Top Candidates for 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJune 27, 2016

Top Candidates for 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    All NFL awards are subjective. The league recognizes the Associated Press’ 50 voters when choosing an MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, etc.

    However, the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year has had a very strong statistical profile.

    Here is a look at the top 10 candidates (listed in alphabetical order of their teams) primed to build DPOY-worthy resumes in 2016, as well as some other players worthy of consideration.

Also Under Consideration

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    Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

    DB Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals

    A torn ACL cost him the final two games and the postseason a year ago, but the versatile Mathieu was all over the field in 2015. He finished third on the club with 80 tackles, led the Cardinals with 17 passes defensed and tied for the team lead with five interceptions. The 24-year-old "Tyrann of all trades" is still on the mend but certainly bears watching, especially later in the season.

    CB Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos

    In two seasons in the Mile High City, the 30-year-old has stolen seven passes and returned four of those thefts for touchdowns. Talib has always had a knack for the big play—totaling 30 interceptions in eight seasons with the Buccaneers, Patriots and Broncos—and returning eight of those picks for scores.

    DE Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit Lions

    While only J.J. Watt (17.5) and Khalil Mack (15) totaled more sacks than the three-year pro's 14.5 in 2015, Ansah’s overall performance, as rated by Pro Football Focus, was a bit up-and-down this past season. Still, racking up quarterback traps is always appealing to voters, and the 27-year-old defensive end is a player on the rise.

    FS Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings

    The 2012 first-round pick got paid this offseason, and rightfully so. According to Spotrac, Smith inked a five-year, $51.25 million extension with the Vikings. His four-year resume sees him averaging just over 80 tackles per season to go along with 5.5 sacks, 12 interceptions (four returned for touchdowns) and 26 passes defensed.

    DT Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles

    You could also make a case for teammate Malcolm Jenkins here. But the recently rewarded Cox (a six-year, $102.6 million contract) could rack up impressive numbers under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and his attack-style system. The 25-year-old comes off a season in which he totaled 71 tackles, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a career-best 9.5 sacks.

    ILB Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Staying on the field has been the biggest issue for the 2014 first-round pick. The former Ohio State standout totaled 87 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, three takeaways and four passes defensed in 12 games last season. Don’t be surprised when he leads the Steelers in stops this season and racks up eye-popping numbers.

    ILB NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers

    The 49ers are coming off a dismal 5-11 season, but Bowman enjoy a successful return to the field after missing all of 2014 recovering from a knee injury. While he racked up a team-best 154 tackles, he received a poor grade (minus-10.6) by PFF for his work on pass coverage. That should change as he rounds back into star form.

    CB Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks

    He was the fourth-ranked cornerback in the league this past season per PFF but picked off a career-low two passes in 2015. That’s what happens when you’re a three-time First Team All-Pro and opposing quarterbacks shying away from you. Sherman has an impressive 26 interceptions in five seasons, but it’s getting harder for him to rack up big statistics.

MLB Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    It’s been quite a career so far for the ninth overall pick in the 2012 draft.

    Four seasons have added up to three-time Pro Bowl invitations for 25-year-old middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. The 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year quickly became the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Since his arrival, the Carolina Panthers have been ranked in the NFL’s top 10 in total defense each season. He totaled 150-plus stops in each of his first three seasons.

    In 2015, he missed three games but still led the club with 118 tackles and also earned four votes for league Defensive Player of the Year honors.

    But Kuechly is far more than a tackling machine. He’s totaled 11 interceptions and knocked down 36 passes in four seasons. He comes off an impressive three-game playoff run in which he amassed 29 stops and picked off two passes, returning both for scores.

    Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked inside linebacker each of the last two seasons is young, relentless and highly productive. His numbers are always hard to ignore, and the defending NFC champions will certainly be keeping their eyes on them in 2016.

DE Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap comes off a season in which he led the club with 13.5 sacks and was named to his first Pro Bowl. But the 27-year-old pass-rushing force is looking for much more in 2016.

    “Along with the team goals, you’ve got to have your personal goals that will help you obtain the team goal,” said Dunlap to Coley Harvey of ESPN.com. “My personal goals are to get that sack title at the end of the season, one, and then two, to get (Michael) Strahan’s record.”

    That record is 22.5 sacks, set by the former New York Giants defensive end and Pro Football Hall of Famer in 2001 (with an “assist” from quarterback Brett Favre). For history buffs, official NFL individual sack totals only date back to 1982. In any case, it’s a mark any pass-rusher would love to top.

    “It’s hard to get (20 or more),” added Dunlap. “Most of the guys who get those 20 sacks, they’re like the only one (on their teams) at plus-10. When you’ve got three guys who can get 10 sacks and a nose tackle who can get five, it’s spreading the wealth. So that’s good for our team.”

    Of course, that’s in reference to the remainder of a talented front four. Cincinnati finished with 42 sacks, with Dunlap, Geno Atkins (11), Domata Peko (five) and Michael Johnson (five) combining for 34.5 of those quarterback traps.

    Don’t get it twisted: Atkins is one of the best defensive players in the league, and his presence has made life easier for Dunlap, who has totaled 49 sacks in six seasons. But that doesn’t mean that the 2010 second-round pick isn’t talented himself and capable of a big number this season.

OLB Von Miller, Denver Broncos

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Things are getting much too interesting for the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. And that’s not a good thing in this instance.

    Outside linebacker Von Miller, who was given the exclusive-rights franchise tag by the organization in March, remains unsigned with July staring everyone in the face. Earlier in June, the Super Bowl 50 MVP rejected a six-year, $114.5 contract offer by the club, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

    Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk reported later that the real sticking point was the guaranteed money (what else is new?). This past week, Florio speculated on options regarding the four-time Pro Bowler and other teams’ interest in the talented outside linebacker.

    The 27-year-old defender has totaled 60 sacks and 17 forced fumbles in 72 regular-season games. He comes off a three-game playoff run in which he racked up five sacks, one interception and two forced fumbles.

    The longer Miller remains unsigned, the higher the probability that he'll have abnormal preparation for the 2016 season. That’s not to say he won’t be terrorizing opposing quarterbacks in 2016. Quite the contrary.

    The real question may be for how often. But it would be foolish to think he won’t be in the mix for the league's Defensive Player of Year honors.

DE J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Let’s put into perspective what 27-year-old J.J. Watt has done in only five seasons in the league.

    The current face of the Houston Texans has been named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year three times, including each of the last two seasons. In 2015, he received 37 of 50 votes, easily outdistancing Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who finished second (seven) according to NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling.

    Since the inception of the award in 1971, only Pro Football Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor can match that number. The former New York Giants’ superstar garnered those honors over a six-year span (1981-86).

    In just five seasons, Watt has totaled 74.5 sacks in 80 regular-season contests (all starts). He led the league with 17.5 quarterback traps in 2015 and has amassed 38 sacks in his last 32 outings. The four-time All-Pro had offseason groin core surgery, according to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle, and was back on the field in early June.

    Watt could make history with another DOPY trophy, and there are certainly no signs that he's slowing down. After ranking fourth among 3-4 defensive ends as a rookie in 2011, he’s been Pro Football Focus’ top-graded player at the position in each of the last four years.

    And counting.

DT Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams

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    Billy Hurst/Associated Press

    Two years in the league, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald is already a force.

    The 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year earned runner-up honors as the league’s top defensive player this past season. The All-Pro performer also earned Pro Football Focus’ top spot at his position in 2015.

    Donald, Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins and Carolina’s Kawann Short tied for the league lead for sacks (11) for interior defensive linemen. In two seasons, Donald has already amassed 20 sacks.

    As a team, the Los Angeles Rams haven’t enjoyed a lot of success. The franchise hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2004 and has not posted a winning season since 2003. But Donald has certainly drawn a lot of attention not only from observers but from opposing blockers—who have not fared well to date.

DL Leonard Williams, New York Jets

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    Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

    Here’s a little bit of a curveball, and it’s not coming from the pitching staff of the New York Yankees or Mets.

    Last spring, the Jets watched USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams fall into their laps with the sixth overall pick. He was solid in his rookie season, part of an impressive defense that allowed the fourth-fewest yards in the league last year.

    Now Brian Costello of the New York Post feels that the 22-year-old defender is “ready for a breakout season.”

    In terms of 3-4 defensive ends, only Houston’s J.J. Watt, Green Bay’s Mike Daniels and Denver’s Derek Wolfe played the run better last season than the former USC standout. Hence, the Jets finished second in the league in rushing defense in 2015.

    The latter number was due in large part to nose tackle Damon Harrison, as well as teammates Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. However, Harrison is now a member of the New York Giants, while Wilkerson remains unsigned and will try to bounce back from breaking his leg in January.

    It sets up as an opportunity for Williams to show the five teams that passed on him that he may have been the best player in the draft in 2015. In any case, he’s a sleeper pick for DPOY.

DE/OLB Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Talk about a follow-up act.

    It was quite the showing for second-year pro Khalil Mack, who finished behind only J.J. Watt (17.5) in the league in sacks (15). The fifth overall pick in 2014 earned All-Pro honors at both defensive end and outside linebacker this past season.

    The 25-year-old defensive force recently took time to speak with Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports Shutdown Corner in mid-May. When asked what would be different in his third season on a personal level, Mack had a very interesting answer.

    “I am taking a serious leadership role this season,” said the Pro Bowl defender. “I am trying to embrace the process and take some pressure off the coaches. It's something I think I need to do to take my game to another level.”

    That’s bad news for the rest of the league, especially if all of the new faces on defense jell for a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2002. Paired opposite free-agent pickup Bruce Irvin, Mack could amass huge numbers for a team that appears ready to break out.

    In case you’re wondering, the only previous time a member of the Silver and Black earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors was when cornerback Lester Hayes got the nod back in 1980.

FS Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    The 14th overall pick in the draft in 2010, steady free safety Earl Thomas is one of the premier defensive backs in the league. In six seasons, the five-time Pro Bowler has totaled 21 interceptions, 47 passes defensed, nine forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.

    So why the nod here over teammates such as safety mate Kam Chancellor or cornerback Richard Sherman? Both were recently mentioned as two of the top defensive players in their division, while Thomas was left off the six-man list in a loaded NFC West.

    Simply put, Thomas is always around the football. In 2015, he picked off five passes for the third time in his career. Those 25 takeaways in six seasons are hard to ignore.

    Yes, Sherman has his share of interceptions, but that number has gone down in each of the last two years thanks to his blanket coverage of wide receivers. Chancellor is a tone-setter and makes his share of riveting hits, but many of those plays don’t show up on a stat sheet.

    The Seattle Seahawks have a nice problem in their defensive backfield.

OLB Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    The numbers are pretty astounding. But as we know when it comes to tackles, there is always a little skepticism attached.

    That’s not the case with Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Lavonte David, who has rolled up 139, 145, 146 and 147 stops, respectively, in his first four seasons in the league.

    Over that span, he earned plus-grades in each of his first three years. In 2015, his numbers slipped to minus-2.4, but a closer look at his performance shows that the 26-year-old defender overcame a rough first half to play superior football the remainder of the season.

    David’s production is impressive, to say the least. His career numbers include 13 sacks, nine interceptions, eight forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and 32 passes defensed. The Bucs improved from 25th in total defense in 2014 to 10th in the league last year. The former Nebraska Cornhusker earned his first Pro Bowl invitation in 2015 but was a first-team All-Pro performer in 2013.

    He’ll be hard to overlook this fall.

CB Josh Norman, Washington Redskins

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    To those who feel new Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman was a one-hit wonder in 2015: You haven’t done your homework.

    He’s been the definition of a rising player ever since he was drafted in the fifth round in 2012 by the Carolina Panthers out of Coastal Carolina.

    In both 2012 (minus-4.5) and 2013 (minus-1.8), the four-year pro earned negative grades from Pro Football Focus. After playing 16 contests as a rookie, Norman was limited to only seven games one year later. But the 28-year-old corner began to come into his own two years ago (plus-5.5).

    This past season, Norman earned a plus-17.5 grade. His grades each the last two seasons include his work in the playoffs.

    Now one year after earning a pair of votes for 2015 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Norman is a member of the Washington Redskins. He’s a big plus for a defense that has struggled in recent seasons and finished 25th in the NFL against the pass last year. With a combined six interceptions and 29 passes defensed the past two seasons, he’ll get his opportunities this fall to make a difference.

    Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com. All player ratings courtesy of Pro Football Focus. All 2016 free-agent and salary-cap information, contract terms and 2016 transactions are courtesy of Spotrac. Depth charts via Ourlads.

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