News & Analysis

Aaron Donald, the PFF Dwight Stephenson Award winner

Dec 23, 2018; Glendale, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The most prestigious award PFF gives out each year is not the MVP, but rather what we call the Dwight Stephenson Award, which is given to the best player in the league in a given year. The NFL landscape gets too caught up each year in trying to lend weight to the ‘valuable’ part of the MVP award, when really what we want to do is reward the best player in the game. In the past PFF hasn’t even nominated an MVP, and though we have brought it back this year with PFF’s WAR statistic driving it, that doesn’t change our opinion that the most celebrated name each year should be the player that performed the best relative to his peers, and that’s what we strive to mark with the Stephenson Award.

The biggest difference between this award and the MVP is that it opens the field back up to positions other than quarterback. In a passing league, the quarterback will always be the most valuable player in the game, but that doesn’t mean he is the best in any given season.

In the 2018 NFL season there really is no question who the best player in the game was, and what is remarkable is that he took his game to another level from an already ridiculous starting point. Aaron Donald was the single most destructive force in the game from his interior alignment on the Rams defensive line, earning an overall PFF grade of 95.2, the best of any player in the league.

Donald finished the year as only the second person in the PFF era (2006-present) to record 100-plus total pressures over the regular season. He also led the NFL in sacks, but looking at the totality of pressure is a far more accurate reflection of how a player affected the quarterback. Even hurries are inherently valuable to a defense because a pressured quarterback typically suffers a 34-point drop in passer rating. Donald also led the league a year ago with 91 in just 14 games, but this year he was even better as a pass rusher.

Edge rushers typically get more pressure than interior players when it comes to rushing the passer. They may have a greater distance to travel to get that pressure, but being largely out on an island against tackles and spending much of their time out of the quarterback’s direct line of sight helps them apply that heat compared with interior rushers. Despite that, Donald had 28 more pressures than any edge rusher in the league this season. Saints rookie Marcus Davenport and Vikings star Everson Griffen each had just 28 total pressures on the season, and that’s the distance Donald was ahead of any edge rusher.

But the pressure number alone doesn’t do Donald justice. He led the NFL in pass-rushing productivity with a score of 23.0, had the second-highest pressure percentage and the highest pass-rush win-rate of any player in the league. Only four other players had a win percentage higher than 20% over the year, and Donald was the only player above 25 (25.9%).

The most impressive piece of additional context though is just how much work teams were doing to try and slow him down. Donald was double-teamed on 61.4% of his pass rushes, and he still won at a higher rate than anybody else in the game. He is the best player in football, and terrifyingly, he appears to be only getting better.

Aaron Donald is the winner of PFF’s Dwight Stephenson Award for the 2018 season. 

Keep up to date with PFF's end of season awards:

Offensive Rookie of the Year | Defensive Rookie of the Year | Comeback Player of the Year | Offensive Player of the Year | Defensive Player of the Year | The Stephenson Award | PFF's Most Valuable Player | The Hutson Award for Best Wide Receiver | The Matthews Award for Best Offensive Lineman | The Reggie White Award for Best Pass Rusher | The Ted Washington Award for Best Run Defender | The Richard Lane Award for Best Coverage Defender | Breakout Player of the Year | Pass Blocker of the Year | The NFL's Best Offensive Line | Run Blocker of the Year | Passer of the Year | Special Teams Player of the Year

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