Defensive Rookie of the Year: A Case For Aaron Donald Over Khalil Mack


Dec 11, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton (5) scrambles under pressure from St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) during the first half at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

As the St. Louis Rams watched their playoff dreams circle the drain last Thursday, many fans turned their attention toward the post-regular season awards, the Pro Bowl, and the 2015 NFL Draft. For many Rams’ fans, acknowledgement of individual talents on the roster is their only means of compensating for the teams’ failure. Luckily, at least over the last couple of years, they have had plenty of players to rally behind. Last year, in particular, Robert Quinn was in the discussion for seemingly every major “Defensive Player” award, while Johnny Hekker made his own case for supremacy among special teamers. Even Alec Ogletree made a small case to finish among the rookie award winners, compiling arguable the best stat line among outside linebackers in the entire NFL last season. This year, most in Rams Nation, including Chris Long, have thrown their efforts behind Aaron Donald for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

As it currently sits, Donald is unquestionably the top defensive lineman in the rookie class, leading trench players in literally every major statistical category. The numbers aren’t even close. However, merely being the best among your positional grouping is rarely enough to take home a defensive award, particularly for linemen.

His statistical dominance doesn’t stop with the linemen though. Rather, it fully holds true among all front-seven rookies. In fact, Aaron Donald leads all rookies in sacks and tackles for loss, and has been one of the top run stopping defensive player in the NFL this season. That includes Khalil Mack, the Oakland Raiders’ pass rushing specialist, who is likely to be Donald’s top competition for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Despite Mack playing over 200 more snaps than the Rams interior defensive lineman, Oakland’s Top 10 selection has failed to produce anywhere near the same rate as Donald, including in areas you would expect to see a linebacker flourish.

However, many on Team Mack will attempt to throw out the word “context,” and hope to ride that train all the way to the award ceremony. As a statistician, it is true that numbers without some context are meaningless. However, the phrase “context” without context is even more meaningless, particularly when differentiating between two players on different teams for an individual away. While all qualitative measures of players are subjective, the easiest explanation for Aaron Donald over Khalil Mack is this:

Aaron Donald has been consistently the best defensive player on a Top 10 defensive unit. Khalil Mack has similarly been the best player in his unit, but on a bad Oakland Raiders team, with a defense that scares few, if any, in the NFL; look no further than the Rams’ 52-0 blowout win in which Shaun Hill led the Rams offense to five touchdowns in the opening five drives.

Even with that being the case, some will still attempt to hide behind false narratives that they believe should help their case. One popular belief is that Khalil Mack is “double-teamed” on every play. That is most certainly not the case. In fact, anyone who has had the intestinal fortitude and perseverance to actually watch extensive tape on the Oakland Raiders defense has seen their defensive coordinator, Jason Tarver, regularly moved Mack around in the front seven in an attempt to place him in advantageous positions. Some teams have sent extra blockers towards Mack, including the St. Louis Rams. However, those “double-teams” do not come any more frequently than the ones aimed at Aaron Donald, and typically happen “in space,” as opposed to on the line of scrimmage, where guards and center regularly shift their focus to the Rams interior phenom.

On top of hiding behind false narratives, some fans will attempt to discredit Aaron Donald’s individual success and production by pointing to his surrounding talent. However, an argument could be made that playing with studs, like Robert Quinn, and regularly rotating with other top-tier players is a disadvantage for Aaron Donald. Michael Brockers said it best last season when asked about getting sacks on this unit,” It is hard to eat on this defensive line.” Moreover, surrounding talent has rarely, if ever, been a deterrent for winning individual award. Peyton Manning, reigning Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player,  certainly didn’t have any help in the Broncos offense last year, right?

Statistics. Context. However you choose to look at it, Aaron Donald should have a solid case over Khalil Mack for the Defensive Rookie of Year award. In fact, it might be time to start building a case for Donald against someone like Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker, C.J. Mosley, who similarly has top numbers while also leading a top defensive unit.

Sorry, Raiders Nation, at least you have


Derek Carr.