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The Schein Nine

Luke Kuechly leading tight race for Defensive Player of the Year

I have a quick question for you: Who is the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year? No, seriously -- as a voter, I truly seek an answer here.

It's a funny year for the award. You can make the case for about 15 different players. There isn't one name that stands out above the rest.

Heading into the final seven weeks of the season, I have nine names on my short list. (How convenient, considering I pen "The Schein Nine" each Thursday ...) But first, let me go over some notable players who didn't make the cut.

Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso is my leader for Defensive Rookie of the Year -- and ranks 10th on my list for Defensive Player of the Year. The second-round pick is genuinely dynamic. At the end of the day, though, I just can't give this award to a rookie on a last-place team that fields a lackluster defense.

J.J. Watt ran away with this award last season. He's been tough for the Houston Texans, but he isn't having a monster season like he did in 2012. And I'd feel queasy putting a player from a two-win underachiever on a list for DPOY. Not to mention, I have Watt as my third-best interior D-lineman this year, behind New York Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson and Kansas City Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe. Watt also might fall behind Jason Hatcher, who's enjoying a breakout season at age 31 for the Dallas Cowboys.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee was on my list, but a hamstring strain will cause him to miss games and effectively eliminate him from consideration.

Now, this list is subject to change down the stretch of the season. It takes into account tangibles and intangibles, stats and feel. As someone who holds a vote in this process, I take the responsibility seriously.

Without further ado, here's how I rank the top nine candidates right now:

1) Luke Kuechly, middle linebacker, Carolina Panthers

I love this cat. He's a born leader and a tackling machine. Kuechly is the heart, soul and pulse of the overachieving Panthers. He's the MVP of the 6-3 squad and the biggest reason why Carolina currently ranks second in both total and scoring defense.

In last week's 10-9 statement win at San Francisco, Kuechly led the charge with a game-high 11 tackles, logging a key sack in crunch time. On the season, the spectacular and steady Kuechly has 75 tackles, three impressive picks and five passes defensed.

I talked to Kuechly on Monday on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," following his dominant performance against the 49ers. Kuechly credits current teammates Thomas Davis and Jordan Senn -- as well as former teammates James Anderson and (especially) Jon Beason -- for showing him the ropes as a young player. When I mentioned him as a favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, Kuechly said, "It would be a tremendous honor. For me, it's just one of those things you look back and all the guys that have won the award and it's just awesome. But I just want to concentrate each week on just playing football and doing my job and trying to win games, and the rest will take care of itself."

I think it's consistently wrong how some NFL teams have devalued middle linebacker. Kuechly says it would mean a lot for the position if he won. He currently has my vote.

2) Earl Thomas, free safety, Seattle Seahawks

I love watching Thomas play. The guy has taken his game to another level and become a star. The Seahawks safety supported this notion when he joined me on SiriusXM Radio: "I agree with that statement. I think the biggest thing that really jumps out at me, just my attention to detail, attention to just getting better every day at practice. And then the biggest thing is just being an all-around pro and staying healthy and connected to the game mentally."

Thomas does everything. He has 72 tackles, four picks, two forced fumbles and seven pass breakups for Seattle's stellar defense.

3) Muhammad Wilkerson, defensive lineman, New York Jets

If you aren't aware of how dominant Wilkerson is, start paying attention. The interior D-lineman has recorded a sack in five straight games, totaling eight on the season. Not too shabby for a player constantly subjected to double-teams.

Wilkerson gets to the quarterback, stops the run and forces fumbles. He absolutely took over in the Jets' wins against the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots. He's the best player on this surprising team, leading a great defensive line that masks other flaws on the defense -- and the team as a whole.

4) Richard Sherman, cornerback, Seattle Seahawks

The best cornerback in the game, bar none. His film study and awareness led to a pick-six that helped Seattle steal a game from the Texas in Week 4.

Sherman has four interceptions on the season, starring alongside Thomas in the Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" defensive backfield.

5) Robert Mathis, outside linebacker, Indianapolis Colts

Nobody's done a better job of getting to the quarterback this season, as Mathis leads the NFL with 13.5 sacks. He smacked and spooked former teammate Peyton Manning -- logging two sacks, including a safety-causing lick -- spoiling the legend's Indy homecoming. Manning hasn't looked the same physically since.

In addition to making his mark in the big win over Denver, Mathis was similarly fantastic in the Colts' other statement wins over the 49ers (1.5 sacks) and Seahawks (two sacks and a forced fumble).

6) Robert Quinn, defensive end, St. Louis Rams

Quinn has been a force of nature in his third NFL campaign. He ranks second in the NFL with 12 sacks, including seven in the Rams' three games against NFC West opponents.

In St. Louis' astonishing 38-8 win at Indianapolis last Sunday, Quinn got to Andrew Luck twice, including a strip sack on the Colts' opening drive that produced a 45-yard fumble-return touchdown by Chris Long.

7) Terrell Suggs, outside linebacker, Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore isn't the same team, but Suggs still has the "T-Sizzle" in his game, collecting 64 tackles and nine sacks. He completely overwhelmed the Miami Dolphins in a Week 5 win, sacking Ryan Tannehill three times.

After the departures of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in the offseason, Suggs has emerged as the undisputed leader of the Ravens.

8) Tamba Hali, outside linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs

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How do you separate the Chiefs' defenders? You can make a case that Hali, Poe, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson are all worthy of first-team All-Pro recognition. I talked on SiriusXM Radio with Hali, who has nine sacks on the season. He gave a ton of credit to Poe for commanding attention and new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton for maximizing K.C.'s talent.

9) Justin Houston, outside linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs

Yes, once again, this D is absolutely loaded. No wonder Kansas City leads all NFL defenses in scoring (12.3 points per game), takeaways (23), third-down percentage (25.8) and sacks (36). Speaking of sacks, Houston paces the Chiefs with 11 -- the third-highest total in the league.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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