Offenses are as dominant as they've ever been in the National Football League's 90-plus-year history. Just look at the 2013 Denver Broncos, who became the first team in history to score more than 600 points in a season.
However, it's still defense that wins championships, as the Seattle Seahawks showed on the game's biggest stage when they shut down Manning and the Broncos' high-powered offense in the Super Bowl.
Illegal contact as a point of emphasis will make offenses even more potent than ever this season, but the game's top defensive players will find a way to continue dominating.
It's what they do.
Below are my top 10 candidates for Defensive Player of the Year. Realistically, only three or four players will collect votes when the award is released, so don't expect all of the players in my top 10 to receive a vote.
In fact, I expect my top two candidates to collect at least 45 of the 50 votes between them.
1. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
His numbers were down a bit in 2013, but he was still the game's best defensive player and deserved to win the Defensive Player of the Year. He didn't, though, largely due to the Texans' atrocious 14-game losing streak.
The Texans will be back in 2014. I would say the same for Watt, but he never left. His impact on the game will be even greater with the arrival of No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney.
I have unlimited expectations for Watt. I think he could challenge the single-season sack record every year until 2020. He's my odds-on favorite to win his second Defensive Player of the Year this season.
2. Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots
Darrelle Revis isn't getting the respect he deserves around the league, and I really don't know why.
He's been the best cornerback in the league for the last half-decade. He was Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) top-rated cornerback in 2013, and that was playing in Tampa Bay's zone defense—he's a man-to-man corner—less than a year removed from a torn ACL.
3. Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams
There's a big drop-off after Watt and Revis on my rankings. St. Louis' Robert Quinn is the next best defensive player in the league.
He challenged the NFL's single-season sack record in 2013. Imagine how well he'll play in 2014 with another potentially dominant player, Aaron Donald, on the defensive line. Like Watt, he's a player who could threaten the single-season sack record every year until 2020.
4. Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The most underappreciated defensive force in the league, Gerald McCoy has been absolutely unblockable this preseason. I try not to get too influenced by the preseason, but McCoy is a star on the rise and his ridiculous play in the last month gets me really excited about his 2014 season.
He's the type of player who can finish the season with 10 sacks and four forced fumbles, and he possesses the ability to completely change the game in a single play.
5. Earl Thomas, FS, Seattle Seahawks
He's been the best safety in the NFL for the past couple of seasons, but Earl Thomas is finally becoming a household name.
He's never missed a game in four seasons, and last year, Thomas collected five interceptions, two forced fumbles and 105 combined tackles. He didn't allow any completions (subscription required) on three passes thrown his way in the Super Bowl.
When Seattle wins 12 or 13 games again in 2014, Thomas will shoot his way up the voting for Defensive Player of the Year.
6. Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos
Talk about a disappointing 2013 season for Von Miller. Football Outsiders indicates he collected 18.5 sacks and 39 defeats in 2012. Last year, he was plagued by a torn ACL, a suspension for use of performance-enhancing drugs and a decline in overall productivity.
Expect the 25-year-old to rebound in 2014. He's one of the best pass-rushers in the game of late.
Names like DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward have stolen the headlines in Denver this offseason, but Miller is still the best player on the team's defense.
7. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks
He's either the best corner in the game, as he says he is, or the second-best. Over the past two seasons, Sherman has become an absolute force to be reckoned with in coverage.
Look at his numbers in 2013. He allowed just a single touchdown and intercepted eight passes. His 36.2 passer rating allowed (subscription required) was easily the best mark in the NFL.
As the leader of the Legion of Boom, Sherman will be just as dominant in 2014.
8. Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Player A: 145 combined tackles, 7 sacks, 5 interceptions, 9 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 (walk-off) safety
Player B: 166 combined tackles, 2 sacks, 4 interceptions, 7 passes defensed, 0 forced fumbles or fumble recoveries
Player A is Lavonte David, who was ignored in Defensive Player of the Year voting and Pro Bowl balloting largely because Tampa Bay finished in last place in the NFC South.
Player B is Luke Kuechly, who won Defensive Player of the Year. It certainly helped that Carolina won 12 games and the division title.
In 2014, I'm expecting the Buccaneers to be significantly improved and the Panthers to be much worse. If David and Kuechly post similar statistics to those of the previous year, it'll be the player on the better team who collects more votes for Defensive Player of the Year—as fair or unfair as that is.
9. Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers' first-round draft pick in 2013, Star Lotulelei was one of the top two or three rookies on the defensive side of the ball last season. I'm expecting a big step forward from him in 2014, a la Dontari Poe for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013.
Lotulelei isn't a force as a pass-rusher, but he's as good as it gets when it comes to stopping the run.
Defensive tackles are generally ignored when it comes to Defensive Player of the Year voting, however, and Lotulelei would need about 15 sacks and massive national attention to beat out Watt or Revis.
10. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
I certainly don't buy the notion that Patrick Peterson is anywhere as good as Revis or Sherman when it comes to the league's best cornerbacks.
I understand that Peterson is asked to do a lot more on Arizona's defense, but the numbers don't lie. Peterson allowed seven touchdowns and a 91.3 passer rating (subscription required) last season. It's really hard to be impressed by that production, even if he is everywhere on the field.
However, Peterson is still very young, improving and popular enough that he'll earn votes for Defensive Player of the Year just by name recognition alone.
Unless otherwise noted, advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
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