Should Aaron Donald be the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year?

Former Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald entered the 2014 NFL Draft to a litany of questions about whether his 6-foot-1-inch, 285-pound frame could make the adjustment from college to the NFL. 

The skepticism soon vanished as Donald thrived for the St. Louis Rams, compiling nine sacks and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Now, one question remains about Donald: should the NFL name him 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year? Brandon Duerr and Alex Fischbein discuss heading into the announcement coming on Jan. 31:

Alex Fischbein:

If a rookie is one of the top players at his position, across all ages, he should definitely be a favorite for one of the Rookie of the Year awards. 

Donald was one of the best defensive tackles in the league this season, and he’s shown his deservance of the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. 

Selected 13th overall by the St. Louis Rams in the draft last May, Donald had 47 combined tackles, nine sacks and two forced fumbles this season. Meanwhile, perennial All-Pros Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy had 53 and 35 combined tackles, respectively, and both posted 8.5 sacks. Donald is close to Suh in combined tackles and has more sacks and forced fumbles than the two stars, too.

Donald matched and exceeded some of the best in the game while only playing 67.5 percent of the snaps on defense — almost 14 percent less than Suh did for the Detroit Lions.

If a debate about a defensive player arises, one of the biggest factors is the “game-changing” ability. Donald made game-changing plays by plugging up the middle of the line and getting into the backfield, blowing up plays before they could even develop. 

The main competition against Donald is Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, a first-round pick out of Alabama. While Mosley had quite a season, there are still players with more outstanding production than his. Donald still had more sacks than Mosley and one less forced turnover. Mosley averaged just one sack per 355 snaps, while Donald was getting a sack for roughly every 79 snaps — even more impressive when compared to Suh’s total of one sack every 100 snaps.

The biggest plus for Aaron Donald is that he not only played well, but he also played efficiently. He made sure to use the playing time — a lot or a little. During his last season at Pitt, Donald racked up 11 sacks against the easier competition in the ACC. He was also only two sacks short of that mark while facing much tougher competition in the NFL. 

Facing off against bigger offensive lines is always a challenge for any rookie defensive lineman, but the undersized Donald didn’t deviate from his college production. The only difference between the numbers he produced at Pitt and the numbers he produced this season with the Rams were the snaps. And, after the rookie campaign he just put up, that playing time will only be increasing as time goes on.

Brandon Duerr:

Aaron Donald has broken into the NFL scene as not only one of the best rookies in the game, but also as one of the best overall defenders in the league with an impressive combination of pass-rushing ability and a keen nose for sniffing out the run game. While Donald has boasted Pro Bowl numbers throughout his rookie season in the NFL, there are a few players who actually have a better case to hoist the trophy for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. 

The first is Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack. The 6-foot-3, 252-pound Mack has been a defensive stud for the underachieving Raiders team this year. Selected fifth overall out of Buffalo, Mack had 75 combined tackles ­— 59 of them solo — to supplement four total sacks and a forced fumble. 

The knock on Mack comes with his team’s record, as Oakland was 3-13 on the season. The Raiders are a relatively young team lacking veteran leadership. The Ravens asked Mack to contribute heavily to the squad’s rebuilding, all while transitioning from college to the NFL like any first-year player. 

Compared to Donald, Mack anchored a defense that led the league in negative rushes allowed at 69. Mack had 27 tackles for a loss or no gain, which not only led all rookies but also was sixth in the league among defenders overall, behind names such as J.J. Watt and Justin Houston. 

The second player, the one who I believe should win the award, is Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. He has burst onto the scene as one of the most complete linebackers in football and is doing so playing six of his first 16 career games against the rugged competition of the AFC North. 

Mosley has played the most defensive snaps among rookie linebackers and also leads all rookies in tackles with 117, which was good for seventh in the entire league. Mosley has more tackles, interceptions, defended passes and disrupted more total dropbacks than both Donald and Mack.

The young linebacker has also thrived in the clutch for the Ravens this season, making key plays and causing havoc in both the running and passing games. Mosley, unlike Donald or Mack, helped lead his Baltimore team into the playoffs. He produced nine combined tackles in the Ravens first-round win in Pittsburgh against the Steelers and continually pressured the passing game. 

In the divisional-round loss to the Patriots the following week, Mosely still shined. He combined to produce double-digit tackles with 10 and also forced a fumble on Julian Edelman in the second quarter. 

Though you can make strong arguments for Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald as Defensive Rookie of the Year, the NFL should award Mosley. Not only was Mosley one of the leading tacklers in the entire NFL, but he also shined as one of the team leaders on a Ravens team that also dealt with many off-the-field issues throughout the season. His pressure on the quarterback from the linebacker position helped speed up the retooling of the Ravens’ defense and was a key factor in taking the Ravens to the playoffs once again.