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2016 Mountain West Connection pro athlete of the year: The finalists

Last year’s reader choice is once again in the mix, though he may have a tough time defending the crown.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Former San Diego State athlete and current San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard is one of the best basketball players in the world. When we debuted the Mountain West Connection pro athlete of the year vote last year, Leonard was also the runaway winner.

He’s done nothing but increase his stock since then, but can he take home our small honor for a second straight year?

If you’re unfamiliar with the process, it’s pretty simple: We give you twelve pro athletes, one from each of the Mountain West’s twelve programs, and you decide the best of the best. Vote using our Google Form at the bottom of the article, and be sure to check in after New Year’s Day for the results!

And don’t forget, if you haven’t voted in our poll for Mountain West Connection’s college athlete of the year, check that out here.

Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins - It puzzled most all Boise State fans when Ajayi dropped to the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but he’s assuming the starting running back role in South Florida and silenced the doubters. To date, he’s run for 1,007 yards and seven touchdowns, including back-to-back 200-yard performances.

Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders - Remember when the former Fresno State quarterback slipped to the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft? Entering his third year in Oakland, Carr has taken a huge leap forward and thrown for (to date) 3,705 yards, 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. With the Silver and Black headed back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002, no one is a bigger reason why than Carr.

Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers - The 49ers may have struggled to find wins in 2016, but the former Nevada quarterback has begun to look like his old self in some respects. In 10 games this year, Kaepernick has thrown for 1,760 yards and run for 457 more, with a 13-to-3 TD:INT ratio.

Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs - Our inaugural winner here last year, Leonard only brought home his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award and established career highs in (among other things) points per game, assists, free throw percentage. No big deal for the former San Diego State athlete.

Ryan Moore, PGA golfer - It was a pretty good year for the former UNLV golfer all around, highlighted by a victory over Lee Westwood to help the U.S. team reclaim the Ryder Cup, for the first time since 2008. Moore also scored nine top-ten finishes in 23 events, earned over $3.7 million in prize money, and finished 23rd in the FedEx Cup standings.

Larry Nance Jr., Los Angeles Lakers - One of last year’s Mountain West Connection college athlete of the year is this year’s Wyoming representative among the pros. Though his production has been relatively quiet so far — 7 points per game, 5.5 rebounds per game — he’s already begun to make a name for himself in LA with thunderous dunks.

Glover Quin, Detroit Lions - The resurgent Lions are back in the playoff race, and the former New Mexico free safety has continued to contribute with steady production. He’s made 58 combined tackles, grabbed two interceptions and forced a fumble for Detroit in 2016.

Weston Richburg, New York Giants - The Giants are on their way to a playoff berth, and the former Colorado State offensive lineman has quietly been an integral part of the offense’s success. Per Football Outsiders, Richburg and company rank fourth in adjusted sack rate.

Carlos Torres, Milwaukee Brewers - The joureyman reliever, formerly of San Jose State, had the best year of his career in 2016. He tallied 78 strikeouts in 82.1 innings, with a 1.15 WHIP and a 156 ERA+ (56% above league average), efforts that more than doubled his career Wins Above Replacement (2.2).

Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks - Another year, another Pro Bowl invitation for the former Utah State linebacker. Wagner has tallied 145 combined tackles and pitched in with 2.5 sacks and an interception, as well, further cementing his legacy as one of the NFL’s best defenders.

Steven Wright, Boston Red Sox - Was there a bigger surprise in Major League Baseball than former Hawaii pitcher Wright? The 32-year-old knuckleballer bolstered a deep Boston rotation by going 13-6 with a 137 ERA+ and a 1.24 WHIP for the American League East champions.