Aaron Donald has been a force since he entered the league in 2014. He’s routinely called one of the best players in football, and that call has only gotten more consistent since he signed a six-year, $135 million deal with the Rams just before the start of the 2018 season.
Donald’s performance in 2019 may have been overshadowed a bit after he set a record for interior linemen with 20.5 sacks the year before. He still had 12.5 sacks and led the league with 20 tackles for loss. But after what he did the previous season — combined with the Rams missing the playoffs — it didn’t quite rate the same.
But as the Rams’ defense improved to No. 1 in total defense and points allowed in 2020, Donald was a big reason why. In his seventh season, he was second in the league with 13.5 sacks, totaling 14 tackles for loss, 26 quarterback hits, and four forced fumbles. He also continuously drew double teams — and sometimes triple teams — allowing his teammates to thrive.
After signing with Los Angeles on a one-year deal, linebacker Leonard Floyd registered a career high 10.5 sacks in 2020, a year after recording 3.0 with the Bears. Fifth-year defensive lineman Morgan Fox went from 2.0 sacks in 2019 to 6.0 this season.
For those reasons, Donald is PFT’s choice for 2020 defensive player of the year.
There were a few other strong contenders for the prize. As Mike Tomlin has said, Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt plays like he’s “visiting from another planet.” The linebacker led the league with 15.0 sacks, 23 tackles for loss, and 41 quarterback hits. Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard seemed to vaporize every pass thrown his way, leading the league with 10 interceptions and 20 passes defensed.
But Donald’s ability to affect nearly every play as an interior lineman sets him apart from his peers. And for the third time in four years, he’s our top defensive player.