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Los Angeles is inheriting last season's best NFL player

St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald takes up his position during the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst)

Another PFF Top 101 is in the books, and our No. 1 player from the 2015 NFL season, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, might come as a surprise for longtime readers. There were several great quarterback and wide receiver performances last season, and J.J. Watt was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, but for us, no player was more impressive for their position in 2015 than Donald.

As a pass-rusher, no DT outperformed Donald, who moves with his team from St. Louis to Los Angeles for 2016. His 98.8 pass-rush grade was the best for interior defensive linemen. While other DTs had more sacks, his combined sacks-and-hits total of 37 was 14 more than any other positional peer. This led to a pass-rushing productivity of 12.4, which was not just the best this year at the position, but the second best for all defensive tackles in our nine years of grading NFL games.

Rank Name Team Year Pass rushes Sacks Hits Hurries Pressures Pass-rush productivity
1 Geno Atkins CIN 2012 494 16 13 49 78 12.7
2 Aaron Donald SL 2015 500 11 26 42 79 12.4
3 Geno Atkins CIN 2015 546 14 9 58 81 11.8
4 Albert Haynesworth TEN 2007 348 6 13 31 50 11.2
5 Gerald McCoy TB 2013 561 10 14 56 80 11.1

Donald’s play against the run last season was also extraordinary. At 96.9, his PFF run-defense grade was second-best just behind newly-signed Giant Damon Harrison. Part of that grade was due to how often he made stops in the run game. His 10.9 run-stop percentage was fourth-best for defensive tackles with at least 250 snaps against the run. What makes that more impressive is the fact that he made all of those stops primarily lined up against the guard, while the other players in the top six primarily line up against the center, generally where players make run stops at a higher frequency. Below is the list of the top six defensive tackles in run-stop percentage, and how often they lined up at 0- or 1-technique.

Rank Name Team RunsSnaps Stops Run-stop percentage 0- or 1- technique percentage
1 Damon Harrison NYJ 271 49 18.1 78.9%
2 Bennie Logan PHI 284 42 14.8 64.2%
3 Dan Williams OAK 257 31 12.1 62.7%
4 Aaron Donald SL 339 37 10.9 14.1%
T-5 Brandon J. Williams BLT 341 36 10.6 66.1%
T-5 Ian Williams SF 350 37 10.6 60.9%

What makes Donald even more impressive is his consistency. He graded out above-average in all 16 games he played in. Twelve different offensive linemen had their worst game of the season against the Rams, and Donald played a big part in each of their negative grades. This includes Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda, who received his only below-average graded game in his last 39, as well as Green Bay’s T.J. Lang. Each finished among our top-five graded guards for the year (Donald didn’t get a chance to face the other three in our top five). There were another 11 offensive linemen whose second-worst game came against the Rams, with Donald playing a significant factor.

What might be most surprising about Donald reaching the top spot is that he’s ahead of J.J. Watt. While Watt had more sacks, Donald was getting more pressure on a per-play basis. This is especially impressive because Donald lined up against a guard or center on 88.4 percent of his plays, while Watt did on only 3.7 percent of his snaps. It’s more difficult to get sacks and pressures against guards and centers compared to tackles. Donald also had a better run-stop percentage than Watt. In terms of grades, 2015 was Watt’s lowest-graded season out of his last four (though still good enough to earn him a top-5 spot in our Top 101). While you could partially blame injury, the play on the field is what matters for the Top 101, and in 2015, Aaron Donald was the best.

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