When Aaron Donald won his first Defensive Player of the Year award in 2017, he finished with 11 sacks and 27 quarterback hits in only 14 games. That included a key three-sack performance in a 42-7 blowout win over the Seahawks in Week 15. There were 10 players who had more sacks than Donald that year, including Chandler Jones with 17 sack and 33 QB hits, but was anybody disrupting offenses like the Rams’ future Hall of Fame interior defensive lineman?
Eighteen players had double-digit sacks that season, but Donald was the only one who could be considered a tackle.
Donald left no doubts possible in 2018, winning a second straight Defensive Player of the Year award while leading the NFL with 20.5 sacks and 41 QB hits. No longer was Donald just the best defensive tackle, he had made sure that everyone knew the heights he was capable of and perched himself atop the entire lot of defensive players. By a wide margin too: J.J. Watt was second with 16.5 sacks and no other player had more than 34 QB hits.
.@RamsNFL @AaronDonald97 dominated in the trenches for most of his 77 snaps last night. Here are a few of his highlights and the amount of attention he received. Some legal; Some not so legal. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/MEVkKScoUi— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) December 14, 2021
Defensive tackles DeForest Buckner, Fletcher Cox, Jarran Reed, and Geno Atkins all finished between 10-12 sacks that season. How to play defense was changing in large part because of Aaron Donald.
Donald won his third Defensive Player of the Year award in 2020, ranking second in sacks (13.5) despite having less of an advantage than outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who had 15 sacks in 15 games. This was perhaps the most controversial of Donald’s three DPOY awards, but realistically there is nothing to debate given the fact that no rational football fan would argue against this statement: Aaron Donald is a top-three defensive player, if not the best defensive player, at any given time.
Some thought that Donald turning 30 this year might slow him down, with even Donald chiming in that he was “feeling” 30, but Monday night’s performance against Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals brought back the undeniable reality that the Rams’ veteran defensive tackle remains a top-three player on that side of the ball.
Quarterback pressures on Monday night:— Kyle Odegard (@Kyle_Odegard) December 14, 2021
Aaron Donald: 14
Entire Cardinals team: 10
Could Aaron Donald win a record fourth Defensive Player of the Year award now?
Heading into Week 14, Donald actually ranked fourth in sacks among defensive tackle, falling just behind Jeffery Simmons, Jonathan Allen, and Javon Hargrave. He was tied with Chris Jones, while barely edging out Cameron Heyward, Quinnen Williams, and former teammates Ndamukong Suh and John Franklin-Myers, who had six each.
Though a couple of these players are too old to be products of the NFL that Aaron Donald helped create, it is clear to see how Donald’s unique traits and physical gifts at the defensive tackle position are being recognized and utilized by other players and teams in the NFL. It could be that at least a half-dozen defensive tackles post double-digit sacks this season, but at least one thing remains familiar:
Aaron Donald is the best among them.
With his three-sack performance on Monday Night Football, Donald now has 10 sacks (most by a DT) and 20 QB hits (second-most, behind Jonathan Allen) through 13 games. His total number of pressures should officially be updated soon this week, but Pro-Football-Reference currently has him as the leader at defensive tackle with 30.
There is much debate about who should win DPOY this year—Watt leads the NFL with 16 sacks despite only playing in 11 games, followed by Myles Garrett at 15, and Nick Bosa, Robert Quinn at 14, then there’s also cornerback Trevon Diggs with nine interceptions and teammate Micah Parsons drawing rave reviews for his play already—and that might only open the door more for an established winner like Donald if he turns it up at the right time.
Obviously, Aaron Donald is great week in and week out, but surges like Monday night will always help get voter attention and remind them of a player who has often been called—by the media—the best player in the game. In addition to his three-sack game in 2017, Donald also had a four-sack game during his 2018 award-winning season and a four-sack game during his winning campaign in 2020.
Donald next faces Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks offense. He has 14 sacks and 40 QB hits in 15 career games against Seattle, his most against any one player or team.