Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is a 2-time Defensive Player of the Year award winner already, having captured the honor in both 2017 and 2018. Donald is the consensus best defensive player in the NFL and has been an absolutely dominant force since entering the league in 2014. His 2020 season was no different, and it should earn him the Defensive Player of the Year award once again. Donald earned a whopping sixth-straight First Team All-Pro selection this season, as well as his seventh-straight Pro Bowl berth. Donald racked up 13.5 sacks, but his impact goes far beyond the basic box score and is tremendously overlooked. The other two prime candidates for DPOY this season are T.J. Watt and Xavien Howard. Both had great years, but not near the level of Donald. Let’s dive into why Aaron Donald should be named the DPOY handily when it is announced this Saturday at 9 PM EST on CBS during the annual NFL Honors presentation.
Breaking Down Donald’s Season
Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald had another dominant year in 2020. Donald had 13.5 sacks, and a league-high 98 pressures to go along with a league-high 69 hurries (which was also a career-high). The stats jump off the page and illustrate that he is the most productive defender in the NFL. But two things really set him apart from the pack. One is that he is an interior defensive lineman. That is a position that is not supposed to wreck games like this, but Donald revolutionized the position as the most dominant player to ever do it there. Number two is the double-teams that Donald faces. Donald is double-teamed more than any other player in football, yet still beats his blocker(s) better than anyone else at his position. His superiority to the rest of his position is absurd. Below is some perspective, via ESPN advanced metrics.
In addition, Donald is also the highest graded run defender out of all the interior defensive linemen in football, according to PFF. Donald is simply a freak of nature. His disruption on the quarterback in terms of all the major categories; sacks, pressures, hurries, etc. is absurd. But when you also realize that he does it as an interior lineman who is double-teamed more than any other player in the NFL, it is simply ridiculous. All of this adds up to make Aaron Donald the easy choice for Defensive Player of the Year. Now let’s compare him to the other leading candidates.
T.J. Watt had a fantastic season for the Steelers in 2020. Watt had 15.0 sacks, 73 pressures, and 31 hurries. Those are fantastic numbers, but not enough to surpass Donald. Watt should have higher numbers across the board than Donald as he is an edge rusher, but instead Donald outclasses him significantly in terms of both pressures and hurries (98-73 and 69-31). Watt is not double-teamed nearly as often as Donald or other edge rushers, according to ESPN advanced metrics and as shown below.
As you can see, T.J. Watt barely got double-teamed in 2020, and in fact was in the lower 50% in double-team rate for his position. Him playing on an absolutely loaded defensive line plays a part in this. Watt receives a ton of one-on-ones and free paths at the QB due to playing with so many other great players on his line. Opposing teams do not have the luxury of game-planning against him like they do for players like Donald, since the Pittsburgh defensive front is too strong to focus on just one player. This is not Watt’s fault, but he certainly has it easier than some other premier defenders. Donald was double-teamed more than 70% of the time, while Watt was less than 20% of the time. Watt had a truly fantastic season. However, Donald caused more disruption in all the major categories, while facing a significant amount of more double-teams. Donald also had a higher pass-rush win rate than Watt and actually the highest in the league, according to PFF and as shown below. This makes it clear that Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald should be definitively ahead of T.J. Watt in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion.
Xavien Howard was the best cornerback in football in 2020. He should receive serious DPOY consideration, and rightfully so. Howard racked up a whopping 10 interceptions on the season. However, it is extremely challenging for a cornerback to win the award. Darelle Revis did not win it in 2009 despite having what is widely considered the best season by a cornerback ever. Champ Bailey did not win it in 2006 despite having 10 picks and being a force all over the field. Stephon Gilmore did win it last season, but the award field played a huge role in that. This year is a much more loaded field in consideration. Plus, Gilmore was slightly more lockdown last season than Howard was this season, allowing less yards and allowing a lower opposing passer rating when targeted.
Anyways, back to Donald and Howard. Aaron Donald is head and shoulders above the rest of his position, as any DPOY should be. While Howard was likely the best corner in the league this year, he did not set himself significantly apart from the pack like Donald. Howard had a knack for the splashy play but there were some other corners that were more shutdown on a down-to-down basis. Howard allowed 7.1 yards per target on the year, which is not even close to tops among corners. Jaire Alexander allowed just 4.7 yards per target and Jalen Ramsey just 4.9. Those are staggering numbers and much better than Howard. While Howard was a turnover machine this season, he did not bring the sheer dominance to every snap like Donald did. In addition, Donald is a force in all aspects of the game, including pass rushing and run defense. Howard is not a great run defender. Overall, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald had a more dominant season than Xavien Howard in 2020, compared to their positions and all-around play. Howard was fantastic, just not as good as Donald.
Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald should be the clear-cut favorite for the Defensive Player of the Year award when it is announced at NFL Honors. His dominance is simply ridiculous and he does it all while being constantly double-teamed and having opposing offenses scheme entire gameplans around him. Donald is getting overlooked because of his consistency in being at the top of his craft. He gets a similar treatment to LeBron James and the NBA MVP award. James is so consistent that he could win the award every year, but voters get fatigued of giving it the same person. Donald faces the same thing as he easily could’ve been the DPOY in each of the past six seasons. His insane season this year must not be overlooked though. While T.J. Watt and Xavien Howard are strong competition, it is clear that Aaron Donald should be given the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year award.
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