News & Analysis

Aaron Donald wins 2019 PFF Defensive Player of the Year

The fact that the NFL awards are driven mostly by flash plays and highlights is likely to be proven yet again in February when Aaron Donald doesn’t win Defensive Player of the Year. After all, the only reason to explain his omission would be either his “lack” of highlight-reel plays or the AP simply growing bored with giving him the award every year. However, those are the kind of mistakes that PFF will not make.

Aaron Donald was once again the best defender in football this season, even if we can acknowledge that the gap between him and the field was closer this year than in seasons past.

Donald led all interior defenders in total pressures this season, with 80, which was 18 more than any other interior player. That’s phenomenal, but coming from a season in which he led all defenders by around the same margin, it looks somehow underwhelming.

Most pressures by an interior defensive lineman in 2019 (regular season only)
Name Sacks Hits Hurries Pressures Win %
Aaron Donald 14 13 53 80 21.7%
Kenny Clark 8 2 52 62 15.8%
Cameron Heyward 10 13 36 59 15.1%
Chris Jones 9 14 35 58 17.6%
Fletcher Cox 4 10 42 56 14.1%

A season ago, Donald was chasing the single-season sack record all year long, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of setting that as his baseline for expectations. For an interior pass-rusher to be anywhere near the single-season sack record is the outlier of all outliers. Donald’s season a year ago wasn’t just a Defensive Player of the Year kind of season; it was one of the greatest single seasons the league has seen from any player at any position. The fact that he slipped somewhat from that standard is inevitable, and shouldn’t detract from what he was able to do this year on a team that wasn’t nearly as good.

His overall PFF grade this season was still 93.7, markedly clear of any other defensive lineman. Though all of his numbers were down last year, they compare well to his 2017 season, a year in which he also won Defensive Player of the Year. Donald had more sacks and combined sacks and hits this season than he did in 2017, and while he generated more hurries in 2017, he generated significantly more defeated blocks that didn’t get a chance to become pressure this season, as teams were able to get the ball in the air faster against the Rams defense. His pass-rush win rate (22.7% in 2017, 21.7% in 2019) and PFF pass-rushing grades (93.7 in 2017, and 92.8 in 2019) are both very close, and he rushed the passer almost 60 more times this year.

Aaron Donald: Pass-rushing numbers since 2015 (regular season only)
Season Pass-rush grade Sacks Hits Hurries Total Pressures Win %
2019 92.8 14 13 53 80 21.7%
2018 94.3 21 20 65 106 25.9%
2017 93.7 12 13 66 91 22.7%
2016 93.3 8 21 52 81 21.4%
2015 93.0 11 26 42 79 20.0%

Donald was better against the run this season than he was in 2017 (but, again, he wasn't as good as his 2018 outlier). His average depth of tackle in the run game this past year was 0.05 yards downfield — effectively averaging a tackle for no gain whenever he made a run stop.

The other factor that weighs into the optics of Donald’s season is that the Los Angeles Rams were a shadow of the Super Bowl team from a season ago. In 2018, they won their division with a 13-3 record and scored so many points (527) that the opposition was regularly in a bad spot in terms of chasing the game, which just teed up monster pass-rushing days for Donald. This season, the Rams were third in their division, they were four wins worse off, and they scored only 394 points, so Donald rarely had the same opportunities to get after the quarterback. The fact that the Rams were less of a national story is in itself enough to cool the hype around Donald, but the fact that their fall in dominance actually contributed to his numbers declining is also a key factor.

Other players had fine and worthy seasons. Stephon Gilmore was excellent for the Patriots until getting cooked late in the year by DeVante Parker, Eric Kendricks was a force in coverage all season for the Vikings even if he didn’t have the interceptions to show for it, and T.J. Watt massively increased his pressure rate and generated a series of game-changing plays on his way to becoming one of the best edge rushers in the game. 

Any of those players would be a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors, but no single player was as consistently elite as Donald was every time he stepped on the field. It may be boring to hand the same award to the same player every year, but we shouldn’t be looking for reasons to stop doing so if that player earns it. Aaron Donald was once again the best defensive player in football, and he once again deserves the award.

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