Randy Gradishar was Ohio State’s first and only winner, all the way back in 1978. Now, there are a handful of guys who could end the drought nearly 50 years later.
Ohio State has put dozens of defensive players into the NFL in recent years, and that number has been aided in particular by the respective coaching staffs’ ability to develop linemen and defensive backs. Chase Young, the Bosa brothers, Cam Heyward, and others are making a case for OSU to be referred to as “DLU” (Defensive Line University). Former Buckeye secondary players such as Malcolm Jenkins, Marshon Lattimore, and Denzel Ward further cemented the legacy of DB’s, and the school has been known as “DBU” for a handful of years.
Linebackers patrolling the middle have not enjoyed the same level of individual success recently, but Jerome Baker and Raekwon McMillan (when healthy) have improved each year, and four LB’s from the 2020 roster are attempting to earn roster spots as rookies. The Silver Bullets as a whole have been up and down, but it is hard to argue with Ohio State’s overall track record of developing talent and getting players to the next level.
With so much defensive talent currently in the NFL (33 players expected to make an active roster or practice squad), what are the chances a former Buckeye can take home Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2021?
Well… based on history alone: not great. Only one former Ohio State player has won the award, and that was Randy Gradishar in 1978. That being said, there are a few guys with more than enough talent to end the drought this season. Below are the most likely candidates to de-throne Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams, who has earned the award in thee of the last four seasons — matching J.J. Watt’s 2015-2015 run.
Just missed the cut:
Marshon Lattimore – CB, New Orleans Saints
Probably the most glaring omission from this list, Lattimore is a great cornerback — there is no denying that. He has been named to three Pro Bowls in four seasons, and has rightfully earned a reputation as one of the NFL’s top cover guys. However, only two CB’s have won this award since 2000, including Stephon Gilmore of the New England Patriots in 2019. While there is at least one recent example, Lattimore has a few things working against him in 2021.
The Saints defense had the luxury of playing with Drew Brees for what seemed like 100 years. While obviously not on the defense himself, the former Purdue QB could control the clock when he wanted to, or put the opposing team in a position to take risks on offense, in order to keep up with the Saints. The team also had a healthy Michael Thomas for a handful of those Brees seasons.
They are now (presumably) going to be led by Jameis Winston in 2021 — without Thomas to start — and the new QB has been prone to turnovers for his entire career. If the defense is forced to spend significantly more time on the field this season, it may lead to fatigue for the unit as a whole. Lattimore was also arrested in Cleveland during the offseason, and could face discipline from the NFL — even if legal charges are dropped. He is a great player, but the odds of him winning DPOY are not great.
Cam Heyward – DL, Pittsburgh Steelers
Big Cam has been at it for a decade in the NFL, and his level of play has not slipped at all. In fact, he might be getting better at 32 years old! Heyward has earned all four of his Pro Bowl nods in the last four seasons, and he was named First-Team All-Pro in 2017 and 2019. He is considered one of the best interior lineman in the league, and can bounce outside to rush the passer as well.
Heyward is always healthy, and always produces. What he does not always do (by design) is put up gaudy stats. As a 3-4 end, he did have 12 sacks in 2017, but that is his career high. He now floats between end and tackle, so he will not see as many push-rushing opportunities as he once did. Unless he is able to set a new personal best for sacks, I do not see him taking home the hardware.
Jerome Baker – LB, Miami Dolphins
Long shot alert! Jerome Baker was taken in the third round (73rd overall) of the 2018 NFL Draft, and has been underrated ever since. He has played in all 48 regular season games since being drafted, starting 37 of them. In those 37 starts, he has accumulated 317 total tackles and 20 QB hits. Baker has been a steady presence on an otherwise unsteady team, although the Dolphins seem to be trending upward.
Baker is more than just a mop-it-up tackler. He also has 11.5 career sacks, seven of which came last year. He was one of only two linebackers with more than 100 tackles and seven sacks in 2020, the other being Tampa Bay’s Devin White. Despite making plays over the field, he has never finished among the top-25 graded players at his position.
However, the Dolphins have been pleased with their best overall linebacker, and rewarded him with a new three-year, $37.5 million dollar contract during the offseason. Miami clearly sees value in Baker, and if he can approach double digit sacks, I believe he could be a stealth candidate for DPOY… very stealth.
Nick Bosa – DE, San Francisco 49ers
Bosa has all the makings of a future DPOY, but there have to be legitimate concerns about his durability. He is coming off a torn ACL in 2020, and played only three games during his last season at Ohio State. There is no questioning his toughness, but he needs to show that he can stay on the field consistently. When he is on the field, there are absolutely no concerns about his production.
Bosa was impossible to stop as a Buckeye, and NFL linemen have not exactly figured him out either. He racked up nine sacks in 14 games as a rookie in 2019, and added four more in three playoff games. He won Defensive Rookie of the Year, and was beginning to have his name mentioned as a top-5 or top-10 pass rusher in the league. As long as he is able to remain healthy, Bosa could still be on a top-5 trajectory.
Nick’s older brother Joey (stay tuned) has said that he thinks Nick looks amazing coming back from his injury, and predicted he would be a menace on the field in 2021. Nick is supposed to ramp up his participation in practice this week, and all signs point to him being ready for the 49ers’ season opener. The team has a solid front seven, with the likes of Arik Armstead, Fred Warner, and 2020 first rounder Javon Kinlaw, so Bosa should see plenty of one-on-one blocking once he does return. If he gets re-acclimated quickly, I could see easily see a 10+ sack season and consideration for DPOY.
In the race:
Joey Bosa – DE, Los Angeles Chargers
Like younger brother Nick, Joey Bosa has all the makings of a future DPOY. What differentiates the two is that Joey has been playing at a high level in the NFL for five seasons, and he has all the stats and accolades to warrant his name being in the race for DPOY every year. The Chargers have been up and down during his career, and playing on the west coast does him no favors when it comes to national attention, but Joey Bosa might just be the best former Buckeye in the NFL right now — and for the last decade-plus.
Joey won NFL DROY in 2016, despite missing the first four weeks of the season. He was then named to the Pro Bowl in each of his healthy seasons since, and has been ranked no lower than #56 on the NFL Top 100 since 2018. As if that weren’t impressive enough, Joey is likely just entering his prime. 2019 and 2020 were his highest graded seasons according to PFF, and he only turned 26 about a month ago.
The elder Bosa is a top-10 DE in the NFL, and that is indisputable. Pro Bowls? Check. PFF grade? Check. Voted Top-100 by peers and media? Check again. What makes him so special is that Joey is equally skilled as a pass rusher and a run stopper. His versatility is respected and admired around the league, and he should continue to be a yearly candidate for DPOY. He would likely have my vote for former Buckeye most likely to win the award, if it weren’t for this one guy…
Chase Young – DE, Washington Football Team
As good as all the guys previously mentioned are, I don’t believe any of them have the potential that Chase Young does. The Bosa Brothers are close, but Young has taken the NFL by storm and only looks to be getting better. He is a better pass rusher than either of the Bosas, and nearly as good as Joey in run support. If his rookie season is only a preview of what’s to come, Young could be a fixture on the nomination list – and one of the favorites for the foreseeable future.
As Buckeye fans, we saw the damage that Young was able to do in Columbus, and should not be surprised that he has continued to terrorize defenses at the next level. He is a rare physical specimen, and has all the tricks in the book as an edge rusher. It is nearly a mild disappointment that Young only finished with 7.5 sacks in 2020, as it seemed like he was taking up residence in the opponents’ backfield. After one season, he was already named to the NFL Top 100 list, coming in at #61 (five spots behind Joey Bosa)
I give Young the edge as a favorite among former Buckeyes because of the team and unit(s) surrounding him. The Washington Football Team had a top-5 defense last season, and it has remained primarily intact. The secondary should be improved with the addition of CB William Jackson III, and the line playing next to Young is all back for another go-round. Teams will not be able to double-team the former Buckeye as much as they’d like to, so The Predator could truly feast on opposing quarterbacks this year.
I expect a monster year and consideration for DPOY when all is said and done.