Aaron Donald just broke J.J. Watt’s all-time grade record, and should be DPOY

Aaron Donald just broke the highest all-time grade recorded by J.J. Watt, and deserves to win the Defensive Player of the Year award over him.

| 10 months ago
(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

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.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • Cheo Trawford

    Let’s see Donald put together another season before we crown him the “next best thing”. Not to downplay what he’s accomplished this year, of course.

    I think DPOY is between Watt, Mack, Jones, Donald, and Kuechly. Honestly, Watt could be passed on for any one of those guys simply because people are sick of seeing Watt.

    We’ll see!

    • Johnathan Sanders

      jay jay what is old news

      aaron donald is the future

      • Cheo Trawford

        Maybe he is. Like I said, it’s too early to say for sure whether he’s the next big name or just a flash in the pan.

        • Dan

          A flash in the pan? You should watch some tape, the only possible way to stop this guy is to hope he gets injured. He was the highest rated DT his rookie season and he’s been the best defensive player in the NFL this year hands down.

          • Cheo Trawford

            I’ve watched tape. I’m not saying he’s not talented – he is. But he’s only done it for one season.

            Josh Freeman had an amazing season once. Look at where he is now.

            My point is that he needs to continue producing to make me a believer that he’s on Watt’s level. Once good season does not make him the best defensive player in the NFL. It’s debatable that he even deserves that distinction this year.

            Watt is an absolutely dominant force in spite of the fact that he is often double- or triple-teamed. Coaches have to gameplan specifically for him.

            Donald is a rookie. He hasn’t received the same attention that Watt has. He will next season, though. If he can continue to produce with coaches and coordinators focusing on shutting him down, he’ll deserve to be up there with Watt.

          • Antileftist

            Not to argue, but Donald is a 2nd year player.

          • Cole

            Donald is in his second year and won defensive rookie of the year last year when he beat Mack

          • jason witten

            He’s been amazing for two seasons now. So instead you can say he’s only done it for two seasons. Then next year if he balls out again, you can say he’s only done it for three seasons. And so on.

          • Donald

            Donald completed his second year and will be going to his second pro-bowl. He was also consistently double teamed once Quinn went out with injury and was still unstoppable.

          • Chris

            I wouldn’t compare Aaron Donald to Josh Freeman — Donald won DROY last year and has put together an amazing campaign again this year. Also if you’ve read anything else about Donald this season or last, you’ll know that coaches game plan around him as he’s in the backfield hitting the running back as soon as the RB receives the handoff. Also your point of Watt being double or triple teamed is null as well, Donald deals with the exact same double or triple teams as Quinn was out for half of the year.

            The fact that you have written that much incorrect information about what you believe makes Watt that much better than Donald leads me to seriously doubt you’ve read much, looked at stat lines or even watched any tape.

          • codered5

            That’s bs. Fundamentally interior players are impossible to triple team and very difficult to double team without destroying a blocking scheme. Most triple teams come from a chipping back and have you ever seen a back trying to chip inside next to a guard. Backs usually block on the inside for blitzing lb’s and db’s. There is no way someone that plays on the interior can receive the type of pass pro attention and edge player can. If you triple you basically allow free rushers. Watt without a doubt played better and is the better player. The only thing you can really question about watt is his tendency to over pursue.

          • TheNameGame

            Unless Donald loses a step, or gets a growth burst, he seems like he’ll only get better as a dominating 4-3 DT. He’s got that low man’s leverage like Geno Atkins, but came out wayyyyyy stronger out of college. The thing is Watt and Donald are different….I think Donald is already better at just pure bullrushing given that’s pretty much all he does. Watt can bull rush but doesn’t have the leverage Donald has just due to height. But no question that Watt is way more versatile and is asked to do much more than Donald….that being said, who would ask Donald to do anything else lol?

          • derrick brooks

            @ Cheo: Yep, that shows you know nothing about Aaron Donald, because this is his second year. Guess you don’t know he did it last year too since he was the defensive ROY. And YES he has received the same attention Watt has.

          • Cheo Trawford

            @Everyone – I was wrong in saying that Donald is a rookie. I still stand by the rest of my statement, though.

          • codered5

            That josh freeman year didn’t grade very well on pff tho

    • Josh Knepshield

      Jones? Like, from the Pats? Ehhh, probably not.

      • codered5

        No I think hes referring to when Julio jones played corner on a hail Mary play early in the season. He was quite good on that play if I remember correctly

        • Josh Knepshield

          I knew who he was talking about, I was just showing my incredulity. Nice joke, tho. I’m sure that one like was worth it.

          • codered5

            I wasn’t making fun of you. I was more so outraged that someone else was suggestin (I assume) chandler jones was somehow a dpoy candidate. I was saying that Julio jones was just as much as a candidate as chandler jones for defensive player of the year.

          • codered5

            I will say this however Julio should get some serious defensive player of the year consideration for the pass defenses he got on what should have been matt ryan interceptions this year.

          • Josh Knepshield

            That I do agree with.

  • Johnathan Sanders

    black power

  • Giancarlo Gelpi

    How is Donald’s season better than all of Watts other seasons… you admit the grading system has been changed for this season. Did you go back and re-grade Watts other seasons with this new system? He may have had a great year, but Donald’s season being better than any of Watts other seasons doesn’t even pass the smell test.

    • Johnathan Sanders

      donald> jay jay what

      • Cheo Trawford

        Ahhhh… you’re a troll! I get it now.

        • Johnathan Sanders

          jew mad

    • Mat

      The change in their grading was just converting the grades into a 1-99.9 scale.
      They still have access to a “+78.2″ (for example) for this year.

  • Johnathan Sanders

    gee gee what is old news, was only a matter of time before a “BROTHA” took the reigns back

  • Moon Tsu

    Stupid article! Did you ever consider the fact that JJ Watt gets DOUBLED and even TRIPLE TEAMED EVERY SINGLE GAME that he plays??? Yeah that’s what I thought! It’s easy to put up numbers like Aaron Donald does when only ONE guy is trying to block you the entire game! And did I mention JJ Watt was playing with ONE HAND in 3 of his games and STILL getting sacks! This article is ludicrous and sacrileges to the General of Defense-which is JJ Watt! He single handedly got his team into the playoffs as well with no running back or quarterback, I don’t see the rams making the playoffs! JJ WATT is the BEST and you folks at PFF need to FIX his Player Stats and make it Higher than aaron Donald’s because that’s total b.s.!!!

    • Marc Pate

      There’s always a HATER out there. So sad, but also very typical. Oh, by the way, Aaron Donald gets doubled all the time! Only an idiot like you who praises 1 player wouldn’t realize that. Get your facts straight next time…you BIG CRY BABY! Or maybe perhaps you’re a HUGE racist and can’t accept the fact that a “black player” beat out a white one? Accept it, and then get over it.

      • Moon Tsu

        You are the “HATER” who can’t stand a WHITE MAN being THE BEST Defensive Player in the game! You stupid idiot aaron Donald doesn’t get double TEAMED EVERY game, you are such a moron who needs to get YOUR facts straight! You need to get your RACIST a$$ outta here since you obviously hate white people Marc Pate! Yes people, Marc Pate HATES Whites!

        • Jake S

          Pure ignorance, you have a very small mind and just because you post something doesn’t make it true. Aaron Donald gets double teamed and triple teamed more than watt. Specially since they signed VW. How do you think a backup like will Hayes gets 3 sacks? Because it’s 1-1 with them every play and triple teaming Donald. Get a clue guy you don’t know squat. You’re a joke

        • Jake L

          this is embarassing

          • Cheo Trawford

            Moon Tsu and Marc Pate are both embarrassing. This has absolutely nothing to do with race – get that garbage out of here.

        • John Turney

          No w i am ashamed I replied. Didn’t know these comments not moderated for hate

    • John Turney


      No need to SHOUT. According to PFF Watt was doubled 46% of time on pass plays. Donald, according to PFJ was doubled 42% on pass plays. Both had great seasons.

    • Nick G

      I haven’t seen Donald “single-teamed” once this year.

    • Corey

      Umm, you know donalds been double and triple teamed, game planned for, run away from, teams stopped throwing deep bc they didnt want to give him time to get into the backfield…watch the film or read up on him since you clearly have not.

    • Ismael

      Your ignorant because the defense of tackles take on double teams ,chop blocks, triple teams, and pulling guards the most on A football field, take into consideration that Donald is under sized and for him to be so disruptive from the inside while still managing to own his inside and outside gap while run stop in your first mindset then pass rush.if you watch him play its amazing he just makes it look so easy, looks like a man amongst boys.

    • Aaron Kuo

      It’s pretty funny how you attempt to sound sophisticated by using words with more than 7 characters. However, your overall argument would be much more effective if you used some of your words correctly. “sacrileges” is not a word. Sacrilege is a word, meaning a violation or misuse, but you can’t turn a noun into a verb by merely adding an s to the end of it. By the way, JJ Watt is always placed against the opponents weakest O-Lineman. When he faces someone who is actually halfway decent, JJ Watt is completely beat off the line. In the playoffs, JJ was completely shut down by Jeff Fisher, an OT on the Chiefs. I’m sure that you’re just some 14 year old child who believes in all of the hype that surrounds JJ Watt and OBJ, who are both just mediocre players that the media treats as gods.

  • LAL

    It might be worthwhile to point out that Watt played 3 games with a club on his hand.

  • Moon Tsu

    Don’t ever mention aaron Donald in the same breathe again as JJ Watt. While most players after they get their big PAY DAY Contract are unmotivated and don’t play as well like they use to before they got the Big $$$, JJ Watt continues to dominate and go 100 every single snap! AINT no teams staying up late at night trying to scheme against him like how they so for JJ Watt! Ontop of that aaron Donald has arguably the BEST defensive line in the NFL and plays next to Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes, Michael Brockers & Nick Fairley! This is just total disrespect and if I don’t see Watt as the best interior defender OVER aaron Donald, I don’t think I will be re upping next year!

    • Johnathan Sanders

      the author of this article just did, white boy what aint the sheriff anymore

    • Zach

      Watt has Vince Wilfork Jared Crick and Jadeveon Clowney. Plus Brian Cushing to blitz at middle linebacker. That’s a hell of a front seven too. The Texans didn’t even turn their season around until Clowney started playing 100%.

      • TheNameGame

        Na, that front 7 is pretty weak. Old Vince isn’t stuffing the line, Jared Crick is solid…as a backup, and Clowney is pretty much a big rehabbing rookie to an extent. Cushing had a weak year against the run, which is his specialty. It literally is JJ, and some secondary play here and there.

    • Colin

      Moon Tsu, you’re a prime example of someone who speaks on someone you clearly have never seen play. Go watch the interviews of the D coordinators before they played the Rams. All they did was talk about how they stayed up thinking of ways to slow Donald down. Not to mention just like Watt he consistently got double teamed, even triple teamed. The difference was, Watt had 2-3 games where he disappeared. Injury or not, Donald’s lowest grades game was something like +3. Donald and Watt are clearly ahead of all others but honestly Donald was way more disruptive this year. He was absolutely dominant against the run as well as destroying lineman that tried to pass block

    • Tim Edell

      Bye bye Moons over my hammy!!

  • Flash

    Not to mention but look at the teams watt and donald play against.. Donald in the west niners hawks and the cards
    JJ Colts Jags Titans in six games against that line up JJ should put up good games..
    Donald should be dpoy tougher position watt moves around to take advantage.

    • mlander80

      I have to agree with this. Watt doesn’t exactly play against the best in the league nearly as much as Donald does. If I recall the last time Watt played the Hawks he disappeared, Donald really messes them up bad.

      • TheNameGame

        That’s called containment. Team defense. Not easy to stop zone blocking with one guy, even a really good linemen. Much easier to have a balanced line of block eaters and gap penetrators to mess up the direction of the zone….perfect meal for an interior force like Donald who’ll just destroy the bottled up play. Not taking away from Donald nor faulting Watt. Both are dope players

    • tyrone

      watt also plays with a mediocre defense while the st louis defense is vicious

      • Jake S

        Missing 5-6 starters over half of the season. Which is why they are only 7-9

        • TheNameGame

          what bout dat d-line?

    • Alfredo Cota

      Niners and Hawks have awful O-lines, and the Cards’ one is just decent. Watt’s competition is even worse probably, but neither plays hard matchups in thei respective divisions.

  • John Turney
  • selvin john

    A lot of people are jumping on the Aaron Donald bandwagon
    mostly due to Pro Football Focus rating scores which has Donald as not only the
    most “productive” player in football but EVER (he scored a perfect
    99.9). I’m here to tell you that their evaluation of “production”
    shows disconnect and is subjective at best, and here’s why. Aaron Donald got a
    higher score on their scale because he produced on the stats that did not
    matter as much, such as pressures. To say a guy recorded more “pressures”
    is equivalent to saying he recorded more “punches thrown” in boxing.
    What really matters is the “punches” you connect on. In football those
    statistics for a defensive linemen are sacks, passes defensed, tackles for
    loss, and turnovers. These stats are definitive because once a player records
    these the play is officially over. In all these stats, except turnovers, Watt
    led the NFL. In addition he led the league with 8 passes defensed for a D
    linemen. Yet Donald came out with a perfect score of 99.9 and JJ came out with
    a score in the mid-90s (the drop-off isn’t much to brag about to begin with)
    There’s clearly an imbalance in the evaluation of what a particular statistic
    should be weighted at. You can say that you had a QB pressure but if the QB was
    rushed out of the pocket and made a play, how “productive” really was
    your rush? This past weekend was a great example as Donald tallied no sacks,
    only 2 tackles and 1 pass defensed, but was still given a score of 10+ for the
    week. (Rams lost 16-19 to 49ers) Watt had 3 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, 2 passes
    defensed, and 2 turnovers. It’s not to say Donald’s stats don’t matter, but
    rather his stats don’t indicate “production” as much as Watt’s. Watt’s stats
    are more definitive and are more directly associated with his team winning 30-6
    against Jacksonville, and team winning its way to an AFC South title. Not to
    mention third down defense, in which JJ catapulted the Texans to be the highest
    rated in the NFL, and has them as the 3rd ranked defense overall to finish the
    season. This indicates, to me, that JJ Watt led the league and his team in the
    defensive categories that really mattered. Add to the fact the Texans are in
    the playoffs and Donald’s Rams are not, and the fact that he played in crucial
    games for his team with a broken hand, and there really isn’t any room for
    debate for Defensive player of the year. Josh Norman had a good year but
    struggled down the stretch against Beckham and Julio, and Norman plays
    primarily as a cover 3 corner, which means he’s getting a lot of help. The
    panthers are more talented than the Texan’s defense and have better playmakers.
    To me it comes down to this…If JJ Watt had not won 2 DPOY awards already this
    race would not be as close. JJ Watt should be Defensive Player of the Year. As
    John Gruden says “analytics can complicate football”

  • Vincent Hammons

    donald is not even in the same league as watt come on lets be real, sorry black guys a white man is the better defensive player ever get over it

    • Mickey

      Yeah! Watt is the “better defensive player ever”, you heard it here first. I also have no idea who Ray Lewis or Lawrence Taylor are.

  • Vincent Hammons

    plus pff grading bogus