Defensive players may not get as much attention overall as the truly elite offensive stars in the NFL, but the very best have nothing to complain about when it comes to media attention or what they bring home on payday. The big individual prize for those players, of course, is the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. As is almost always the case, it is truly a wide-open race for that hardware this year. A wide-open race is one that is interesting to bet on, and this is no exception. Here's a look at how the race shapes up, with futures odds from BetOnline.
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J.J. Watt, Houston (+300): It's no surprise at all that Watt is favored here. After all, he has won the award each of the last two seasons and three of the last four. He's the biggest defensive star in the league, and it's not really close. But is he a good bet this year? Not in my eyes - not at this price, anyway. There is only one reason why - his back. Watt had offseason surgery to repair a herniated disk. That will cost him all of the preseason in all likelihood. It's no guarantee that he will be ready for the start of the season, and even if he is he is going to be well behind the curve in terms of preparation. He still obviously is very capable of winning the award, and voters will likely be quite impressed if he looks just like J.J. Watt after the injury. This should give some of the other top contenders a chance to get a head start, though, and that could be hard to overcome. I'm not doubting Watt but just looking elsewhere for better value.
Aaron Donald, L.A. (+500): Donald needs to channel Warren Sapp. Like Sapp, Donald is a defensive tackle, and no one in that position has won this award since Sapp did it in 1999. Donald certainly has the skill and the work ethic to break that dry spell. He's part of an exceptionally-strong defensive line, though, and that could work for him or against him. The line will get plenty of attention, which is a positive. That attention should be magnified in the first year in a new market. It remains to be seen, though, if Donald can rise above the rest of the strong players on the line to be the one star worthy of the attention of voters. I think Donald is exceptional and ready for a big year, but I am not sure if he can overcome all he has to in order to win - the anti-DT bias, the fact he'll likely have lesser raw stats than others in different positions, and the talent around him. The value isn't here.
Khalil Mack, Oakland (+500): Mack is the man I am backing this year. He's entering his third year in the league, which is a sweet spot for guys to take a big step forward. He had 15 sacks last year and seems well poised to do two key things in terms of winning this award - break the 20 sack barrier and lead the league. The Raiders are getting a whole lot of positive attention this year, and that will only improve his chances as people have a more positive sense of the team and they actually pay attention to their games. It's Mack's time.
Von Miller, Denver (+700): Miller is coming off a monster season, and he was brilliant in the playoffs, but I'm taking a stand against him here. I was leaning this way anyway, but the news that he was taking time off during the preseason because he wasn't mentally ready to compete put me over the top. I'm allergic to betting on guys who just got a fat new contract - especially when pursuing that contract was a complicated affair like it was for Miller. I have nothing but respect for Miller's play, but I don't expect him to be at his best this season, and that opens up the door for Mack and others. Normally I'd be thrilled to be able to bet on Miller at a price like this, but not now.
Luke Kuechly, Carolina (+1000): Kuechly can obviously win this award - he's the only guy other than Watt who has done so in the last four years. He's coming off of offseason shoulder surgery, but recovery has gone well and that doesn't seem to be a concern. He has a chance to make a big statement early on as the Panthers open the season with a Super Bowl rematch against Denver, so he could outshine and outplay Miller on a big stage. There are two things working against Kuechly, though. For one, he doesn't get sacks, and that makes it tough for defensive players to shine in this atmosphere. If Mack, Watt or Miller put up big sack numbers then Kuechly will struggle to overcome that with his more subtle accomplishments. Second, with Cam Newton defending his MVP title this year, it's doubtful that there is enough attention for two players - on a smaller-market team, no less - to win major awards unless the Panthers were to run the table.
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