Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Follow Up: Aaron Donald, Defensive MVP Candidate

by John Turney

In September Pro Football Journal reviewed Aaron Donald's rookie season and asked "whether he can take the next step to being a First-team All-pro or even a Defensive Player of the Year candidate?"

Well, with three games to go, it seems Donald has answered that question in the affirmative. In the prior article Donald's rookie season was compared to a select group of 3-technique-type defensive tackles who had productive careers, and now, even with three weeks to go in the 2015 NFL season Donald has already out-paced his predecessors:

On his current pace he could well end up with 12 or more sacks and 12 or more stuffs.  And with those sacks and stuffs (including pass stuffs), Donald trails only J.J. Watt and Khalil Mack in the NFL:
Players with 13 or more through Week 14. Chart: Pro Football Journal
And in the NFL's version of stuffs, called tackles for a loss (TFL), Donald is third.

Sidenote: One post this upcoming offseason Nick Webster and I will detail the differences in Stats, LLC's "stuff" statistic and Elias Sports Bureau's "tackle for a loss" and why they are different but that is for another time.

However, there is an interesting aspect of Aaron Donald's game that should be noted. That is his responsibilities in coverage. Once or twice a game, Donald is asked to do a coverage drop in certain situations. In the Gregg Williams's playbook it is called a "Spider" drop. And he's asked to cover the #3 receiver to his side, essentially man-to-man, though it is technically a zone.

In zone blitz schemes, tackles (or ends) have long since been asked to cover a hook or middle zone while a linebacker or defensive back replaces him in a pass rush. But this twist seems quite interesting and challenging.

Here are a couple of examples: 
Credit:NFL Replay

In this first case the ball went to the far right and Trumaine Johnson intercepted it.
Credit: NFL replay
In this second link Donald assisted on the tackle, but it is quite unusual to see a defensive tackle assigned to do these things, it's a tough "ask".

Dirk Koetter, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator said this week said, ‘... He’s on the same level as J.J. Watt.’ This guy is having a fantastic year”

In terms of Defensive Player of the Year, Donald should be in the mix with Watt, Josh Norman, Luke Kuechly, perhaps Chandler Jones and Tyrann Mathieu,  Khalil Mack, and others. However, it may very well be a very tight vote and the final three weeks may bring in some separation.
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  1. John you're spot on regarding timing being the key here. Recall 2 years ago when no defender had clearly distinguished themselves and Carolina Luke clinched it with a 24 tackle performance in week 16, game 15, despite not even being the best Linebacker in the NFL. It's that kind of close race this year.

  2. Interesting, I think Watt is suffering from Peyton Manning, Bill Belichick, even Mike Trout disease. You expect him to be the best, so unless what he does is otherworldly it isn't worthy of special consideration.