Defense wins championships. It’s cliche statement that we’ve heard in the NFL for as long as the league has been around. We focus (mostly) on following the offensive numbers that individual players and teams put up, but yet, we are told that none of it will matter once the playoffs come around.
In all truth, the aforementioned statement holds a large amount of credibility. Two seasons ago, we had a match-up of the best offense in football (the Denver Broncos) and the best defense in football (the Seattle Seahawks) in the Super Bowl. Overwhelmingly, defense ruled the day in that game. We’ve seen it time and time again in the past; if you can’t stop the opposing team, you will eventually get beat.
With this historical realization, the value of having a great defender on your roster is immeasurably valuable. A leader on that side of the ball that can make timely big plays and set the tone for the game can be the difference between a playoff team and a mediocre squad.
There are plenty of players that fit this mold in the NFL today, but when it comes to winning Defensive Player of the Year, you need to be truly special and carry your team. With that said, here are the top 3 candidates for the award:
3. Von Miller
Von Miller is one of the most athletic and talented players in all of football. Drafted 2nd overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, his career has been a bit up and down with the Denver Broncos. His first two seasons were great and saw him gather 29 total sacks, 8 forced fumbles, and a Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Then in 2013, things got dicey for Miller, as he was suspended 6 games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He came back to play in 9 games, but only accumulated 5 sacks before tearing his ACL and missing the Broncos’ run to the Super Bowl. There were now questions about the future of the linebacker’s career.
Heavy adversity faced Miller coming into last season, but did he ever prove his doubters wrong. He came back with a 14 sack campaign and helped lead one of the best defenses in the NFL in 2014. Now, with so much talent on the Broncos’ defense, Miller will be called upon to lead a potentially historically good unit. With pass rushers in DeMarcus Ware and rookie Shane Ray, defensive backs in T.J Ward, Chris Harris Jr, and Aqib Talib, and solid talent on the defensive line, the limit on Miller’s potential production in 2015 has no heights.
As one of the league’s biggest match-up nightmares, look for Miller to re-breakout this season. He can truly be the difference between a Super Bowl team and a one-and-done squad.
Predicted stats: 16 sacks, 70 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 1 defensive touchdown
2. J.J. Watt
If there was ever a staple on the list for best defensive players in the league, J.J. Watt is it. The unquestioned star of the Houston Texans has won Defensive Player of the Year in two of the past three seasons and is an basically an unstoppable force.
In 2014, Watt collected 20.5 sacks, 78 tackles, forced four fumbled, had 5 fumble recoveries and 1 interception, and scored 2 defensive touchdowns on his way to the award. Of course, he also got a lot of attention for the work he did on offense, as he caught 3 touchdowns on 3 receptions last season. What’s scary is that this guy is only entering his 5th season in the NFL and is just 26 years old.
Just how much better can Watt get in 2015? Playing defensive end certainly puts a lot of wear-and-tear on your body (especially when you play as hard as Watt does), so he could slow down a bit this season. His numbers may decline slightly with the (hopeful) emergence of Jadeveon Clowney, but don’t expect a sharp fall off. Watt is too talented, plays with too much passion, and is too important to the Texans for him not to be anywhere near the top of this list.
One thing that may hurt him (although it hasn’t in the past) is the Texans inability to make the playoffs, but Watt is still an ultra-valuable player on any team he suits up for.
Predicted stats: 17 sacks, 73 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 offensive touchdown
1. Luke Kuechly
Did you know that Luke Kuechly won Defensive Player of the Year in 2013? With the hype and success of Watt, it isn’t surprising if you didn’t. Kuechly is amost like the unsung hero of the NFL. The guy is simply a machine on the field, but with his less eccentric personality than his peers and the fact that he plays for the Carolina Panthers, he is sometimes an after thought.
Kuechly puts up numbers with the best of them, though. In 2014, he had 153 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and an interception. He is (without a doubt) the best middle linebacker the NFL has to offer and he’s only been in the league for 3 seasons.
Often times, guys that are known for collecting a bunch of tackles are overlooked. They aren’t as flashy as the sack masters or those who score defensive touchdowns at will. Tackling is one the essential foundations of the game, however, and no one does it better than Kuechly. He is also an amazing leader and serves as the on-field coach for that Panthers’ D. Without him, there is no way that Carolina would have made the postseason the past two seasons.
The value, the leadership, and the play making ability make Kuechly an intriguing case for the award. Watt will be tough to overtake, but if anyone can do it, this is the guy.
Predicted stats: 160 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 3 interceptions, 1 defensive touchdown