is going to be playing hard for Andy Reid. The defense promises to be improved, and Asomugha will be there to shut down the top receivers that teams want to trot out his way every week.

    It will be interesting to see which cornerback is having a better season in 2012, Asomugha or Darrelle Revis. I will be watching both of them this year, and if any cornerback is going to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, my guess is that it will be one of those two players.

Darrelle Revis

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    According to this acticle by Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus, Darrelle Revis should have voted as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award winner in 2009.

    Whether or not justice will prevail and Revis will win the award later in his career remains to be seen. There have been a few hints that Revis could attempt to stage a holdout, but I really think that is just some posturing on his part to get the Jets to begin some serious dialogue about giving him a new contract.

    While Revis is unquestionably one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, he does warrant strong consideration for the Defensive player MVP award.

    Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus wrote an article that Revis was so good in coverage in 2011, that when quarterbacks were throwing at receivers whom he covered, their passer rating went down all the way to 45.6.

    That was the best mark of any corner in the NFL, which is further testimony as to why Revis is on the verge of winning the award. Here's a link to the article on the job Revis did in 2011 coverage.

Patrick Willis

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    Patrick Willis might very well be replacing Terrell Suggs as the new NFL Defensive Most Valuable Player in 2012.

    Willis has been acting as the key member of the improved San Francisco 49ers defense. But Willis has been playing inspired football for years now. In fact, the 49ers linebacker is the only NFL defensive player who has been named to the first-team All-Pro team for each of the last three years.

    The 49ers came within a whisker of reaching the Super Bowl in 2011. If the 49ers repeat as NFC West division winners, you can rest assured that Willis will be playing a major role. He's another player who should be considered a favorite for the Defensive MVP award this year.