Aaron Donald is pushing to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award for the fourth time in five seasons. But the Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle has plenty of competition this time around — most notably from Pittsburgh Steelers pass-rusher T.J. Watt, Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons, who is looking to become the first rookie to win the award since Lawrence Taylor four decades ago.
Donald would make history by winning the award — which is voted on by a nationwide panel of the media — a record fourth time. Donald, Taylor and Watt’s older brother, J.J., are the only players to earn the distinction three times. But Donald isn’t the only one trying to make history.
T.J. Watt is leading the NFL with 16 sacks, highlighted by his 3.5-sack effort in Pittsburgh’s win over the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 5. He also had a forced fumble in that game, giving him four on the season. If he wins the award, he and J.J. would make history as the first siblings to win DPOY.
Until T.J. Watt recently overtook him, Garrett was leading the NFL in sacks for most of the season. In Sunday’s win over Baltimore, Garrett scored his first touchdown, breaking the Browns’ single-season record with his 15th sack on the same play. Garrett is attempting to become the first Cleveland player ever to win the award.
Parsons, meanwhile, is making a run at becoming the second rookie to be selected for the award. Taylor, unofficially — sacks weren’t an official statistic yet in 1981 — finished with 9.5 sacks as a rookie. Parsons already has 12, while playing a pivotal role in Dallas’ defensive turnaround this season.
Parsons’ teammate, cornerback Trevon Diggs, New England Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon, San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa, among others, are also in the DPOY conversation.
— ESPN Browns reporter Jake Trotter
Editor’s note: Stats are from ESPN Stats & Information
Aaron Donald, Rams defensive tackle
What the numbers say
• Highest pass rush win rate (27.0%) among all qualified defenders this season (ESPN metric using NFL Next Gen Stats); has faced a double team on a league-high 277 pass rush plays
• Second in the NFL with 47 first pressures
• Leads all defensive linemen with 753 snaps played
Why Donald is a strong candidate to win the award: A three-time DPOY winner, Donald has proven to be a game-wrecker throughout his career. His eighth NFL season is no different, and despite being 30 years old, he’s shown no signs of slowing. The constant focus of opponents’ game plans, Donald finds a way to continuously push through double and triple teams to cause disruption as an interior lineman. He’s proven you can’t leave him alone, as he’s won a league-best 32.6% of his pass rushes when facing a single blocker. He ranks second with 47 first pressures. He’s faced 178 double teams on his pass rushes, which ranks third, but still manages to win 24.2% of those battles — which is, unsurprisingly, the best ranking in the league. — ESPN Rams reporter Lindsey Thiry
Aaron Donald’s 6th career game with 3+ sacks.
He now has his 5th straight season with at least 10 sacks. 💪 pic.twitter.com/Eh61Wx4dI1
— NFL (@NFL) December 14, 2021
Why Donald might fall short: Donald stars on a defense that has not been nearly as dominant as it was a season ago, when it was the top-ranked unit in efficiency and points allowed per game (18.5). This season, the Rams have allowed 22.5 points per game, which ranks 17th, while their efficiency ranks eighth. And Donald’s numbers, at least in the ever-so-visible sack column, are lagging. Donald has 10 sacks, which ranks 10th and is six behind Watt. — Thiry
Season highlight: Donald dominated in a 30-23 win over the division-leading Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football. He sacked quarterback Kyler Murray on the first play of the game and on the last, finishing with three sacks and seven quarterback pressures. Donald also tipped a pass that linebacker Ernest Jones intercepted and the Rams converted that miscue into a touchdown to take a 7-3 lead in the second quarter.
Quote: “Anything different than just being Superman out there? No, he just did it again. He was phenomenal from start to finish, first play to last play, just as always.” — Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, on if he saw anything different from Donald on film that enabled him to dominate the Cardinals.
Caesars Sportsbook odds on winning: +700
Myles Garrett, Browns defensive end
What the numbers say
• Highest pass rush win rate (26.9%) among edge defenders this season (ESPN metric using NFL Next Gen Stats)
• Second in NFL with 15 sacks, third in pressures with 46
• Eleven games with at least 0.5 sacks this season, tied for most in NFL (Cincinnati Bengals Trey Hendrickson)
Why Garrett is a strong candidate to win the award: The Browns pass-rusher has been arguably the most dominant defensive player in the league this season. Garrett is second in the NFL with 15 sacks, trailing only Watt’s 16, and pass rush win rate, trailing only Donald. With Garrett leading the way, the Browns defense has surged down the stretch this year, culminating with Sunday’s 24-22 win over the Ravens. Just before halftime in that game, Garrett stripped backup quarterback Tyler Huntley, then picked up the ball and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown, the first score of his career. On that play, Garrett also broke the Browns single-season record for sacks in a season, propelling him past Reggie Camp, who had 14 in 1984. Garrett has been in the mix for the defensive player of the year award before, but in 2019, he was suspended the final six games for swinging his helmet at Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph. Then last November, he got COVID-19 and was slowed the rest of the season. This time around, Garrett is playing the best football of his career. — Trotter
— NFL (@NFL) December 12, 2021
Why Garrett might fall short: To begin with, the Browns are facing unprecedented adversity within the league amid a COVID-19 outbreak. As of Wednesday, 11 starters were on the COVID-19/reserve list, including defensive tackle Malik McDowell, nickelback Troy Hill and safety John Johnson III. Key defensive end Takk McKinley tested positive for COVID-19, as well. Who knows how long the Browns will be short-handed, but Garrett is likely to face even more attention from the Raiders on Saturday as a result. Also, Garrett’s case for the award could be damaged if the 7-6 Browns don’t make the playoffs. They still have about a 40% chance to get there, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. And, they are still in the thick of the AFC North race following the win over the division-leading Ravens. But if they lose to Las Vegas with a limited roster, the Browns’ chances figure to be diminished significantly, especially with a trip to Green Bay on Christmas Day on deck. — Trotter
Season highlight: As memorable as Sunday’s scoop-and-score against the Ravens was, nothing tops Garrett’s 4.5-sack performance against the Chicago Bears in Week 3. Garrett broke the franchise record for sacks in a game, topping the Cleveland record of four set by Andra Davis in 2003. Behind Garrett’s dominating effort, the Browns took down Chicago quarterback Justin Fields nine times en route to a commanding 26-6 victory. Fields also had one net yard passing with Garrett repeatedly swarming him in the backfield.
Quote: “Nothing matters if we don’t make the playoffs. I mean, [defensive player of the year] is nice, but I want to be remembered for bringing some Super Bowls here. … The individual glory will come and go, but the city will remember a Super Bowl.” — Garrett
Caesars Sportsbook odds on winning: +300 (co-favorite with Parsons)
Micah Parsons, Cowboys linebacker
What the numbers say
• Only player in NFL this season with 200 snaps in coverage and 200 snaps in the pass rush
• 12 sacks and 70 tackles this season; could become first player since James Harrison in 2010 to have 10-plus sacks and 100-plus tackles in a season
• Six straight games with one sack, tied for second longest by a rookie since sacks became official in 1982
Why Parsons is a strong candidate to win the award: Just look at how he plays and has helped transform a defense that allowed a franchise-record for points a year ago. He hasn’t done it on his own, but he is the engine of the defense. He has set the Cowboys’ rookie record for sacks in a season and is closing in on Jevon Kearse’s NFL rookie record of 14.5. He has 10 tackles for loss and 31 quarterback pressures, according to the Cowboys’ coaches’ count. He has three forced fumbles and two pass deflections. He can affect the pass game and the run game because of his versatility. He can play inside linebacker, strong-side linebacker and defensive end. The possibilities are endless, and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn keeps pushing the boundaries. Parsons also seems to make the big plays in big moments. “First and second down, those are the time you’re like in the mix of run and pass, but third down and fourth down is when you hunt,” Parsons said. “I think those are the money downs. You got an opportunity where they might hold the ball a little longer and you can get to that quarterback. That’s what I look for on third and fourth down.” — ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer
Micah Parsons since Week 8:
⭐️ 92.7 pass-rushing grade (1st)
⭐️ 9.5 sacks (1st)
⭐️ 33 pressures (5th)
Parsons ranks 85th in pass-rushing snaps during this span 🤯 pic.twitter.com/0LLFhOd5kg
— PFF (@PFF) December 15, 2021
Why Parsons might fall short: History tells you this is a long shot. The last rookie to win defensive player of the year was Taylor of the New York Giants in 1981. Taylor had 9.5 sacks as a rookie. Parsons has surpassed that. Taylor played in the media mecca. Parsons plays for America’s Team. There is every reason for Parsons to be a strong candidate, but 40 years of evidence is tough to overcome. T.J. Watt leads the NFL with 16 sacks and Garrett is second with 15, but neither player is guaranteed of helping his team to the playoffs. Matthew Judon of the New England Patriots has been the best free-agent signing and is filling up the stat sheet. The Cowboys haven’t had a player win the award since Harvey Martin in 1977. DeMarcus Ware had 20 sacks in 2008, and he finished second to the Steelers’ Harrison in the voting.
Season highlight: It’s difficult to pick just one. Tracking down Patrick Mahomes from behind for a sack and forcing a fumble comes to mind. He had four tackles for loss vs. Minnesota. But the sequence in Week 14 against the Washington Football Team was probably the best. He beat guard Brandon Scherff to sack Taylor Heinicke, forcing a fumble that Dorance Armstrong returned for a touchdown, and on the next series he sacked Heinicke when Washington tried to have a running back block him.
Quote: “Very impressed. He’s a dog out there. I love it. Obviously for him just to consistently do what he’s been doing, it’s great to see. You can see [his] energy throughout the defense.” — Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb.
Caesars Sportsbook odds on winning: +300 (co-favorite with Garrett)
T.J. Watt, Steelers linebacker
What the numbers say
• Leads NFL with 16 sacks despite missing two games
• NFL-high five games with two sacks this season
• Could become first player since Donald in 2018 with 20 sacks in a season
Why Watt is a strong candidate to win the award: Despite missing two entire games and sustaining injuries that knocked him out early in two others, Watt leads the league in sacks with 16 through Week 14. Without Watt’s 3.5 sacks of Lamar Jackson and pressure on the failed 2-point conversion attempt, the Steelers don’t beat the Ravens 20-19 on Dec. 5, to keep Pittsburgh relevant in the AFC North. Watt, who didn’t practice after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier that week, also had six quarterback hits in the game, the most since he had five against the Buffalo Bills in Week 1. And he’s forced four fumbles and had two recoveries, more than both Garrett and Parsons. On a defense that’s struggled throughout the season, Watt — who was made the NFL’s highest paid defensive player prior to the season — has been a consistent playmaker. — ESPN Steelers reporter Brooke Pryor
T.J. Watt has 16 sacks in his 10 games played this season. #HereWeGo
That’s the most sacks over a player’s first 10 games of a season since Reggie White had 17 in 1987. pic.twitter.com/JdoycD2nTi
— Elias Sports Bureau (@EliasSports) December 9, 2021
Why Watt might fall short: For as many game-changing plays as Watt has made, he missed opportunities to enhance his résumé with the time missed. The injuries to his groin, hip and knee have kept him out of multiple games. And, if there’s recent bias by selectors, Watt is at a disadvantage. He was injured early against Minnesota on Dec. 9, and later that weekend, Parsons had a strip sack against Washington that was returned for a touchdown by Armstrong. Garrett had a strip sack of his own, and he finished the job by returning it for a 15-yard touchdown against the Ravens. In a vacuum, Watt is having one of the best seasons — if not the best — of his career. Problem is, the eye test makes Garrett, Donald and Parsons legitimate contenders for the award, too. All four are having standout seasons, and Parsons has the benefit of playing on one of the best defensive units this season. Watt, meanwhile, is one of the few constants for a Steelers defense that has struggled. — Pryor
Season highlight: Watt’s 3.5-sack game in the Steelers’ comeback win against the Ravens was a signature performance. And it’s not just that he dramatically affected the game, it’s that he did it without a week of practice after testing positive for COVID-19 the day after losing to the Bengals. Coach Mike Tomlin likes to say Watt does things other players simply can’t do. That game is at the top of that list.
Quote: “He is a game-changer and a game-wrecker. I’ve been a part of [teams with] guys like that — Troy Polamalu — who can change a football game, and it doesn’t happen on defense that often. To be a literal game-changer on defense is something completely special, and he should be recognized. I don’t know who else is the defensive player of the year other than that guy. But he should absolutely get MVP votes as well, because that’s what kind of a player he is.” — Ben Roethlisberger
Caesars Sportsbook odds on winning: + 400