For my awards season, I went through team-by-team within their division and I selected one ‘winner’ from each team and then chose a divisional winner. One winner from the eight NFL divisions then faced off in an ‘Elite Eight’ head-to-head until we named our winner for the Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Coach of the Year.
Today, we look at: Defensive Player of the Year 2018 season (tomorrow the final installment -- Rookie of the Year).
NFC EAST Defensive Player of the Year…
Dallas = My first instinct was to go Byron Jones…finally, Dallas moved him to CB, and it made a huge difference for this defense. However, I have to go Leighton Vander Esch. When Sean Lee went down, I thought Dallas was cooked for sure…because that’s what happens when Lee goes down. However, LVE became a star midseason with Lee out…the boost this team needed at a time when they were up-and-down every week prior.
Philly = Fletcher Cox is an obvious candidate. Michael Bennett is a sleeper candidate…what a great add he has been. I want to say Jordan Hicks because of how he takes out the opposing TE and plays the middle so well, but when Hicks went down with a couple of week injury the team won three of 4 games late. I’ll take the easy way out with Fletcher Cox.
Washington = Quinton Dunbar…he emerged as the Redskins top cover corner, as I thought he might when he got into playing time last year. When he went down, the defenses faded (but to be fair there were a ton of injuries all at the same time). I lean Dunbar over Jonathan Allen, who had a great season as well.
NY Giants = Olivier Vernon. The team was 1-4 without him (first 5 games), and 4-7 with him…and in a lot of close games with him. NYG might have started differently early on and had a better season had Vernon been there all along. 21 QB hits in 11 games played this season.
WINNER: I go Leighton Vander Esch. He so stood out as a difference maker midseason it took your breath away. He could have some claim for league MVP votes his breakout was timed so perfectly when Dallas needed him the most. I thought LVE was good coming into the NFL but I had some doubts…he erased any doubt by a mile.
AFC EAST Defensive Player of the Year…
New England = I felt like the Patriots defense was so low key good this year that I don’t really feel like I know who stood out for this defense. The most boring 11-5 team ever. With that said, I’ll pick Stephon Gilmore as a guy who was taking out top opposing WRs some of the year. Not his greatest year, but not bad.
Miami = CB Xavien Howard gets the nod over Reshad Jones or Minkah Fitzpatrick. Howard had a lot of shutdown moments and QBs avoiding him completely.
NY Jets = Jamal Adams and Avery Williamson had good numbers, but I’ll go off the grid with backup CB Darryl Roberts…who we thought was one of the top CBs in his draft class but has bounced around the NFL for years. When the Jets CBs started getting hurt/failing – Roberts was thrust into the starting lineup and looked really good. Roberts deserved to be a flat-out starter but did not have the contract/name the starters did…so, good-bye Todd Bowles. Hope playing the wrong players all the time was worth it.
Buffalo = Has to be Tre’Davious White…one of the most feared shutdown corners of 2018.
WINNER: …thus, it’s Tre’Davious White. If you were having a draft of defensive players from the AFC East…White would be #1 overall, no questions asked.
NFC West Defensive Player of the Year…
LA Rams = Easy call…Aaron Donald, for all the obvious reasons. I must point out LB Cory Littleton and SAF John Johnson had fantastic seasons as well. Wade Phillips is arguably the best defensive coach in the NFL.
Seattle = Bobby Wagner seems like an obvious pick, eternally, for Seattle…but I say DE/OLB Frank Clark was the dominant force on this defense – a total game-wrecker. Wagner was good…Clark was sometimes stunning.
San Francisco = I’ll go with Richard Sherman…teams still worked away from him, so you gotta respect that. DeForest Buckner had a hot start and fizzled a bit and could be/should be the rep for SF…but I go Sherman.
Arizona = Patrick Peterson turns it on and off when he wants to these days. He’s great when he wants to be. The guy that really impressed me – Budda Baker. Plays his arse off. I give it to him as the Cards representative.
WINNER: Aaron Donald is the answer to most things; just ask Booger McFarland. 20.5 sacks, 25.0 TFLs…ridiculous.
AFC WEST Defensive Player of the Year…
Kansas City = DT Chris Jones…15.5 sacks, 19.0 TFLs. Hands down.
LA Chargers = Jatavis Brown probably deserves this, but I fear I’m being biased. All the LAC LBs went down in-season and Brown came in and helped seal up the weak LAC run defense. Derwin James has all stats, but you know what…it’s my vote, so screw the mainstream who most don’t know that Jatavis is an NFL player. I vote for Jatavis saving the day when it needed saving.
Denver = Chris Harris…arguably the best cover corner, and when he went down…so did the Denver wild card run – because at one-time Denver looked strong for the wild card. And then Harris went down…
Oakland = Can I pick no one? I mean this defense was so sad…and the players I like seemed to get in and out of Gruden’s doghouse (Joseph and Melvin). You know what…it’s my vote. I vote none of them…that’s how bad this defense was. Nice job, Jon! You’re a real grinder of talent assessments!
WINNER: Chris Jones had a helluva season, but the KC defense still mostly sucked. The Denver defense was one of the best in the league, at full strength, when Chris Harris was shutting things down. Chris Harris it is.
AFC SOUTH Defensive Player of the Year…
Houston = Has to be J.J. Watt. Remember, when there was concerns that he’d play every again or be ‘J.J. Watt’ again? Well, 16.0 sacks and 18.0 TFLs later…and he’s back.
Indy = Darius Leonard in a landslide. One of the best defensive performances of 2018…one of the best rookie defensive performances ever.
Tennessee = I’ll go ‘controversial’, if you can call it that, and say Jayon Brown was the best Tennessee defensive player and things really changed when he took over at linebacker…and the Titans tried to fight it, but they gave in and Jayon was terrific.
Jacksonville = Jalen Ramsey, has to be…shuts down his side of the field almost every game.
WINNER: Darius Leonard – he was so good, so important, and took his team to the playoffs. Jalen Ramsey may be the more critical player at a more critical position, but the Jags weren’t as devastating to pass against this year and Ramsey got beat some (I think he mailed it in some as the team went down in flames). J.J. Watt was great as always…but Leonard was greater.
NFC SOUTH Defensive Player of the Year…
New Orleans = I’ll go Marcus Lattimore. After a rough start for a few games early, he cranked it up and was back to halting top WRs. I was so close to giving it to Demario Davis, who really had a great revitalization with NO this year. Cameron Jordan had another great year, but not as dominating as his 2017.
Carolina = I guess Luke Kuechly is like the Panthers nominee every year, right? No questions asked. He’s here again. Didn’t think he had his best year, though.
Tampa Bay = Kwon Alexander went down early and Lavonte David had to pick up even more slack and had a really nice, productive season. I’ll vote for David.
Atlanta = Damontae Kazee wasn’t even starting this season, and then all the injuries hit and he was forced in and picked off 7 passes and forced a fumble and was 2nd on the team in tackles. Nice cash in of opportunity.
WINNER: No one of these guys stands way out here. Marcus Lattimore stands out the most to me because of all the dirty work of covering/halting to WRs. I thought he was better in 2017, but he was still a menace in 2018.
AFC NORTH Defensive Player of the Year…
Baltimore = A lot of solid performance, but not one guy that stands out above them. I’ll go with C.J. Mosley and his 105 tackles this year as one of the ‘glues’ of the defense.
Pittsburgh = T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward are candidates for sure, but I’m going with the fantastic season Sean Davis came in with. PFF bashing him with low grades in 2017…and then he was one of the top graded guys in 2018. I have said all along he’s a top safety prospect…and he should be at corner, like Byron Jones should’ve been all along…but what do I know?
Cleveland = Denzel Ward walked in and was a shutdown corner right away. Has to be Ward.
Cincinnati = Shawn Williams did a nice job this year – 110 tackles and 5 picks. Williams without a lot of other options.
WINNER: I want to go Sean Davis because of my bias, but Denzel Ward was the impressive of all these guys – a rookie shutdown corner is NFL gold.
NFC NORTH Defensive Player of the Year…
Chicago = Has to be Khalil Mack, I mean ‘thanks, Jon Gruden’ for handing one of the best defensive players in the game over for a stupid draft pick package. Mack took the Bears to a new level on defense, obviously.
Minnesota = Danielle Hunter with 14.5 sacks and 21.0 TFLs is my vote. Xavier Rhodes had a bad year, for him. Eric Kendricks was nothing special. Hunter was their most dangerous guy.
Green Bay = I thought everything changed with the Packers defense when Jaire Alexander became a starter…a borderline shutdown corner at times.
Detroit = Darius Slay is the best part of the Lions defense, always.
WINNER: Khalil Mack without two seconds of thought. Not even close.
*Note…I say, again – the NFL is SOOO difficult, how can rookies even understand!!! My final 8 for the D-POY has three rookies and two 2nd-year players.
EAST v. EAST: Leighton Vander Esch v. Tre’Davious White
I loved what I saw from LVE mid-season, filling in for Sean Lee…he was playing out of his mind. He seemed to be everywhere. However, look closer and you’ll see that after the awesome game against the Saints, teams started to run the ball all over the Cowboys. Did you know the Buffalo Bills pass defense allowed less than 210 yards passing in 11 of their final 12 games in 2018? Most of those games holding teams under 150 yards passing – Tre’Davious White was the leader of that pass defense. A very under the radar elite defender…and he moves on in this tournament.
WEST v. WEST: Aaron Donald v. Chris Harris
This is a shame…Chris Harris was amazing. However…it’s Aaron Donald. Because all I have to type is ‘it’s Aaron Donald’ and you know what I mean – Donald moves on. Can he be stopped by any defender this year?
SOUTH v. SOUTH: Darius Leonard v. Marcus Lattimore
Marcus Lattimore was good, but Darius Leonard was everywhere it seemed this season. As good a linebacker output season as we’ve ever seen by Leonard – and he is moving on to the Final Four for me.
NORTH v. NORTH: Denzel Ward v. Khalil Mack
Sweet year by Denzel Ward, but Khalil Mack was a game wrecker of the highest order. You have to take Mack here, right Jon Gruden? Enjoy your precious draft picks, Jon.
EAST v. WEST: Tre’Davious White v. Aaron Donald
Two of the best in the business, but ‘Come on…it’s Aaron Donald’. What defensive tackle gets 20.0s sacks in a season? Remember, when all the scouts, except me, said Tim Jernigan was the best DT prospect of Donald’s draft class (yes, I was with Donald way before ‘them’)? Jernigan did go to Alabama, so it was a pretty compelling case…so, you’ll have to excuse them.
BUT Donald played 3-4 DE a lot!!! Even more amazing that kind of production from a 3-4 DE, who isn’t a DE but a DT.
NORTH v. SOUTH: Darius Leonard v. Khalil Mack
Darius Leonard was terrific, but ‘Come on…it’s Khalil Mack’. Like…on every 3rd-down the guy seemed to be on the quarterback. Great trade by Jon Gruden. I’m so sure he’ll do great with those draft picks. It’s like the Raiders took $10M a year and set it on fire hiring their new head coach.
Aaron Donald v. Khalil Mack
“It’s Aaron Donald.” End of story. Khalil Mack is great and all, he really is, but there are…what…3-4-5 other rush ends we could debate on ‘who’s the best?’ Aaron Donald is the greatest DT of all time and he had his best season ever. No contest.
The question is…Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Donald for league MVP?
Patrick Mahomes is great, but if you stuck me with my choice of any of the top 3-4-5 QBs in the NFL instead, as an NFL owner/GM, I’d be fine. You took Aaron Donald away and let me have any other DT in the NFL…I’d cry like a baby.
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