The Best Individual NFL Defensive Seasons Since 2000
When one thinks about the best seasons in NFL history, defensive players often take a back seat. After all, their counterparts on offense are largely responsible for the points on the scoreboard.
But some defenders simply demand the spotlight anyway.
Since the turn of the millennium, the league has featured a few record-breaking years from future Hall of Fame defenders. However, the list of greatest seasons also includes recent and current stars such as J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald, respectively.
While team success generally corresponds with a spectacular year, that's not always the case. So, it's not a factor here. The emphasis is solely on an individual's performance, and the seasons are listed in chronological order.
Michael Strahan, 2001
Yes, the final sack of 2001 has inspired a fair bit of controversy.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre maybe not so unintentionally slid in front of Michael Strahan, which gave the New York Giants defender 22.5 sacks and made him the all-time single-season leader—at least until Pro Football Reference recently uncovered 23 for 1978 Detroit Lions rookie Al Baker.
That highlight is unavoidable. But it's too easy to focus on that moment instead of praising what he did before it.
Strahan, who earned the Defensive Player of the Year honors, racked up 73 tackles with a league-best 24 for loss—which also set an NFL record at the time.
Plus, the Giants star forced a league-high six fumbles; only seven players in NFL history had ever tallied more. Strahan recovered one fumble, which he returned one for a touchdown.
Derrick Brooks, 2002
After an All-American career at Florida State, Derrick Brooks built a Hall of Fame-worthy resume for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And no season is more iconic than 2002.
While leading one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, Brooks was everywhere. Along with a team-best 118 tackles, he snatched five interceptions—a remarkable total for a linebacker—and returned three of them for touchdowns. Brooks also forced, recovered and returned a fumble for a score.
He sealed his Defensive Player of the Year campaign with seven tackles and a pick-six in the Bucs' 48-21 demolition of the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Ed Reed, 2004
Ed Reed headlined Miami's defensive juggernaut in college. During his last two years there, Reed picked off 17 passes and helped the Hurricanes win a national title. That ball-hawking ability was his defining strength in the NFL, racking up 64 career interceptions.
In 2004, though, the Baltimore Ravens safety put together the most sensational all-around season of his career.
You have to start with interceptions, of course. Reed snagged an NFL-best nine picks, returning them for a then-record 358 yards with one touchdown. He registered 78 tackles with six for loss, forced three fumbles, recovered two and returned one for a score.
Like both Strahan and Brooks before him, Reed won Defensive Player of the Year for this sensational season.
Jason Taylor, 2006
Reed was a turnover machine in the secondary. Jason Taylor, on the other hand, created a bunch of takeaways up front.
In 2006, the Miami Dolphins defensive end jarred the ball loose nine times. That equaled a then-NFL record set by both Dwight Freeney and Leonard Little in 2002. Taylor also grabbed two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns.
Plus, he ranked fourth in the NFL with 13.5 sacks and provided 14 more quarterback hits. Taylor collected 62 tackles in the third All-Pro and only Defensive Player of the Year season of his career.
Taylor remains the franchise's all-time leader in sacks (131.0), forced fumbles (43) and defensive touchdowns (nine).
Charles Woodson, 2009
After spending his first eight NFL seasons on the Oakland Raiders, Charles Woodson joined the Green Bay Packers in 2006. And he became a legend for a franchise full of them.
In 2009, Woodson amassed 74 tackles with a career-best nine for loss and grabbed an NFL-best nine interceptions, returning three for scores. He forced four fumbles and recovered one, edging New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis for Defensive Player of the Year.
Given that he had already won the Heisman Trophy in college, was an All-Pro and earned multiple Pro Bowl selections, the 12-year veteran pointed to one remaining achievement after landing the DPOY honor.
"I'm just going to keep taking shots until I get back to the Super Bowl—and win it," Woodson said.
Didn't take long! The next season, Aaron Rodgers led the Pack to a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.
Darrelle Revis, 2009
Don't you worry, Revis Island dwellers.
Woodson received the hardware, but Darrelle Revis also had a season to remember in 2009. The third-year cornerback captured his first of three straight All-Pro honors.
Revis brought in six interceptions and defended 31 passes, which is the most in a season at least since 1999. According to CBS Sports, he held standout receivers Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Steve Smith Sr., Reggie Wayne, Roddy White, Chad Johnson and Marques Colston all below 35 yards.
Revis totaled 54 tackles and was the DPOY runner-up.
Jared Allen, 2011
The bad news? Well, the Minnesota Vikings were straight-up terrible in 2011. Only the St. Louis Rams and Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis Colts had a worse record than Minnesota's 3-13.
Minnesota ceded 8.1 yards per pass attempt, 34 passing touchdowns and 28.1 points per game, which all ranked 30th or worse in the NFL. It's pretty unnerving to imagine how much worse the Vikings would've been without Jared Allen's impact.
The defensive end registered 22 sacks, falling just short of Strahan's record. Allen produced 32 quarterback hits, forced and recovered four fumbles and picked off one pass. He finished as the DPOY runner-up to Baltimore Ravens star Terrell Suggs.
This dreadful year for the franchise, even if it cost him the DPOY, could not overshadow an outstanding season from Allen.
J.J. Watt, 2012
Has anyone had a better individual season than J.J. Watt in 2012?
No matter your opinion, there's no question this campaign is part of the conversation. Then a second-year player for the Houston Texans, a 23-year-old Watt moved from a promising rookie to an absolute superstar while smashing a couple of NFL records.
Most notably, Watt gathered 20.5 sacks. But he rewrote NFL history with 16 passes defended—the most ever by a defensive lineman—and an absurd 39 tackles for loss, a mark that still stands.
As if that wasn't enough, the Wisconsin product racked up 43 quarterback hits, forced four fumbles and recovered two. Watt was a single vote shy of becoming the first unanimous Defensive Player of the Year.
J.J. Watt, 2014
Two years later, Watt landed that final vote.
The defensive end matched his 2012 total of 20.5 sacks, joining Deacon Jones and Mark Gastineau as the only NFL players to record two seasons of 20-plus. Watt also collected 29 tackles for loss, which only trails his 39 from 2012.
"J.J. Swatt" also broke up 10 passes, forced four fumbles, recovered five and intercepted a pass. He scored two defensive touchdowns and even notched a safety.
Watt followed up this dominant season with 17.5 sacks and another DPOY-winning campaign in 2015.
Aaron Donald, 2018
Eight years should be too short of a time span to suggest anyone is a Hall of Fame lock. That is most decidedly not the case for Aaron Donald.
Turns out, he's an exception to several rules.
Interior linemen aren't supposed to lead the NFL in sacks; edge-rushers are regularly the most prolific players. Yet it happened in 2018 when Donald brought down the quarterback 20.5 times for the NFC-champion Los Angeles Rams. He also tallied a league-high 25 tackles for loss, 41 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles and two recoveries.
Donald landed his second straight Defensive Player of the Year honor, added a third in 2020 and might not be finished winning those.
Statistics via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.