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How Aaron Donald could win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award

2023 could be AD’s greatest career challenge yet

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NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

No player has never won four Defensive Player of the Year awards in NFL history. Lawrence Taylor won his third in 1986. JJ Watt won his third Defensive Player of the Year award in 2015. In 2020, Aaron Donald won his third Defensive Player of the Year award with the Los Angeles Rams.

The same can be said about the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year where Earl Campbell and Marshall Faulk are the only players to win the award three times. Only MVP has a player won the award more than three times with Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning winning four and five times respectively.

Call it voter fatigue or players simply naturally declining out of their prime years, no player has won the Defensive Player of the Year award more than three times. However, if Donald and the Rams defense exceed expectations in 2023, arguably the greatest defensive player of all-time should be in consideration to break that barrier.

Outside of Donald, the Rams arguably have one of the least talented defenses in recent memory. The average NFL fan likely wouldn’t be able to name a player on the Rams defense outside of Donald. Second-year player Cobie Durant leads the secondary and Ernest Jones is the team’s best linebacker. You can be high on those players while also recognizing that they aren’t household names nor are they top-15 players at their position.

The Rams are currently projected to start five Day 3 picks in the secondary that includes Durant, Russ Yeast, Quentin Lake, Robert Rochell, and Derion Kendrick. That remains the same on the edge where the most productive pass rusher is Michael Hoecht who was an undrafted free agent. Third-round pick Byron Young and a rotation of Day 3 picks fill out that position group.

To say the least, Aaron Donald and a group of castaways are not projected to be inside the top defenses in the NFL, let alone the top-15 or even top-20. For reference, Bleacher Report’s Krisopher Knox ranked the Rams defense 31 in his post draft rankings. Knox said,

“Donald is 31 and coming off a campaign cut short by an ankle injury; there’s no guarantee that he’ll play at an elite level this season. Simply put, the Rams defense is poised to take a big step back this season, and it wasn’t particularly good a year ago.”

Arif Hasan of Pro Football Network ranked the Rams defense 32nd.

“The Los Angeles Rams are projected to have the worst defense in the NFL. It’s a shame, given that the Rams have the single-best defensive player on their team, but no one player can swing outcomes, especially when surrounded by talent that might be on par with their extraordinarily large undrafted free agent class starting.”

CBS Sports put the Rams among the worst defenses in the NFL as well. Simply put, Raheem Morris’ defense isn’t being ranked outside the bottom-five by the NFL media.

To be clear, this isn't necessarily unfair analysis. It wouldn’t shock many if the Rams defense did indeed end up as one of the worst units in the NFL when 2023 is all said and done for all of the reasons mentioned above.

However, that shows the kind of uphill battle that Donald is facing and just how great he would need to be from an individual standpoint to lift the defense into even a mid-tier group.

I wrote about this very subject earlier this offseason. Is it even possible for a defense with Aaron Donald to be the worst in the NFL? A few things to note here:

  • A defense with Aaron Donald has never ranked lower than 18th in DVOA and that was last season when he spent the back-half of the year hurt.
  • Last season, the Rams ranked 21st in defense EPA which was the lowest ranking in Donald’s career. However, from Week 1 to Week 11, the Rams defense ranked 13th.
  • The Rams have six top-10 seasons in both defense EPA and DVOA with Donald.
  • Out of Donald’s nine seasons, LA’s defense has ranked in the top-10 in advanced analytics six times.

After last season’s injury, it’s fair to have some concerns about Donald and wonder if he’s still capable of ‘super-human’ ability. Pro Football Focus recently ranked Donald as their top interior defensive lineman in the NFL heading into the 2023 season. Here’s what Gordon McGuinness had to say,

“Despite posting his lowest PFF grade since his rookie year, Donald remains a dominant force on the defensive interior. In his nine-year career, he has produced 90.0-plus PFF grades in every season. Last year, he recorded 40 pressures on 396 pass-rushing snaps, so the production was still there even in an injury-marred season.”

Among defensive linemen and edge rushers, Donald still had the third-highest grade on defense according to Pro Football Focus. He ranked 13th in pressures and eighth in quarterback hurries from Week 1 to Week 11. It may not have been super-human, but it was still very good.

In 2017, Donald won his first of three Defensive Player of the Year award with 11 sacks. The next best player on that defense was Trumaine Johnson who was out of the NFL three years later after leaving in free agency. Donald had more help on the defensive line with Michael Brockers and also on the edge with Robert Quinn. Still, it wasn’t an elite group of stars.

At age 31, does Donald still have the ability to reach the highest of elite levels? He’ll need to if he’s going to carry this defense. Only four players in NFL history have won the Defensive Player of the Year Award after the age of 30 and the last time was in 2009. Those players are Reggie White (37), Charles Woodson (33), Bruce Smith (33), and Jason Taylor (32). White had 16 sacks in 1998 while Smith and Taylor had 13.5 in 1996 and 2006.

If the current version of the Los Angeles defense finishes in the 10-15 range and they make the postseason, Donald should be in serious conversations to win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award. It would be an incredible feat to lift this group of players to that level.

Now, giving Donald his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award would be the NFL media conceding that he is the greatest defensive player of all-time. After all, no player has ever won the award four times. He needs to be special his for this to happen and leave no doubt.

While Donald is arguably the greatest, breaking that barrier would end any argument. It’s hard to see the media doing that with how Lawrence Taylor is perceived in NFL history. Whether that’s fair to Donald or not, that’s just the reality of the situation.

It’s because of this that Donald only received three votes in 2021. While TJ Watt was deserving and had a historic season, Donald’s three votes tied with Micah Parsons, showing voter fatigue for the Rams star defensive lineman.

Right now, Donald has the ninth-best odds to win the award at +2500. For a three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner, he is flying under the radar in the betting markets. Coming into the season healthy and refreshed, we could see Donald get back to his elite level. If he does and the Rams defense exceeds expectations, he should win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award.