In 2015, the Denver Broncos proved that defense really does win championships in the National Football League. They did have Peyton Manning under center and several talented weapons on the offensive side of the ball, but at the end of the day, it was their historically great defense that brought them their third Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. Curiously, the Broncos didn’t have a single player finish in the top four of voting for the 2015 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, despite the aforementioned record-setting season that the team put together.
With the upcoming NFL regular season rapidly approaching, the oddsmakers in Las Vegas have released their list of odds representing who they think will take home the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Here’s a look at the top six contenders.
6. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks
His peers may not believe that he is a true shutdown corner because he plays one side of the field and does not follow opposing No. 1 wide receivers, but there is simply no denying that Sherman is one of the top cornerbacks in the game. He does what he does extremely well and can consistently be counted on to take away his half of the field in the Seahawks’ cover-three defensive scheme. If the Seahawks are among the top contenders for Super Bowl LI, expect to see Sherman in the running for this award next January.
5. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
Kuechly quickly established himself as one of the premier defensive players in the NFL shortly after entering the league in 2012. He has played an integral role in transforming the Panthers’ defense into one of the premier units in the game; he has been earned three-straight first-team All-Pro selections; and he won the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. The former Boston College Eagle is a true throwback who can do anything you could ever want a middle linebacker to do. In fact, when it’s all said and done, we would be shocked if Kuechly doesn’t finish in the top-five of voting for this award (assuming he stays healthy).
4. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
In just two NFL seasons, Aaron Donald has already established himself as one of the top interior defensive lineman in football. Since the Rams took him with the No. 13 overall pick in the 2014 draft, all the former Pittsburgh Panthers superstar has done is consistently blow up plays against both the pass and run, earn two trips to the Pro Bowl and one first-team All-Pro honor, and become one of the most disruptive forces in the NFL. Not bad for a guy whose draft stock plummeted for fear that he was too undersized (6-foot-1, 285 pounds) to play at the highest level.
3. Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders
Khalil Mack burst onto the NFL scene with authority in 2015, earning first-team All-Pro honors at two different positions (outside linebacker and defensive end). In theory, with all of the Raiders’ offseason additions on the defensive side of the ball, Mack should turn in an even better performance with bigger statistics given his stronger supporting cast in 2016. If he does just that, there is a good chance that he will be one of the top contenders for this award when January comes around.
2. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
Von Miller had a bit of an up-and-down regular season in 2015, but the former Texas A&M Aggie turned in his best performances in the Broncos’ biggest games of the season — their AFC Championship win over the New England Patriots and their Super Bowl 50 win over the Carolina Panthers. After winning the Super Bowl 50 MVP award, Miller was awarded the largest contract for a defensive player in NFL history.
When you earn that sort of money, there’s always added pressure to live up to expectations. That said, if Miller is healthy and distraction-free (Who could forget his celebrity tour, which included a spot on Dancing With the Stars?), there just isn’t a player in the league who can match his first step off the edge and impact games the way he can.
1. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
It should come as no surprise that the oddsmakers in Las Vegas have J.J. Watt as the favorite to take home his fourth career NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2016. He is currently the best overall player in the NFL and one of the most impactful defensive players the game has ever seen. He literally does everything well, and given his ability to play through pain, you can safely count on him being in the Texans’ lineup for the vast majority of the season.
On top of that, the four-time All-Pro plays defensive end (five-technique) in the Texans’ 3-4 scheme — traditionally a position reserved for run-stuffers — continues to post sack totals that compare more closely to a pure edge-rusher. All said, we would be completely stunned if Watt does not finish in the top-three of voting for this award at the end of the season.