Super Bowl 56: Is Rams star Aaron Donald the greatest defensive tackle of all time?

Los Angeles defensive tackle Aaron Donald is already on Mount Rushmore, but with a win in Super Bowl 56, he could become the GOAT.

LOS ANGELES — Super Bowl 56 is a legacy game for Aaron Donald in many ways. The Los Angeles Rams star defensive tackle is high on the list of greatest-to-never-win-it.

But beyond that monkey riding his back, Donald is chasing a different kind of history. A win over the Cincinnati Bengals would help secure another distinction: Best defensive tackle to ever put on pads.

Aaron Donald’s GOAT case

Donald is the best defensive player of his generation. T.J. Watt might have won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award on Thursday, but the reality is he’s just renting an award Donald owns.

Donald has been named DPOY three times (2017, 2018, 2020) — an exclusive club that has just three members. The others? Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt. Donald is the only defensive tackle of the group.

Donald already owns the single-season sack record for a defensive tackle (20.5, set in 2018) and is first on the Rams’ career sacks list (98.0).

A lot of Donald’s case for the GOAT is projection. Just eight seasons into his NFL career, he could conceivably play another five. He’s still in his prime, so the prospect of him adding another 50 sacks to his total is not that far-fetched. But Donald’s greatness goes far beyond his numbers. He’s unblockable at times and has the deep respect of his peers.

Aaron Donald praised by contemporaries

Bengals defensive tackle Zach Kerr has known Donald since the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. He’s been impressed ever since.

“I’ve seen him run a 4.65,” Kerr told PFN this week. “I already knew he was special, but you see him run, you’re like, ‘Oh, wow. This dude’s moving like a running back.’ I think what makes him so unique, what people don’t understand about him is he has natural leverage.

“And that’s not taking away from his god-gifted ability at all,” Kerr continued. “Football’s a leverage game. He’s a 500-pound bencher. He’s got good core strength. He’s got good football IQ. Any time you put all of those things into one and you make him a defensive lineman, you get Aaron Donald. Or you get a guy like John Randle. He’s got good core strength, natural leverage, and he’s a 500-pound bencher.

“You literally cannot draw it up any better than that,” he added. “I think that’s the No. 1 thing that makes him so elite — those three things right there. You can’t stop him. You really can’t. You can’t stop a lot of things he do. I could go on and on about the different things, but those three things make him unique.”

The greatest defensive tackles in NFL history

Donald is already on the Mount Rushmore of defensive tackles, even with his relatively small body of work. He’s been great basically since the moment he entered the league.

But to be the best ever? More work needs to be done. Nevertheless, winning Sunday would go a long way in closing the gap in résumés.

The four best defensive tackles in league history probably are, in alphabetic order, Joe Greene (Steelers, 1969-1981), Bob Lilly (Cowboys, 1961-1974), Merlin Olsen (1962-1976), and Alan Page (Vikings, Bears, 1967-1981).

All are, of course, Hall of Famers and perennial All-Pros. All but Olsen is a Super Bowl champion. While sacks only became an official stat in 1982, there are unofficial numbers dating back to 1960.

Of the defensive tackles to play in the last 62 years, Page is first among defensive tackles and eighth among all defensive players with 148.5. If he stays healthy and the desire to play remains, Donald could shatter that record.

“It’s just trying to find a way to win,” Donald said in the lead-up to Sunday’s game. “It’s trying to find a way to get back and accomplish something I never accomplished before. I don’t know what it feels like to win the Super Bowl. I know what it feels like to be there, but I don’t know what it feels like to win. I feel like I accomplished a lot in a short amount of time in this league. The only thing I’m lacking now is being a world champion. To get to that point, we’ve got to win this week.”


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