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The Brandt Report

Top five Defensive Player of the Year candidates so far

Last season, for just the fifth time since 2010, someone not named J.J. Watt or Aaron Donald was named Defensive Player of the Year, with Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore snagging the award.

Eyeing the standout defensive talents that have made waves through the first four weeks of the season, I see a number of fresh faces -- at least, in terms of this award -- positioning themselves at the forefront of the DPOY race. (And, naturally, Donald is in the mix as well.)

Below are my top five candidates for Defensive Player of the Year through Week 4. Before you dig in, please note that Nick Bosa and Danielle Hunter would almost certainly be on this list if not for Bosa's season-ending ACL tear or the neck injury that has kept Hunter from playing yet this season.

Myles Garrett
Cleveland Browns · DE

Myles Garrett is quickly justifying the $125 million extension the Browns gave to him this offseason, which made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history (until Joey Bosa passed him up a couple weeks later). His skills were on full display in Cleveland's win over Dallas last Sunday -- Garrett registered two sacks and forced a crucial Dak Prescott fumble that helped the Browns build a massive advantage. Tied for the NFL lead in sacks (five), Garrett is an especially potent threat to opposing offenses because he can rush equally well from either side of Cleveland's defensive line. 

DeForest Buckner
Indianapolis Colts · DT

With all due respect to outstanding youngster Darius Leonard, the Colts' offseason trade for DeForest Buckner has lifted their defense to a whole new level. With Buckner on board, Indianapolis has allowed just 945 yards, the lowest total allowed by any team through a season's first four weeks since the 2010 Ravens (943). In the Colts' most recent win, a road victory over Chicago, the Bears could muster just 28 rushing yards; the defense has allowed 11 points or less in three straight games heading into a Week 5 matchup with Cleveland. Buckner's stat line is relatively modest (18 tackles, 1.5 sacks, eight QB hits, with 14 QB pressures, per Next Gen Stats), but his impact has been sizable, felt mostly in terms of the attention he draws from opponents, thus making it possible for Buckner's defensive teammates to make plays.

T.J. Watt
Pittsburgh Steelers · OLB

The Watt family could become the first in NFL history to have two members win Defensive Player of the Year, with T.J. poised to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, three-time winner J.J. Watt. T.J. Watt was voted AFC Defensive Player of the Month after logging 3.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, nine tackles (including five for loss), two passes defensed and an interception to help Pittsburgh start the season 3-0. If he ultimately captures the award, it'll mark the eighth time a Steelers player has accomplished the feat, the most by any team and double the amount claimed by the next-closest teams. (Baltimore and the Giants each have claimed it four times.)

Aaron Donald
Los Angeles Rams · DE

The NFL's most dominant interior pass rusher has a legitimate chance to join Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt as the only three-time winners of this award. Aaron Donald has 3.5 sacks through four games, putting him slightly behind the pace set by category leaders Myles Garrett and Za'Darius Smith -- but Donald is among the league's most prolific compilers of QB pressures (18, per NGS, second only to Garrett's 23). No interior defensive lineman causes opponents to structure their game plan around blocking them more than Donald does.

Lavonte David
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · ILB

In today's NFL, DPOY buzz tends to go toward sack leaders and shutdown corners -- but Lavonte David, a linebacker, should be in this conversation in 2020. He was the only player in three September games to record 20-plus tackles with at least one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one tackle for loss, one pass defensed and one QB hit, which earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors. David continued in his do-it-all role last Sunday during Tampa's 38-31 win over the Chargers, logging another 11 tackles (including one for loss) and a pass defensed. David may soon have competition for the honor of best defender in the clubhouse, however, with 2019 league sack leader Shaquil Barrett heating up (three sacks in the past two games).

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