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Was Aaron Donald the NFL’s best player of the 2010s?

He may not have any competition outside of the quarterbacks

Los Angeles Rams v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

In Sunday morning’s Random Ramsdom, Michael Peterson highlighted the fact that ESPN named Aaron Donald as the LA Rams “Player of the Decade” which is a surprise to nobody. Even if Todd Gurley had another monster season in 2019 and didn’t have such a poor time navigating the 2016 offense, I can’t imagine that any of his teammates could have surpassed the immense about of production that Donald has accumulated over only six seasons.

In fact, is there even a player in the NFL who could compete with Donald as the league’s player of the 2010s?

Though it is far from a solution to solving the problem of “How do we assign a numerical value to a player?” like say Wins Above Replacement in baseball, Pro-Football-Reference’s Adjusted Value should at least give us a table of players to consider as the NFL’s best of the decade. Sorting that way from 2010-2019, here are a few facts:

  • Tom Brady is first with 160 AV, averaging 16 per season.
  • Philip Rivers is the only player in the top 100 to play in all 160 games of the decade.
  • The top 7 players are quarterbacks because quarterbacks get the most bang for their buck when it comes to AV.
  • The top non-QB of the decade is Von Miller, who ranks eighth with 118 AV. And when I say “top non-QB” I simply mean the player who accumulated the most total AV during those years.
  • Calais Campbell is ninth, Julio Jones is 12th, Bobby Wagner is 13th, J.J. Watt is 14th, and Andrew Whitworth is 15th. I hadn’t mentioned Whitworth as competition for Donald for LA’s player of the decade for obvious reasons: he didn’t join them until 2017.
  • All but one of the top 58 players played in at least 110 games over the decade. The only exception is the player in 31st place: Aaron Donald.

Though all 30 players ranked ahead of him on this list have played in at least eight seasons here, Donald has only played in six. The next player to have only appeared in six seasons during this decade was Andrew Luck, who ranks 59th in AV, tied with Jordy Nelson. The next non-QB on the list who played in six seasons over the decade is Khalil Mack.

Think about that.

Donald and Mack were both drafted in 2014, both have proven to be generational defensive talents, and both have played in 94 career games. But Donald has accumulated 93 AV and Mack has accumulated 77. That is a dramatic difference, especially when comparing just how good the NFL’s best defensive player is next to arguably the second-best defensive player.

Donald is also one of only five players in the decade to make five first team All-Pro rosters and each of the other four had at least two additional opportunities to do so. The other four are J.J. Watt, Bobby Wagner, Luke Kuechly, and Joe Thomas. That is four first ballot Hall of Famers and I would have to say that with little doubt Donald is better than all of them.

Some other non-QBs to compete against him include Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Von Miller, Richard Sherman, and surely several more on your list to consider. Brown’s reputation has taken a costly hit but from 2011-2018 he was phenomenally dominant. I think Sherman’s run from 2011-2014 especially makes him the NFL’s top corner of the decade, as he was thrown at few times and still managed to accumulate a lot of interceptions. Miller helped the Denver Broncos win a Super Bowl at a time when they had no quarterbacks capable of throwing the ball well. Gronkowski is up there with Brown as the most dominant skill player, won three Super Bowls, but got hurt quite often.

Gronkowski and Sherman are the two I think the longest about here and still neither have shown the consistency that Donald has shown. Not only as the top player at his position, not only as the top pass rusher, but as the league’s best defensive player which is perhaps what Donald has been for at least the last five years.

In my opinion, these are the decade’s top three players, in some order:

Aaron Donald

Tom Brady

Drew Brees

Brees and Sean Payton changed the league and in the 2010s he led the league in completions four times, completion percentage five times, yards five times, touchdowns two times, and passer rating once. What is truly remarkable is that Brees hasn’t been a first team All-Pro since 2006, has never won an MVP, and has only been to one Super Bowl in 18 seasons as a starter.

None in the last decade.

Brady got the job done a little differently. He’s never led the league in completions, he led the NFL in completion percentage once (2007), he led in passing yards in 2017, in touchdowns in 2010 and 2015, and in passer rating in 2010.

For the decade, Brady had 43,727 yards, 316 touchdowns, 80 interceptions, a 64.2% completion percentage, and a 99.6 passer rating. He won three Super Bowls and went to two others. Would Brees have won multiple Super Bowls in the AFC? I don’t doubt it.

For the decade, Brees had 46,770 yards, 345 touchdowns, 127 interceptions, a 69.5% completion percentage, and a 102.9 passer rating. It is not quite the statistical advantage over Brady that you may have expected, as I know I’m a bit surprised he’s not further ahead. Could Brady dominate with a Payton offense?

I would say it comes down to Donald and Brady. These are the offensive and defensive players of the decade. The fact that Donald is being mentioned here despite playing in only 60% of the 2010s is amazing and yet it also counts against him if we’re looking over the whole 10 years. Brady played in more seasons and did a lot of good things in those seasons.

I’m not sure adding a poll here would do us any favors. But I’ll leave you with my opinion and let the discussion stay open after that.

Aaron Donald has proven to be the best individual player in the league at any position and that counts for some sort of Player of the Decade achievement. However in this case because Tom Brady is also exceptionally talented and arguably the best player of all-time, did win three Super Bowls, and had success with multiple different supporting casts, he will perhaps always be remembered as not only the player of the 2010s, but potentially the best player of the 2000s.

Donald will get his shot though. He’s young enough to be the player of the 2020s. Brady can’t say that.