Aaron Donald Retirement: His dominance was unmatched in the NFL

Entering his eighth During the NFL season, defensive end Aaron Donald was missing one of his accomplishments: a Super Bowl ring.

When he and the Los Angeles Rams reached Super Bowl LVI in the 2021 season, Donald sealed the victory with one of the signature plays of his 10-year career, which ended Friday when he announced his retirement.

On fourth down on a three-point play, Donald pressured Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and forced an incomplete pass to complete a 23-20 Rams victory. His celebration will also be remembered: He ran with his arms outstretched, then pointed to his left ring finger, where his first Super Bowl ring would go.

But even before that title, Donald dominated offenses, earning three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, tied for the most in NFL history. The Super Bowl LVI ring is the last box to check for a career that will eventually have a bust of Donald in Canton, Ohio.

Atlanta Falcons coach and former Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris told ESPN. “Not just because I've coached him. The impact he's had on the game, the impact he's had on the inside, what he's been able to do. [Hall of Famers] Lawrence Taylor … 'Average' Joe Green. He's on that career path.”

Drafted 13th out of Pitt by the St. Louis Rams in 2014, Donald set the Rams' franchise record with 111 career sacks. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in all 10 of his NFL seasons and was named first-team All-Pro in eight seasons. Donald was also the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year.

According to ESPN Stats and Information Research, Donald is one of only two defensive players since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to earn a Pro Bowl selection in their first 10 NFL seasons, along with Taylor (10).

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Donald and Barry Sanders are the only players in NFL history to play at least 10 seasons and be selected to the Pro Bowl in each season. Sanders played all 10 seasons, retiring in 1998.

Morris got the feeling that Donald had “done everything he set out to do” on the football field.

“I can't say I'm surprised, it's still worth the shock because he has so much more,” Morris said. “It kind of gives you a sense of Gale Sayers, Barry Sanders walking away when a guy doesn't really need to walk away. It's time for him.”

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Despite showing that he can still play at the highest level in the league and earning another Pro Bowl nod in 2023, Donald seems ready for whatever comes after his storied football career.

“Throughout my career, I have given my all mentally and physically to football — 365 days a year dedicated to becoming the best player I can be,” Donald wrote in his announcement. “…As I turn my attention to a new chapter, I'm not sure what the future holds, but I'm excited about the opportunities off the field.”

one look It's easy to say that Donald and he had the physical attributes to dominate the line of scrimmage. His workouts at the Rams' facility would remain legendary, and rookies often thought — or at least hoped — they could continue.

Rams strength and conditioning director Justin Lovett had a list of 15 names on his office whiteboard. “AD's Body Count” is a list of players who have tried and failed to complete a workout with Donald since Lovett was hired in 2020. During training camp in 2023, new defensive backs Kobe Turner and Dejuan Johnson were added. list.

Turner, who led NFL rookies in sacks last season, tried to match Donald in one of the first weeks of training camp. The nose tackle said he was doing some drills with Donald “at a slower pace.” But halfway through the second day, he had a seizure.

“I was put on the roster that day,” Turner said in September. “But he's ridiculous. He's there all the time, in the morning, all the time after practice. It's impossible to try to keep up, but it's definitely worth striving for.”

At 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds, Donald's unmatched strength in the weight room translated to the field.

“It's his strength along with his size,” New York Giants guard Justin Buck, 2022, said. “Looks at him down low. He's not that big. And then he gets out quicker than any defensive end and he's stronger than any defensive tackle.”

“He's got this rare trait that's unheard of inside. And most of the time you think of inside linebackers as big, fat, run-stoppers. He changed that position. And he changed it and got a lot. Guys paid to play that position.”

Part of what made Donald's success so impressive was the attention he received from opposing defenses. Over the past five years, Donald has been double-teamed a league-high 1,510 times by a pass rusher, or 135 more than any other player, according to ESPN Analytics/NFL NextGen stats. He hit 186 under 2.5 seconds, 51 more than any other player (Chris Jones was second with 135).

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“You're always trying to get four hands on him, and he knows that, and he's going to win anyway,” Morris said. “And he turns those double teams into two separate teams. And he takes his time, never misses with his hands, and can handle you and what you want to do wrong.

“He knows what you want to do. And if he gets a chance to hang around, he finds a way to get one-on-one when you make a mistake, and he makes you pay in a bad way.”

Over the last five years, the NFL average pass rush success rate against a single pass blocker was 17% for a qualifying rusher. Donald posted an 18% pass rush success rate against double teams over that span, making him better against two pass blockers than average pass rushers against one over the past five years.

“He makes you pay on plays that change the game,” Morris said. “That's the genius and beauty of Aaron Donald.”

Game-planning vs Donald was one of the toughest assignments for an opposing coach.

Donald's ferocity makes opposing quarterbacks want to get rid of the ball faster than ever, Morris said, calling it “terrifying” to practice against the future Hall of Famer.

“You did everything you could in the game plan to not take him out of the game or ruin the game,” Morris said. “And the first play of the game is what you call a scutt [with five offensive linemen blocking] You turn the defense over to him and he hits your quarterback on a three-step drop. That's too bad, it's going to be a miserable day.

And Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford said it was a problem for his teammates on the field when they tried to practice because he was “always listening.”

“He's an intelligent player,” Stafford said in October. “He hears our calls.”

During a Friday practice last season, Stafford went against the Rams defense and called for the defense to double down. Donald went to the other side. Stafford reversed the call. Donald “got up and went up.”

“I said, 'I don't care about doubling him,'” Stafford said. “He knows what's coming to me. I'm trying to find him and help him out. Everyone has different plans for it, whether it's chipping at the back or sending the center in his direction. That. I'm sure he's seen it all and found a way to beat them all. .”

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Donald was so dominant on the practice field that he was “absolutely destroying practices,” Morris said. “And you've got to get him out there to do some things on offense. And then by the time you get to the game, it's going to be fun for him.”

Donald then retires Having spent his entire NFL career with the Rams, he quickly became the face of the franchise, especially during some lean years, as the team hired Sean McVay as head coach in 2017 and acquired Stafford in 2021.

While his impact on the stat sheet and games will be his Hall of Fame calling card, those inside the Rams building in 2023 will remember Donald for something else.

Last offseason, Donald sat down with Rams general manager Les Snead, McVay and vice president Tony Pastores to discuss upcoming changes to the Los Angeles roster in 2023. The Rams knew they were going to “lose guys who were big-time contributors.” If Donald decides to play that season, the roster will look different than previous defenses.

Donald's reaction during that meeting resonated with Snead.

“Look you in the eye and say, 'Here's the deal… I'm fine [to continue playing]Make sure they care,'' Snead said.

Donald was excited by the young roster the Rams built around him through the draft. Morris saw the enthusiasm of the young team, but in Week 13 against the Cleveland Browns, Morris saw Donald and Turner walk off the field with their arms around each other after sharing a sack and a safety.

“I've never seen Aaron show that kind of emotion, just being dismissive with this guy and just having youthful exuberance for him,” Morris said. “It really showed the impact of who he was and what he was trying to do. I thought that was great.”

Turner and third-round pick Byron Young: Donald leaves a defense that had two rookies with at least eight sacks in the NFL. For those who still wonder what he was doing on the field all the time, Donald's retirement after the Rams' playoff run may have come as a shock and the vet looked rejuvenated. But the goal may have been to go out as strong as he came in.

“I don't think he wants to see a complete collapse in this game on the way out,” Morris said. “He doesn't want to be an old Grizzly vet fighting his way into the game. I think he always wants to dominate.”

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