There's only one thing that matters when ranking the best defensive players in the National Football League, and that's individual success. How a player's team does is irrelevant, unlike the award for Most Valuable Player.
That benefits players on poor teams, such as Houston's J.J. Watt. It doesn't give any extra credit to the best players on the league's top defenses, like Earl Thomas or Luke Kuechly.
With that being said, the best defensive player this year is a no-brainer. He hasn't dominated the stat sheet, but in terms of pure value, this player is as good as any defensive player who has played in the NFL over the last decade.
1. J.J. Watt, Defensive End, Houston Texans
There's no defensive player in the NFL who can single-handedly disrupt an offense like J.J. Watt. Just ask the St. Louis Rams, who managed to contain Watt in Week 6 only because they created their entire offensive game plan around Watt.
This season, Watt recorded 10.5 sacks, a far cry below his near-record total last year. But the rest of his numbers are as good as they get. He collected 36 quarterback hits, two more than the next two 3-4 defensive ends in the league combined. He registered 38 hurries, six batted passes and a ridiculous 67 defensive stops (play that constitutes an offensive failure).
His 111.6 rating by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) is easily the highest in the site's six-year history (breaking his own record from 2012). He should win the Defensive Player of the Year Award unanimously (and I predict he doesn't finish in the top three after setting the bar so high last year with 20.5 sacks).
2. Luke Kuechly, Inside Linebacker, Carolina Panthers
It's become apparent that Luke Kuechly is a special, special player. He's probably the best young linebacker in the NFL right now, perfect timing for the Panthers since future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher have now retired.
This season, Kuechly anchored a defense that finished second in the league in points scored. He collected 156 tackles, fourth-most in the NFL. He also collected two sacks, seven passes defended, ten tackles for loss and four interceptions.
3. Robert Mathis, Outside Linebacker, Indianapolis Colts
Robert Mathis was nothing short of extraordinary this season. Just two years after switching from defensive end in a 4-3 to outside linebacker in a 3-4, Mathis led the NFL with 19.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He also recorded 61 tackles and a safety.
4. Robert Quinn, Defensive End, St. Louis Rams
Robert Quinn was one of the 2011 draft picks I predicted to be a breakout star this season. He was.
Quinn was the second-best defensive end in the NFL this season. He recorded a ridiculous 19 sacks and 51 hurries.
Against the Chicago Bears in week 12, he turned in the single-best game by any player in the history of Pro Football Focus, rating as a 14.4 (subscription required). His stat line: one sack, two hits, eight hurries, one tackle and two defensive stops.
5. Richard Sherman, Cornerback, Seattle Seahawks
Richard Sherman has probably surpassed Darrelle Revis as the best cornerback in the National Football League following a second straight dominant season.
Sherman allowed just a 47.3 passer rating (subscription required) this season, the best mark in the NFL. He surrendered two touchdown passes and led the league with eight interceptions.
Check out some of his single-game passer ratings he allowed this year: 0.0, 8.3, 11.1, 11.7, 25.0, 39.6, 39.6, 48.8 and 49.2. His best game came against Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals, when he intercepted the only two passes thrown his way all game (one intended for Larry Fitzgerald and the other thrown to Michael Floyd). There was also the game against the Atlanta Falcons, when he didn't allow a single pass thrown his way.
6. Earl Thomas, Safety, Seattle Seahawks
Earl Thomas played in every game this year, intercepting five passes and setting a career high in tackles.
He established himself as arguably the best safety in the National Football League, helping Seattle finish with the top-ranked scoring defense.
7. Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle, Detroit Lions
Ndamukong Suh had his best season since his rookie year in 2010. The mammoth defensive tackle was a monster, collecting 54 hurries and 5.5 sacks.
Pro Football Focus rated Suh as the NFL's sixth-best defensive player (subscription required) in the league, second-best among defensive tackles.
8. Calais Campbell, Defensive End, Arizona Cardinals
One of the league's most underrated 3-4 defensive ends, Calais Campbell doesn't rack up big numbers on the stat sheet, but his performance on the defensive side of the ball cannot be understated.
Campbell collected a solid nine sacks and 45 tackles this year, but he also added a safety and 17 quarterback hits while rating as the fourth-best defensive player (subscription required) in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.
9. NaVorro Bowman, Inside Linebacker, San Francisco 49ers
NaVorro Bowman provided the signature play of the season for the San Francisco 49ers: a game-winning, playoff-clinching 83-yard interception return for a touchdown in the closing minutes of a Week 16 game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Bowman recorded 129 tackles, five forced fumbles, five sacks, two interceptions (one touchdown), two fumble recoveries and nine passes defended.
Pro-Football-Reference's approximate value rated Bowman as the fourth-best player in the league.
10. Lavonte David, Outside Linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lavonte David is easily the NFL's biggest Pro Bowl snub this season, although the second-year star did earn an All-Pro selection.
David is one of the lone bright stars for the Buccaneers. He collected a combined 144 tackles to go with six sacks, five interceptions, two forced fumbles, 10 passes defended and 18 tackles for a loss.