By Nick Shook
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Aaron Donald didn’t lead the NFL in sacks, tackles, or forced fumbles (almost). It doesn’t matter.
Donald is the best defensive player in the NFL.
The Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle was officially crowned as such on Saturday when he was named 2017 NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press at the seventh-annual NFL Honors in Minneapolis. Donald earned 23 of 50 votes, beating out Jacksonville Jaguars DT Calais Campbell (17) and Arizona Cardinals LB Chandler Jones (5).
Donald plays a position that is one of the most difficult to rack up gaudy numbers, yet he impacts a game more than any other player. He routinely rushes right past opposing linemen, using incredible burst. Double teams struggle to contain him. He plays disciplined, powerful defense, engaging a defender and maintaining a neutral position with the ability to shoot either the A or B gaps, depending on where the ballcarrier heads in a technique called “two-gapping.”
For those seeking numbers: 32 tackles, 11 sacks, five forced fumbles and one pass defensed (in 14 games). Per Next Gen Stats, he recorded 65 pressures. Pro Football Focus has Donald at 91 total pressures for the season (66 hurries) and rated him as the NFL’s most-productive pass rusher. PFF also gave Donald a 99.7 grade — the best grade for any player in the entire league.
“When I think about Aaron Donald, he’s probably in my opinion, the best defensive player I’ve ever played against in terms of actually playing in a game against,” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson told reporters in December. “That’s a pretty big statement; I’ve played against some really good guys. I think back to my rookie year and my second year when I played against guys like [Navarro] Bowman and [Patrick] Willis and all of those guys are in my head, the top guys I’ve ever played.
“I think about a guy like Aaron Donald, he’s definitely there too as well, so I have tremendous respect for how he plays the game. He’s really, really tough, he’s really quick, and he’s pretty special. You look forward to those matchups just because those are things that you’ll remember and those are the things that you’ll tell your kids one day ‘I played against this guy,’ and those are fun things. He’s definitely one of those guys that will probably be a Hall of Famer no doubt.”
For those seeking the tape, one can cue up his three-sack performance in a dominant win over division-rival Seattle. They can marvel at the quickness with which Donald moves from momentary hesitation to rushing past a Texans lineman on a sack of Tom Savage. But if they truly want to understand Donald’s impact, a four-and-a-half-minute highlight of Donald’s play in a playoff loss to Atlanta will do the trick:
Donald only recorded a half-sack in that game, and yet, the reel is almost five minutes long. He was constantly harassing Matt Ryan, frequently on the precipice of a quarterback takedown and almost always in the backfield. That game explained Donald in 60 minutes of action.
He even knocked the socks off veteran defensive genius Wade Phillips, who revamped Los Angeles’ defense in his first season, switching from a 4-3 to 3-4 and in turn, teaching his personnel to play in a different style. Despite holding out until Sept. 9, Donald was a quick study.
“Aaron Donald, because he’s better than everybody, and I didn’t know he was better than everybody,” Phillips said in December when asked what surprised him in his first season with the Rams. “I thought he was good, but I didn’t know he was better than everybody. But he is.”
He’ll have to continue to battle for a major payday for one more offseason before he’s finally freed from his rookie deal, but he’s done enough to warrant it now. He is the best defender in the NFL.