Columnists, Sports

Inside the Huddle: The case for Aaron Donald as the best defensive player of all time

First off, can we appreciate just how good that Super Bowl was? I mean really, these NFL playoffs have been nothing short of exciting. From last-minute field goals to second-half comebacks, to calling a QB draw with 14 seconds left — sorry Cowboys fans, had to sneak it in there — these playoffs have been one of the best in recent memory.

On top of all the down to the wire finishes, we also saw the last playoff runs for several star players. Future Hall-of-Famers Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady have entered retirement, and Aaron Rodgers might be following them out the door. Now Super Bowl champion Andrew Whitworth has all but announced his retirement from the game at 40 years old, and rumors about Aaron Donald calling it quits have also surfaced.

Yvonne Tang / DFP Staff

While I don’t think Donald is hanging them up this offseason, or any time soon for that matter, he deserves some love for the performance he had in the playoffs and more importantly, in the Super Bowl. Yes, Donald’s teammate Cooper Kupp won the Super Bowl MVP to cap off a historic season of his own, but Donald had a really strong case for an award himself.

In terms of raw numbers, Donald finished the game with two sacks, four tackles, two tackles for loss, and three QB hits. But as any NFL fan knows, what makes Donald so good isn’t his counting numbers, but what he makes opposing teams do to stop him.

Donald was consistently double and triple-teamed throughout the playoffs, and that was no different in the Super Bowl. However when a team puts that many bodies on one guy, it opens up opportunities for Donald’s teammates to make plays. Von Miller, a former Super Bowl MVP, also tallied two sacks on Sunday night thanks to him consistently seeing one-on-one coverage. The Rams as a team tallied three more sacks on top of Donald’s and Miller’s and forced the Bengals to play a game style they didn’t want to play. 

Cincinnati has struggled with protecting their quarterback all season long, despite finishing 10-7 atop the AFC North. The Bengals allowed 3.2 sacks per game, good for third-worst in the NFL. In order to contain Donald, the Bengals needed to put several bodies on him, taking away passing options for their offense, ultimately leading to the game-winning play made by, you guessed it, Aaron Donald.

But this article isn’t about Donald winning the Super Bowl MVP. While I truly do believe he should have received that recognition, the bigger and more important conversation is where Donald ranks all-time. With as many positions as the sport has, it is extremely difficult to compare Donald’s value to an all-time great quarterback like Tom Brady or Joe Montana, but another consensus top player who is a worthwhile comparison is Lawrence Taylor. 

In terms of accolades alone, Donald and Taylor match up pretty well. Each has three Defensive Player of the Year awards, although Taylor also tacked on an MVP award after recording 20.5 sacks in 1986. Donald also had a season of 20.5 sacks in 2018, but unfortunately, the league has moved the MVP award to basically a “Best Quarterback Award,” with the last non-QB winner coming in 2012 with running back Adrian Peterson taking home the hardware. 

While Donald likely won’t be able to match Taylor’s MVP award, he is well positioned to surpass him in Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections — only trailing by two and one appearances respectively. Another category Donald could match Taylor in is with Super Bowls. Donald, now a one-time winner, will need to win one more to match Taylor’s two rings and could realistically do so with how good the current Rams roster is. 

Donald may only have two or three elite seasons left in his career, but if he continues to put up 12+ sacks a season while also being a dominant force in stopping the run, number 99 might reframe the debate on who should be called the greatest defensive player in NFL history.

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