Will Aaron Donald go down as the greatest defensive player ever?

by Blaine Grisak
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Lawrence Taylor. Reggie White. JJ Watt. Deacon Jones. These are a few names that immediately come up when NFL fans talk about the greatest defensive players of all-time. Entering the conversation now is Aaron Donald.

Last week Aaron Donald turned 30 years old which likely means that half of his NFL career is over. Donald is going into his eighth NFL season. If he’s lucky, he’ll play another 6-8 more.

Prior to his 30th birthday, Donald has won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year three times, been named first-team all-pro six times, was named to the NFL’s 2010 All-Decade team, and has 85.5 career sacks.

On Tuesday, Dov Kleiman posed the thought that, “by the end of (Donald’s) career, he’ll be considered better than Lawrence Taylor.”

Donald has only played half of his NFL career, so he’s definitely not past Taylor at this point. However, it got me thinking, what does Donald still need to do in order to surpass Taylor and be considered the greatest defensive player of all-time?

Lawrence Taylor Achievements

  • 1x MVP
  • 2x Super Bowl Champion
  • 2x Team No. 1 Defense
  • 3x Defensive Player of the Year
  • 8x First-Team All-Pro
  • 1x NFL Sacks Leader
  • 1980’s All-Decade Team
  • 7-10+ Sack Seasons
  • 132.5 Career Sacks
  • 33 Forced Fumbles
  • Career-High 20.5 Sacks

Taylor’s list of achievements is impressive. Taylor literally changed the game as he changed defensive schemes as well as how offenses blocked. He tallied double-digit sacks in seven consecutive seasons from 1984 through 1990. He’s also the last defensive player to win the league’s MVP award.

Aaron Donald Achievements

  • 1x Team No. 1 Defense
  • 3x Defensive Player of the Year
  • 6x First-Team All-Pro
  • 1x NFL Sacks Leader
  • 2010’s All-Decade Team
  • 5-10+ Sack Seasons
  • 85.5 Career Sacks
  • 19 Forced Fumbles
  • Career-High 20.5 Sacks

Prior to age 30, this list is quite impressive. Donald is already only the third player to win the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year Award three times along with Taylor and Watt. However, he arguably could have won it a fourth time in 2019. However, giving Donald Defensive Player of the Year is like giving LeBron James the NBA’s MVP award –  it’s almost too obvious. Pro Football Focus has given the award to Donald five times.

Where Does Aaron Donald Trail Taylor?

Like Taylor, Donald has already won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award three times, has led the NFL in sacks, has been named to an all-decade team, and has a 20 sack season. All of these show Donald’s dominance.

There are areas however, that Donald still lacks behind Taylor. For starters, Taylor won two Super Bowl titles. Like it or not, that’s something that separates Taylor. We can talk about how Donald and the Rams defense held the Patriots to six points for the majority of the Super Bowl in 2018, but the Rams still lost. The 13 points allowed by the Rams defense was fewer than any Super Bowl Taylor played in.

On this note as well, Taylor earned the NFL’s MVP Award in 1986 after his 20.5 sack season. The MVP Award is a quarterback dominated award at this point. It says a lot that Donald didn’t receive a single MVP vote after his 20.5 sack season.

Donald is two First-team all-pro selections behind Taylor, has two less double-digit sack seasons, and trails him by 47 career sacks. The good news with these is that they are more individually oriented and Donald can absolutely catch Taylor. Tallying 10 sack seasons for the next three years to his seven consecutive would benefit Donald as well.

What Does Aaron Donald Need to Do?

At age 30, Aaron Donald is in very good shape. He’s already matched Taylor’s Defensive Player of the Year awards and as an inside defensive player, he matched Taylor’s 20.5 career-high in sacks.

Over the next few years, Donald can absolutely tie or surpass Taylor’s eight first-team all-pro selections and seven 10-sack seasons. He’ll also have a chance to win a Super Bowl.

The question then becomes: what sack number does Donald need to get to? It’s unlikely that he surpasses Bruce Smith’s 200. Donald would need to average over 11 sacks over the next 10 years. At some point there’s going to be a drop-off and 10 more years of playing at an elite level on the defensive line is a tall order.

As it stands, Donald needs to still pass Warren Sapp to become the NFL’s all-time interior defensive lineman sack leader. Sapp has 96.5 career sacks. It’s possible that Donald could surpass that this season. If Donald can become the first interior player to surpass 100 career sacks, that will be quite the achievement.

200 sacks is a tall ask, but 47 over the next 4-6 years would put Donald right at, or potentially above, Taylor’s career-sack number. Again, that would be quite the achievement and just might push Donald over the edge. It would be an even greater achievement to surpass 150. To do that, Donald needs 63.5 more sacks which seems doable depending on how long he decides to play.

Conclusion

It’s tough to compare different eras and it’s not something that I typically enjoy doing. When all is said and done, Aaron Donald will minimally spark debates on whether or not he’s the greatest defensive player of all-time.

Donald just turned 30 which means half of his career is likely over. Instead of already debating him as the greatest of all-time, let’s just enjoy 99 while we still can.

 

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