ATLANTA — It comes as no surprise that Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald has been named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year for a second consecutive season Saturday night. A fifth-year pro, Donald also was voted to the Pro Bowl for a fifth consecutive season.
Despite dealing with an inordinate number of double-teams, the 6-foot-1, 280-pound Donald recorded 20.5 sacks to set an NFL single-season record for a defensive tackle dating to when sacks became an official individual stat in 1982. His sack total also set a Rams franchise record, as the organization won back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1979 and advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time in 17 seasons.
“I’ve had some pretty good players,” Rams defensive coordinator Wade Philips said. “But he’s certainly right up there equal or better.”
Donald had a pass-rush win rate of 46 percent during the regular season, the highest in the NFL, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He also was doubled teamed on 61 percent of his pass rushes, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
After holding out of training camp for two consecutive seasons, Donald, 27, signed a six-year, $135 million extension, including $87 million guaranteed, 10 days before the season opener to become the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. The following day, Bears defensive end Khalil Mack signed a deal worth more.
Donald said his record-breaking contract provided motivation throughout the season. “The word thank you ain’t enough,” Donald said. “You’ve got to show it.”
Donald was held without a sack through three games before he went on a tear. He set a career best with four sacks against quarterback C.J. Beathard and the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7, and also made critical plays late in the fourth quarter to secure victories over the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions.
“The consistency at which he’s playing is what’s so impressive,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “He’s made an impact in so many different ways. You know that when teams are getting ready for us, that’s one of the first things, ‘OK, let’s be aware of where 99 is.’”
Niners offensive tackle Joe Staley said: “[Donald is] in a class of his own. I don’t think there’s anybody that’s ever been like him in the NFL.”
Seattle Seahawks offensive guard J.R. Sweezy said Donald has “good instincts” and that his speed and quickness “can’t really compare” to any other interior linemen.
Donald finished the regular season with 59 tackles and four forced fumbles.