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The Leading Candidates of the NFL’s Unusually Close Defensive Player of the Year Race

MVP isn’t the only award that’s too close to call. With one week left, these five defenders all have a shot at being named best on the other side of the ball.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Most of the NFL awards chatter in recent weeks has focused on a constantly shifting, impossibly tight MVP race. With Carson Wentz on the shelf and Todd Gurley slowly gaining on Tom Brady after a pair of monster performances that won the Rams an NFC West title and thousands of people their fantasy football leagues, the debate has only gotten more intense.

But in a season defined by unfamiliar names, surprise stars, and uncertainty, the MVP is hardly the only award that’s still up for grabs. The 2017 Defensive Player of the Year race is one of the more hotly contested battles we’ve seen in some time. Khalil Mack edged out Von Miller in a close two-man race last season, in large part because of the Raiders’ unlikely run to the postseason. Before that, J.J. Watt took home the trophy in three out of four years, with one fantastic season from Luke Kuechly thrown in.

Even after 16 weeks, it still feels like the field is wide open. Most of the top candidates share traits with previous winners. Their statistical outputs have been staggering, and many of them have been key pieces on defenses that have shaped the NFL landscape this season. So with one game left in the 2017 season, let’s dig into the top candidates and their chances to take this thing home.

DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Cowboys

Through the first half of this season, it seemed like the award was Lawrence’s to lose. After missing seven games in 2016 because of suspension and injury, Lawrence came into this season healthy and wreaked havoc from the start. He notched at least one sack in each game and 10.5 overall in the Cowboys’ first seven games. For the first two months, Lawrence wasn’t just eyeing a DPOY trophy—he was chasing records.

Sustaining that sort of historic pace is a tall order, though, and Lawrence’s traditional stats fell off considerably over the second half of the year. He still has 14.5 sacks—tied for second in the NFL with Calais Campbell—but only four of those have come since Week 10. Sack totals are essentially what fuel DPOY campaigns among defensive linemen, which is one reason Lawrence’s candidacy has all but disappeared down the stretch. Another factor is one Lawrence himself pointed out after the Cowboys’ loss to Seattle on Sunday. "It's all irrelevant now," Lawrence told The Dallas Morning News after the game. "One play don't change the game.”

With Dallas missing the playoffs and its defense cratering down the stretch, Lawrence has fallen out of the conversation. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve to be considered for the award. Yes, the sacks have gotten scarce, but Lawrence has still been a consistently disruptive presence for the Cowboys’ defense. Since Week 10, only seven players have more pressures than Lawrence’s 32, and only two guys (Ryan Kerrigan and Terrell Suggs) have created more pressure on a per-snap basis, according to Pro Football Focus. Sack totals can occasionally be misleading, but Lawrence has been every bit as good as his total would indicate.

Bobby Wagner, LB, Seahawks

Like Lawrence, Wagner was the DPOY favorite at one point during the season. For a five-game stretch starting in early November against Washington, Wagner terrorized offenses like a supernatural being in a horror movie. I’m not talking about some second-tier schlock here, either. This was expertly made, Blumhouse-type shit. Wagner was flying around the field as if his body had been taken over by some sort of demon, piling up tackles, a sack for a safety, and an interception.

As the Seattle defense has evolved over the years, so have the roles of the players in it. And even with Earl Thomas roaming the back end of the Seahawks’ secondary, Wagner was the most important player on this unit for almost the entire season. His increased role as a pass rusher became a necessity as the Seahawks’ front four took a slight step back, and with Kam Chancellor on the shelf for almost the entire second half, Wagner’s ability to cover in the middle of the field was more crucial than ever. It’s tough to imagine a guy with Wagner’s career accolades getting any better in his sixth season, but that’s exactly what happened. For the Seahawks’ first 12 games, Wagner was playing the best football of what has already been a marvelous career.

But in a tight race like this one, it’s that final caveat that will probably be his undoing. After tweaking a hamstring in the third quarter, Wagner played only 31 of the Seahawks’ 66 defensive snaps against the Jags in Week 14. The following week, Wagner clearly wasn’t 100 percent. The sight of him feebly chasing Todd Gurley on the latter’s 57-yard touchdown run in the second quarter is one of the lasting images from the most embarrassing loss of the Pete Carroll era. A late-season snag doesn’t come close to spoiling the magnificent season that Wagner had in the middle of Seattle’s defense, but it probably was enough to knock him from his perch as the frontrunner for the award.

Cameron Jordan, DE, Saints

For longtime fans of Jordan, the most enjoyable part of the Saints’ defensive resurgence has been that folks are actually paying attention to this guy. The 2011 first-round pick has always been among the most underappreciated defenders in this league, and the best season of his career has coincided with— and helped contribute to—a stunning turnaround for the New Orleans defense.

After adding two more sacks against the Falcons on Sunday, Jordan now has 12 on the season. With one more, he’ll set a new career high. Jordan’s size and style make him one of the more fascinating pass rushers in all of football. At 6-foot-4, Jordan tips the scales at nearly 290 pounds, and the result is a pass-rusher force that’s impossible to plan for. That bulk allows Jordan to bull rush most right tackles into oblivion when he pleases, and if they do choose to account for his power, he’s just as happy to toast them around the edge.

The amount of different ways the Saints deploy Jordan as a pass rusher speaks to just how valuable he is for their defense. He’ll line up in a variety of places, execute twists from both the interior and the edge, and is generally let loose to attack the quarterback in every way. Jordan also has a knack for understanding how and when to slow down and look to bat down passes. He has an absurd 12 passes defensed on the season, five more than any other defensive lineman in football and tied for 22nd among players at all positions.

As a pass rusher alone, Jordan would be an indispensable asset for New Orleans, but his role goes so far beyond that. Jordan isn’t just a useful run defender; he’s often a dominant one. His 16 tackles for loss are tied for the fifth most in football. If Jordan has another big day on Sunday, the combination of his relentless consistency this season, the Saints’ stunning defensive improvement, and possible rest days in Week 17 for the two other guys on this list could easily win him the award.

Calais Campbell, DE, Jaguars

When the Jaguars gave Campbell a four-year, $60 million deal (with $30 million guaranteed) this offseason, I was a little conflicted. On one hand, I loved watching Campbell during his time with the Cardinals. At 6-foot-8, 300 pounds, Campbell is a mythical creature among NFL players. For the Cardinals, he was the rock in the middle of the defense—an immovable anchor in the run game and a constantly troublesome interior pass rusher. But he was also about to turn 31, and he would almost certainly have to change positions in Jacksonville. The money that the Jags shelled out suggested that Campbell would spend plenty of time rushing from the edge in their more traditional 4-3 defense, which would be a departure from his role with Arizona.

It turns out that I shouldn’t have been worried. Campbell has played more defensive end this season, but it’s done nothing to curtail his production as a pass rusher. The 10-year veteran had never finished with more than nine sacks before signing with Jacksonville. He currently has 14.5, tied with Lawrence for the second-best mark in the league. Campbell has seamlessly stepped into a new defense that’s asked him to play both inside and out in various packages, and he’s done it without blinking. Campbell’s steadying presence has played a key part in a young Jaguars defensive unit becoming the NFL’s best. Yearlong awards often follow narratives, and Campbell has been the most valuable player on a defense that has helped define the 2017 season.

Aaron Donald, DT, Rams

The problem for Campbell—and every other DPOY candidate—is that Donald has both the best narrative and the best case for the award. The upstart Rams may be the story of the season, and although Donald’s dominance is nothing new, the spotlight on his team is. Donald could already have a couple of these awards on his shelf based on past production, and his 2017 resume is just as strong.

Donald’s 11 sacks lead all full-time interior rushers. (Pittsburgh’s Cam Heyward has 12, but he spends a good chunk of snaps as a defensive end.) Only Jacksonville’s Yannick Ngakoue, who has the benefit of rushing from the edge on the blind side, has more forced fumbles than Donald’s five. And those are just the traditional stats.

According to PFF, Donald has 91 pressures on the season. That’s 25 more than any other interior defensive linemen in the NFL. It’s also 12 more than any edge rusher in football. Donald has wrecked games this season like no one else in the league. Earlier this season, Pete Carroll called Donald, “really, really problematic,” which is one of the bigger understatements of the year. He also said there was no one quite like Donald in the league right now, which is undeniable. With the Rams cruising toward the playoffs and Donald crushing everyone in his path, this year’s award belongs to him.