Defense is the most-football part of football. Catching, throwing or running the ball is child's play; signing up to expose your body to a car crash on a near every-down basis requires a different level of savagery.
Nobody in recent years has epitomized what it means to be an exceptional defensive player quite like Rams DT Aaron Donald. Selected with the 13th overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, the young defensive lineman was high on everyone's draft boards after racking up 66 tackles for a loss, 29.5 sacks and numerous awards in four seasons at the University of Pittsburgh. Still, his relatively modest size (6-foot-1 and 285-pounds) led to the slight fall on draft day.
All Donald has done since is function as arguably the most-dominant player in the league. The Rams seem to agree; only Matt Ryan ($150 million), Khalil Mack ($141 million), Russell Wilson ($140 million) and Jimmy Garoppolo ($137.5 million, lol) have a more-valuable contract than Donald ($135 million) at the time of this writing.
Broncos DE Von Miller: "He's been a beast since he stepped into the NFL. If you look at his game it's not only just pass rush, he's a beast in the run game chasing the ball down."
Donald lines up all over the formation. Still, he's primarily utilized as more of a defensive tackle than an edge. Usually defensive ends and outside linebackers lead the league in most counting stats ... but this hasn't held true for one of the best interior defenders that the game has ever seen.
Overall, Donald finds himself atop virtually every category that measures production on the defensive line since entering the league in 2014:
- Pressures:481 (No. 1)
- Tackles for a loss: 117 (No. 1)
- QB Hits: 173 (No. 1)
- Pressures:481 (No. 1)
- Sacks: 72 (No. 2 behind only Chandler Jones)
Jones might have more sacks, but Calais Campbell (51.5) is the only other defensive tackle within shouting distance of Donald.
Even more impressive about the Rams' stud DT has been his performance against the run. PFF has graded Donald among the league's best interior defenders against the run in all six of his career seasons:
- 2014: PFF's No. 1 highest-graded interior defender in run defense
- 2015: No. 2
- 2016: No. 4
- 2017: No. 13
- 2018: No. 3
- 2019: No. 1
Sometimes great coaches can take away the opposition's best player by forcing them to play outside of their comfort zone. The problem with attempting to scheme around Donald is that he seems to carry out each and every one of his assignments at an exceptionally high level.
“Everything,” Bill Belichick said when asked what stands out about Donald and his play style. “He’s pretty much unblockable.”
Attempting to block Donald with just one man is coaching malpractice.
Unsurprisingly, Donald's current sack pace finds himself in special company. There have only been nine defenders that have recorded at least 70 sacks during the first six seasons of their career:
- Reggie White (95 sacks)
- DeMarcus Ware (80)
- Derrick Thomas (77)
- Bruce Smith (76.5)
- J.J. Watt (76)
- Von Miller (73.5)
- Jared Allen (72)
- Richard Dent (72)
- Donald (72)
In 2018 the Rams' ridiculously-talented monster registered just the 12th 20-sack season since the statistic began being recorded in 1982.
The reality that most of Donald's disruption has come straight through the heart of the offensive line makes him even more of a nuisance for coaches to game plan against. QBs can always step up into the pocket to avoid an oncoming edge rusher; there isn't anywhere to go when Donald has his way with a guard and/or center.
He's never missed a game due to injury, as the only two inactive occasions were due to a contract holdout and meaningless game in Week 1 and Week 17 of 2017, respectively.
Somehow, Donald continues to play a near every-down role. He posted snap rates of 90% and 84% in 2018 and 2019, rarely leaving the field despite consistently being right in the middle of the action.
There are plenty of great defensive linemen in today's NFL, but there just isn't a debate about who is the best.
Hall of Fame DL John Randle: "If he keeps this up, he (Donald) can change the game almost like a Lawrence Taylor.”
Pro Bowls are a stupid statistic. Trevor Siemian once *declined* an invite.
All-Pro certificates are a much better indicator of individual performance during any given season. Overall, only seven players have earned at least five All-Pro nominations since 2014:
- Bobby Wagner (6)
- Luke Kuechly (6)
- Cordarrelle Patterson (5)
- Julio Jones (5)
- Marshal Yanda (5)
- Von Miller (5)
- Donald (5)
Of course, Donald's dominance has helped him earn defense's highest honor on multiple occasions as well. Donald was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year in both 2017 and 2018. The only other multi-year winners in NFL history are J.J. Watt (x3), Lawrence Taylor (x3), Bruce Smith (x2), Joe Greene (x2), Mike Singletary (x2), Ray Lewis (x2) and Reggie White (x2).
Say what you will about the NFL's top-100 players list: Donald finished No. 1 in 2019.
Perhaps his unique training methods are the secret weapon.
Donald will turn 29 in May. The Rams need him to be better than ever to make up for some of their losses across the front-seven. It remains to be seen if he can continue to function as the league's premiere defender into his 30s, but his place in history is already solidified.
Don't take the prime years of Donald's career for granted. We're truly witnessing greatness.