Aaron Donald just broke J.J. Watt's all-time grade record, and should be DPOY
I wrote earlier in the season that Aaron Donald was matching and in some ways surpassing the career arc of J.J. Watt, and that I fully expected him to fall off that incredible pace as the season wore on.
Donald did have a brief dip over the year, but picked back up towards season’s end and finished it as strongly as he began with his best game of the season in St. Louis’ overtime loss to San Francisco.
The result? The best season we’ve ever graded, even surpassing some historic seasons from Watt.
That’s why Aaron Donald should be the Defensive Player of the Year.
He ends the season with a perfect 99.9 rating in PFF’s new rating system, and the highest grade we have ever given over a single season. Watt’s 2015 stands as a higher-graded 16-game body of work than any season we have seen from Watt, who held the previous best marks.
Watt may have had a statistically better season than Donald in some areas, but he has also played on the edge far more than Donald has (63.2 percent of his snaps this season, compared with three snaps from Donald lining up outside the tackle). Rushing from the outside leads to more pressure, sacks and statistics, and yet Watt has just nine pressures more than Donald over the season.
Donald leads all “true” interior players in both total pressures and defensive stops, and has played the run as well as anybody in football. His run-stop percentage (10.9 percent) ranks fifth in the NFL among defensive tackles, with three of the four players above him run-stuffing specialists at nose tackle.
Watt had a fantastic game against the Jaguars, and was talked up as a lock for the Defensive Player of the Year award as a result, but it would be a mistake to dismiss Donald’s display just because it came later in a game few people cared about.
Donald may not have had a sack in the game, but he did record eight total pressures and a batted pass, and was consistently disruptive as a run defender. The batted pass ended up as an interception for a fellow defensive lineman, and ultimately put points on the board for the Rams.
Before this season it looked like Watt was playing at a level nobody else in the game could come close to, and as a generational talent, it could be years or decades before we saw anybody approach his dominance. As it happens, Donald has come along just a couple of years later and not just risen to meet Watt on his elevated plateau of play, but actually edged past him.
It took a couple of years before people were inclined to give Watt the credit he deserves as one of the most unstoppable forces the game has ever seen. We all universally accept now that we are witnessing one of the game’s greatest ever in action, but that doesn’t mean we should just hand him every award by default.
Donald hasn’t been doing it for as long as Watt, but all of the available data suggests that he is right on track to match Watt’s dominance, and this season has actually surpassed anything Watt has achieved over a single season in PFF grading.
Watt now has the recognition, but Aaron Donald has been the best defensive player in football this season.