As 23-year-olds, J.J. Watt, Von Miller and Aldon Smith are displaying defensive dominance at an unprecedented age, developing from impressive rookies into front-runners to be named the Pro Football Weekly/Professional Football Writers of America Defensive Player of the Year in their second NFL season.
Most who have claimed that honor blossomed a little bit further down the road: Since it began in 1970, the award has gone to players aged 27 or 28 on 17 occasions, and to players age 30 or older nine times.
No player has ever won DPOY honors before age 24 — though Lawrence Taylor was the choice of The Associated Press at age 21 and again at 22 — and yet three 23-year-olds are staking impressive claims for that title this season.
Smith is the trio’s youngest, born in September of 1989. He and Watt lead the NFL in sacks with 19½. Watt, the first player ever with at least 15 sacks and 15 batted balls in a season, is the elder statesman, born in March of ’89, just four days before Miller, who is third in the league in sacks and second in tackles for loss and forced fumbles.
Barring a late-season surge by Bengals DT Geno Atkins, either Watt, Miller or Smith will become the youngest-ever member of the league’s most exclusive group of defensive studs. Here’s a look at every player to be named PFW/PFWA’s Defensive Player of the Year before turning the age of 26. (Note: All ages relative to Dec. 31 of the year receiving the award.):
1. 1992 — Seahawks DT Cortez Kennedy / 24 years, four months, eight days — The third overall pick in 1990, Kennedy blossomed in ’92, with by far his best season. He totaled 92 tackles, 14 sacks and four forced fumbles, stellar numbers for a tackle, despite his Seahawks winning just two games by seven combined points. He never again cracked 10 sacks in a season, but was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012.
2. 1976 — Steelers LB Jack Lambert / 24 years, five months, 23 days — The Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1974, Lambert won DPOY honors leading perhaps the best defense in NFL history. The ’76 Steelers pitched five shutouts and, in their final nine regular-season games, all wins, they shockingly had as many total points allowed as takeaways (28!). Lambert’s eight defensive fumble recoveries that season were one short of the single-season record.
3. 2010 — Packers LB Clay Matthews / 24 years, seven months, 17 days — Matthews racked up 13½ sacks in 15 games and had a pick-six in his second season as the Packers won their fourth Lombardi Trophy. Green Bay was second in points allowed (15.0 ppg), and all six of its losses came by a margin of four points or fewer.
4. 1979 — Bucs DE Lee Roy Selmon / 25 years, two months, 11 days — Selmon was the Bucs’ first-ever draft pick, going first overall in 1976. His 11 sacks in ’79 helped Tampa Bay to the NFC championship game in the team’s fourth season, but they lost to the Rams, 9-0. Selmon became the Bucs’ first Pro Football Hall of Famer in 1995.
5. 1982 — Bears DE-DT Dan Hampton / 25 years, three months, 11 days — Hampton won the award three years after being chosen fourth overall in 1979. Primarily playing tackle, his nine sacks during the strike-shortened nine-game season ranked third in the NFL, though the Bears went 3-6. Hampton hit double-digit sacks in ’84 and ’86 and retired in 1990. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002.
6. 2000 — Ravens LB Ray Lewis / 25 years, seven months, 16 days — Lewis led the Ravens to victory in Super Bowl XXXV by anchoring a defense that allowed the fewest points (165) and rushing yards (970) ever in a 16-game season. He had 107 tackles to go with three sacks, two picks and three fumble recoveries in the regular season, and was named Super Bowl MVP. Lewis won DPOY honors again in 2003.
7. 1980 — Raiders CB Lester Hayes / 25 years, 11 months, nine days — Hayes’ 13 interceptions tied the second-highest single-season total ever, and he nabbed five more in the playoffs as the Raiders went on to win Super Bowl XV. Hayes managed 273 return yards in 1980, including a 48-yard TD, though he never had more than four picks in a season again.
8. 1984 — Seahawks SS Kenny Easley / 25 years 11 months, 16 days — The fourth overall pick in 1981, Easley was the cornerstone of a Seahawks defense that forced an amazing 63 turnovers in ’84, the most in a season since the 1970 merger and third-most ever. He accounted for 11 takeaways (10 INTs, one FR) and scored two defensive TDs that year, but was forced to retire after three more seasons because of a rare kidney disease.