PFF’s 2015 Defensive Player of the Year

Senior Analyst Sam Monson reveals the Defensive Player of the Year award winner, and names four runners-up to the honor.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Billy Hurst)

(AP Photo/Billy Hurst)

PFF’s 2015 Defensive Player of the Year

This was a year of defensive standouts in the NFL. In a league that has become ever more centered around the offensive side of the ball, with high-octane passing and point-scoring at record levels, it was a fine year for impressive defensive stars.

This is another award that has been dominated by J.J. Watt in recent seasons (similar to the Dwight Stephenson Award), but Watt finally has legitimate competition, and for the first time in four seasons, does not emerge as the victor at PFF.

This award belongs to the best defensive player, regardless of position over the season, so let’s take a look at the results.


Aaron Donald, DT, St Louis Rams

Aaron Donald is beginning his career in the same way J.J. Watt began his. Like Watt, Donald is suffering from the disbelief caused by just how good he has been. He led the league as a rookie defensive tackle a year ago, and this season, he has catapulted his grade into a stratosphere only inhabited by Watt. We now know Watt to be a generationally great player, and so simply for Donald to have joined him in that echelon of play causes recoil in most people’s minds.

At one point, people argued that Donald was the product of a dominant Rams D-line, but this season if, it does nothing else, should dispel that fallacy. Without Robert Quinn for much of the season, Donald continued to dominate. He was so unblockable that he began to draw the kind of attention reserved for the best players in the game, and suddenly Michael Brockers earned the best grade of his career for a full season, almost twice as good as his previous best. Donald was the line superstar on that defensive front and dominated all season long, ending the year even stronger than he began it, and posting a season grade the likes of which we have only ever seen from Watt in the past. He notched 79 total pressures, 51 defensive stops, missed just two tackles, and was a more consistently dominant force than any other defensive player in football this season.

Aaron Donald deserves the Defensive Player of the Year award, and his NFL career is just two seasons old. What if there is more to come?

First runner-up

Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers

Second place was very tight, but while we have seen better from Watt in the past, and indeed better from players in the same position, what Kuechly did at inside linebacker was far more peerless. Despite missing three games, Kuechly was the highest-graded ILB in the PFF era, which is an era that spans the entire duration of the career of Patrick Willis, among other notable names.

Kuechly was the league’s best coverage linebacker, and an answer to a league full of “matchup problem” offensive weapons. While most linebackers who find themselves matched up on running backs, receivers, and tight ends are just trying to make the throw tougher, Kuechly can legitimately shut them down. Against Dallas, he earned an interception on a seam route against Jason Witten that would be open against most linebackers, but was a bad idea against a player of his caliber.

Only games missed and one poor day at the office against Atlanta, where he found himself stuck covering Julio Jones more than once, prevented him challenging Donald for this award.

Second runner-up

J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

It says something about the brilliance of J.J. Watt that he can break his hand, play three average games, and still post a grade better than anybody other than Aaron Donald has in the PFF era. Over the past three seasons, Watt has been the best defensive player in football, and while he was a little shy of that level in 2015, in almost any other year that would still be more than good enough to wrap up the Defensive Player of the Year and the Dwight Stephenson Award.

Unfortunately for Watt, he had Aaron Donald to contend with this year, and 85 percent of Watt’s best wasn’t good enough to match Donald, whose play was every bit as good as Watt at his peak.

Watt still led the NFL in defensive pressures, sacks, and batted passes as he became a true edge-rusher.

Third runner-up

Khalil Mack, ED, Oakland Raiders

If J.J. Watt is a part-time interior player, or at the very least, still a hybrid player, Khalil Mack was the best true edge defender in the NFL this season, and is another player dominating in just his second season in the league.

Mack was the highest-graded edge defender against both the run and the pass, and while the former was evident all through his rookie season, the latter has taken a big step forward, and now the sack numbers are reflecting the sheer volume of pressure he gets. Mack ended the year with 84 total pressures and more sacks than any other pure edge rusher.

Fourth runner-up

Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals

Whether you call him a cornerback or a safety, there is no doubting that Tyrann Mathieu was one of the best players in football in 2015. Injury saw us robbed of the final two games of his season, but in the 14 games he did play, we saw some spectacular playmaking ability across all facets of the game. Mathieu earned positive grades in coverage, against the run, and on the blitz as a pass-rusher for a Cardinals’ defense in which he did everything possible.

Mathieu notched 11 total pressures on the season and three batted passes when rushing the passer, totaled five interceptions and five passes defensed, and amassed 81 tackles in 14 games.

There may not be a more versatile player in the NFL than Mathieu, which is why he had a strong case for the Defensive Player of the Year award.


For more PFF awards, visit the following pages:

All 2015 PFF Awards

Dwight Stephenson Award (best player in NFL)

Most Valuable Player

Offensive Player of the Year

Rookie of the Year

Comeback Player of the Year

Breakout Player of the Year

Most Improved Player of the Year

Best Pass Rusher

Best Run Defender

Best Coverage Defender

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Personally I couldn’t give this award to any player that wears gloves no matter how good he may be. Donald Trump actually said something intelligent for a change when he said the league has gone soft.

    • Mike

      Um, come again?…

      So the best players in the NFL are the fullbacks that don’t wear gloves and Nick O’Leary?

    • Auntie Fascist

      I saw “Concussion” New Year’s Eve. I think The Donald must’ve played without a helmet. You’ve gotta be brain damaged to support that @$$clown!!! Gloves? Why not? You see them on other workers everywhere else.

    • Conservative Gentlemen

      you sir are a moron.

    • Simon S

      You’re right. It’s the same reason I couldn’t give the award to anyone who wears underwear, either. (And cleats, for the record.)

    • Thomas Bell

      Proof positive that quoting or paraphrasing Trump in any context will instantly lower your IQ.

    • 12

      Deacon jones wore gloves and had the sack award named after him because he was soft as charmin. I think putting lemons in your crossed eyes has impaired your vision as well as your judgement.

    • Sincerly rude Jeff

      Dude, you are a dumb bitch. What does wearing gloves have to do with winning an award.

  • Mre

    PFF is a joke. No one takes their analysis seriously.

    • Mike

      More people take them seriously than those who take you seriously.

    • Aaron McFarland

      19 NFL teams take their analysis seriously…which is 19 more than take you seriously.

  • JBLuvsCeltic

    My Seahawks see Donald twice a year. A constant disruptive force, whether against the run or pass. A well deserved award for a player who doesn’t get the publicity of some on higher profile clubs.

    Perhaps in the LA market he will become a face everyone knows.

  • fred

    Mack is better than any of these guys