The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.
J.J. Watt has done something that Lawrence Taylor never did. He's topped Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Mike Singletary, Ray Lewis, Deion Sanders and every other great defensive player in NFL history. With his selection as Defensive Player of the Year in 2015, Watt is the first man ever to win that award three times in a four-year period.
In fact, only Watt and Taylor have won it three times, period. The Houston Texans' wrecking ball of a defensive end could become the first four-time winner ever in 2016, and who is going to bet against him?
That's a good question for our little roundtable that has spent this Fourth of July week predicting which players would take home the major individual awards in the upcoming season. We've now come to Defensive POTY; do any of us have the guts to pick against the league's reining defensive monster? Only Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly has broken up Watt's reign of dominance, taking the award in 2013; Watt finished fifth after recording "just" 10.5 sacks.
The three of us are also making our Buccaneer-only selection for each of these awards, and this one is interesting. No Tampa Bay player has ever won MVP or Offensive Player of the Year, but there have been three Buc winners in the Defensive POTY category: Lee Roy Selmon in 1979, Warren Sapp in 1999 and Derrick Brooks in 2002. Could Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David or another Buc defender make it a foursome in 2016. That would be a bold prediction, given that the first three are all now Hall of Famers, but there's nothing wrong with being bold.
Here's our schedule of award predictions for the week:
We're back around to my turn as the first pick, so without further ado…
Scott Smith's NFL Prediction: Oakland LB Khalil Mack
Scott Smith's Buccaneers Prediction: LB Lavonte David
Okay, yeah, I'm going to go ahead and take my own challenge, picking someone other than Watt. Oh, I have no doubt that he'll continue to be dominant; I'm just counting on the Michael Jordan Effect, wherein voters get tired of picking the same guy every year, even if he is truly deserving every year. Jordan won five MVP titles in an 11-year period (1987-98) but probably should have won at least seven. By the catch-all VORP statistic, Jordan was the NBA's best player every season from 1986-87 to 1992-93.
Of course, somebody is going to have to at least approach Watt's level of dominance to be the voters' darling. Last season, the runner-up for the award was Denver's Von Miller, who was narrowly edged in the voting, 49-1. Miller was really, really good in 2015, but that just shows you the extent to which Watt took it to another level.
Pictures of the Buccaneers' leading tackler from the 2015 season.
Not this year. Miller would be an excellent choice, but until he and the Broncos get his contract situation worked out, I'm a little nervous to make that pick. Instead, I'm going with the Raiders' rising star, Khalil Mack. Mack was second in the NFL with 15.0 sacks in 2015, and that was just his second NFL season. Oakland looks like one of the league's most improved teams across the board, and the defense has added all kinds of exciting new pieces, beginning with pass-rushing linebacker Bruce Irvin. The draft brought a hard-hitting safety in Karl Joseph and defensive ends Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun in the second and third rounds. In free agency, Oakland not only picked up Irvin, the former Seahawk, but also former Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith. My point is, Mack was far and away the Raiders' best defensive player in 2015 (nobody else had more than four sacks) but he's going to have a lot more help in 2016. That puts him over the top, into the superstar stratosphere that Watt has made his home.
In a similar vein, the Buccaneers have added a lot of intriguing pieces to a defense that struggled mightily in 2015. The pass-rush should be better with Robert Ayers and Noah Spence joining Gerald McCoy and Jacquies Smith, but I'm expecting that improvement to be more of a group dynamic. I think the Bucs improve on their 38-sack total from last year, but they won't necessarily have a single player hit double digits.
In fact, I expect Lavonte David to help in that category. He has proved that he can be an effective blitzer and new coordinator Mike Smith is expected to be a more aggressive play-caller. If David can simply duplicate the seven-sack, five-interception production he had in 2013, he's the MVP of a defense that has a lot of very good performers.
Joe Kania's NFL Prediction: Houston DE J.J. Watt
Joe Kania's Buccaneers Prediction: DT Gerald McCoy
Shocking that I would go with Watt as my Defensive Player of the Year, no? Until someone proves that they can block him, he'll be my pick each and every season. Whether he's single, double or triple-teamed Watt has been, and I expect to continue to be, the most disruptive defensive player in the league.
There are a handful of players that I could select for the Buccaneers with David, Scott's selection, being the first that comes to mind. But the more that I think about it, the more I lean towards McCoy. The reason being: I think that the Buccaneers need McCoy to be their best defensive player. It's no secret that the team has struggled rushing the passer, and it's also no secret that McCoy specializes in getting after the quarterback. But the Bucs finally have several talented players on the edge, including Noah Spence and Roebrt Ayers, to help alleviate the pressure that is placed on McCoy.
Fact of the matter is no offensive line can double-team McCoy, Spence and Ayers on a given play. Tampa Bay needs McCoy to dominate when single-teamed or push the pocket and suck up double-teams to free up his fellow defensive linemen. Even if McCoy isn't the player to reach double-digit sacks, he will be just as responsible for the accomplishment as anybody else.
Andrew Norton's NFL Prediction: Los Angeles DT Aaron Donald
Andrew Norton's Buccaneers Prediction: LB Lavonte David
Is J.J. Watt seemingly unstoppable? Yes. Is he the absolute favorite to win it again in 2016? Yes. The guy has 69 sacks over the last four seasons. That's ridiculous. The entire Atlanta Falcons team over that four-year span has 102.
I'll take Scott's challenge also and aim for a player that I think is the most likely to unseat the reigning DPOY and that is defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who has been a wrecking ball since entering the league in 2014. He's been a Pro Bowler in each of his two seasons, was defensive rookie of the year in 2014 and named an All-Pro in 2015. He's got the sack game down, nine as a rookie and 11 last season. His tackles number jumped as well, from 47 to 69. If those numbers can maintain all he has to do is force some well overdue turnovers for a chance at the crown. It will take a lot to see a tackle beat out an end, in fact Sapp in 1999 was the last tackle to win the award.
Thanks to that easy segue into Buccaneers football, I can explain my pick for Lavonte David, which pretty much replicates what Scott said. I believe that with the added talent on the defense from Spence, Ayers, Grimes and Hargreaves, and a year of experience for fellow LB Kwon Alexander, will allow David the freedom to go out and make plays like he did in 2013. Look for more sacks and interceptions this season. If that happens, and the Buccaneers can grab some wins to get more national attention, David could even see himself in the NFL Honors discussion by season's end.