Aaron Donald's 44-day holdout this summer might have ended without a new contract, but following his fourth NFL season, he'll again receive plenty of other accolades, including being named Pro Football Weekly's 2017 Defensive MVP.
Donald, 26, made up for lost time in 2017, when, after missing Week 1 following the lengthy holdout, he led the NFC West champions in sacks (11), tackles for loss (15) and QB hits (27), plus a career-high five forced fumbles — tied for second in the NFL.
“He can impact in a lot of ways," Sean McVay, PFW's Coach of the Year, said after Week 17. "I think it’s very rare that you see a player of his caliber, but he’s one of the few people in the world that can totally disrupt the game plan, especially from that interior defensive lineman spot."
Donald only played in 14 games — he also sat out a meaningless Week 17 visit to the 49ers — but still racked up an obscene 91 pressures to easily lead the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. That coming from a player who probably takes on as many triple teams as he does single blockers. Donald would tack on 11(!) more pressures in the wild-card round loss to the Falcons, when his relentlessness and destruction was a sight to behold.
The Rams have other excellent playmakers in their front seven, including rangy linebackers in Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree and DE Robert Quinn. But it's Donald, the four-time Pro Bowler, whom the opposition builds game plans around stopping. It's a futile exercise, as Donald is just too quick, too powerful and too determined not to dominate the line week-in and week-out.
“Once he started," said defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, alluding to Donald's holdout, "he’s obviously the best defensive player in the league. The run, pass, for the number of games that he’s played and especially when he came in late, so I can’t say enough good things about him."
Lest we forget, Phillips coached J.J. Watt in his prime and installed the same scheme with the Rams this offseason, his patented attacking 3-4. And although it's a sub-package league, Donald wasn't in camp to learn the nuances of lining up in a new spot in base and getting moved around more than he was in his first three seasons.
"I think he was a little rusty when he came in just football-wise, but after that he’s been a dynamo," said Phillips. "He’s not superhuman, but he’s almost unstoppable. People try to double team him, they try to triple team him, all those things and he still makes plays and pressures the quarterback. We know the sacks, but the pressures, I mean he’s pressured the quarterback multiple times more than anyone else in the league and it isn’t close, so that just shows what he can do.”
Donald had a "dominate" look in his eye, McVay said, during the Rams' signature win, a 42-7 undressing of the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 15, when Donald tallied three sacks and a forced fumble. His strip-sack at the end of the first half punctuated the biggest victory to date of the McVay era.
Phillips points to Donald's game-sealing sack of Brian Hoyer in Week 3, in just his second game back in action. That it came late, when Donald probably didn't yet have his legs under him, illustrates a great player elevating his play with the game on the line.
"He just makes plays and under pressure he’s just as good,” Phillips said.
Indeed, if Donald felt any pressure to back up his holdout, he had a unique way of showing it. In edging Jacksonville's Calais Campbell by one tally on our 18-person voting panel, Donald earns his first defensive MVP honor but likely not his last.
And Donald will be earning a lot more soon. Both him and 2016 defensive MVP Khalil Mack are in line to reset the standard for richest defensive contracts ever this offseason. An edge player like Mack is supposed to rack up the gaudy numbers and bigger contract, but Donald's production did more than earn him MVP honors — they just might earn him the bigger deal too.