The MVP award is by far the most prestigious individual award when it comes to the NFL, but both the Offensive Player of the Year (OPOY) and Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) awards should not be discredited. In 10 of the past 20 seasons the OPOY award winner has also been named the MVP, while the DPOY award serves as a defacto MVP award for that side of the ball.

Unlike the OPOY award, the defensive equivalent has been reasonably well-distributed amongst the different positions. Not only does this broaden the field and make it harder to predict, but the statistical output is also harder to compare and contrast. Since 2000, the most consistent trait of all DPOY winners is that they have almost always been a member of a team that made the playoffs, and frequently the Super Bowl. 5 of the 20 recipients played in a Super Bowl the same season they won the award.

The numbers behind the Defensive Player of the Year Award

There are four main statistical categories that shape the DPOY candidates: sacks, forced fumbles, tackles and interceptions. Beyond that, the impact of each of these areas is further evaluated and supported with other stats, such as safeties, tackles for loss, QB hits and fumbles/interceptions returned for a TD. Yet much like the OPOY, there is often a supporting narrative around the recipient. Sometimes this is developed early in the season, or at other times emerges as a team’s Super Bowl aspirations become more likely. At other times, it is purely the most dominant player.

Complicating matters further is that there have been multiple years where the statistical output of one player is equal to or better than another, yet they did not win the award. In 2014, when J.J. Watt won the award for the second time, both he and Justin Houston had 4 forced fumbles, while Houston had 1.5 additional sacks. The only other significant differences were that Watt had an interception returned for a TD, while Houston did not. In that season, neither team made the playoffs. 

Yet in 2012, the first year Watt won DPOY, he had 20.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles, while Von Miller had 18.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and one interception. Both teams made the playoffs (Denver had the higher seed) but lost in the Divisional round. 

One year earlier in 2011, Terrell Suggs won the DPOY with 14 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions on a playoff bound Ravens team that boasted 2 other former DPOY. Meanwhile, Jared Allen notched 22 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and a single interceptions, but on a 3-13 Vikings team.

What each of these years tells us, is that often forced fumbles carry more weight than sacks, while interceptions are also valued higher than either category. Sacks have the least influence, especially for Defensive Linemen, unless it’s a record breaking year, such as 2001 when Michael Strahan set the single-season sack record at 23. 

The 2012 award was perhaps the most narrative-driven, as measure for measure, Miller would appear to have been the better player. 2011 also demonstrated how a playoff run serves to drive a narrative of dominance, above a singular outstanding player performing well despite a difficult situation.

However, while often interceptions are valued higher than either forced fumbles or sacks, this is not always the case. In 2019, 2009, and 2004 Stephon Gilmore, Charles Woodson, and Ed Reed all won DPOY as the league leader in interceptions. However, there have been other years where the league leader in this category has not won, despite having a very similar or potentially better output than the player who did win the award.

In 2010, Troy Polamalu won with 7 interceptions (1 returned for a TD), 1 sack and 1 forced fumble. That year Osi Umenyiora had 10 forced fumbles and 11.5 sacks, while Ed Reed had 8 interceptions and 1 forced fumble. Despite not leading the league in interceptions, Polamalu had significantly more tackles than Reed, and was regularly making game-changing plays. Polamalu was deserving of the award when his play is viewed in context of the impact it had, all of which influences the award.

There have been two other curious cases regarding interceptions in the last two decades: 2007 and 2005. Bob Sanders won in 2007 with 2 interceptions and 3.5 sacks. Meanwhile Antonio Cromartie had 10 interceptions, Chris Harris had 8 forced fumbles, and Patrick Kerney had 1 interception, 14.5 sacks, and 5 forced fumbles. As good as Sanders was that year, he was not significantly more dominant than any of the others, while both Cromartie and Kerney, like Sanders, were key figures in their teams’ making the playoffs. 

Likewise, Brian Urlacher commanded the centre of a strong Bears’ Defence in 2005 and won the DPOY with 6 sacks, 1 forced fumble and 122 total tackles. The same year, Robert Mathis had 8 forced fumbles, while Ty Law and Deltha O’Neal each had 10 interceptions. Although the leadership and intangibles of Urlacher’s season are hard to evaluate from a numbers basis, it doesn’t provide an instructional precedent for the DPOY award.

What does this mean for the future of the award?

What can we infer from the recent history of the DPOY award? Largely, a player with a high number of interceptions has a good chance of winning the award, especially if they have a supporting impact with fumbles, tackles, or general disruption, for instance Gilmore’s league leading 20 passes defenced in 2019. 

Forced fumbles are the next most important statistic, as along with interceptions, they lead to turnovers and therefore have a bigger impact on each game. Sacks are an important number for edge rushers and defensive linemen, but they need to have substantially more than anyone else, as Donald did in 2018 and Strahan in 2001, alongside some other contributing plays. 

Further enhancing a player’s case are the narrative and contextual impact within games, hence why the likes of Urlacher and Polamalu won the award despite not dominating statistically.

With all of that to consider, let’s examine the possible candidates for the DPOY in 2020, or who could win it in the next few years. The names have been grouped into positions to help compare their chances.

Defensive Line & Edge

Aaron Donald | Los Angeles Rams

Defensive Player of the Year 2020

A multi time winner of the award, Donald can single-handedly change games. With regular penetration past the OL, he has the talent to break the single-season sack record if everything goes right for him. A performance like that, or another season like the one he had in 2018, places Donald at the forefront of the DPOY candidates.

Myles Garrett | Cleveland Browns

Despite the shocking incident that led to his suspension in 2019, Garrett was posting strong numbers, building upon his decent sophomore season. On pace for 3 forced fumbles and 16 sacks, Garrett is still developing and could go past those numbers in 2020. If he can lead the league in forced fumbles, which sometimes only requires 5 forced fumbles, and add 16+ sacks, Garrett could redeem himself for his 2019 issues.

With a new contract under his belt he will be desperate to change the narrative around his play and career.

Chandler Jones | Arizona Cardinals

Jones has been making a case for DPOY for a few years. In 2019, he had 19 sacks and 8 forced fumbles, and in 2017, he led the league with 17 sacks. He has had at least 1 forced fumble in every season of his career, and has had double digit sacks every season from 2014-2019. With the Cardinals figuring to be more competitive in 2020, Jones as the defensive centrepiece could get the narrative to back a strong performance.

T.J. Watt | Pittsburgh Steelers

With a strong foundation behind him, the younger Watt has put up promising numbers in each of the three main categories. A successful Steelers campaign will need to see the defence pick up where it left off in 2019, when Watt had 14.5 sacks, 8ff and 2INTs. While the forced fumbles are harder to replicate from year to year, Watt also had 6ff in 2018, suggesting he can generate several each season.

Shaquil Barrett | Tampa Bay Buccaneers

With his league-leading 19.5 sacks in 2019, accompanied by 6 forced fumbles and an interception, Barrett announced his arrival to the upper echelon loudly. While he is likely to regress a bit, having only ever had single-digit sacks in previous seasons, if last season was more than a flash in the pan, Barrett has a good shot at winning DPOY.

Khalil Mack | Chicago Bears

A former winner of the award, Mack has game-changing ability, particularly his consistency at forcing fumbles. If he can lead the league in that category, with his sack numbers and disruptiveness, Mack can be one of the most dominant players in the league.

Danielle Hunter | Minnesota Vikings

Emerging as one of the key pieces for a strong Vikings defence, Hunter has 14.5 sacks apiece in each of his last two seasons. Adding to it with 3 forced fumbles in 2019, Hunter could step further into the limelight without Everson Griffen. If the Vikings make a deep playoff run again, Hunter could get the narrative and team success he needs to propel him into the discussion for DPOY.

Nick Bosa | San Francisco 49ers

After winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, Bosa should improve in his second season in the league. Within a strong defensive front alongside him, Bosa was able to rack up 1 interception, 1 forced fumble and 9 sacks. Improvements in each category and further game-changing play could put Bosa in the running.

Von Miller | Denver Broncos

While he may be in the back half of his career, Miller was among the standout defensive players in his first nine seasons. With multiple forced fumbles in all but one season prior to 2019, and an average of almost 12 sacks per year, Miller has the consistency to get himself in the running. What he needs is a career year, and with Vic Fangio as Head Coach, there’s every chance 2020 could be it for Miller.

Cameron Jordan | New Orleans Saints

With double-digit sacks in four of the past five years, Jordan hasn’t been too far away from the league leader, and if he can garner a few more in 2020, he could get the sack title. While he’s had a few forced fumbles in his career, he’ll need some more that he pairs with a higher sack numbers to beat out some of the other names on this list.

Ryan Kerrigan | Washington Redskins

In 2014 Kerrigan led the league in forced fumbles, and in 2016 led the league in tackles for a loss. Throughout his career he has posted decent sack numbers, and if he can combine all of that he has an outside chance. What he’s lacking is the narrative and potential playoff run- but with changes happening in Washington, Kerrigan could find himself having a bigger impact than in past seasons.

Maxx Crosby | Las Vegas Raiders

In his rookie season Crosby had 4 forced fumbles and 10 sacks. He will need more than that in both categories, but barring a decline, he has a chance to be the standout player on the Raiders’ Defense. A better supporting cast and taking the next step should put Crosby near the top in forced fumbles, and that, alongside his other contributions, can be enough for him to be a DPOY contender.

Josh Allen | Jacksonville Jaguars

Selected to a Pro Bowl in his 2019 rookie season, Allen figures to take a step forward in 2020. With 2 forced fumbles and 10.5 sacks, it’s not hard to imagine him posting 5 forced fumbles and somewhere in the region of 15 or 16 sacks as he gets better. Although changes to the defensive front in Jacksonville could put more focus on him, Allen should contend for the award for the next few years at least.


Fred Warner | San Francisco 49ers

Although the numbers for an off-ball LB are harder to quantify, Warner’s play speaks for itself. His total tackles in each of his two seasons are approaching the numbers put up be fellow MLBs Luke Kuechly, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher when they each won the award. Complementary forced fumbles, sacks and an interception or two would bolster his chances, but Warner is among the best in the league already.

Darius Leonard | Indianapolis Colts

A former Defensive Rookie of the Year, Leonard plays in one of the positions harder to quantify their impact. While he recorded good numbers in each category, 5 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 5 sacks and 121 total tackles in 2019, Leonard needs to demonstrate that he is impacting games enough to translate into wins for the team.

C.J. Mosley | New York Jets

As with other MLBs, Mosley’s impacts aren’t necessarily quantifiable. He posted high numbers of total tackles before missing most of the 2019 season, and also had above average numbers of interceptions for the position. With a handful of those, a few forced fumbles and high tackle numbers again, Mosley could be the DPOY if everything breaks right. What is against him though, is the high numbers that others are likely to put up, and the difficulty the Jets will have in making the playoffs if their offense doesn’t take shape.

Devin White | Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After an impressive 2019 rookie season, White will be looking to improve in many areas. With 1 interception, 3 forced fumbles, 2.5 sacks and 2 fumbles returned for TDs, White has the potential to impact games in multiple ways. With a strong DL in front of him, and the possibility of Tampa Bay having a more reliable offense, White has an above average chance at the DPOY title.

Roquan Smith | Chicago Bears

Defensive Player of the Year 2020

Although Mack is the leader of the Bears’ Defense, Smith is the controlling piece in the middle of the field. With an interception and multiple sacks in each of his two seasons, Smith has also been one of the top tacklers on the Bears since entering the league. With another step forward, and improved interception/forced fumble/sack numbers, Smith can enter the conversation for DPOY. As a complement to Mack, Smith has a good chance to provide high production and impact once again.

Defensive Backs

Stephon Gilmore | New England Patriots

While it would be hard for Gilmore to go back to back, leading the league in interceptions again would give him a strong position. What he really needs to help him though, is to continue breaking up passes and allowing fewer completions. He may also be reliant on other defensive players not being dominant, but in Bill Belichick’s system, Gilmore will get chances to make plays.

Tre'Davious White | Buffalo Bills

Entering his 4th season, White equalled Gilmore’s 6 interceptions in 2019, but was a few short of doing the same with passes defenced. White also had 2 forced fumbles and a sack, so he has the statistical output required to win the award. However, if he can’t also return an interception for a TD, or if he can’t lead the league in interceptions, White’s impact on games will struggle to match up against those of others.

Anthony Harris | Minnesota Vikings

The other player in 2019 to notch 6 interceptions, Harris also managed to return one for a TD. He doesn’t have a history of sacks or forced fumbles, but his tackle numbers jumped in 2019. If he can play in all 16 games for just the third time in his six seasons, Harris could be the outright leader in interceptions, but that may not be enough for him to carry the title- recognition early in the season will be necessary for Harris to win.

Kevin Byard | Tennessee Titans

A former league-leader in interceptions, Byard also produces a high number of tackles for a Safety. After Tennessee’s unexpected 2019 playoff run, a repeat performance in 2020 has a narrative already started. If the Titans do it with less reliance on RB Derrick Henry, Byard should be one of the key names discussed as to the reason why they succeeded.

Marcus Peters | Baltimore Ravens

After falling one interception short of equalling the 2019 league-best of 6, Peters returned 3 of his 5 interceptions for a TD. Having returned at least 1 interception for a TD in all but two of his years in the league, Peters’ ability to swing a game on the scoreboard provides him with a narrative ready to go. If he can lead the league in interceptions, and continue to return them for TDs, Peters has the dynamism needed to win DPOY.

Xavien Howard | Miami Dolphins

Defensive Player of the Year 2020

Despite missing 4 games in his Pro Bowl 2018 season, Howard still managed to lead the league in interceptions with 7. Playing just one full season since entering the league in 2016, if Howard can stay healthy in 2020, he’s got the capacity to make impacts with his interceptions. As was the case in 2019, the league leader in interceptions can claim the DPOY award, but Howard may need the rest of the Dolphins team to play well for him to get the necessary recognition.

Justin Simmons | Denver Broncos

While managing to increase his interceptions from year to year, Simmons has also made close to 100 tackles in the last 2 years following his transition to Free Safety. Potentially becoming the league’s highest paid safety after the 2020 season, Simmons’ impact on games is huge. He provides a secure safety net on the back end. He’ll need to become more dominant this season if he is to win the DPOY, but he’s in a good system to become that player.

Derwin James | Los Angeles Chargers

After a disappointing injury-riddled 2019, James will need to rebound to his 2018 form, when he had 3 interceptions, 3.5 sacks and over 100 total tackles. Improving and posting better numbers in 2020 should see James as among the most impactful players in the league, and thus a chance at DPOY.

Jamal Adams | Seattle Seahawks

Looking for a big contract in his new home, Adams could earn it in 2020 if he can become an even bigger impact than he has already been in his first 3 seasons. With 2 forced fumbles, 6.5 sacks and 1 interception returned for a TD in 2019, Adams is a physical presence that forces opponents to factor him into their play calling, which is how many DPOYs earn the award.

Owen Ravenna

NFL Analyst


Image credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports, Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports & Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports