By: Chris Thomas
Since the (at the time St. Louis) Los Angeles Rams selected Aaron Donald out of Pitt with the 13th overall pick in 2014, he has dominated the NFL. During that span, Donald has been arguably the best defensive player in the entire league. More recently Donald has passed fellow 2014 draft prospect Khalil Mack and has entered a category of his own. Despite being double and triple-teamed on every snap Donald still puts up outrageous numbers every season that could enter him into the greatest of all-time category.
In seven seasons Donald has enough career accolades for him to be a get voted into the Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility. Those accolades include being a three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner (2017,2018, 2020), six-time First-Team All-Pro (2015-20), seven-time Pro Bowler (2014-20), Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014, and unanimous 2010’s All-Decade team.
Those accolades are well deserved after the outstanding numbers Donald has put up during his career. Over the course of seven seasons, Donalds has 85.5 sack, 357 tackles, and 19 forced fumbles. Has 20.5 sacks in 2018 are the seventh most a player has had in a single season and the most by an interior defensive lineman in a single season.
Since Donald has that impressive of a resume it begs the question can he be the greatest defensive player in the history of the NFL when it is all said and done? Here is why that answer could be yes!
First In order to put Donald in the conversation, it is important to acknowledge who else is in that category of player who could be the greatest defensive player of all time. There are a couple of players at each position who could be considered.
The greatest defensive ends of all time include Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Deacon Jones, Gino Marchetti, and J.J. Watt. Not including Donald, the greatest defensive tackle’s of all time include Bob Lilly, ‘Mean’ Joe Greene, Merlin Olsen, and Randy White. Factoring both inside and outside linebackers the greatest players to play either of those positions include Lawerence Taylor, Ray Lewis, Derrick Thomas, and Dick Butkus. The cornerbacks that could be considered the greatest defensive player of all time are Deion Sanders, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Rod Woodson, and Charles Woodson. Finally the greatest safeties to ever play in the NFL include Ed Reed, Ronnie Lott, Brian Dawkins, Troy Polamalu, and Paul Krause.
Before Aaron Donald enters the GOAT conversation he will have to play a majority or the entirety of his career. Seven seasons into his career, Donald appears to be at the peak of his career and could play another ten seasons or close to it. If Donald did have a 17-year career he projects to be at or near the top in a majority of defensive categories. There would likely be some kind of decline towards the end of his career, but if he doesn’t decline too much Donald could have 207.5 sacks, 867 tackles, and 46 forced fumbles. If he were to put up those numbers Donald would be the all-time leader in sacks, 24th in tackles (first among defensive tackles), and fifth all-time in forced fumbles. He would likely double the career accolades he already has which would not only break the tie with J.J. Watt and Lawerence Taylor with three AP Defensive Player of the Year awards and double that record with six. On top of that, he would tie the all-time record for most Pro Bowl selections with 14 and have the most First-Team All-Pro selections of all time with 12 (current record held by Jerry Rice and Jim Otto with 10)
If Donald continues to be a force on the interior of defensive lines at the level he has been at, there is no doubt he will hold multiple NFL career records. Taking into consideration the players of the defensive side of the ball he will be better than will give him the lead for greatest defensive player of all time. Donald can have more career sacks than Bruce Smith and have more defensive player of the year awards than Lawerence Taylor.
Taking into consideration the records he will have broken with the awards he could finish his career with, Donald will be the greatest defensive player to ever play in the NFL.