Only two defensive players have ever been named NFL MVP, and it hasn’t happened at all since 1986, making the Defensive Player of the Year award the de facto MVP for the “other” side of the ball.
For two straight years, Aaron Donald has been that MVP as a dominant interior lineman for the Los Angeles Rams. He still has short odds to make it three straight, but oddsmakers don’t have Donald as the 2019 front-runner.
Instead, it’s Khalil Mack‘s award to lose. The Chicago Bears edge rusher and 2016 award-winner enters the year as the betting favorite after wreaking havoc as a late addition to the team in 2018. He’s now got a full offseason with the Bears under his belt, and even if Donald puts up better numbers than he did in 2017 or 2018 (good luck!), voter fatigue will likely give Mack the advantage.
The DPOY is a media award, and media members generally don’t follow defense as closely, so big names with flashy stats are safe bets. Still, you can find some diamonds in the rough by using last year’s advanced numbers to project this year’s counting stats.
Here are the favorites to win the award, followed by our favorite bets outside of Mack and Donald:
|Leighton Vander Esch||LB||33-1|
Chris Jones, DL, Chiefs (28-1)
In recent years, DPOY has become the “best pass-rusher award.” The last five winners each recorded at least 11 sacks, and two of them (Donald in 2018, J.J Watt in 2015) led the league. If any long shot can manage that, it’s Jones.
Kansas City’s young edge rusher finished third behind Donald and Watt with 15.5 sacks in 2018, including at least one in an NFL-record 11 straight games. His “pass-rushing productivity” – a Pro Football Focus stat that measures pressures per snap – was the second-highest of anybody with at least 10 sacks.
A summer contract dispute should only fuel Jones’ defensive aggressiveness in the final year of his deal. At 28-1, he’s a bargain among elite pass-rushers.
Darius Leonard, LB, Colts (33-1)
The last non-pass-rusher to win the award was linebacker Luke Kuechly in 2013, and Leonard has serious potential as a stat-stuffing ILB in 2019.
As a rookie, the Colts’ second-rounder led the league in tackles (163) en route to first-team All-Pro and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He tacked on seven sacks, four forced fumbles, and two interceptions, and he helped turn Indianapolis’ shoddy defense from 2017 into a strength in 2018.
It was arguably a more impressive line than Kuechly’s in 2013 but lacked the same level of team success. If the Colts make the expected leap and Leonard puts up similar numbers, that should vault him into DPOY consideration.
Derwin James, S, Chargers (33-1)
It’s been nearly a decade since a defensive back received this award; Troy Polamalu won it for his 2010 season after Charles Woodson (2009) and Bob Sanders (2007) earned the distinction. James obviously isn’t in that tier yet, but he was a first-team All-Pro in 2018 and became the first Chargers rookie to record 100 tackles in a season.
James’ versatility and run-stopping ability fueled L.A.’s creative defensive game plan against the Ravens in last year’s playoff win. It also created the blueprint for James’ DPOY case as a do-it-all safety with elite coverage skills and a nose for stuffing the run.
In 2019, he could emerge as the leader of possibly the best defense in the NFL. He’s got the talent to cash a 33-1 flier.
Copyright © 2019 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.