Joining Elite Company
39 players have won the AP Defensive Player of the Year award since its inception in 1971. Eight players have won the award more than once. Only three players have ever won the award a third time. Aaron Donald is one.
In 2020 Donald joined Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt as the only players to ever win the prestigious award three times. The men who won it twice include; “Mean” Joe Greene, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Ray Lewis. That is elite company in and of itself. Donald’s quest for a fourth Defensive Player of the Year award begins in 2021. He is already often thrown into the debate as being the greatest defensive player of all time; the most popular names besides Donald are Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White.
Taylor and White have two and one Super Bowl win respectively. A Super Bowl win is something that critics often point to in order to dissuade Donald’s inclusion into the greatest of all-time conversation. However, Donald has time to accomplish that and more as he’s only just turned 30 years of age. If Donald earns a fourth Defensive Player of the Year award and a Super Bowl he’ll have to officially be considered the undisputed greatest defensive player of all time.
An Outstanding Resumé
Aaron Donald entered the NFL with a bang, winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2014 and earning his first Pro Bowl appearance. Since entering the NFL, Donald has made it to the Pro Bowl in each of his seven seasons. In 2015, his sophomore season, he earned his first of six First-Team All-Pro awards. In 2017 he earned his first Defensive Player of the Year award. He won again in 2018 and 2020. In 2018 Donald was the NFL’s sack leader and was involved in the MVP discussion.
With his 20.5 sacks in 2018, Donald broke the record for sacks by a defensive tackle. That record was previously held by Keith Millard with 18 and was set in 1989. The record stood for nearly 30 years before Donald obliterated it. The last player to come close to breaking that record prior to Donald was La’Roi Glover in 2000. In 2020 Donald was named to the NFL’s 2010’s All-Decade Team.
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (2014)
7x Pro Bowl (2014-2020)
6x First-Team All-Pro (2015-2020)
3x Defensive Player of the Year (2017, 2018, 2020)
NFL sack Leader (2018)
NFL 2010s All-Decade Team
Can He Make History?
Can Donald win a fourth Defensive Player of the Year award? Can he win a Super Bowl? The answer: Absolutely. He just turned 30 years of age. He has shown zero signs of slowing down. In fact, he might be getting better with age. The stats speak for themselves, Donald is clearly still producing at an elite level. In 2020 he had his second-highest sack total (13.5) to go along with his second-highest pressure total (105).
Analytics continue to prove that he isn’t stopping anytime soon either. In 2020 he had his third-highest PFF overall grade (94.2) and his second-highest pass-rush grade (93.6). He had the highest pass-rush win rate in the NFL (25.1%) in 2020. He also had the highest run defense grade among interior defensive linemen (90.4) by a wide margin in 2020.
NFL Defensive tackles tend to hit their peak around 28 years of age. A player’s peak generally lasts around four years. Aaron Donald is clearly different, he shows no signs of stopping his reign of dominance. Teams still have to double team him 70 percent of the time. He’s still putting up elite stats and analytics. We could see him perform at this level for another four years and even then when he slows down, he would still be an above-average player.
John Randle holds the record for most career sacks by a defensive tackle with 137.5, he played for 13 seasons, retiring at 36. If Donald plays until 36 at his current pace he’d have 158.5 career sacks by the time he hangs it up. That number would be good for fifth on the all-time sack list behind Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Kevin Greene, and Julius Peppers.
History Is Inevitable
Aaron Donald is one of those rare players who is in a league of his own. He has seemingly found a way to extend his prime years as though he had discovered the fountain of youth. With Donald likely playing another four to six years he has ample time to rack up stats, win some awards, and win a Super Bowl or two before he calls it quits.
It is as though he were Thanos collecting the Infinity Stones in an attempt to wipe out quarterbacks from history. He will very likely be considered the greatest defensive player of all time when he retires and becomes a first-ballot Hall of Fame player. Aaron Donald will do it sooner than the end though, he will win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award in 2021. He may win another after that even. We’re witnessing greatness like no other. Dread it, run from it, destiny still arrives.
Photo Credit: All-Pro Reels Under Creative Commons License | Reference Wikimedia Commons