A pass rusher has been the NFL Defensive Player of the Year five times in the last six seasons. Houston defensive end J.J. Watt was a three-time winner — but he’s not a candidate in 2017. A tibial plateau fracture ended his season in early October.
So the field is wide open this season — and that’s the subject of our weekly Talk of Fame Network poll. Who is the NFL Defensive Player of the Year? Sack statistics annually weigh heavily in voting for this honor — and we’ve put together a ballot with five pass rushers. We’ve also included two middle linebackers and a cornerback … although the last cornerback to win the honor was 23 years ago, Deion Sanders of the San Francisco 49ers.
There is one former NFL Defensive Player of the Year on this ballot — Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, who won it in 2013. He’s the only non-pass rusher to win in the last six seasons. So here’s your slate of candidates:
A.J. Bouye, CB, Jacksonville. The Jaguars lured Bouye away from the Houston Texans with a five-year, $67.5-million contract – the largest signed by a free agent last offseason. And he’s been worth every penny. He has an NFL-runnerup six interceptions and an NFL-runnerup 23 passes defensed in the NFL’s top-ranked pass defense. The Jaguars have allowed only one 300-yard passer this season (Ben Roethlisberger) and only one 100-yard receiver (Antonio Brown).
Calais Campbell, DE, Jacksonville. The Jaguars also lured Calais Campbell away from the Arizona Cardinals with a five-year, $60-million contract – the second largest signed by a free agent last offseason. A $30-million chunk was guaranteed. And he also has been worth every penny. Campbell has an NFL-runnerup 14 ½ sacks in the NFL’s best pass rush. He also has forced three fumbles and scooped up one for a touchdown for the AFC South-leading Jaguars. The Jacksonville defense has allowed the fewest points and the third fewest yards this season.
Aaron Donald, DT, LA Rams. Donald arrive in the NFL as the 14th overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft and has been a beast in his first three seasons, capturing NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and going to the Pro Bowl each of his first three seasons. He’s considered the best interior player in the NFL, and new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ scheme fits Donald like a glove this season. Donald has 11 sacks, forced four fumbles and recovered one for the NFC West-leading Rams.
Everson Griffen, DE, Minnesota. The NFC North-leading Vikings rank second in the NFL in defense, second in run defense and third in pass defense … and Griffen is a big part of the reason. He ranks fourth in the NFL with 13 sacks and has forced three fumbles. Minnesota has allowed only one 100-yard receiver (Marvin Jones) and one 100-yard rusher (Jonathan Stewart). Griffen arrived in the NFL as a fourth-round pick in 2010 but has been a late bloomer, finally hitting double figures in sacks in 2014 (12) and going to two Pro Bowl since then.
Cameron Heyward, DE, Pittsburgh. The Steelers are one of only two defenses that rank in the Top 10 this season in all four of the major defensive categories – run, pass, total and scoring defense. Heyward, the son of Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, has been a key contributor in that defensive dominance from his strongside-end position in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 scheme. He has a career-high 10 sacks and also has forced one fumble and recovered another. Heyward was a first-round pick of the Steelers in 2011 and was one of the most glaring Pro Bowl oversights in the 2017 voting.
Chandler Jones, OLB, Arizona. The Cardinals acquired Jones from the Super Bowl-champion Patriots for a second-round draft pick in 2015, and he’s given coach Bruce Arians all he could have possibly hoped for as a pass rusher. He collected 12 ½ sacks in 2015, 11 in 2016 and has an NFL-leading 15 in 2017. Arizona’s season has been a disappointment – at 6-8, they are already out of the playoff chase. But the defense has been anything but a disappointment, ranking seventh overall and sixth against the rush. Campbell also has 51 tackles.
Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina. The Panthers fielded one of the NFL’s best with Kuechly on the field in 2015, finishing sixth in the NFL on the way to an NFC championship. When Kuechly missed the final six games of the 2016 season with a concussion, the Panthers collapsed on defense, finishing 21st in the NFL and missing out on the playoffs with a 6-10 record. Kuechly is back in 2017 and so is the Carolina defense. He has a team-leading 107 tackles in the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense, and the Panthers share the AFC South lead with a 10-4 record. He has three interceptions, forced two fumbles and returned one of those fumbles 34 yards for a touchdown against the Jets.
C.J. Mosley, ILB, Baltimore. Ray Lewis is on the ballot for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2018. So it’s fitting that the resurgence of the Ravens on defense in 2017 can be traced to another inside linebacker, C.J. Mosley. He has a team-leading 121 tackles in a Top-10 defense. He also has intercepted two passes, broken up six others, forced three fumbles and recovered three fumbles for the 8-6 Ravens. He returned one of his interceptions 63 yards for a touchdown against the Dolphins. He arrived in the NFL as the 14th overall pick of the 2014 draft and has been to two Pro Bowls.