It's preseason predictions time. The Around The League crew has been rolling through our division previews, and now it's time to break out some awards. We already picked MVPs and discussed our choices on Wednesday's edition of the "Around The League Podcast." Next up: Defensive Player of the Year.
Gregg Rosenthal's pick: Clay Matthews
Matthews should have won the award after the 2010 season, not Troy Polamalu. The 27-year-old Green Bay Packers outside linebacker quietly had a dominant 2012 season that was lost in the shuffle because he missed four games. (And the Packers' defense wasn't great overall.) Fourteen sacks, 24 QB hurries and 11 quarterback hits is enormous production for 12 games. Matthews is a savvier player than four seasons ago, and he still has incredible speed off the edge.
J.J. Watt is great, but only Lawrence Taylor has defended the Defensive Player of the Year award. It's going to be hard for Watt to repeat his sack totals as a 3-4 defensive end, and voters respond to sacks. Matthews is my favorite to lead the league in sacks on a Packers team ready to nab a top seed in the NFC.
Dan Hanzus' pick: J.J. Watt
I toyed with the idea of picking Watt for league MVP, but this feels like the better spot since I'm not sold on the Texans as a team.
Now the scary part. Watt is just 24 years old. He should have his best football ahead of him. Watt wants to establish the "20-20-20 Club": 20 sacks, 20 tackles for loss, 20 batted balls. For any other player in football, this is the type of talk that should have you committed. But Watt is a once-in-a-generation talent. The ceiling does not exist.
He's going back-to-back.
Marc Sessler's pick: Patrick Peterson
I'm going with Patrick Peterson, who I believe will emerge as the league's most dynamic player on defense in 2013. The Arizona Cardinals cornerback, at 23, brings rare physical ability to the field; he's one of the few guys you can stick on No. 1 receivers on a week-to-week basis. Peterson is an ascendant talent who anchors a sneaky good defense out west. And it's not just defense he'll contribute to.
Coach Bruce Arians has made it clear Peterson will be rolled out on offense as a pass-catcher in a subpackage that started with 15 plays, but already has ballooned to 60. Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson have been cited as comparisons to Peterson -- and I'm on board. He'll be the league's top shutdown corner this season and a household name by Christmas.
Kevin Patra's pick: Aldon Smith
Smith had 19.5 sacks through 13 games in 2013 before goose-egging the final three regular-season tilts and the playoffs. There was discussion that both Smith and J.J. Watt might break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record (22.5). I'm pegging Smith to threaten that record once again.
When defensive tackle Justin Smith was healthy last season, Aldon made his home in opponents' backfields and feasted on quarterbacks. With Justin back to full strength this season, Aldon will eat well again. This time he'll do it for a full season. Of all the teams with dominant defensive players, the 49ers are the deepest and most productive group. It will be much harder for teams to scheme or avoid Aldon than other players on this list. Playing against a plethora of shaky offensive lines won't hurt either.
Chris Wesseling's pick: J.J. Watt
I strongly considered Luke Kuechly, Geno Atkins, Clay Matthews and even Justin Smith in a bounce-back season, but I simply can't justify going with any player other than J.J. Watt. Coming off the most dominant defensive campaign I've ever witnessed, Watt has shown no signs of slowing down in preseason action.
You know about the pass-rushing dominance, which is extremely rare for a 3-4 defensive end charged with absorbing blockers so the linebackers can make plays. In addition to the 20.5 sacks and unofficial record 16 pass deflections, Watt tallied 39 tackles for no gain or a loss in the run game. Many 3-4 ends don't record 39 tackles, period. His average tackle versus the run last season went for 0.16 yards! As long as he wreaks that kind of havoc, Watt has to be viewed as the favorite for this award.