NFL Betting: Defensive Player of the Year Picks

Last week, I took a look at the Offensive Player of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year awards to try and dig up which players provide the best bets on Super Bowl odds.

Moving right along, let's take a look at Defensive Player of the Year. Like the prior two awards, a good place to start is the positional breakdown of the previous winners:

Position Number of Winners Percentage of Winners
Linebacker 16 32.7%
Defensive End 13 26.5%
Defensive Tackle 9 18.4%
Cornerback 6 12.2%
Safety 5 10.2%

Defensive Player of the Year is a little more evenly distributed, but defensive linemen and linebackers make up the majority of winners.

If you put all defensive linemen in one bucket, they've accounted for 22 of the 49 winners (44.9%). And this makes sense because linemen -- typically defensive ends -- generate the most sacks. Getting pressure on the quarterback is not only important from a real-game standpoint, but sacks are memorable and impactful plays that look great on the stat sheet. Defensive linemen account for six of the past eight winners.

Linebackers have been victorious nearly a third of the time, as they're the most likely position to be in and around the action in the middle of the field, allowing them to generate the most tackles. Accumulating a whole bunch of tackles on its own won't win you any awards, but the versatility of the position can lead to a combination of interceptions, forced fumbles, pass deflections, and sacks.

That being said, a traditional linebacker hasn't won since 2013 (Luke Kuechly), and outside of Bobby Wagner (+2300), this isn't a position getting much love on FanDuel Sportsbook. At the end of the day, I'd rather bet on a pass rusher who might lead the league in sacks over a linebacker who could lead the league in tackles.

That leaves us with defensive backs, who account for only a combined 11 winners (22.4%). While that isn't an awful percentage, the tricky thing is these players need to generate turnovers to have any real shot, which isn't something you can reliably predict. The best cornerbacks in particular often don't see the ball thrown their way, and while that can be great for the team, it doesn't look especially compelling in the box score.

Last year's winner, Stephon Gilmore, is considered one of the best cornerbacks in the league, but his victory was primarily helped by him tying a league-high six interceptions, including two pick-sixes. In 2018, he had the same number of passes defended (20; top two both years) and actually graded much higher in Pro Football Focus' player grades (90.9 vs. 82.7). Yet, he received no votes. The reason? Just two interceptions.

That makes betting on a cornerback or safety especially risky, and in some respects, it's similar to how wide receivers rarely win Offensive Player of the Year. Much like Michael Thomas on the other side, betting on Gilmore (+1500) to repeat isn't an optimal strategy.

With all that being the case, defensive linemen are who we should focus our attention on. Let's take a look and who stands out.

Aaron Donald (+750)

Aaron Donald has already won this award twice (2018 and 2017), and it won't shock anyone if he snags a third. Another trophy would put him in the company of J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor as the only three-time winners.

Donald received just one vote last season, but he still ranked 1st in tackles for loss (20), 2nd in quarterback pressures (55), 7th in sacks (12.5), and 11th in QB hits (24). Sure, maybe the sacks were down from 2018, when he led the league with an eye-popping 20.5, but those are still some flashy numbers. Pro Football Focus crowned Donald as the best defender of 2019.

Defensive Player of the Year is a bit harder to predict given the heavy influence of big plays like sacks and turnovers, which can fluctuate wildly from year to year. But a healthy Donald is pretty much a lock for double-digit sacks -- amazing for a defensive tackle -- and his 93.7 grade on Pro Football Focus led all defensive linemen.

He's rightfully the favorite to win the hardware in 2020, but at +750, his odds are lower than the favorites for MVP, Offensive Player, or Comeback Player, so we aren't getting bad value here.

Khalil Mack (+1100)

Khalil Mack's reputation precedes him, and he's won this award before (albeit by one vote), but after posting single-digit sacks (8.5) for the first time since his rookie year, we're not getting much of a discount at his second-best odds.

Among players with at least 200 pass rushes in 2019, Mack ranked just 27th in Pro Football Focus' pass rushing productivity metric, which measures pressure on a per pass rushing snap basis. In addition to ranking just 27th in sacks, he was also 61st in tackles for loss (8) and 46th in QB hits (14). Statistically speaking at least, Mack didn't have the type of year we're used to seeing.

However, we shouldn't be swayed by one outlier campaign. Prior to last season, Mack's ranks in pass rushing productivity are as follows the last four years (reverse chronological order): 7th, 13th, 1st (won), and 12th.

He was also seventh in pressures (45) in 2019, so he was still getting to the quarterback at a high rate.

Additionally, Mack should get a boost from the signing of Robert Quinn, who should draw attention away from him. Quinn registered 11.5 sacks with the Cowboys last year.

Betting on a return to form for Mack isn't a bad way to go.

Nick Bosa (+1400)

Last season's Defensive Rookie of the Year, Nick Bosa, is another favorite for the award and rightfully so.

Although Bosa ranked just 22nd in sacks (9.0), he was 4th in pass rushing productivity, 5th in tackles for loss (16), 7th in pressures (45), and 8th in QB hits (25). He also ranked third among edge defenders in Pro Football Focus' player grades. Not too bad for a rookie.

It also doesn't hurt that he plays for the 49ers, which had one of the best defenses of 2019. A strong overall unit can help influence voters as it did for Gilmore last year. San Francisco's defense ranked second behind only the Patriots by numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics.

T.J. Watt (+1500)

T.J. Watt has the fourth-best odds (tied with Gilmore) and may very well be the sweet spot in terms of betting value.

Watt is coming off a truly fantastic campaign, leading the league in pressures (59) and ranking second in pass rushing productivity. He finished 4th in sacks (14.5), 3rd in QB hits (36), and 12th in tackles for loss (14). He had Pro Football Focus' highest grade among edge defenders and turns just 26 in October.

Watt finished third in voting last season, so another year at this level could put him over the top. Pittsburgh was numberFire's third-best defense in 2019 and should be a better overall team with the return of a healthy Ben Roethlisberger.

Others to Consider:

J.J. Watt (+1800) - The elder Watt has struggled to stay healthy in recent seasons, but he's won this award three times before for a reason. That said, no one has ever won four times, and he may have an easier time winning Comeback Player of the Year.

Von Miller (+1800) - Miller managed only eight sacks last year, but he dealt with a sprained MCL down the stretch and is one season removed from registering 14.5 sacks. Despite the "down year," he actually ranked third in pass rushing productivity.

Joey Bosa (+2500) - Only T.J. Watt and Aaron Donald produced more pressures than Bosa last season (54).

Chandler Jones (+2900) - Jones finished second in 2019 voting after piling up the second-most sacks in the league (19.0). He received the third-most votes in 2017.

Za'Darius Smith (+5000) - If you're looking for more of a long shot, Smith is awfully interesting. In his first season with Green Bay, he posted a career-high 13.5 sacks -- sixth-most in the league -- and was tied for first in QB hits (37) and fifth in pressures (50). He led all players in pass rushing productivity, too.