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Could Aaron Donald Be the Greatest Defensive Player in NFL History?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 10, 2021

El defensive tackle de los Rams de Los Ángeles Aaron Donald sonríe durante la segunda mitad del juego de la ronda de comodines de la NFL ante los Seahawks de Seattle, el sábado 9 de enero de 2021, en Seattle. (AP Foto/Scott Eklund)
Scott Eklund/Associated Press

Dating back to the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, two defensive players have been first-team All-Pros six or more times before turning 30: Lawrence Taylor and Aaron Donald.

Taylor, Donald and J.J. Watt are also the only players ever to win three Defensive Player of the Year awards, but Donald actually played one less season than both of those guys before turning 30 (seven versus eight). 

As a result, he's hit his prime a little later, with all three DPOY seasons coming in the past four years and his three highest sack totals coming in each of his past three campaigns.

There were few qualms when an NFL Network panel listed Taylor as the greatest defensive player of all time in 2010, but the reality is Taylor peaked as a 27-year-old in 1986 when he was the last defensive player to win NFL MVP. He was never a first-team All-Pro again after his age-30 season. 

Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

Injuries, unfortunately, wore Watt down in his prime. He's still active, but he hasn't been a first-team All-Pro or Pro Bowler since he was 29 in 2018 and hasn't won a Defensive Player of the Year award since 2015. 

That leaves Donald with a special opportunity to run away from both of those guys—and fellow all-time greats like Reggie White and Dick Butkus—to become the most accomplished defensive player in the history of professional football. 

Momentum is on his side thanks to those recent accolades. And for what it's worth, DraftKings lists him as a clear favorite to win yet another Defensive Player of the Year award in 2021. Knock on wood, but injuries have hardly been a factor for Donald considering he's missed a grand total of zero games in his NFL career. 

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It's amazing Donald was passed over a dozen times in the 2014 draft, but that reinforces how distinctive he is as a player. He's an undersized defensive tackle who has the speed, power, and technique to overcome that lack of size in a way that makes him entirely unique. 

There will never be another Aaron Donald, just as there will never be another Lawrence Taylor, J.J. Watt, Reggie White or Dick Butkus. Donald has already joined that group of all-time greats, but a record fourth DPOY award at age 30 could make it hard to compare anyone to the Pittsburgh product. 

Aaron Donald is on track to surpass Lawrence Taylor in several key accolades.
Aaron Donald is on track to surpass Lawrence Taylor in several key accolades.Peter Cannata/Associated Press

Donald is two first-team All-Pro seasons away from matching Taylor, White and Bruce Smith in that category, and it would be an upset if that didn't happen in the next three years. He'd need a long career to challenge guys like White, Ray Lewis and Merlin Olsen in terms of Pro Bowl nods—and longevity counts for something in these debates—but we can all agree Pro Bowls are an overrated popularity contest and that All-Pros and DPOY nods are more representative of dominance? 

One thing that could hold Donald back regardless of his play in the next few years? He's been a part of just three playoff wins and has just 2.5 sacks in six postseason appearances. Watt hasn't had a lot more playoff success (six sacks in eight playoff games and just three wins), but Taylor won two rings and recorded 8.5 sacks in 15 career playoff games. 

Fair or not, though, that's less of a factor with defensive players compared to quarterbacks. When the final chapters are written on Donald, they'll focus mainly on those individual numbers and awards. If he can maintain his pace from the past four years for four more seasons (or see that pace drop off but play for enough years to compensate for it), he'll retire as one of the league's top-10 all-time sack leaders despite being an interior defensive lineman whom you'd expect to be physically overmatched on most downs. 

It's one of the most impressive narratives of this NFL era, and one that is often overlooked because we spend so much time obsessing over quarterbacks' pursuits of history. And yeah, Tom Brady's story is as impressive as they come, but keep in mind that this league has gone out of its way in recent years to tilt the playing field in favor of offenses. 

It's never been harder to be an NFL defender, and yet Aaron Donald has already rightfully placed himself in the same conversation as Lawrence Taylor. 

Every snap you watch him play between now and the end of his career will be living history. 

     

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Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.

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