Even if you weren’t watching the Los Angeles Rams-Seattle Seahawks Wild Card playoff game this past weekend, you probably heard about Fox analyst Troy Aikman making quite the declaration.
I played against Reggie White, I played against Lawrence Taylor ... and I gotta tell you, this Aaron Donald is the best defensive player that I’ve ever seen. He’s really remarkable--he should be the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and I think he should be getting some votes for MVP of the entire league--he’s that good.
No disrespect to Donald, who is an exceptional player, but Aikman's opinion is a head-scratcher.
It’s difficult to compare one player’s active, seven-year career to another player’s inactive, 13-year career. Aaron Donald is indeed playing in an era where defenders seem to be at an immediate disadvantage, thanks to an offense-friendly rule book.
It can also be argued that players today are more athletically advanced than they were 35 years ago.
Still, however, Aikman’s belief doesn’t appear to be rooted in fact.
First of all, Taylor was a big deal before he even got to the pros. The Giants selected him with the second pick in the 1981 draft out of North Carolina. While Donald, a Pittsburgh alum, was also a first-rounder, he wasn’t drafted until the 13th pick in 2014 by the St. Louis Rams.
A few things had to happen before Donald became a household name. The Rams had to move back to Los Angeles in 2016; he had to hold out of training camp in 2017 because of a contract dispute; and finally, in 2018, the team had to advance to the Super Bowl.
In that NFC championship season, Donald shattered his personal record by tallying 20.5 sacks, just two shy of Giants defensive end Michael Strahan’s single-season record. Since then, Donald has been widely regarded as the best defensive player in the NFL today.
Taylor, better known by his initials "LT," was a household name almost right out of the gate. He was a first-team All-Pro in his rookie season.
The next year, he turned in a Herculean performance on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit, capped off by a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown. He was voted to his sixth consecutive All-Pro team in his sixth season, matched Donald’s career-high with 20.5 sacks, won the Super Bowl, and was voted the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
Even while playing in only 12 games (and starting only 11) in 1987 because of the players’ strike, he still notched 12 sacks. This was followed by two additional All-Pro selections and another Super Bowl win. After three lackluster seasons, LT retired in 1994 with 132.5 sacks, eight All-Pro selections, and two Super Bowl victories.
When people say Taylor revolutionized the game, that alone should speak to just how impactful he was. Former Washington head coach Joe Gibbs created what’s known today as the H-back position, a second tight end set jut off the line of scrimmage, to deal with the physically imposing Taylor’s speed.
Before Taylor, teams usually used running backs to handle blitzing linebackers, which against Taylor was a recipe for disaster.
To counter Taylor's physical prowess, former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh, whose team was set to face the Giants in 1981, Taylor's rookie season, came up with the idea to assign guard John Ayers, whom Walsh considered his best blocker, to nullify Taylor’s impact.
Taylor’s rookie season was the last season before sacks were counted as an official statistic. If you add the 9.5 sacks he totaled in that first year, he had 83 through his first seven seasons.
Donald is slightly ahead of him through his first seven years, with 85.5. LT did more over those seven seasons to establish his dominance than Donald has with his first seven.
LT had an MVP award and a Super Bowl ring at this point; Donald is still waiting for both of those.
Perhaps the most important stat, however, is Aaron Donald has never sacked Troy Aikman. He was sacked by Lawrence Taylor, though.
LT knocked Aikman down to the old Giants Stadium and Texas Stadium's rock-hard surfaces four times, and Troy still thinks Aaron Donald is better?
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