NFL's Defensive Player of the Year Race Has Just as Much Intrigue as MVP Award

Alex KayContributor INovember 30, 2021

Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95) reacts during an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, in Cleveland. The Steelers won 15-10. (AP Photo/David Richard)
David Richard/Associated Press

The Defensive Player of the Year award is one of the more wide-open races in the NFL this year, rivaling an MVP award that is still up for grabs as well.

The DPOY field has been pared down over the first three months of the season, but there are still as many as six legitimate candidates to take home the hardware. Here's a look at each:


Edge Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns (+175)

Gail Burton/Associated Press

DraftKings has Myles Garrett at the top of the DPOY race.

He has come on strong in 2021, racking up 42 tackles (15 for a loss), 28 QB hits, 14 sacks and three pass defenses. Those sacks are already a career high for the fifth-year veteran, giving him a chance over the final five games to make a run at Michael Strahan's league record of 22.5 sacks.

The 25-year-old is the class of his position this year, earning a remarkable 91.8 grade from Pro Football Focus.

Considering Garrett has recorded at least a half-sack in all but two games this year, it's possible he will not only take home his first DPOY honors but also etch his name in the history books.

Cleveland has matchups with the Baltimore Ravens, Las Vegas Raiders, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals to close out the year—opponents that are average or worse at protecting their quarterbacks.

The Packers have been the best at it from that group but have still conceded 23 sacks. The Ravens' signal-callers have been the most vulnerable, with their 36 sacks ranking as the second-most in the NFL.


Edge T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers (+700)

Matt Durisko/Associated Press

If Garrett sputters down the stretch, T.J. Watt could catch him, and his betting line might be a touch too high given his accomplishments this season.

He has been the catalyst behind a Steelers pass rush that has accumulated a whopping 30 sacks in 11 games, just three behind the league-leading Minnesota Vikings.

The 27-year-old has been responsible for 41 tackles (13 for a loss), 20 QB hits, 12.5 sacks, four pass defenses, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Watt has done this all while missing two games with injuries, and perhaps even more impressively, after going into the campaign without participating in full practices while holding out up until the final week of preseason.

PFF has recognized Watt's contributions by grading him out at a commendable 87.6 this season.


CB Trevon Diggs, Dallas Cowboys (+700)

Roger Steinman/Associated Press

Trevon Diggs looks like the rare defensive back capable of stealing the DPOY award away from a pass-rusher.

He jumped out as an early front-runner after he snagged seven interceptions over the first six games. While he's only recorded one since then, his eight picks still lead the league.

The second-year man's rise has been instrumental in elevating Dallas to contending status after a trying 2020 campaign. While the Cowboys still have plenty of room to grow defensively, the team is giving up fewer yards and points per game this year compared to last.

Through 11 games, Dallas has as many interceptions (15) as conceded passing touchdowns. That's after the Cowboys allowed 34 scores through the air in 2020 while securing just 10 interceptions. It's a major reason why the team boasts a plus-five turnover differential after posting a minus-three mark last season.

While Diggs is putting up big numbers, PFF graded him out at a 49.1 this year, a double-digit drop from his 62.7 rookie performance.

Still, interceptions and defensive touchdowns can be a big factor in earning this award, especially in a wide-open year like this. Stephon Gilmore won it in 2019 after he took two of his six picks to the house.

If Diggs can secure a few more INTs—and perhaps add a third defensive TD—he'll be right in the running to become just the third cornerback since 1995 to win the award.


Edge Matt Judon, New England Patriots (+800)

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

Matt Judon is a surprise contender. Bookmakers have him slightly behind Watt and Diggs with odds that reflect the massive impact he makes.

The Pats picked up Judon in free agency on a four-year, $56 million deal and have already gotten an incredible return on their investment. The 29-year-old has become a key cog in a resurgent Patriots defense that has the team looking like one of the league's most dangerous.

New England is now tied for the fifth-most sacks after notching 30 in its first 12 games. Judon has contributed a whopping 11.5 of those sacks, putting him behind only Garrett and Watt for the NFL's most.

The sixth-year vet has added teeth on the edge for a squad that sorely lacked bite in 2020. The Patriots recorded just 24 sacks last year and made it a priority to upgrade that area in the offseason.

Judon's presence, coupled with the fantastic play of rookie signal-caller Mac Jones, has the Patriots primed for a playoff run after missing out last year for just the third time in the last two decades.


CB J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots (+1800)

FOXBOROUGH, MA - NOVEMBER 28: New England Patriots defensive back J.C. Jackson (27) celebrates his pick in the end zone during a game between the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans on November 28, 2021, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massac
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

One player who could hurt Judon's chances is his own teammate. J.C. Jackson emerged as one of the NFL's top cornerbacks last year and picked up right where he left off in 2021.

Jackson has been the league's best ballhawk since the start of the 2020 campaign, recording 16 interceptions in that span.

With seven picks in the first 12 games—Diggs is the only player with more—he's on pace to surpass his nine interceptions from last year, which ranked behind only Xavien Howard for most in the league.

Jackson's recent play has him in the DPOY discussion after he secured four interceptions in the past four games, including one he took to the house for his first career pick-six.

PFF grades suggest Jackson is a slightly better DPOY candidate out of the two realistic options in New England. The corner has earned a 76.2 grade this year, ahead of the 68.8 grade Judon has scored.


DT Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams (+1200)

GREEN BAY, WI - NOVEMBER 28: Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) reacts to a play during a game between the Green Bay Packers and the Los Angeles Rams at Lambeau Field on November 28, 2021 in Green Bay, WI. (Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sports
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Rounding out the top-six DPOY candidates is a player for whom this award may one day be named.

Aaron Donald is having another incredible campaign, putting him in the hunt to win for a record-setting fourth time.

He is one of only three players who has earned these honors more than twice, joining J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor in the record books last year after he won for the third time in four years.

He has 51 tackles (nine for a loss), 15 QB hits, six sacks, three pass defenses and a forced fumble in 2021.

While Donald isn't putting up eye-popping statistics at the rate he was in previous years—he could finish with fewer than 10 sacks for the first time since 2016, and his PFF grade, while still an incredible 92.7, is the lowest it has been since that season—he is still a transcendent talent.

The betting odds still reflect just how impactful Donald has been.

It hasn't helped that the Rams—who started the year 7-1—have lost three consecutive games, a stretch that includes two sack-less outings from the 30-year-old.

If Donald can pick things up over the final six weeks of the season and help L.A. turn things around, there is no reason he can't make history by becoming a four-time DPOY winner with how close the race is.

If any one of the above six candidates finishes notably stronger than the rest—or if a surprise dark horse such as Kevin Byard (+2500) or Nick Bosa (+3500) makes a late surge—they could very well be crowned 2021's Defensive Player of the Year.

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