Defensive tackle Aaron Donald almost single-handedly reversed the St. Louis Rams' fortunes on defense this season, and he was rewarded for his spectacular debut by being named the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, per the NFL.
Donald was the 13th overall selection in the 2014 NFL draft out of the University of Pittsburgh. His stock climbed steadily leading up to the draft, and he certainly proved during the 2014 campaign that he was deserving of that lofty status.
The 6'1", 285-pound tackle was statistically dominant with 47 tackles and nine sacks. That type of production is made even more impressive by the fact that he didn't become a starter until five weeks into the season.
As pointed out by ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner, Donald's insertion into the lineup totally changed the complexion of the defensive line:
Nick Wagoner @nwagoner
Before Donald started, Rams averaged .25 sacks per game, allowed 152.5 rushing ypg. Since he got in lineup, 3.27 sacks per game, 93 rypg.12/28/2014, 9:04:08 PM
The Rams were among the best teams in terms of getting to the quarterback in 2013; however, they regressed significantly to start the 2014 season. According to Wagoner, Donald turned that around as well:
Nick Wagoner @nwagoner
Rams sacks per pass attempt before Donald started was 0.9 percent. Since, it's up to 8.8 percent. Was worst in league. Fifth best since.12/28/2014, 9:07:31 PM
His impact wasn't lost on the fans, as he was voted into the Pro Bowl. In addition to that, Donald received some love from the All-Pro voters too, per Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Jim Thomas @jthom1
Rookie DT Aaron Donald finishes tied for 5th in all-pro voting w/4 votes. And Robert Quinn gets only 1 vote at DE.1/2/2015, 5:53:03 PM
Donald was one of three rookies to be named to the Pro Bowl, along with Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley and Dallas Cowboys guard Zack Martin. One can argue that Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack was snubbed, which illustrates just how much competition there was in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race.
Solid cases can be made for Mosley and Mack deserving the award, but Donald's statistical production and spurts of dominance ultimately ruled the day.
He dazzled many observers this season, but perhaps nobody appreciated his contributions more than Rams head coach Jeff Fisher. According to Wagoner, Fisher admitted that he had never before seen a defensive tackle make an instant impact quite like Donald:
Well, not inside on the defensive line, no. The way he's playing is pretty impressive, week after week after week. That's what we thought we would get out of him, and I think we've got more than we thought. He just loves to play, and he plays hard. He doesn't draw attention to himself. He's really smart and very talented physically. Those two traits result in the plays that he's making.
Although the Rams only finished 6-10 in 2014, the fact that they were competitive week in and week out is a testament to what Donald and the defense as a whole brought to the table.
The offense struggled to consistently contribute because Shaun Hill and Austin Davis were forced to run the show at quarterback with the injury to Sam Bradford. The defense was able to lift the team at times, though, and it even spearheaded victories over the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.
Donald was a driving force behind that, and there is no question that he earned this award. Based on how good he was as a debutant, it's scary to imagine how much better he will get in 2015 and beyond.
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