At its highest level, football is about survival. Even in an era of heightened concussion awareness, with new rules designed to promote safety, injuries take their toll on the sport's premier players. J.J. Watt's back injury prevented the Texans star from making a run at an unprecedented fourth Defensive Player of the Year award. The only defensive star to wrest the award away from Watt since 2012 is the Panthers' Luke Kuechly, who has missed the last three games with a concussion. The premier safety of the past half decade, Seattle's Earl Thomas, had his season cut short due to a broken tibia.
With three perennial All-Pros out of the picture, this year's race for top defensive honors is close enough that the last three weeks will be decisive. In fact, the winner might not be determined until Von Miller's Broncos host Khalil Mack's Raiders in the regular-season finale. Here's our list of the top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year:
1) Von Miller, Denver Broncos linebacker: Early in the season, Miller sealed victories over the Panthersand Colts with timely sackslate in the fourth quarter. Of late, he pushed tackle Jermey Parnell into Blake Bortles to thwart a Jaguars upset effort and nearly keyed a Broncos comeback at Tennessee, almost single-handedly shutting down one defensive series in the fourth quarter. With Watt on the shelf, Miller has been the league's premier defensive star dating back to last year's postseason, which culminated in the Super Bowl 50 MVP award.
2) Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders linebackers:Last week's performance against Kansas City was emblematic of Mack's season as the lone superstar on a defense surrendering 6.2 yards per play -- the highest figure in the league. Mack has been a nightmare for opposing offensive lines over the past eight weeks, recording 10 sacks, 13 QB hits, five forced fumbles, an interception and a touchdown. He gets better as the game progresses, leading the NFL with 11 fourth-quarter sacks since the start of the 2015 season.
3) Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle: Thanks to the prominence of analytics and the widespread study of game film over the past half-decade, interior defenders of Donald's ilk are finally receiving a modicum of the credit they're due. Still destined to be overlooked on the national stage thanks to an inept Rams offense, Donald leads all defensive stars with 27 QB hits and 16 tackles for loss. If Tom Brady is the best player in the league, Donald isn't far behind.
4) Landon Collins, New York Giants safety: A liability in coverage as a rookie, Collins has emerged as perhaps the best all-around safety in the league in his second NFL season. The tone-setter of the league's most improved defense is the only player in the NFL with at least 100 tackles, three sacks and five interceptions this season. He leads all safeties in those categories as well as in passes defensed (13).
5) Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos cornerback: Already a Pro Bowl-caliber talent in Tampa Bay and New England early in his career, Talib has become a playmaking machine as the headliner in Denver's star-studded secondary. In addition to notching five pick-sixes over the past three years, he's been the league's stickiest cover corner this season, edging out perennial All-Pros Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman.
6) Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs safety:The reigning Comeback Player of the Yearwon the Panthers game with a pick-six and was responsible for a difference-making nine points via an interception returned for a touchdown and another pick returned for two points at Atlanta in Week 13. Berry is the face of Kansas City's playmaking defense and special teams, units that have combined to provide a staggering 49.0 percent of the team's points this season. That's a higher mark than the 1985 Bears (42.1), 2000 Ravens (46.5), 2002 Buccaneers (48.6) and 2015 Broncos (45.9) -- regarded as the greatest defenses of the past four decades.
7) Vic Beasley, Atlanta Falcons linebacker: I thought Beasley had the quickest first step in the league as a rookie, though he posted just four sacks last season. After adding strength and borrowing a few maneuvers from veteran Dwight Freeney, the second-year star has terrorized opposing right tackles such as the Broncos' Ty Sambrailo and the Rams' Rob Havenstein. With three games left to play, he leads the league in forced fumbles (six) and is tied with Miller atop the sack chart (13.5) in a season reminiscent of Robert Mathis' 2013 run at Defensive Player of the Year honors.
8) Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles defensive end: The Eagles' defense has fallen apart of late, though through no fault of Graham's. A natural fit in coordinator Jim Schwartz's Wide-9 scheme, Graham is the league's most unsung defensive star, ranking among the leaders in quarterback pressures as well as run stuffs. I hope you remembered his name when you filled out your Pro Bowl ballot.
9) Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks linebacker: Two years ago, Wagner infamously snaked an MVP vote away from Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt as the glue to a historically great Seattle defense. He's been even better this year as the NFL's leading tackler, holding the unit together through injuries to superstar talents such as Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.
10) Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle: Since Week 10, Tampa Bay ranks first in points allowed per game (12.8), takeaways (14) and passer rating allowed (62.5). McCoy has been the most disruptive force on coordinator Mike Smith's playmaking defense, uprooting opposing guards and centers to crash the pocket -- as he did against rookie Germain Ifedi in the Bucs' shocking 14-5 upset over the Seahawks in Week 12. McCoy ranks with Donald as the NFL's preeminent interior pass rushers.
Also considered:Janoris Jenkins, CB, New York Giants; Olivier Vernon, DE, New York Giants; Cameron Jordan, DE, New Orleans Saints; Sean Lee, LB, Dallas Cowboys; Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle Seahawks; Cliff Avril, DE, Seattle Seahawks; Kam Chancellor, SS, Seattle Seahawks; Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City Chiefs; Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota Vikings; Everson Griffen, DE, Minnesota Vikings; Terrell Suggs, OLB, Baltimore Ravens; Eric Weddle, SS, Baltimore Ravens.