111 sacks, 10 dominant seasons for Aaron Donald: Did we just witness the career of the GOAT defensive tackle?



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Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and eight-time All-Pro, is retiring. Donald, who turns 33 in May, was rumored to be considering retirement in the past couple of offseasons, but this is still a player going out while still at the top of the league at his position.

Donald will be going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with no questions asked, but the better question upon his retirement may be whether he is the greatest defensive tackle who has ever played in the NFL. I think the answer is yes. The only argument is whether you prefer the longevity of someone like Alan Page, who played in the league for 15 seasons instead of just 10 like Donald.

Doing historical comparisons for Donald can be difficult because so many of the other great interior defensive linemen played before the era of advanced stats. There are no pressure counts or Pro Football Focus grades for players like Warren Sapp and Cortez Kennedy. We don’t even have trustworthy tackle numbers for players from before the 1990s like Page and Bob Lilly. Nonetheless, based on what we do know, no defensive tackle ever had a 10-year peak like Donald enjoyed with the Rams.

Only two other players have ever won Defensive Player of the Year three times: J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor. Only two other defensive linemen ever made the Associated Press All-Pro team eight times: Reggie White and Bruce Smith. Other defensive linemen who played longer made more Pro Bowls than Donald, but none of them were named to the Pro Bowl in every single one of their NFL seasons. Only Donald and Barry Sanders played at least 10 seasons in the NFL and made the Pro Bowl in each one.

Donald’s 20.5 sacks in 2018 are the most for a player primarily at defensive tackle since 1982 when individual sack counts officially began. Donald’s career total of 111 sacks is second among defensive tackles to John Randle’s 137.5 across 14 seasons in the NFL.

One good historical gauge of a player’s value is the Approximate Value metric from Pro Football Reference. Donald’s total of 153 AV is tied for third among players listed as defensive tackles, behind Page and Merlin Olsen. But remember, Donald only played 10 seasons, while Page and Olsen both played for 15 seasons. His average of 15.3 AV per year is easily No. 1, with Page second at 13.1.

Here’s a look at the top interior defensive linemen based on AV per season. I’ve included players such as Smith and Watt who were arguably edge rushers but played defensive end in a 3-4 defensive alignment, which is what Donald played for part of his career with the Rams. They still come in behind Donald.

Donald goes out on top, having been chosen first-team All-Pro yet again in 2023. He once again led all defensive tackles with a 19.9% pass rush win rate last season and added another eight sacks to his career total. Donald would’ve likely had two or three more great seasons left in him as he leaves the game.

Whether by statistics or especially by accolades from those who were watching him each year, Donald is the best to ever play his position in the NFL. He’ll be sorely missed, except by NFL quarterbacks and offensive linemen.



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