Defensive Player of the Year winner? J.J. Watt, Tyrann Mathieu lead charge

The night before Super Bowl 50, the NFL will salute its best players and plays from the 2015 season with "NFL Honors," a star-studded football and entertainment event hosted by Conan O'Brien from the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. Here's the broadcasting information for Saturday night's festivities:

» 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network: Super Bowl Saturday Night, featuring all the red-carpet coverage.
» 9 p.m. ET on CBS: 5th Annual NFL Honors

One of the awards that will be presented on Saturday: Defensive Player of the Year for the 2015 season. Who gets your vote?

This contest is much tougher than the MVP debate. Carolina's Josh Norman shut down various elite receivers all season long. St. Louis' Aaron Donald was the best interior lineman in football. Khalil Mack dominated as a defensive end and outside linebacker for a resurgent Raiders team. Then there's Watt.

The Texans wouldn't have made the playoffs after a 2-5 start without his stellar play in the second half. Who cares if he won this award last year? He's still that good. What Cam Newton is to the Panthers organization, quietly, Luke Kuechly is the same. I saw an instance where one of his teammates made a mistake in the Divisional Round, and Kuechly told the coach to get him out. He understands what it takes to win in this league, and his play backs that up. Despite being an undersized defensive back, Tyrann Mathieu proved to be the most versatile defensive player in the league this year. He's able to guard everything, from wideouts to tight ends to running backs, and he's one of the best tacklers in the NFL.

It's very unfortunate his season prematurely ended in Week 15, but don't forget about the spectacular campaign he already had enjoyed. Until further notice, let's just use this award to annually honor J.J. Watt, who posted an NFL-high 17.5 sacks this season. Watt had many worthy competitors -- Oakland's Khalil Mack is a rising star who managed to make the All-Pro team at two different positions, while the Rams' Aaron Donald terrorizes quarterbacks nearly as much as Watt does, from a difficult interior lineman spot. But nobody is as consistently disruptive -- and plays at such a relentlessly high level, even while drawing the undivided attention of opponents -- as Watt. The Rams' defensive line is a scary bunch, but Aaron Donald is a force on his own. After a dominant rookie season, Donald continued his devastating trend of crushing plays. He's a nightmare to block and he rarely misses a tackle. Even without Robert Quinn in the mix during the second half of the season, Donald continued his high level of play and elevated everyone around him. Travis Swanson is still having bad dreams about Week 14. Despite playing injured in the latter half of the season, J.J. Watt was still the best defensive player in the NFL. He can play anywhere across the defensive front, as well as line up as an LB to blitz. He is a complete player vs. the run and pass. The Raiders moved Khalil Mack from (primarily) linebacker to defensive end. For a guy to move positions and put up the numbers and have the impact that Mack did, it says a lot about his talent. Luke Kuechly's the most defined player and a huge reason why the Panthers have lost just one game this season. Play for play, Aaron Donald is the most disruptive interior D-lineman I can recall seeing since Steve Emtman was a Washington Husky, but Tyrann Mathieu's instinctive freelancing recalls past Def Players of the Year Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed -- and the Honey Badger had a similar impact on one of the league's best teams. I voted J.J. Watt on my AP ballot. He's a star -- and the reason why Houston rallied to make the playoffs. I'm giving the nod to Bengals safety Reggie Nelson. He was tied for first in the NFL with eight interceptions and enjoyed a great overall season on a Cincy defense that finished second in points allowed. There are a lot of good candidates for this award: Ezekiel Ansah, Geno Atkins, Luke Kuechly, Khalil Mack, Kawann Short and J.J. Watt. All of those aforementioned players, with the exception of Kuechly, recorded double-digit sack totals. But when you add sacks and run stuffs (plays of no gain or negative yardage) together, Watt is the choice. Watt led the NFL with 17.5 sacks. He also had 18 quarterback pressures, 21.5 run stuffs, plus eight impact tackles. He helped the Texans finish third overall in the NFL in fewest yards allowed.

Oh, and Watt did all of that despite the fact that he was double- or triple-teamed on many plays. Look at what happened to the Cardinals in the postseason without Tyrann Mathieu on the field. The Packers, with the legendary pass-catching triumvirate of Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis and Richard Rodgers tore Arizona apart. Ditto Corey Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. in the NFC Title Game.

No DB since Charles Woodson in Green Bay has been able to be used at corner, safety and in the slot, while also blitzing off the edge and making free-roaming plays the way the Honey Badger did in 2015. J.J. Watt. It's not even close. Mathieu played around 98 percent of Arizona's defensive snaps before he went down with the knee injury in Week 15. That's like quarterback a quarterback figure; most defensive players don't do that. His impact on the Cardinals' defense is something you really can't quantify. Watt led the league in more categories than I care to tally.

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