Plenty of players are selected to the Pro Bowl each year. Sometimes it actually becomes funny to watch the number rise as players bow out to preserve their health. Fewer players are selected to All-Pro teams, but the first and second teams allow for two full units to be selected. If there’s a pinnacle for defenders, it isn’t a Pro Bowl bid or All-Pro selection, it’s the Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) award.
There are plenty of great defenders in the league, which often leads to a few superstars overshadowing many other greats. We saw this when J.J. Watt took home the award three times in four years and Aaron Donald seems poised for a similar run now. While we can enjoy the dominance of these few players, we should also acknowledge the all-time greats that have yet to win the DPOY award. While some of these players may never win the award, they’ll certainly be remembered as dominant players.
Cameron Jordan DE
Jordan isn’t the most consistent of players, which is why he doesn’t crack the top ten. This is the first time Jordan has recorded back-to-back seasons with ten sacks or more. That being said, Jordan is a dominant run-stopper and the heart and soul of the improved New Orleans Saints defense. He has made three Pro Bowls and was a First Team All-Pro last season. Barring any earth-shaking changes, Jordan seems set to make his four Pro Bowl this season.
Darius Leonard OLB
It’s extremely early, Leonard hasn’t even finished his rookie season yet, but I’m sold. He’s leading the NFL in combined tackles and solo tackles and has seven sacks and four forced fumbleson top of it all. He’s completely filled up that stat sheet from top to bottom. Credit the Indianapolis Colts for taking him in the second round of the draft because he was a steal. With this level of production, the Colts have found a player to build their defense around.
Eric Berry S
Berry has always been a great player with Hall of Fame talent and he’s overcome so much during his career, but I don’t think he ever was the best safety in the league at any point during his career. However, he’s arguably the most resilient player in the NFL right now. He beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma in less than a year and won 2015 Comeback Player of the Year. He injured his Achilles in the first game of the 2017 season while locking down Rob Gronkowski and then suffered setbacks along the road to recovery. He made his first start of the season against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 15. Berry, a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time First Team All-Pro, is more than just a great football player, he’s become an even larger symbol for people facing adversity.
Geno Atkins DT
Outside of Donald, there hasn’t been a more consistent defensive tackle since 2010. Since becoming a full-time starter in his second season in the NFL, Atkins has only missed the Pro Bowl once and that was because he missed seven games with an injury. In his eight completed seasons Atkins has gone to six Pro Bowls, is a two-time First Team All-pro, and a one-time Second Team All-Pro. Now in his ninth year, Atkins is having yet another productive, Pro Bowl run.
Jalen Ramsey CB
He loves to talk, but it’s okay because he can usually back it up. Ramsey looks like he’s on the path to becoming the new generation’s top cornerback. He had a strong rookie season in 2016 but really emerged onto the scene in 2017 when he made the Pro Bowl and was selected as a First Team All-Pro along with Xavier Rhodes. Ramsey and the Jacksonville Jaguars haven’t had the success this year that they were looking for, but the cornerback has more than done his job. He’s held explosive players like Tyreek Hill in check all season.
Ndamukong Suh DT
Suh never reached the level of dominance that his current teammate Aaron Donald is at, but he looked like he was trending that way for a few years. Suh won the 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year after mauling quarterbacks for ten sacks. Since then he’s made five Pro Bowls, three First All-Pro teams, and two Second All-Pro teams. Before Donald’s arrival, Suh was unquestionably the most gifted defensive tackle in the NFL with his only opponent being Geno Atkins. Now almost 32 years old, Suh’s game is declining as he slows down and it’s unclear if he’ll accomplish enough to be a Hall of Fame player, but he’ll sure have a shot.
10. Joey Bosa DE
Bosa missed most of his third season because of injuries, but he made the Pro Bowl in just his second season and had 23 combined sacks in those first two years. He also has four sacks in the five games he’s played in this season. With his crazy speed and athleticism, it’s hard to imagine that Bosa won’t make a few runs at sack titles during the coming seasons. His 12.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and 70 combined tackles in 2017 show just how versatile and great he will become.
9. Myles Garrett DE
He’s only in his second season, which is why he’s so low on the list. In terms of talent though, Garrett is everything the Cleveland Browns and football fans could have hoped for. He’s fast, strong, has plenty of bend and athleticism, it’s hard to be more physically gifted than this guy. My one criticism is that he needs to learn to play the run better. Out of all of the young pass rushers in the league, I think Garrett has the best ability to single-handedly take over games. He needs to do that more consistently though and find a way to bring his tackle totals up. With 12.5 sacks this season, Garrett is on his way to his first Pro Bowl selection.
8. Chandler Jones DE
This list is going to be loaded with pass rushers and Jones reminds me a lot of former Defensive Player of the Year, Terrell Suggs. Jones has arguably been one of the most underrated pass rushers in recent history. Through his first six seasons in the NFL, Jones had 64 sacks, and he’s added 12 more in 2018. 2018 is Jones’ fifth season with at least ten sacks. For all of this effort and production, Jones has just two Pro Bowl appearances and one First Team All-Pro selection. It’s hard to see why he hasn’t attracted more attention until now, but he finally turned heads in 2017 when he led the league with 17 sacks. In just his age 28 season, Jones still has a bunch of prime years ahead of him to compete for the award.
7. Harrison Smith S
I firmly believe that Smith has ascended and become the best safety in the league during the last two seasons. He doesn’t have as many years on top as someone like Earl Thomas, but he has shown just how dynamic he can be. This season alone, Smith has three interceptions and three sacks to go along with 71 combined tackles. With 20 career interceptions and 12 career sacks, we could be looking at the next member of the 20-20 club. In six completed seasons, Smith has been to the Pro Bowl three times and was selected as a First Team All-Pro last season. He’s already approaching 30, which means his window to with the Defensive Player of the Year award is probably already beginning to close. Even if he never wins the award, he’s been one of the most exciting defenders to watch in recent history.
6. Richard Sherman CB
During the peak years of the Legion of Boom, Sherman and Patrick Peterson were the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Teams chose to throw away from Sherman rather than risk trying to target him. When they did try to throw on him, Sherman made them pay. He has 30 career interceptions and recorded eight interceptions in both 2012 and 2013. The shutdown corner made four Pro Bowls, a Second All-Pro team, and three First All-Pro teams. Sherman hasn’t had the kind of year we’re used to seeing out of him this season, but he had such a high peak that there was no way to not have him on this list.
5. Earl Thomas S
Thomas was the X-factor and best player in the Legion of Boom secondary. He followed the Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu era as the best safety in the league. Thomas fractured his leg early in the season and will leave Seattle in free agency this offseason, but he recorded three interceptions in just four games this year, proving he’s still great. Watching him, I saw some of the ball skills that made Reed so good in coverage and some of the natural instincts that helped Polamalu make so many game-changing plays. Now I don’t think Thomas is as good as either of those two first-ballot future Hall of Famers, but he’s still going to make it into Canton, Ohio one day. Thomas entered the league in 2010 and has made six Pro Bowls, three First All-Pro teams, and two Second All-Pro teams.
4. Patrick Peterson CB
He’s been the most consistent cornerback since the end of the Darrelle Revis era. Personally, I think he shared the title of the NFL’s best shutdown corner with Richard Sherman for a few years and filled the hole left by Revis’ decline. Peterson has only recorded more than three interceptions one in his career, seven in 2012, but that’s mostly because teams are afraid to target him. He has made the Pro Bowl in each of his seven completed seasons and was a First Team All-Pro three times. Since 2014 he has ranked inside the top 25 of NFL Network’s annual Top 100 Players each year.
3. Bobby Wagner MLB
Wagner is the closest player to Luke Kuechly in the NFL. Kuechly has been the best middle linebacker in the league since the declines and retirements of Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis. Wagner had a slower start to his career but has really elevated his game and gained recognition since 2014. He led the NFL in combined tackles in 2016 and tied for the lead in solo tackles in 2017. Since entering the league in 2012, Wagner has made four Pro Bowls, been a First Team All-Pro three times, and was a Second Team All-Pro in 2015. He has the ability to do everything a coach could ask of a defender.
2. Von Miller OLB
Miller already has a lot of hardware in his trophy case but not a Defensive Player of the Year award. He was the 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year and was the MVP of Super Bowl 50 when the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers. Miller has never led the NFL in sacks, but he did have 18.5 back in 2012. The only season that he didn’t record ten sacks or more was 2013 when he only played in nine games. Miller made every Pro Bowl since he entered the league except for 2013. Through seven completed seasons Miller has made six Pro Bowls, he’ll add a seventh this year, has been a First Team All-Pro three times and Second Team All-Pro three times.
1. Julius Peppers DE
It’s hard to believe that the NFL’s fourth all-time leading sack artist has never been the Defensive Player of the Year. Peppers was the Defensive Rookie of the Year back in 2002 and has been a Pro Bowler nine times, a First Team All-Pro three times, and a Second Team All-Pro three times as well. The 17-year veteran has never led the league in sacks, but he’s always been one of the most athletic and versatile players at his position. He’s also been more consistent over his career than splashy. In 15 of his 17 seasons, including 2018, Peppers has seven sacks or more. He has ten seasons with ten sacks or more. However, his personal best for sacks in a season is only 14.5, which is good but not as flashy as the numbers some other defenders put up.