Fifteen players have won the 18 Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards handed out this millennium. J.J. Watt has won three (and counting?) while Ray Lewis won two.
Five of these men — Lewis, Jason Taylor, Brian Urlacher, Derrick Brooks and Michael Strahan — are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And that list will grow by three over the next three years when Ed Reed (2019), Troy Polamalu (2020) and Charles Woodson (2021) become eligible.
In a passing league, it’s no secret that pass rushers who knock down a lot of quarterbacks are a very popular choice among the voters. That’s what makes Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter a contender as this season heads into December with the Vikings going to Foxboro, where Tom Brady is 32-4 at home in the month of December.
So, Danielle, knock old Tom around in the late afternoon national game of the week and it will go a long way toward helping you become the second-youngest DPOY this millennium. Watt was 23 in 2014, when he won the first of three DPOY trophies in four years.
Of the 18 DPOY awards this millennium, nine have gone to pass rushers, including the past four and six of the past seven. Carolina middle linebacker and tackling machine Luke Kuechly broke up the pass rushing party in 2013 when he posted 166 tackles and four interceptions.
Defending champion Aaron Donald, the Rams’ interior wrecking ball, is the only inside pass rusher to win the award this millennium. And he’s looking like a good bet to repeat.
Donald won it while playing 14 games last year. He had 11 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, five forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. This year, in 11 games, he already has more sacks (14 1/2) and tackles for loss (16) . He also has three forced fumbles, and his two fumble recoveries are two more than he had last year. And, oh yeah, the Rams are 10-1.
Unlike MVP, the DPOY doesn’t necessarily need his team to make the playoffs or even finish above .500. Strahan’s Giants were 7-9 when he broke the NFL single-season sacks record with 22 1/2. Taylor’s 2006 Dolphins were 6-10 when he led the league in forced fumbles (nine), returned two interceptions for touchdowns, recovered two fumbles and posted 13 1/2 sacks.
In 2014, Watt’s Texans missed the playoffs, but he had 20 1/2 sacks, four forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and a league-high 29 tackles for loss.
Hunter is having an extraordinary season, obviously. He’s tied with Watt for second in sacks (11 1/2) behind Donald. And his 16 tackles for loss are tied with Donald for first.
Sixteen tackles at this point in the season has Donald and Hunter on pace for 23. Since 1999, only eight players have had more in a full season. Watt has the top three totals of 39 in 2012 and 29 in 2014 and 2015.
Hunter also has a touchdown off a fumble recovery, which carries a lot of weight.
Where Hunter comes up short against the other front-runners is forced fumbles. Hunter doesn’t have one yet. Watt and Chicago’s Khalil Mack lead the league with five apiece, while Donald has three. Mack also has an interception and a touchdown.
With five games left in the season, it sure looks like a pass rusher will win DPOY again. Will Hunter have what it takes to stand above all the others?