If anyone knows defense, it’s Wade Phillips.
In 1976, Wade Phillips began his professional coaching career as a linebackers coach for the Houston Oilers, head coached by the late great Bum Phillips. Since then, Phillips has served as either a head coach or defensive coordinator for various different NFL teams. Over these past 42 years, he has coached many legendary defensive players, including Reggie White, Karl Mecklenburg, Bruce Smith, DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, and J.J. Watt.
Wade Phillips has transformed many mediocre defenses over his illustrious career and he has repeatedly demonstrated his natural eye for talent. In 2011, Phillips pushed his team, the Houston Texans, to draft a pass rusher from Wisconsin with the eleventh pick in the first round. After a solid but unexceptional rookie season for this player, Phillips gave some words of high praise. “He’s going to be a bust. Not a first-round bust, but a Hall of Fame bust,” he told reporters. Who was he talking about? J.J. Watt, who went on to win three Defensive Player of the Year awards and is the only player in NFL history with multiple 20 sack seasons. It’s safe to say that Phillips got that one right.
Approval from “The Son of Bum” is the highest form of praise possible for a rising defensive player. When Phillips was asked which player had surprised him the most in the 2016-17 NFL season, he summed up the thoughts of everyone who watched Aaron Donald play for the first time.
“Aaron Donald. Because he’s better than everybody, and I didn’t know he was better than everybody. I thought he was good, but I didn’t know he was better than everybody.”
After graduating from Penn Hills High School, Pittsburgh native Aaron Donald was considered a three-star prospect and was rated as the 37th best defensive tackle in the nation. He committed to his hometown college, the University of Pittsburgh, declining offers from Toledo, Akron, and Rutgers. Over the course of his four-year collegiate career, Aaron Donald exhibited continuous growth. In his senior year, he was one of the best defensive players in the nation and was subsequently named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous All-American.
Despite his excellent collegiate career and performance at the NFL Combine, Donald wasn’t rated as highly as you would expect. He was considered undersized (6’1″, 285 lbs) by many experts. Before the Senior Bowl, some projected him to be as low as a fourth-round pick.
Aaron Donald quickly shut down these wild criticisms. At the 2014 NFL Combine, he set the record for the fastest 40-yard dash time for a defensive tackle (4.68 s), despite weighing in at 285 pounds. After putting in 35 bench-press reps of 225 pounds and displaying his quickness in agility drills, Donald was a consensus first-round prospect. He went on to be drafted in the first round with the 13th overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft by the St. Louis (now Los Angeles) Rams, a pick that now looks like a steal.
Fast forward five years and Aaron Donald is on the verge of winning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards and being a First-team All-Pro for the fourth time.
This offseason, he signed a six-year, $135 million contract, making him the highest paid defensive player in NFL history. While some predicted some stagnancy in his performance after he achieved financial security, Donald is instead enjoying the best season of his career and one of the greatest seasons ever by a defensive tackle.
|Sacks||Tackles for Loss||QB Hits|
|2018 (11 games)||14.5||16||28|
In 2017, Donald won his first Defensive Player of the Year award and took home First-team All-Pro honors for the third time in his career. In just 11 of 16 games this season, Donald has surpassed his 2017 numbers. He’s not in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion because there is no discussion. He’s in the Most Valuable Player discussion.
Many people don’t realize how uncommon it is for a defensive tackle to put up the sack totals that Donald is this year. Keith Millard’s 18.0 sacks in 1989 for the Vikings is the NFL record for most sacks by a defensive tackle in a single season. Only 10 players in the history of the game have put up a 20 sack season. None of them were full-time interior linemen like Donald and Millard. With 14.5 sacks through 11 games, Donald is on pace for 21 sacks.
For years, offenses have been trying to figure out how to slow down the most dominant force in the game. According to Next Gen Stats, Donald is being double teamed on 70% of his snaps. Vikings’ defensive end Danielle Hunter, second in the league in sacks behind Donald, is being double teamed on 34% of his snaps. Not only can no single player stop the greatest interior linemen of the 21st century, but two players can’t slow Donald down either.
There have been many great defensive tackles in the history of the National Football League. When people rank the best of all time, the most common names are Bob Lilly, Randy White, Warren Sapp, John Randle, Alan Page, and Joe Greene. Unfortunately, the AP Defensive Player of the Year wasn’t in existence until 1971. Furthermore, sacks only began to be recorded in 1982.
Let’s compare the careers of the top all-time DTs to Aaron Donald’s accolades, assuming he maintains his current level of play and wins the Defensive Player of the Year award and makes the First-team All-Pro this year.
|Player||Seasons Played||First-Team All-Pro Appearances||AP Defensive Player of the Year Awards (Since 1971)|
|John Randle||14 (1990-2003)||6||0|
|Alan Page||16 (1967-1981)||6||1|
|Randy White||14 (1975-1988)||7||0|
|Bob Lilly||14 (1961-1974)||7||0|
|Warren Sapp||13 (1995-2007)||4||1|
|Joe Greene||13 (1969-1981)||4||2|
|Aaron Donald||5 (2014-2018)||4||2|
Aaron Donald is already tied with “Mean” Joe Greene for the most Defensive Player of the Year awards for a defensive tackle. He could tie J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor to have the most for any player ever. If he stays healthy, Donald should be able to make the First-team All-Pro the next two seasons. Getting eight appearances would be very hard considering how much more talent is in the league today, but seven is feasible. Regardless, barring injury, Aaron Donald will almost certainly go down as a top 5 defensive tackle of all time.
The Los Angeles Rams are currently 10-1 and hold their own destiny in the NFC. It is very likely that the road to the Super Bowl will go through their LA Memorial Coliseum. Chances are, Donald and his team will have to go against the New Orleans Saints, who they lost to 45-35 earlier this year.
Whether or not the Rams’ defense can step up will likely decide if they can bring home the Lombardi Trophy. Although the unit has played poorly thus far this season, there’s reason to believe that they’ll improve. Their secondary in particular has been atrocious, so the return of former All-Pro cornerback Aqib Talib from injury will be huge for their squad.
The lack of a consistent outside pass rush has also been detrimental for the Rams. However, outside linebacker Samson Ebukam’s performance against the Kansas City Chiefs, a top offense in the league, was very promising. Ebukam had a sack, an interception, a fumble recovery, and two defensive touchdowns. He also hit quarterback Patrick Mahomes on the interception he threw to Rams cornerback Marcus Peters. Of course, Donald put up 2 sacks and forced two fumbles, both recovered by the Rams. Donald will always do his job, the question is whether or not the rest of the defense can do theirs.
Maybe they won’t. Either way, Aaron Donald will go down in history as one of the most dominant players in the history of American football.
Image Source: Getty Images