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J.J. Watt, Josh Norman headline top DPOY candidates

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Every week in this space, Chris Wesseling will roll out the power rankings for one specific NFL position, attribute or award.

As we turn our attention to the stretch run, it's time to start thinking about NFL Honors. We kicked off the regular-season awards last week with a look at the Most Valuable Player watch. Now it's time to examine the top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year.

On to the list:

1. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans defensive end: Offensive contributions aside, Watt's numbers (tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and QB hits) through 11 games surpass those of last season when he was a consensus MVP candidate. He's currently on pace for 20 sacks, which would give him 25 percent of the 20-sack seasons since the stat became official in 1982.

Awarding the DPOY to another player would be tantamount to NBA voters growing bored with Michael Jordan and handing the MVP award to Karl Malone or Charles Barkley in the 1990s. What's most impressive about Watt is that he remains the most disruptive defensive force of his generation while offenses devote more and more resources to stopping him. We witnessed a dire tactic in Week 12, when the Saints shifted stud left tackle Terron Armstead to the right side of the line to assist beleaguered right tackle Zach Strief. Watt still split the two tackles for one of his two sacks on Drew Brees -- as you can see in the video above.

"You guys might want to try somebody else at right tackle," a mic'd up Watt yelled, via Showtime's Inside the NFL. "Quarterback's getting smoked back there. I like Drew (Brees). I don't like hitting him like that."

Since Drew Brees joined New Orleans in 2006, the Saints had scored a touchdown in every single game for a decade. That streak was unceremoniously terminated by Watt and his cohorts in Week 12. The Broncos may have been crowned the NFL's next great defense in October, but the Texans are coming like a freight train. No defense has matched Houston's level of sheer incapacitation in November, allowing just one touchdown over the last 18 quarters. A whirling buzzsaw entering December, Watt's defense will be fascinating to watch over the next month.

2. Josh Norman, Carolina Panthers cornerback: Norman has not only displaced Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman as the stickiest cover corner versus top-tier wideouts, he has also defended the run, contributed a pair of pick-sixes and turned in multiple game-saving plays to keep the Panthers undefeated. After shutting Dez Bryant down on Thanksgiving, Norman has an opportunity to raise his profile by doing battle with Julio Jones twice in the next four weeks.

3. Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals defensive back: Mathieu doesn't have one set position. He plays slot cornerback, strong safety, free safety and linebacker, leading the NFL's No. 2 scoring defense in tackles, tackles for loss and interceptions. Unique among NFL defensive stars, Mathieu combines the best traits of Antoine Winfield and Troy Polamalu as an undersized but fierce cornerback with natural ball-hawking tendencies, rare instincts and the ability to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.

"I think he's the most exciting defensive player in football right now," NFL Media analyst Brian Baldinger said on Monday. "I would say, right now through 12 weeks, if you're going to have a conversation for the Defensive Player of the Year, you have got to put Tyrann Mathieu in the conversation. ... If he was in a rodeo, you'd want him to be the calf roper."

4. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle: It took Atkins two years, but he has finally recaptured the 2012 form that gave Watt a run for his money as the game's premier defender. Downright unblockable at times, the Tasmanian Devil-come-to-life has been a terror against the run as well as the pass, leading all defensive tackles with 8.0 sacks. Look no further than Atkins' renaissance for the Bengals' turnaround on defense.

"You ask anybody on (an opposing) offense, any offense that we play," said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, stumping for Atkins as the DPOY. "The first guy when they turn the tape on Monday morning and they look at the tape to prepare for us, they say, 'Oh s---, we better have a plan for this guy."

5. Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers linebacker: The 2013 Defensive Player of the Year rarely misses tackles, while boasting uncanny range, instincts and closing speed. As NFL Media analyst Charley Casserly recently asserted, he's the successor to Mike Singletary and Ray Lewis as the definitive middle linebacker of his generation. As well as he's played on the league's No. 2 defense, he would be riding sidecar with Norman in the two-hole if not for three games missed to concussion early this season.

6. Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs pass rusher: As the best edge rusher in football for three years running, Houston might just be the NFL's most underappreciated superstar. Led by Houston's weekly disruption and Indian summer seasons from fellow linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, the stingy Chiefs defense has allowed just 13.6 points per game since early October. Any slim chance Houston had for Defensive Player of the Year honors vanished, however, with a Week 12 PCL sprain that will sideline him for at least the next couple of games.

7. Aaron Donald, St. Louis Rams defensive tackle: Of all the players on this list, Donald is perhaps the best candidate to challenge Watt's reign over the next half-decade. The 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year has already compiled a career's worth of highlights in 27 games with the Rams. His combination of strength, leverage and quickness is nightmare fuel for centers and guards.

8. Von Miller, Denver Broncos pass rusher: Ideally suited for Wade Phillips' blitz-heavy 3-4 scheme, Miller is the dominant force on the NFL's No. 1 defense. Although he and DeMarcus Ware wreaked havoc as a dream edge-rushing team through the end of October, the Broncos have slipped since Ware went down with a back injury, allowing an average of 24 points over the past month. Miller is a lead-pipe lock for the 2016 franchise tag barring a long-term agreement by the end of February.

Pro Bowl ballot

9. Linval Joseph, Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle: The Vikings have held opponents to 20 points or fewer in nine of 11 games, led by run-plugging Joseph, hard-hitting strong safety Harrison Smith and new-age linebacker Anthony Barr. Joseph had one of the most impressive performances of the season in Week 9, dominating the Rams' offensive line and almost single-handedly keeping Todd Gurley under 100 yards. He has stiff competition for the All-Pro team in Atkins, Donald, Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short and Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams.

10. Chandler Jones, New England Patriots pass rusher: Versatile linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower were even more impactful in the first two months of the season, only to be fallen by sickness and injuries, respectively. One of the game's most athletic edge rushers, Jones has picked up the slack, generating 10.5 sacks through 11 games. Those three players headline New England's talented but overlooked defensive nucleus.

Honorable mention: Patrick Peterson, Cliff Avril, Kawann Short, Tamba Hali, Khalil Mack, Pernell McPhee, Muhammad Wilkerson, Clay Matthews, Ziggy Ansah, Thomas Davis, Michael Bennett, Reshad Jones, Harrison Smith, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris

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