Ranking the Top 25 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Candidates

Wes StueveContributor IIIJuly 6, 2013

Ranking the Top 25 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Candidates

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    In 2012, the NFL saw some of the most dominant defensive performances ever. Odds are, 2013 won't be quite the same. Some of those same dominant players remain Defensive Player of the Year candidates, however.

    Looking at prior performance, overall ability and potential moving forward, it is easy to determine who the NFL's best defensive players are. Based on position, some of these are more likely than others to win Defensive Player of the Year.

    It is always difficult to predict who will win a certain award. Rarely, though, is it difficult to narrow down a list of possibilities. 

25. Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets

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    In 2012, Muhammad Wilkerson was one of the best players on the Jets. The 3-4 defensive end doesn't receive much recognition because of his position, but he consistently dominated.

    Wilkerson's position hurts him because it is difficult for him to accumulate impressive statistics. His five sacks last year were impressive but not at all indicative of his terrific performance. 

24. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions

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    One of the NFL's premier pass-rushers at defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh had a great but surprisingly underrated 2012 season. His eight sacks were second among all defensive tackles, and he has previously picked up 10 in a single season.

    Suh has been a high-profile player for a few years now, but he is still improving. He will be playing along an improved defensive line in 2013, which could give his stats the push he needs. 

23. Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland Browns

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    With defensive back guru Ray Horton in Cleveland, Joe Haden could be in line for a career season. The 24-year-old was excellent in 2012 despite missing time due to suspension and injury.

    Haden is among the game's most talented cornerbacks, and an improved Cleveland defense will help his chances for awards. An improved pass rush will give Haden more chances at interceptions, and Horton's influence cannot be overstated. 

22. Bobby Wagner, ILB, Seattle Seahawks

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    As a rookie in 2012, Bobby Wagner exceeded everyone's expectations. Wagner picked up 140 tackles on the season and excelled in coverage, intercepting three passes.

    Wagner's presence along the middle of Seattle's defense was a crucial factor for the Seahawks last year. With a year of experience under him, Wagner should be even more dominant in 2013. 

21. Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Injuries have been an issue for Gerald McCoy, but he was healthy in 2012, and it showed. The 25-year-old finally lived up to his No. 3 overall draft status and became a force in the middle of Tampa Bay's defense.

    McCoy's pass-rush still needs some work—he did have five sacks last year—but he is a phenomenal run-stuffer with the ability to penetrate and hold his ground. Few defensive tackles are as good, and even fewer have his upside moving forward. 

20. Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams

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    In just his second NFL season, Robert Quinn picked up 10.5 sacks. Quinn is only 23 years old right now, and he is just beginning to reach his sky-high potential.

    Quinn could show even more improvement next year with another season's worth of development. Playing opposite Chris Long, Quinn should have plenty of one-on-one opportunities, and he can take advantage of them. 

19. Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    In his second season, Justin Houston racked up 10 sacks. Not amazing by any means, but a good year.

    Fortunately for the Chiefs, Houston has only begun to see his potential. The 6’3”, 258-pounder is a terrific athlete with great power and bend off the edge.

    As he continues to develop, Houston could turn into a terrifying threat off the edge. That could happen right now.

18. Justin Smith, DT, San Francisco 49ers

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    Last year, Justin Smith wasn't himself. He dealt with injuries all season long and wasn't the dominant player the NFL was accustomed to. Even so, he was excellent. 

    In 2013, Smith will hopefully be healthy. It is possible he is starting to decline with age (he's 33), but there is also a strong chance that he will be back in full force.

    If he is, the NFL better watch out because this man is dangerous. 

17. Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore Ravens

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    Haloti Ngata's 2012 season wasn't as great as some of his previous ones, but he was still an elite defensive tackle. With any luck, he will be back to old form in 2013.

    The 6'4", 340-pound Ngata is a rare athlete for his size. He can play nose tackle or defensive end in Baltimore's 3-4 defense, and he can do both incredibly well. 

    With better health and a little luck, Ngata can again be one of the game's most dominant players. 

16. Elvis Dumervil, OLB, Baltimore Ravens

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    When Elvis Dumervil last played in a 3-4 defense, he had 17 sacks. That was on a much less talented defense than Baltimore's. 

    With the Ravens, Dumervil will be in the best situation of his career. He has a great defensive line to hold off blockers and Terrell Smith opposite him taking away attention.

    In Denver, Dumervil was a feared pass-rusher, but his production could reach new heights in 2013. 

15. Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks

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    Earl Thomas has always displayed prototypical ball-hawking ability, but so far, it hasn't translated into interceptions.

    That could change in 2013.

    Seattle's defense is loaded across the board, and this could free up Thomas to go for more interceptions. He can match up in man coverage or sit back in zone, and in either he is a threat to pick off any close pass. 

    Thomas is already acknowledged as an outstanding player, but things could take another step this year. 

14. NaVorro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco 49ers

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    The second-best inside linebacker in the NFL, NaVorro Bowman is overshadowed by teammate Patrick Willis but is an All-Pro player himself. He has accumulated over 290 tackles the past two seasons while routinely making impact plays.

    Bowman is still just 25 years old, so he hasn't played his best football yet. In 2013, he could take another substantial step towards stardom. 

13. Cameron Wake, DE, Miami Dolphins

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    Despite not having another pass-rusher playing beside him, Cameron Wake picked up 15 sacks in 2012. Now, the Dolphins have a legitimate rusher in Dion Jordan, which should free things up for Wake.

    Last year, offensive lines could focus exclusively on Wake. That won't happen this year, and the talented defensive end should be even more dominant. 

    Most teams couldn't stop Wake when they had no one else to worry about. He is really going to be dangerous now. 

12. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals

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    It's hard to find many players more talented than Patrick Peterson. The former No. 5 overall pick was a bit raw entering the NFL but after two years is ready to dominate.

    The 6'1", 219-pounder had seven interceptions in 2012, but he is capable of much more. It is said too often, but Peterson's potential is essentially unlimited. 

    Peterson has shown considerable improvement throughout his young NFL career, and if this trend continues, he could be a shutdown cornerback. 

11. Terrell Suggs, OLB, Baltimore Ravens

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    After losing weight, Terrell Suggs could be in line for his best season yet. Considering Suggs once won Defensive Player of the Year, that is an impressive benchmark. 

    The 30-year-old impressed in 2012 by returning from a torn Achilles tendon to finish off the season. He didn't have the best statistical season of his career, but even making it to the field was a noteworthy achievement.

    The weight loss bodes well for Suggs, and the star pass-rusher could return to form after an injury-tormented season. 

10. Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco 49ers

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    With Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher retired, Patrick Willis is the NFL’s most prolific inside linebaker. The 28-year-old has been dominant since entering the NFL in 2007, and he has shown no signs of regression.

    Due to his lack of truly amazing statistics, Willis will struggle to win Defensive Player of the Year. But if some big names have down years, Willis’ own status could end up delivering the award.

9. Clay Matthews III, OLB, Green Bay Packers

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    Despite playing in just 12 games last year, Clay Matthews III picked up 13 sacks. The 27-year-old is a complete player—showing signs of brilliance rushing the passer, defending the run and playing in coverage.

    If he’s healthy for a full season, Matthews is a legitimate contender for Defensive Player of the Year. He barely lost out to Troy Polamalu in 2010, and his outstanding season wasn’t a fluke. 

8. DeMarcus Ware, DE, Dallas Cowboys

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    Last year, DeMarcus Ware had 11.5 sacks, and it was kind of disappointing. He combined for 35 over the previous two seasons has picked up 111 total over eight seasons.

    So, it’s easy to see why Ware is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate every season. He is consistently dominant.

    For the first time in his career, Ware will be playing defensive end, as the Cowboys transition to a 4-3 defense in 2013. This could help Ware by giving him more pass-rushing opportunities, though from more predictable positions.

7. Darrelle Revis, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Before tearing his ACL, Darrelle Revis was perhaps the NFL's best defensive player. No other cornerback can take away a wide receiver like Revis does.

    It remains to be seen just how dominant Revis will be after his knee injury. Most players return from ACL injuries without issue, but anything can happen.

    If he is completely healthy, Revis is a game-changer. Few players at any position have the impact Revis does on a regular basis.

6. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants

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    In 2012, Jason Pierre-Paul had a bit of a down year. His previous season, though, was so exceptional it can't be ignored. In 2011, JPP racked up an astonishing 16.5 sacks and 86 tackles. 

    Last year, Pierre-Paul didn't have the same overly impressive statistics. He was still a great player, though, and his 2013 production will be closer to 2011's than last year's.

    Even the best players have down seasons on occasion, and JPP's last year will prove to be nothing more than that. 

5. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks

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    In Darrelle Revis' absence, Richard Sherman stepped up as the game's best cornerback. The 25-year-old shut down just about every wide receiver he faced, talking plenty of smack while doing it.

    Sherman didn't just lock down wide receivers, though. He also picked off eight passes, which is what voters like to see in Defensive Player of the Year candidates.

    Odds are that Revis will never have 10 interceptions in a year. Sherman easily could, and that gives him an advantage. 

4. Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers

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    In just two years, Aldon Smith already had 33.5 sacks. Last year, he had 19.5 and came within eyesight of Michael Strahan's single-season record.

    The biggest detraction from Smith is his lack of a complete game. He is essentially just a pass-rusher, as he struggles in coverage and run support. Smith's production also came to a standstill in Justin Smith's absence.

    There are plenty of reasons why Smith wouldn't or shouldn't win Defensive Player of the Year. But if keeps getting sacks like he has, he will be tough to ignore. 

3. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals

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    If it weren't for J.J. Watt's miraculous season, Geno Atkins might have been 2012's Defensive Player of the Year. A rare pass-rusher at defensive tackle, Atkins ended 2012 with 12.5 sacks.

    The 25-year-old isn't at all one-dimensional, though. He is an extremely powerful player who refuses to surrender ground in the run game and often burrows his way into the backfield. 

    Atkins' skill set is a rare one. He may not be the best defensive player in the game, but in a single year, he could be the most impressive. 

2. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

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    J.J. Watt's 2012 season was one of the best ever. Typically 3-4 defensive ends don't compile overly impressive statistics, as the big men are more focused on taking up blockers. Watt scoffs at this, and last year picked up 81 tackles and 20.5 sacks.

    It is impossible to find someone who dominates as much as Watt both when rushing the passer and defending the run. Last year, Watt had 15 batted passes, second in the NFL. No other non-cornerback had more than 10.

    There is no denying Watt is an amazing player, and at just 24 years old, he has a long career ahead of him. But can he possibly improve upon this?

1. Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos

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    He didn't lead the NFL in sacks last year, but make no mistake: Von Miller is the game's best pass-rusher. A 4-3 outside linebacker, Miller somehow managed to still pick up 18.5 sacks in 2012.

    Miller isn't just a pass-rusher, though. The 6'3", 240-pounder is a great run-defender, playing sideline-to-sideline. And when he's asked to, Miller has no problem playing in coverage.

    Few players have existed with Miller's combination of burst, flexibility and pass-rushing innovation, and they are all in the Hall of Fame. Players like this, quite simply, don't go unrecognized.