NFL Futures Betting: Who Will Win Defensive Player of the Year in 2021?
People often talk about the time around the NFL Draft as the hopeful time of the football calendar because all the possibilities in the world are available for teams. Maybe that number-one draft pick will immediately turn around your favorite franchise, or a player who was hyped his whole college career happenstantially falls into your team’s lap.
I believe, however, that the final weeks, days, and hours of the offseason make up “the season of hope.” When Thursday’s impending kickoff materializes, many of the speculations and opinions of the summer will evaporate in the face of cold, hard reality. The NFL season is bearing down on us all, and there’s little time left to theorize about the big picture; the nitty-gritty is nigh.
With that in mind, we must savor these few remaining morsels of “what-if” -- especially as NFL kickoff means the closing of futures betting markets on sportsbooks everywhere. One of those markets that remains underexplored is the Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) award. We’ve still got a few precious days before the season arrives to examine the contenders for this prize and figure out which NFL defensive star you should hitch your betting hopes to on FanDuel Sportsbook.
Who will win the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award?
One of the most helpful ways to examine data in contexts like this is through using R correlation, which in essence measures how closely two variables relate to one another. In short, the closer the correlation coefficient is to 1 or -1, the stronger the relationship is; the closer it is to 0, the weaker the relationship. In this study, the main variable I will be measuring others against is the number of DPOY votes (out of 50) a player received.
Our sample size comprises of every DPOY winner, every DPOY vote-getter, and every defensive player since 2000, and we’re comparing their production to the next year’s DPOY voting. This 20-year window will help us get as wide a survey as possible, so we can see if any trends have emerged for the award in recent years.
Unsurprisingly, using R correlation between DPOY votes and any statistic in the general defensive populace sample was quite weak. With only 50 votes each year to spread around, many players who ended up with no votes racked up quite a few stats nonetheless. That said, a few compelling coefficients did emerge.
|Correlation of DPOY |
Votes vs. Year N-1
Sacks, tackles for a loss, and quarterback hits were the only statistics to earn a correlation coefficient in the double digits. A Pro Bowl appearance, an All-Pro First Team berth, and Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) metric in the preceding year, however, also all saw the same level of predictive value. While coefficients from 0.10 to 0.15 are nothing to write home about as iron-clad predictors, they are a starting point.
When taking this groundwork and comparing to DPOY vote-getters and DPOY winners since 2000, the smaller samples allowed the coefficients to be much stronger for the correlation between previous year production and DPOY votes earned. In addition, the statistics identified earlier were reinforced as the strongest predictors, while fumbles recovered and forced also gained significant ground. I also split the correlations by position, which I will reference later in player recommendation breakdowns.
What we’ve learned from this is three-fold:
1. Disruptive plays -- sacks, hits, tackles for a loss, and turnovers -- are the stats most likely to carry over from one year to the next in a defensive player’s profile. That means that disruptive players who rack up these kinds of plays are the best bets to earn DPOY votes.
2. Players who earned a Pro Bowl berth before (preferably the year prior, and preferably All-Pro First Team), and players with high AV’s in the previous year (vote-getters averaged 10.6 AV and winners averaged 11.9) tend to earn DPOY votes. Put another way: Defensive Players of the Year don’t tend to come out of nowhere -- except in the voting.
3. Only seven of the 21 DPOY winners since 2000 (33.3%) earned DPOY votes the year prior, with those players averaging 12.3 votes. Only one rookie (linebacker Patrick Willis in 2007) has earned a vote their first year, and no player coming off a season lost to injury has earned DPOY votes the following season.
Who fits our criteria best, while giving you the best betting value?
Aaron Donald, DL, Rams
FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +500
Los Angeles Rams superstar defensive lineman Aaron Donald -- the incumbent winner -- would be making NFL history this season if he brought home the DPOY honors for a fourth time. Currently, he shares the record for most DPOY wins at three with Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor and potential future Hall of Famer J.J. Watt. It’s hard to ignore how dominant Donald has been in recent years, with his 65.5 sacks, 91 tackles for a loss, and 151 quarterback hits the most for any defender since 2016. He also leads the way with 79 AV and is one of just two defensive players to be an All-Pro First Teamer each of the last five seasons.
Donald holds the shortest odds among DPOY candidates on FanDuel Sportsbook, but his resumé is strong -- and his position has historically done well. Since 2000, six DPOY winners have been classified as defensive linemen (defensive tackles and 3-4 scheme defensive ends). The one caveat to this is that three of those wins were Donald himself. Still, entering his age-30 season, Donald remains in the prime of his career and has shown no signs of slowing down.
T.J. Watt, EDGE, Steelers
FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +750
If you want to stay “safe” and still get slightly more enticing odds, edge rusher T.J. Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers is a tempting pick. I put him in the “favorites” tier as one of just three players with odds with implied odds of 10% or more. Edge rushers have fared slightly worse than defensive linemen of late, with five winners as opposed to six, but no edge rusher has won more than once in the last two decades. Defensive line is the position of the DPOY aristocracy; edge rusher is that of DPOY democracy.
Last season, Watt racked up an absurd 15.0 sacks, 23 tackles for a loss, and 41 quarterback hits -- marks all well above the average DPOY winner at his position. He also happens to have totaled the third-most quarterback hits and fifth-most sacks among all defensive players over the last five years, despite entering the league just four years ago. Watt earned 40% of the vote last season and 20% the year before, so perhaps the next step is his own award. It would go against our data on previous voting, but if anyone could buck that trend, Watt is it.
Joey Bosa, EDGE, Chargers
FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +1700
The elder Bosa brother is coming off a good-not-great season when compared to the previous two defenders we’ve outlined. Still, Los Angeles Chargers edge rusher Joey Bosa remains within spitting distance of the thresholds we like to see, especially considering he played just 12 games last year. Prorating to a full 16-game season, Bosa would’ve turned in 10.0 sacks, 20 tackles for a loss, and 36 quarterback hits -- not shabby numbers by any means.
Health has been the bugaboo for him, as “JoeyBo” has played just 63 games since 2016. That injury factor is likely baked into his 5.6% implied probability. Just know that Bosa has tremendous upside when on the field; he has the sixth-most sacks, second-most tackles for a loss, and third-most quarterback hits over the last five years on a per-game basis. You’re just rolling the dice on whether his body holds up.
Devin White, LB, Buccaneers
FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +4500
With the coming-out party Devin White had last season (especially in the playoffs), many thought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' linebacker should have been considered for the DPOY award. It’s hard to ignore the impact he’s had over his first two NFL seasons, racking up the 15th-most tackles among all players (231) and coming in top-30 in tackles for a loss in that same span of time.
Last year, White was fifth in tackles (140) while also blitzing his mind out; he racked up 9.0 sacks, 15 tackles for a loss, and 16 quarterback hits -- all ranking first or second among off-ball linebackers.
The unfortunate thing is that linebackers have a tougher road to hoe when it comes to winning DPOY. Five have won in the last two decades, but the most recent was Luke Kuechly in 2013. In addition, there is little correlation for linebackers receiving votes with any season-long statistical category. Where a ‘backer really has to shine is in per-game production, especially for tackles, tackles for a loss, and turnovers. White struggles in pass coverage, so that could hinder him in the latter category, but if he stays healthy and keeps attacking downhill with the same efficiency, he’ll definitely end up worth these odds.
Xavien Howard, CB, Dolphins
FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +7000
Miami Dolphins star cornerback Xavien Howard is coming off one of the best modern-era cornerback seasons ever. With 10 interceptions and a whopping 20 passes defended, Howard’s side of the field was an impenetrable “no-fly zone” in 2020. To boot, Howard’s 22 picks since 2016 are second-most among all defenders, and his 58 passes defended are top-eight.
Sadly, he garnered just three DPOY votes last season in what would’ve been an ideal performance for a cornerback to win the award. Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 winner, and 2009 winner Charles Woodson -- the only cornerbacks to win since 2000 -- averaged just 24.5 votes the years they won, so Howard would need some muddier waters from other defensive players to split the ballots. Still, with Howard's contract qualms settled, perhaps he can pick up where he left off in 2020 with a clear mind and the same fervor.
Eric Kendricks, LB, Vikings
FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +10000
Perhaps my favorite deep sleeper for this award, middle linebacker Eric Kendricks of the Minnesota Vikings is entering his age-29 season and the twilight of an athletic, coverage-proficient linebacker’s career. Kendricks might not bring the blitzing and behind-the-line disruption that fellow ‘backer White does, but he actually outpaced the younger Buc in terms of tackles (9.7 to 9.3 per game), interceptions (0.3 to 0.0 per game), and passes defended (0.5 to 0.3 per game). At a full-season pace, he would have finished second in tackles last season with 156, adding 9 passes defended and 4 interceptions.
Perhaps the Vikings won’t face as many negative game scripts in 2021, with opponents running the ball up the gut and into Kendricks’ arms, but with a player who has 100-to-1 odds, you have to be willing to take risks. Kendricks has a picture-perfect profile for a linebacker who wins DPOY. The question will be: can a linebacker in this era of the NFL win the award?