Can the best player at his position get even better? Can this same player, who is maybe the best ever, defy the odds and break the records he has set for himself? When the player in question is the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald, the answer is always yes. In a career full of accolades and accomplishments, Donald has become one of the most recognizable names in the NFL. But he can still improve. If you were to ask Donald the same question you’d know his answer. Donald has dominated nearly offensive line in the NFL, and in 2019, he is coming for more.
The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year was finally attending training camp for the Los Angeles Rams this summer. Aaron Donald is a spectacle to watch, even if it is just a training camp. His speed and dominance flash all over the grass. Whether it be against other teams’ offensive lines in a joint-style practice, or against practice dummies, Donald draws a lot of eyes.
Coming off of a record-setting year for a defensive tackle, Donald still has his eyes on the one achievement that has escaped him: a Super Bowl win.
“My main goal is trying to win the Super Bowl.” –Aaron Donald at Rams 2019 training camp.
Although his past year has drawn a lot of attention, and deservedly so, Aaron Donald has been dominant from all the way back in St. Louis with the Rams. In his rookie season, Donald didn’t disappoint.
In the 2014 season, Donald racked-up pro-bowl numbers for a rookie: 9 sacks, 47 total tackles, 18 tackles for loss, and 18 quarterback hits. Donald was part of a 6-10 rams team that won enough games to finish fourth in the division that year under Jeff Fisher. His season was one of the only bright spots. He was selected for the pro-bowl in his first season in the league. The future was looking very bright for both the Rams and Donald himself.
In his second season, Donald’s true potential really became evident. With career highs in sacks and total tackles (11 and 69 respectively), Donald became one of the best in the game at his position and was given his first NFL All-Pro nod. Even with Donald’s elevated level of play, the then St. Louis Rams went 7-9 that year, finishing an astonishing THIRD in the NFC West. The team hadn’t gone anywhere, but they now had one of the game’s best players. Donald didn’t feel satisfied though. Interview after interview he would say all he wants to do is win, but it wouldn’t come anytime soon.
Bright Lights and Losing
The 2016 season came with more of the same for the Rams. As I detailed in my piece on Jared Goff’s career here, the Rams’ 2016 was a huge disappointment, but it was also a turning point for the franchise. To sum this horrendous season up: Jeff Fisher fired, Goff hated, and Rams ridiculed in their first season in Los Angeles.
For Aaron Donald though, 2016 stood as just another dominant year in his career. Donald racked up 8 sacks, 47 total tackles, 17 tackles for loss, and 31 quarterback hits in 16 games played. This season was lost for the Rams. But Donald had just had his second-consecutive All-Pro-level season and he was just hitting his prime.
“The mental part of it is … We share a meeting room. When I come in, I want to prepare for my meetings. I’m a teacher and I want to prepare my classroom. And I always have to wait for him to get done because he beats me into the classroom.” -Former Rams defensive Line Coach Mike Waufle on Donald in 2016.
Waufle was right. Donald had become the most dominant, the most dedicated, and the most respected player in the Los Angeles Rams defensive line group after his third year in the league.
Fourth Year Repetition
2017 was more of the same for Donald in regards to statistics, but for the team he plays for, this season was different. The Los Angeles Rams went 11-5 in 2017, winning the division for the first time since the early-2000’s. The success was sudden and mostly unexpected. Sean Mcvay and Wade Phillips had changed the defense and had gotten the team to play at a semi-exceptional level around Donald. The defense had jumped from twenty-third in points allowed to twelfth. They gave up a ton more yards-per-game, going from ninth to nineteenth in that category. Donald won defensive player of the year for the first time. After losing in the wild card round of the playoffs, Donald was happy with his team’s success and future.
“It’s a lot more fun when you’re winning than losing. We definitely got a whole lot to build off, so that’s the main thing. We’ve got a young, hungry coach with a lot of young, hungry players who are not satisfied, who know we should be playing right now. When you’ve got a bunch of guys like that on a team, with great coaches like Wade [Phillips] that’s putting us in situations and putting us in places to have success, to help this team to win, the sky’s the limit.” –Donald post-NFL Honors
The season that would come next would shock the league.
Quick 2018 Recap
Donald’s 2018 stats were jaw-dropping: 20.5 sacks, 59 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, and 41 quarterback hits. Career highs in sacks tackles for loss, and quarterback hits for Donald. This season is now heralded as the greatest season by interior defensive linemen ever played.
The Rams went 13-3, their best record since their return to Los Angeles. In the playoffs, they made it to the Super Bowl just to lose to the New England Patriots 13-3. Donald won his second consecutive defensive player of the year along with getting MVP-hype throughout the season.
Who knows what Aaron Donald has left in his bag. In his first real training camp, we have all seen his dominance. No matter how many fights he gets into during joint practices, he will be special. Yes, it’s easy to say Donald will be a pro-bowler and most-likely an all-pro, but what about the stats? Will Donald be able to replicate his record-breaking season, or will he snap back into reality? For me, the answer started with the defense that has been put around him.
With a solidified secondary and a slew of new faces along with the linebacking core and defensive line, Donald will be in for another all-time season.
Some of the players on the Rams defense are inexperienced (see Bryce Hager) but some, like Clay Matthews, will demand some attention off of the edge. Players like him and Eric Weddle in the secondary are respected. Donald will largely have the interior of the defensive lie to himself. With longtime running mate Michael Brockers by his side once again, Donald along with Sebastian Joseph-Day or John Franklin-Myers will try to destroy offensive lines once again.
As for his stats, this is what I’m predicting: 15.5 sacks, 47 total tackles, and 39 quarterback hits. Another stat that I haven’t mentioned is Donald’s 100-plus pressures that he created in the 2018 season, which PFF records. This number is astonishing because he is only the second player since 2006 to accumulate more than 100 pressures in a season. For next year, I have him passing this total again.
If Donald does end up accruing these stats throughout the 2019 season, he will be a lock for defensive player of the year once again; it would be his third straight. If these numbers come with rams wins, Donald will be getting MVP talk through the duration of the 2018 season.
On His Own level
The crazy thing about Donald is this would be one of the best seasons in NFL history, but it would be only his second-best season. The question of “will he get better” is sort of redundant at this point because he doesn’t need to. If he stopped his development and stayed at his median for his career, Donald would still be the best ever at his position and he would create mismatches every night per usual.
So, Donald’s 2019 season should be another season of dominance, but statistically, he won’t beat his 2018 peak. As for impact, Donald will still be the best on the field. Teams will feel his force every single game.
“It’s good to be back working with the guys, grinding and here with coaches — you know, getting better, so it feels good.” -Aaron Donald at 2019 training camp.
Maybe he will get better….
All Stats found at Pro-Football-Reference
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