While the NFL has become a passing-driven offensive-minded league, there may be more defensive talent in it than ever before. In fact, 2011's race for Defensive Player of the Year honors was one of the best battles in recent memory.
In 2012, things should be no different. Here is a list of five hard-hitting players who will all be in the mix to win the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award.
Any discussion about the Defensive Player of the Year award has to begin with Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Last season, Ware racked up 58 tackles and a whopping 19.5 sacks. The scary thing is that Ware might be even better in 2012.
The Cowboys had serious issues in the secondary last season, so they went out and landed two stud cornerbacks to improve things at the back end. By signing free agent Brandon Carr and drafting LSU's Morris Claiborne, Dallas vastly improved its pass defense this offseason.
One of the keys to a great pass rush is good coverage in the secondary. Ware will benefit as much as anyone from the addition of Carr and Claiborne.
If he stays healthy, there is almost nothing standing in the way of Ware putting up more ridiculous numbers in 2012.
I still don't know how Jared Allen didn't win the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2011. The Minnesota Vikings defensive end racked up 22 sacks last season and was the most dominant pass rusher in the game.
Like Ware, Allen will benefit from an improved secondary in 2012. With rookies Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson adding speed and athleticism to the back four, Allen and the rest of the Vikings will be better up front as well.
Allen has led the NFL in sacks twice (2007 and 2011) and is a four-time Pro Bowler. He's in the midst of his prime and should have another stellar season in 2012.
For almost a decade now, Troy Polamalu has been one of the best players in the NFL. He is a seven-time Pro Bowler and is coming off of another solid season.
In 2011, Polamalu racked up 91 tackles and two interceptions, but the 31-year-old is poised to post bigger numbers in 2012. He was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010, and he'll certainly be in the mix once again this season.
The defense around him will be improved, with James Harrison hopefully in uniform for all 16 games and rookie Sean Spence fitting in perfectly at inside linebacker for the departed James Farrior.
Polamalu is a hard-hitting playmaker who will once again be among the best players in the league this fall.
Other than Peyton Manning landing with the Denver Broncos, the biggest free-agent signing of the offseason was Mario Williams inking a huge deal with the Buffalo Bills.
Williams was a dominant force off the edge in his six seasons with the Houston Texans, piling up 53 sacks in that time. But he missed all but five games in 2011 thanks to a torn pectoral muscle and was not a good fit as an outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense.
With the Bills, Williams will be back in a 4-3 scheme as a defensive end, which is where he belongs. And he will be a part of what could be the NFL's best defensive line. With fellow end Mark Anderson (10 sacks in 2011) and defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, Williams and the Bills should be outstanding up front.
Opposing offenses won't be able to solely concentrate on stopping Williams, or the rest of Buffalo's line will overwhelm them. He will likely get plenty of one-on-one opportunities, and the two-time Pro Bowler should rack up sacks as a result.
Eric Weddle is an under-the-radar pick, but the 27-year-old safety has quietly established himself as one of the best defenders in the NFL over the past few seasons.
Weddle has been selected to All-Pro teams in each of the past two seasons, and in 2011, he tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with seven. Over the past two seasons, the Utah product has posted 184 tackles and nine interceptions.
He is a hard-hitting force against the run and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. At 5'11" and 200 pounds, he's the kind of guy who get the most out of his physical ability.
Weddle has improved considerably against the pass. That showed last season with his 11 pass breakups and his career-high interception total.
With San Diego's defense expected to be much improved in 2012, expect Weddle to continue to thrive.