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Aaron Donald's NFL career marked by astonishing run of dominance, Super Bowl brilliance with Rams

When the Los Angeles Rams honored Aaron Donald's retirement Friday afternoon, the social media post was headlined "Quarterbacks Rejoice." There isn't a more accurate way to sum up Donald's decade of dominance and disruption as one of the best interior defensive linemen in history. Take it from Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, who had the misfortune of having to face Donald twice a year in the NFC West: "Thank God," he wrote.

It is difficult to overstate Donald's impact from the moment he arrived in the NFL. After an All-American career at the University of Pittsburgh, Donald was selected 13th overall by the then-St. Louis Rams in the 2014 NFL Draft. He went on to be named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year three times in a four-year span (2017, 2018, 2020). Only J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor won the award as many times as Donald did. He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014 and an eight-time first-team All-Pro.

And he accomplished something incredibly rare for even the greatest defensive players -- he made a Super Bowl-winning play for his team. With just 43 seconds left in Super Bowl LVI, the Cincinnati Bengals were in Rams territory, facing fourth-and-1 and trying to extend a drive to attempt an overtime-forcing field goal, and Donald burst pass the Bengals' offensive line and spun Joe Burrow around, an almost exact replica of the play Donald made to secure victory in the NFC Championship Game. After Burrow's pass floated to the ground, Donald pointed to his own ring finger -- his play had filled the only void left on his resume, and it had given the Rams, who had moved to Los Angeles a few years earlier and were seeking an identity, their signature moment. As he celebrated the championship won on the Rams' home field, Donald had tears streaking his cheeks. 

Perhaps Donald's retirement will not resonate as quarterback Tom Brady's did, because of the difference in their public profiles and the import of their respective positions in the game. But Donald was no less great at his job, and no less critical to his team's fortunes, than Brady. 

"Throughout my career, I have given my everything to football both mentally and physically -- 365 days a year was dedicated to becoming the best possible player I could be," Donald wrote in his retirement announcement. "I respected this game like no other and I'm blessed to be able to conclude my NFL career with the same franchise that drafted me. Not many people get drafted to a team, win a World Championship with that team and retire with that team. I do not, and will not, take that for granted."

Like Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp before him, Donald was the prototype for his generation of undersized defensive tackles who win with a dazzling and unique combination of technique, strength and burst. Donald was listed at 280 pounds but would sometimes say he played at a lower weight. His pregame routine centered largely on him practicing his burst from a three-point stance, his quickness allowing him to get around and past the 300-pound offensive linemen who were charged, usually hopelessly, with stopping him. He finished with 111 sacks, second-most among players who primarily manned defensive tackle (behind John Randle) since the NFL made sacks an individual statistic in 1982. In that span, no Rams player has collected more sacks than Donald. 

Donald was menacing but not boisterous, his play matched by his humility. In the best years of his career, it could be argued that Donald was not just the league's best defensive player, but its best player overall. He let others say that, though -- and they did. His colleagues and competitors were in awe of his skill and power and relentless work ethic. 

"The great players in our league elevate the people around them and Aaron has modeled the way for our team as long as I've been with the Rams," Rams head coach Sean McVay said in a statement. "He's an elite competitor, someone who leads by example in a way that's authentic to him, and an exceptional teammate who inspires everyone around him to be the best version of themselves. As great of a player he is, he's an even better person. He is truly one of one and epitomizes everything that's right about sports."

Donald's retirement Friday was not a complete shock -- each offseason since the Rams won the Super Bowl following the 2021 season has included at least a little bit of wait and see about Donald's future. While the Chiefs' Chris Jones might now be considered the most disruptive 3-technique defensive tackle in the game, Donald was still playing at such a high level -- he had eight sacks and 23 quarterback hits in 2023 -- that he is leaving everyone except those who play offense in the NFL wanting more.

Last season, at age 32, Donald earned a Pro Football Focus grade of 90.9. That was second only to the Giants' Dexter Lawrence, who is six years younger, among all interior defenders. Donald was tied for 12th among all defenders in the league. Donald was graded above 90 -- elite in the PFF system -- in every one of his 10 seasons.

Donald's production was matched only by his durability. He did not miss a game due to injury until 2022, and his departure leaves a gaping hole for the Rams -- in their defense, their organization and their community, where Donald's AD99 Solutions foundation provides programming and assistance for under-resourced youth. On the field, the second-year defensive tackle Kobie Turner, a third-round selection in 2023 (and finalist for Defensive Rookie of the Year), will be expected to fill the void Donald leaves. As a rookie, Turner tied Donald's franchise rookie sack record of nine.

In his announcement, Donald said he looked forward to having more time with his wife and four children, but he otherwise does not know what the future holds. At least one day of it is simple to predict. In five years, Donald will have a date with the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Sign up now for NFL+ Premium to watch all of Aaron Donald's best career moments, including Rams game replays, full episodes of "Hard Knocks" and his appearances on "Top 100 Players."

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