This was a year of defensive standouts in the NFL. In a league that has become ever more centered around the offensive side of the ball, with high-octane passing and point-scoring at record levels, it was a fine year for impressive defensive stars.
This is another award that has been dominated by J.J. Watt in recent seasons (similar to the Dwight Stephenson Award), but Watt finally has legitimate competition, and for the first time in four seasons, does not emerge as the victor at PFF.
This award belongs to the best defensive player, regardless of position over the season, so let’s take a look at the results.
Aaron Donald, DT, St Louis Rams
Aaron Donald is beginning his career in the same way J.J. Watt began his. Like Watt, Donald is suffering from the disbelief caused by just how good he has been. He led the league as a rookie defensive tackle a year ago, and this season, he has catapulted his grade into a stratosphere only inhabited by Watt. We now know Watt to be a generationally great player, and so simply for Donald to have joined him in that echelon of play causes recoil in most people’s minds.
At one point, people argued that Donald was the product of a dominant Rams D-line, but this season if, it does nothing else, should dispel that fallacy. Without Robert Quinn for much of the season, Donald continued to dominate. He was so unblockable that he began to draw the kind of attention reserved for the best players in the game, and suddenly Michael Brockers earned the best grade of his career for a full season, almost twice as good as his previous best. Donald was the line superstar on that defensive front and dominated all season long, ending the year even stronger than he began it, and posting a season grade the likes of which we have only ever seen from Watt in the past. He notched 79 total pressures, 51 defensive stops, missed just two tackles, and was a more consistently dominant force than any other defensive player in football this season.
Aaron Donald deserves the Defensive Player of the Year award, and his NFL career is just two seasons old. What if there is more to come?
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
Second place was very tight, but while we have seen better from Watt in the past, and indeed better from players in the same position, what Kuechly did at inside linebacker was far more peerless. Despite missing three games, Kuechly was the highest-graded ILB in the PFF era, which is an era that spans the entire duration of the career of Patrick Willis, among other notable names.
Kuechly was the league’s best coverage linebacker, and an answer to a league full of “matchup problem” offensive weapons. While most linebackers who find themselves matched up on running backs, receivers, and tight ends are just trying to make the throw tougher, Kuechly can legitimately shut them down. Against Dallas, he earned an interception on a seam route against Jason Witten that would be open against most linebackers, but was a bad idea against a player of his caliber.
Only games missed and one poor day at the office against Atlanta, where he found himself stuck covering Julio Jones more than once, prevented him challenging Donald for this award.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
It says something about the brilliance of J.J. Watt that he can break his hand, play three average games, and still post a grade better than anybody other than Aaron Donald has in the PFF era. Over the past three seasons, Watt has been the best defensive player in football, and while he was a little shy of that level in 2015, in almost any other year that would still be more than good enough to wrap up the Defensive Player of the Year and the Dwight Stephenson Award.
Unfortunately for Watt, he had Aaron Donald to contend with this year, and 85 percent of Watt’s best wasn’t good enough to match Donald, whose play was every bit as good as Watt at his peak.
Watt still led the NFL in defensive pressures, sacks, and batted passes as he became a true edge-rusher.
Khalil Mack, ED, Oakland Raiders
If J.J. Watt is a part-time interior player, or at the very least, still a hybrid player, Khalil Mack was the best true edge defender in the NFL this season, and is another player dominating in just his second season in the league.
Mack was the highest-graded edge defender against both the run and the pass, and while the former was evident all through his rookie season, the latter has taken a big step forward, and now the sack numbers are reflecting the sheer volume of pressure he gets. Mack ended the year with 84 total pressures and more sacks than any other pure edge rusher.
Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals
Whether you call him a cornerback or a safety, there is no doubting that Tyrann Mathieu was one of the best players in football in 2015. Injury saw us robbed of the final two games of his season, but in the 14 games he did play, we saw some spectacular playmaking ability across all facets of the game. Mathieu earned positive grades in coverage, against the run, and on the blitz as a pass-rusher for a Cardinals' defense in which he did everything possible.
Mathieu notched 11 total pressures on the season and three batted passes when rushing the passer, totaled five interceptions and five passes defensed, and amassed 81 tackles in 14 games.
There may not be a more versatile player in the NFL than Mathieu, which is why he had a strong case for the Defensive Player of the Year award.
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