Top 10 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Contenders

As we head into the final stretch of the 2016 season, it is time to start considering who has earned consideration for league honors. League most valuable player tends to get most of the attention, but there is an interesting race developing for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year that deserves a look. J.J. Watt has won the award in three of the last four seasons. He is injured and will not win the award this year. Luke Kuechly is the only other player to win it recently, and he recently suffered an injury while having less than his best season. The likelihood is we will see a new name take home the trophy this year. There are a number of contenders in a tight race. Some of the most deserving are names that many NFL fans will be surprised to see.


The criteria

Before diving in, it is important to step back and consider the best way to evaluate the different contenders. Voters are not required to share their criteria, or even have any criteria. I prefer a little more transparency. Here are the five factors I assess when evaluating the league’s best defensive player.


1. Standout defensive performance for the year

You should be able to survey the individual defensive performances across the NFL and see this player standing above the rest. They should do things statistically that demand attention.


2. Historic defensive achievement

Did this player do something rarely done by other NFL players across time? In cases where there is not as much separating the performances in a specific year, there should be a historical lense applied to see if any of the players did something that history implies is more rare.


3. Importance to the defense he plays on

How would this defense perform if the player was removed? How much special attention does this player require from opposing offenses? This is very subjective. It is fair to call this the “eye test” in many cases. This is most influenced by perception, and so it should be looked at with more scrutiny than other factors.


4. Impact plays

Does this player make game-changing plays? Examples would be things like sacks, forced fumbles, tackles for loss, passes defensed, interceptions and alike.


5. Quality of team defense

Just like the league MVP award generally goes to a player on a team with a good record, the defensive player of the year voters should at least consider whether the player helped form a great defense. Defensive players can pile up individual statistics without helping to form a dominant defense. The defensive player of the year should be an integral part of a great defense except in rare cases where a historic individual achievement is too much to ignore.


What oddsmakers are saying

Bovada recently released their odds for who would win the defensive player of the year award. Here were the leaders:

  1. Von Miller (+300)
  2. Marcus Peters (+350)
  3. Lorenzo Alexander (+400)
  4. Dee Ford (+400)
  5. Aaron Donald (+600)
  6. Landon Collins (+600)
  7. Casey Hayward (+900)

Curiously absent from that list is Cliff Avril, who is tied for the league lead in sacks, and Bobby Wagner, who is leading the league in tackles. Richard Sherman, who is one interception behind Peters while playing on one of the league’s best secondaries, merits consideration as well. We will include those three players and assess each by the criteria outlined above.


#10 Casey Hayward

Hayward is a surprise to even be mentioned in this discussion. He signed a modest 3 year, $15M contract with the Chargers after playing for the Packers the past few years. He makes the list due to being tied for the league lead in interceptions with five. Let’s do a quick evaluation based on our criteria:

Standout defensive performance: C

He is tied for the league lead in interceptions with two other players, and three more have four interceptions. There is little else that separates him from his peers.

Historic defensive achievement: F

There is nothing historic about Hayward’s projected season.

Importance to the defense he plays in: C-

Hayward may not even be the best corner on his team. Brandon Flowers plays opposite of him.

Impact plays: C+

Two of his interceptions came in losses, and two more came in a blowout win over the Jaguars. Even with that in mind, interceptions are impact plays that deserve some recognition.

Quality of team defense: F

The Chargers are the 21st ranked defense in yards allowed and 28th in points allowed.



Hayward deserves a pat on the back for a nice season thus far, but has done little to earn true consideration for league honors beyond the Pro Bowl.


#9 Aaron Donald

Donald makes this list more on reputation than anything in particular he has done this season. He may be the best defensive player in the league in any given year, and should always be considered for the award. This year is probably not the year where he breaks through and wins it.

Standout defensive performance: D+

His five sacks are his best attribute, but even if you limit to interior linemen, there are guys like Kerry Hyder (7.0), Ndamukong Suh (5.0), and Timmy Jernigan (5.0) who are matching or besting what Donald has done.

Historic defensive achievement: F

Again, there is nothing of historical significance happening with Donald this year.

Importance to the defense he plays in: A

As much talent as that Rams defense flashes, it all starts with Donald. Every team they face starts their game plan with how to combat the big guy in the middle.

Impact plays: C+

The sacks are nice. He also is one off the league lead in tackles for loss with eleven. There have not been many signature plays for a team that is losing a lot of close games.

Quality of team defense: B+

The Rams are playing some of the best defense in the league despite getting next-to-nothing from their offense. They are 5th in scoring and 6th in yards allowed.



Donald is a great defensive player. He might be the most dominant of the bunch. His numbers this year have not told a story of a dominant player. That could still change if he finishes with a flourish.


#8 Richard Sherman

Sherman is probably a surprise entrant to this list for many folks. He is quietly having another strong season, and is doing so while playing on the league’s best defense. There is an argument to be made he should be even higher on this list.

Standout defensive performance: C

You might wonder why Sherman gets the same grade as Hayward despite having one less interception. It has to do with targets. Sherman gets far fewer opportunities to make his plays than the average corner because teams target him so rarely. Unfortunately, there is no longer a way to show which corner has been targeted the least or to calculate opponent passer rating when targeting a player. Both of those stats would likely help make Sherman’s case stronger.

Historic defensive achievement: D

There is nothing historic about the season Sherman is having. There is, however, something historic about what he can accomplish this season. Should he get one more interception this year, he will pass Deion Sanders’ mark of 30 interceptions in his first six seasons, and will have done so without having played a decent chunk of his rookie year. Four more interceptions will pass Ronnie Lott and tie Ed Reed for fifth-most interceptions in a player’s first six seasons since the merger.

Importance to the defense he plays in: A

Like Donald, opposing offensive coordinators usually start their game plan with how best to account for Sherman. He is a dominant force in the secondary. One aspect of his game that the average fan does not appreciate is his tackling prowess and run support. Few, if any, corners in the game are better at making sure tackles and being willing run supporters than Sherman. He has made countless key tackles this season to help make this one of the best run defenses in football.

Impact plays: B-

Sherman made a key interception while battling Brandon Marshall that turned a one-score game into a comfortable win, and added another interception to seal it. He also intercepted a pass in the end zone against Buffalo in a game decided by less than a touchdown. His fumble recovery in New England setup the Seahawks offense to take the lead for good during their signature win.

Quality of team defense: A

This is not only the best defense in the league, but arguably the best defense in history. They are aiming for a fifth straight year as the #1 scoring defense, something that has never been done before. Sherman is a foundational player for that sustained excellence.



Sherman is a sleeper in this race. If he were to finish strong with a few more interceptions, and perhaps a score of some sort, voters would need to strongly consider him. In a year where there are so few true standout performers statistically, there could be an argument to be made for picking the best player on the best defense. Sherman certainly is in that conversation.


#7 Lorenzo Alexander

Alexander has burst onto the scene this year in a great story of a special teams standout making a name for himself on defense at the age of thirty-three. He has been the best pass rusher on the league’s best pass rush.

Standout defensive performance: B-

Alexander is tied for the league lead in sacks with 10.0, and has had at least part of a sack in all but two of the Bills games.

Historic defensive achievement: F

Unless you want to factor in his age and his story, there is nothing of particular note about his statistics from history’s point-of-view.

Importance to the defense he plays in: B

He has stepped up this season to lead his team in sacks, but there are a bevy of other pass rushers who could step in if he was injured. There is also an argument to be made that he has benefitted greatly from attention being paid to Jerry Hughes on the other side.

Impact plays: B

He has the ten sacks and also has three forced fumbles.

Quality of team defense: B-

The Bills lead the league sacks, but are outside the top ten in points and yards allowed.



Alexander is having a feel-good year, but he lacks in terms of demanding primary attention from opponents, and actually benefits from attention paid to other rushers on the Bills. His defense is also just okay, so his performance has not lifted them to the point of dominance.


#6 Von Miller

Miller tops the Vegas odds to win the award. It would be a shame if that proved accurate. Miller is undoubtedly one of the most dominant defensive forces in football, but he should not get the award on reputation any more than Donald or Sherman should. His performance has been good this year, but there are other pass rushers who have done better.

Standout defensive performance: C+

Three players have more sacks than Miller this year, and a fourth is tied with his 9.5 sack total. Unlike Sherman, teams cannot afford to focus a disproportionate amount of their attention in Miller’s direction as he has high quality rushers around him like DeMarcus Ware, Shane Ray, and Derek Wolfe.

Historic defensive achievement: D

There is nothing historic about the season Miller is having. Like Sherman, however, he is close to climbing the charts as one of the most prolific defenders in his first six seasons. Three more sacks will move him to fifth place for most sacks by a player in their first six seasons.

Importance to the defense he plays in: A

Even with other good pass rushers around him, Miller is absolutely the first guy opponents must account for when preparing to play the Broncos defense. He can wreck a game.

Impact plays: B-

Miller has called himself out for needing to make more impact plays this season. Still, he has sacks in nearly every game the team has played. The Broncos would not have the record they do without his contributions.

Quality of team defense: A

This is one of the best defenses in football, and Miller is at the center of it.



Miller is every bit as good as his reputation indicates. He is also having a rather average season by most standards, including his own. There is nothing really jumping out as best defensive player this year so far. Should he go on a sack tear in the final few games, that would obviously change.


#5 Dee Ford

How do you rank Dee Ford above Von Miller? For starters, Ford has managed to compile his numbers without the help of any other pass rushers on his line. The next closest sack total to his 10.0 on the Chiefs is 2.0 by Chris Jones. Ford is in just his third season, but deserves serious consideration for defensive player of the year honors.

Standout defensive performance: B

Ford is tied for the league lead in sacks, and has been gaining steam with 6.0 sacks in his last four games. He had a dominant 3.5 sack performance against the Colts a few weeks ago. He also is one off the league lead in tackles for loss with eleven.

Historic defensive achievement: F

There is nothing historic about what Ford is doing this year. If he kept up this pace, he would finish with 16.0 sacks, which is below the average for sack leaders over the past 20 years.

Sack leaders this season are on pace for 16.0 sacks, which would be below the average for sack leaders over the past 20 years

Importance to the defense he plays in: A

This is a little tough to grade since guys like Donald, Sherman, and Miller are arguably the best at their positions in the league. Ford, while not having earned that recognition yet, is crucial to his team’s defense. As noted earlier, he is the Chiefs pass rush. They would be in serious trouble without him.

Impact plays: B-

Ten sacks in ten games is a lot of impact. The lack of forced fumbles (1) keeps him from moving higher in the list.

Quality of team defense: B-

The Chiefs defense is 25th in yards allowed, but 5th in points allowed. They are helped by a ball control offense that limits opponents opportunities to score. This is a good, not great, defense.



Ford has been a breakout star, and is an integral part of the Chiefs success this season after they lost Justin Houston to injury. If he keeps up his quickening pace of sacks, he very well could find himself near the top of this list.


#4 Cliff Avril

Nobody is talking about Cliff Avril for this award. Why? He is tied for the league lead in sacks and in forced fumbles while playing for the league’s best defense. He ranks highly on this list as a result.

Standout defensive performance: B

As previously stated, Avril is tied for the league lead in sacks and in forced fumbles (4). He has picked up the pace since the Seahawks best pass rusher, Michael Bennett, has been injured the past five weeks. Avril has totalled 6.0 sacks in that five game span, and has 8.0 sacks in his past six games.

Historic defensive achievement: D

There is nothing historic about his individual accomplishment, but if he is the top pass rusher on the only defense in NFL history to lead the league in scoring defense for five straight seasons, he deserves some extra credit.

Importance to the defense he plays in: B

The Seahawks have a variety of pass rushers. Avril has stood above them, but there are a few players who are arguably more important to the Seahawks defense.

Impact plays: A-

Avril has repeatedly come up with big plays in big moments this season. An astounding 6.0 of Avril’s 10.0 sacks have come in the fourth quarter or overtime. He leads the NFL in that category. His sacks have helped preserve close wins against Miami, Atlanta, and Buffalo. Big-time plays in big-time moments count for extra.

Quality of team defense: A

Best defense in football.



Avril deserves far more attention than he is getting for this award. His chances are hurt by his ensemble cast of great players and pass rushers, as well as his lack of publicity. He is a quiet and humble performer. Managing to lead the league in sacks on a team where so many players are vying for the quarterback would be a worthy accomplishment for the defensive player of the year. His propensity for creating turnovers makes him that much more deserving.


#3 Marcus Peters

Peters is a playmaker. Few players in the NFL have made more impact plays in the past two seasons than Peters. He is having another strong year.

Standout defensive performance: B+

He is tied for the league lead in interceptions and leads the league in passes defensed (15). Peters excels at making plays on the ball.

Historic defensive achievement: C

There is nothing historic about his achievements this year, but he is on pace to record more interceptions in his first two seasons than any player since Everson Walls in the early 80s. He would become just the second player since the merger to total 16 interceptions in his first two seasons.

Importance to the defense he plays in: A

Offenses have to try and avoid Peters. Ron Parker and Eric Berry are great compliments, but quarterbacks have to be aware of where Peters is at all times.

Impact plays: A-

Peters has accounted for nearly half of the takeaways forced by the Chiefs defense. His most impressive had to be his strip against Carolina that turned an almost certain defeat into a rousing road victory.

Quality of team defense: B- 

As stated earlier, the Chiefs defense is good, but not great.



Peters’ playmaking ways warrant serious consideration for the top spot. What keeps him from reaching it on this list is that his numbers do not stand out that much from his peers, and they are not that impressive historically. The two players above him are on pace to register seasons less often seen in the NFL.


#2 Landon Collins

Standout defensive performance: B+

Collins leads all safeties in interceptions with 5 (tied for the overall league lead) and in tackles with 80 (one more than Harrison Smith). He has pretty clearly established himself as having the most statistically impressive season of any safety.

Historic defensive achievement: A-

At first glance, there is nothing historic about Collins season so far. Should he keep up his interception pace, he will finish with 8 this year. Reggie Nelson had the same total last year as a safety. Where it gets interesting is when you add his sack total (3.0) into the mix. That puts him on pace for 8 interceptions and 5.0 sacks. No player with 7 interceptions or more has ever finished with more than 3.5 sacks.

Kevin Kaesviharn had 6 interceptions and 4.0 sacks back in 2006 for the Bengals. Rodney Harrison had 6 interceptions and 6.0 sacks in 2000 for the Chargers. Finally, Dave Duerson 6 interceptions and 7.0 sacks for the Bears in 1986. That’s really it for getting close to a 8 interceptions and 5.0 sack total.

Importance to the defense he plays in: B

On one hand, Collins is responsible for half of the Giants ten takeaways on the season while also being third on the team in sacks. That’s pretty darn important. On the other hand, his position makes him less dominant that a corner who can take away a part of the field or a defensive linemen who can disrupt every play.

Impact plays: A-

Collins had one of the best interception returns for touchdown you will ever see against the Rams in London. He has made at least one pick in each of his last four games, all Giants wins.

Quality of team defense: C

The Giants are ranked 11th in scoring defense and 16th in overall defense. This is a mediocre defense by almost any measure.



Collins was originally lower on this list, but the rarity of his potential achievements from a historical perspective vaulted him almost to the top. His position (only 3 safeties have won the award in the last 30 years), and the mediocrity of the defense he plays in keeps him out of the top spot. There is someone more worthy for now, but Collins could easily move into the top spot if he keeps up the tear his is currently on.


#1 Bobby Wagner

The case for Wagner is rather simple. He has been the best player on the best defense, and is on pace to do something rarely done. His position has also commonly won the award, and Wagner’s performance compares favorably to past winners.

Standout defensive performance: A

After a rather pedestrian start to the season, Wagner has averaged 12.6 tackles per games in his last seven contests. That includes three games over 15 tackles or more. Take a look at how much Wagner’s performance has stood out from every other NFL defender in that time period:


That is what you call an outlier. Should he maintain that 12.6 tackle per game pace over the final six weeks, he would finish with 183 tackles on the year. Even if he just registers his lower pace that accounts for his slow start, he would finish with 173 tackles.

He has been doing more than tackling as well. He has an interception, a blocked kick, two passes defensed and five tackles for loss. That puts him in good company with past middle linebackers who have won the award.


He would match or beat most of Kuechly’s numbers when he won the award in 2013, and would have the most sacks of any of the middle linebackers other than Brian Urlacher. He very well may match that number.

Historic defensive achievement: A-

Tackles are a difficult statistic to get historic significance for as it was not an official statistic until 2001. There are decent records dating back to 1994, but they are unofficial. Given the data we have, Wagner is on pace for a historic season.


Take that further and look at the leading tacklers in the NFL in each of the past fifteen years.


Any way you look at it, Wagner is approaching rarified air.

Importance to the defense he plays in: A

Wagner is literally in the middle of everything Seattle does. His ability to drop deep into coverage against even speedy slot receivers is unique. That he complements that with sure tackling has always made him worthy of All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition. This year, he has added the ability to blitz effectively and has been among the most disruptive pass rushers on the team, even if his sack total does not demonstrate it. There is nobody on the team who could fill in for Wagner, and the team performance has sagged in past years whenever Wagner has been sidelined.

Impact plays: B

He does not have as many glamour stats as some of the other contenders. His leaping of the line to block a kick against Arizona has started a trend across football, college and pro. He added a goal line stuff of David Johnson in overtime to force a field goal that was missed. The Seahawks lose that game if Wagner does not make either of those plays.

Quality of team defense: A

Best player on the best defense in the NFL.



Defensive player of the year should be given to a player who is doing something truly remarkable, and should be given additional credit if he is helping a defense play at a championship level. In that regard, there is no contest between Wagner and anyone else competing for the award. He is on a near-record pace for tackles and is doing it as part of one history’s best defenses. He plays a position so crucial to success that seven players who play that position have won the award in the last 30 years. Wagner’s numbers compare favorably to all of those greats like Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher and Kuechly.

Should Wagner continue to pile up numbers in defending the pass, stuffing the run, and rushing the passer, there would be no player more deserving of the award. His all-around excellence and standout historical performance should make this a simple choice.