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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Gilberto Manzano

Aaron Donald Was the Best at His Position

I figured a splash NFL trade or signing must have occurred, because my phone kept buzzing as I made my way down Interstate 405 to attend UCLA’s Pro Day.

But after finishing the car-filled, eight-mile drive— which should have taken 30 minutes less—I learned that Aaron Donald would no longer need to deal with L.A. traffic. The one player who could truly refer to himself as a game-wrecker had announced his retirement after 10 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.

You can say without hesitation that Donald, who retired at the top at age 32, will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in a few years. Perhaps the only doubt for such a remarkable career is referring to Donald as arguably the best defensive tackle of all time, but even then, it’s probably O.K. to drop arguably.

Yes, Donald didn’t play in the era of “Mean” Joe Greene and Alan Page, when sacks weren’t recorded. But there haven’t been many interior defensive linemen who can rush the passer as well as Donald. Perhaps only John Randle comes close, recording 137.5 sacks over 14 seasons. Donald racked up 111 sacks in 10 seasons.

Donald will be remembered for being the best at his position the second the then-St. Louis Rams took a chance on an undersized prospect from Pittsburgh with the 13th pick in the 2014 draft. It didn’t take him long to become the best overall defender in the NFL. He and Khalil Mack—two defensive linemen from the same draft class—were neck-and-neck for a few seasons before Donald set himself apart and chased down J.J. Watt as the best. Only Watt, Lawrence Taylor and Donald have won three Defensive Player of the Year awards.

Donald smiles before a game at SoFi Stadium.

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Notice how Donald is often in the company of elite edge rushers? Donald was so good at chasing quarterbacks that for a second it seemed the term pass rusher was just going to be the position name for all defensive linemen. That didn’t quite happen because we still can’t figure out the difference between edge rusher, defensive end and outside linebacker. But I have adopted the term “interior defensive lineman” and have used it more than defensive tackle because when you hear defensive tackle, you think of giant men tasked with clogging gaps and pushing the pocket to help the guys on the end break free.

Now the defenders inside are as effective as the outside players when it comes to rushing the passer. There are fewer 340-pound nose tackles because Donald started the trend of diverse defensive lineman with speed, power and athleticism—three elite traits that made Donald the GOAT.

For a few years, no one was in the realm of Donald, evident by the amount of money he was making, which was as good as what the starting quarterbacks were making. But now Chris Jones can say he’s making Aaron Donald money—he just landed a five-year, $158.75 million extension. So can Christian Wilkins and Justin Madubuike, two interior defensive linemen who got paid this past week.

Jones closed the gap on Donald with his dominant Super Bowl runs the past two years with the Kansas City Chiefs, but there’s something special about the competition Donald created. He raised the standards for interior defensive linemen and now the entire position is benefiting, with every team searching for Dexter Lawrence, Quinnen Williams and Jeffery Simmons.

For a long time, it was all about having a star quarterback and loading up on edge rushers. Now it’s about having many pass rushers, because the interior guys need to be included, too.

UCLA edge rusher Laiatu Latu, a 2024 first-round prospect, was asked during his Pro Day interview which defenders he likes to study. Donald, of course, was someone he patterned his game after, as all players on a defensive front should.

“I did watch him a lot,” Latu said. “That cross chop. I got it from him. He’s been a big inspiration in the pass-rush game and football in general.”

The Rams and their fans are probably disappointed about not getting to see that vicious cross chop on Sundays this fall. But they’re likely grateful for witnessing greatness for 10 years and winning Super Bowl LVI thanks to Donald disrupting the final drive for Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals.

Quarterbacks, offensive linemen and coaches can now get better sleep knowing that they don’t have to game plan for Donald, who often saw double and triple-team coverage, another reason why he’s the greatest ever at his position.

I covered the Rams in 2022 as a beat reporter for the Orange County Register. Donald wasn’t the most talkative, but he once spoke up about all the extra blockers he had to face, showing his personality and a bit of frustration.

Watch the film, he said, because his sack numbers would have been much higher had he spent his career facing one-on-one matchups. Not many have gotten the Aaron Donald treatment on game days. He was truly a great one.

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