The NFL keeps stacking the deck in favor of the offense with annual rule changes. But try as it might, the league cannot eliminate great defense play. That’s because there are so many great defensive players in today’s game.
Here’s an indication. In our Talk of Fame Network poll this week, we ask out listeners and readers to select the 2018 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. We list 10 candidates … and here’s another listing of the worthy names who did not make the cut: pass rushers Calais Campbell of the Jaguars, Everson Griffen of the Vikings, Cameron Heyward of the Steelers, Cameron Jordan of the Saints and DeMarcus Lawrence of the Cowboys, linebackers C.J. Mosley of the Ravens and Bobby Wagner of the Seahawks, cornerbacks Darius Slay of the Lions and Marcus Peters of the Rams and safety Kevin Byard of the Titans.
The competition, obviously, was fierce for these 10 slots. So here is the slate of candidates we decided on. Who do you think wins NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors?
Joey Bosa, DE, LA Chargers. The Chargers had lofty expectations for Bosa when they selected him with the third overall pick of the 2016 draft and he has lived up to them. He was voted the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2016 (despite missing four games with a hamstring injury) and went to his first Pro Bowl in 2017. He collected 10 ½ sacks in 2016 and 12 ½ in 2017. He also forced four fumbles last season.
Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia. Cox is to NFL physicality what Aaron Donald is to speed along the interior defensive line. He goes 6-4, 310 and plays every bit to that size. His presence helped the Eagles lead the NFL in run defense last season on the way to their first Lombardi Trophy. He also chipped in 5 ½ sacks on the passing downs. Cox has been voted to the last three Pro Bowls and had his best sack season with 9 ½ in 2015.
Aaron Donald, DT, LA Rams. The 2017 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Donald won all the awards a defensive lineman can win in colleges – Lombardi, Outland, Bednarik and Nagurski – and has been as dominant in the NFL with four Pro Bowls to show for his first four seasons. He collected 11 sacks, forced five fumbles and recovered one last season. Now he has Ndamukong Suh playing alongside of him to draw some of the blocking focus away from Donald. But Donald is holding out this summer for a better contract. If it gets resolved, he could have a monster season.
Chandler Jones, DE, Arizona. The 2017 NFL sack leader with 17. The Cardinals gave Jones a five-year, $82 million contract after his 11 sacks season in 2016. Then he went out and set the franchise record for sacks in 2017. His 28 sacks over the last two years are tops in the NFL. His production came as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. New coach Steve Wilks will move Jones closer to the quarterback at end this season with the implementation of a 4-3 defensive scheme.
Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina. The 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The Panthers made Kuechly a Top 10 pick in 2012 and he has gone to the Pro Bowl each of his last five seasons. He also is a two-time NFL tackle leader, collecting 164 as a rookie in 2012 and 153 in 2014. The Panthers have finished in the Top 6 in run defense in three of the last four seasons. He also has 15 interceptions, 10 ½ sacks and eight fumble recoveries in his career.
Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland. Donald isn’t the only former NFL Defensive Player of the Year in a contract holdout. Mack, the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, also is sitting out training camp. Mack led the NFL with 15 sacks in 2015, then collected 11 in 2016 and 10 ½ in 2017. He has forced nine fumbles in his career and recovered four of them. He also ran an interception back for a touchdown in 2016.
Von Miller, OLB, Denver. Miller has never been NFL Defensive Player of the Year and that’s surprising. He has played six healthy seasons and been in double figures in sacks all six of them, including a league-leading 18 ½ sacks in 2012. He also has been a Super Bowl MVP for the Broncos. He’s another pass rusher who should benefit from an offseason addition. GM John Elway claimed the draft’s best pass rusher last April when he took outside linebacker Bradley Chubb with the fifth overall pick. Now offenses will have to protect from assault on both sides of the pocket.
Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville. The fifth overall pick of the 2016 draft, Ramsey became both a walk-in starter and a lock-down cornerback for the Jaguars. He was slowed in his rookie season by a slight tear to his meniscus during training camp. But he still started all 16 games and intercepted two passes. When the Jaguars paired him with free-agent A.J. Bouye in 2017, Jacksonville suddenly had the best cornerback tandem in the NFL. Ramsey intercepted four passes as the Jaguars led the NFL in pass defense.
Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota. The linchpin of the NFL’s best defense. Smith has makes plays on both sides of scrimmage. He tackles (104 in 2012), sacks quarterbacks (three in 2014) and intercepts passes (five in both 2014 and 2017). He has been to the Pro Bowl each of the last three Februarys and is coming off arguably his best season in 2017 when he didn’t allow a touchdown in coverage and broke up 17 passes. He wears the same number 22 as Minnesota’s Hall of Fame safety and all-time NFL interception leader Paul Krause.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston. A four-time Pro Bowler, four-time first team all-pro, three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and two-time NFL sack leader. When healthy, Watt is the best defensive player in the league. But is he healthy? Watt, 29, has missed 24 games over the last two seasons with injuries. He played only five games last season and went without a sack for the first-time in his seven-year career.