ATLANTA — When New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked what stands out about Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, he had a short answer that said it all.
“Everything,” Belichick said.
There are more than a few stars in Super Bowl LIII, but the best player regardless of position is probably Donald, though Tom Brady might disagree. Donald set a record for defensive tackles with 20.5 sacks this season, which is even more amazing considering he gets double teamed most of the time. About halfway through this season, NFL Next Gen Stats said he was double teamed on 70 percent of plays.
He might have no chance of winning NFL MVP, because defensive players have been practically eliminated from consideration, but Super Bowl MVP? That could happen. Though, Donald doesn’t seem concerned about his personal glory.
“It’s really not about sacks,” Donald said. “I’m worried about just trying to find a way to win. It’s about trying to disrupt the game. Whatever I can do to try to help my team try to win a Super Bowl. I don’t care about the stats.”
It’s not like a Super Bowl MVP for Donald would raise his stature that much. He is the reigning NFL defensive player of the year and a virtual lock to win it again on Saturday when the NFL hands out its awards. His status in the game is undisputed, so we have to wonder about where he fits historically.
“Aaron Donald may be one of the best players to ever play the game, when it’s all said and done,” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson told NFL Network this week. “He’s probably one of those guys who is unblockable.”
Where would Donald rank if we redrafted the entire NFL from scratch? The answer probably won’t surprise you, but we did the first 16 picks anyway.
The list is without quarterbacks, because quarterbacks have become their own separate NFL economy. Of the 22 players whose contracts averaged at least $18 million per year last season, 18 were quarterbacks. Blake Bortles and Case Keenum have the same average salary as Odell Beckham, and Ryan Tannehill made more than Von Miller. The extreme shift to emphasize quarterbacks has made it hard to compare quarterbacks and non-quarterbacks. So we shall not for this exercise. Contracts are also not factored in, and age is considered to an extent — think of it as a draft for the next five seasons:
1. Los Angeles Rams DT Aaron Donald: There’s nothing more valuable in the NFL, outside of a great quarterback, than a consistent pass rush right up the middle. And don’t forget how the constant double-team attention on Donald opens things up for everyone else.
2. Chicago Bears DE Khalil Mack: The Raiders didn’t get enough in the trade for him. He’s the highest-paid non-quarterback in league history, and he has earned it.
3. Houston Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins: He became a star early in his career with bad quarterbacks, and is unstoppable with Deshaun Watson. Also, he’s just 26.
4. Houston Texans DE J.J. Watt: Watt’s injury history is a little troublesome. But he’s also a three-time defensive player of the year and looked as good as new this past season.
5. New York Giants WR Odell Beckham: Yes, the injuries are a concern. And the constant drama isn’t ideal. But when Beckham is right, he’s unstoppable. He’s riskier than, say, Michael Thomas (or Julio Jones, who was left off this list due to his age), but he has a ceiling few other players can match.
6. Denver Broncos OLB Von Miller: Miller’s MVP performance in Super Bowl 50 might be the greatest game by a defensive player in Super Bowl history. He has posted double-digit sacks in each of his NFL seasons, except one that was cut short due to a torn ACL.
7. Seattle Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner: Inside linebacker is a position that has been devalued a bit, but Wagner is as good as it gets. He never comes off the field and is versatile enough to do whatever the Seahawks need.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey: Ramsey had a great 2017 and a down 2018, like most of the Jaguars. But he’s still an elite talent and has a bright future.
9. Philadelphia Eagles DT Fletcher Cox: If not for Donald, Cox might be the standard for defensive tackles in the NFL. He is a disruptive pass rusher and great against the run, too. He is coming off his first double-digit sack season.
10. Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce: There’s a good argument for which tight end should top this list. George Kittle is already a star after two seasons, Zach Ertz set a single-season record for catches by a tight end, but Kelce has three straight 1,000-yard seasons. And good tight ends are hard to find.
11. New Orleans CB Marshon Lattimore: Lattimore didn’t have a great second season, after dominating as a rookie and winning NFL defensive rookie of the year. Still, he’s young, has a first-round pedigree and he should bounce back next season.
12. New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley: The best running back prospect since at least Adrian Peterson and maybe long before that was as good as advertised. He can do it all, and did so on a bad Giants offense.
13. Dallas Cowboys G Zack Martin: It’s not a golden age for offensive linemen, but Martin’s consistency stands out. He has been a Pro Bowler five times in five seasons with three first-team All-Pro nods. Offensive line is a little under represented on this list, but Martin would be worth this pick.
14. Los Angeles Chargers S Derwin James: It’s still surprising he slipped a bit in last year’s draft, because he’s the type of do-everything safety NFL teams need to combat evolving offenses. He was an All-Pro as a rookie and he’ll probably be on that team a few more times before he’s done.
15. New York Jets S Jamal Adams: When he’s not tackling mascots, Adams has become an incredible defender for the Jets. He was the sixth overall pick of the 2017 draft and that has paid off.
16. Arizona Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson: The Cardinals didn’t run as much man coverage in 2018, but Peterson still remains the rare cornerback who can line up against a No. 1 receiver and effectively shadow him all game.
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