Collecting NFL accolades is part of Aaron Donald’s annual routine.
The Rams’ lineman won the 2014 defensive rookie of the year award, and this week was voted into the Pro Bowl by fans, coaches and players for the fourth consecutive season.
But Donald, regarded as one of the most dominant players of his generation, has yet to win the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, which has historically favored ends, linebackers and defensive backs.
This season — despite sitting out training camp and the first game because of a still-unsettled contract dispute — Donald is making a case to become the first interior lineman to win the award since Warren Sapp in 1999.
After playing for losing teams in his first three seasons, Donald has 11 sacks for a Rams team that is 10-4 and could clinch the NFC West on Sunday with a victory over the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.
Donald is worthy of more than defensive player of the year recognition, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said.
“I was thinking more like most valuable player in the league,” Phillips said.
Said Donald: “The important thing is right now we’re winning — and that’s what I’m happy with. As long as we’re winning, I’m fine.”
Houston Texans end J.J. Watt amassed 20½ sacks when he won the defensive player of the year award in 2014. He had 17½ when he repeated in 2015.
Oakland Raiders end Khalil Mack had 11 sacks when he won last year’s award.
With two games left in the regular season, Arizona Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones has a league-leading 15 sacks. Jacksonville Jaguars end Calais Campbell has 14½, Dallas Cowboys end DeMarcus Laurence 13½, Minnesota Vikings end Everson Griffen 13 and Chargers end Joey Bosa 11½.
Should Donald be in consideration if he reaches 15 sacks?
“We goin’ to see,” Donald said, grinning. “We goin’ to see. I got two more games and want to finish strong.”
Donald, 26, played his first three NFL seasons in a 4-3 scheme devised by former coordinator Gregg Williams. The tackle had 28 sacks, including a career-best 11 in 2015.
Phillips implemented his trademark 3-4, but Donald’s role has not changed drastically. The majority of his snaps are still taken inside.
Before the Rams played at Seattle last week, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson described the 6-foot-1, 280-pound Donald as “the best defensive player I’ve ever played against.”
A few days later, Donald sacked Wilson three times in the Rams’ 42-7 victory. Teammates contributed four sacks.
Rams quarterback Jared Goff considers himself lucky that he does not have to face Donald in games.
“I see him in practice every day and I go, ‘Man, I would not want that on the other side of the ball,’ ” Goff said. “Sometimes we’re sitting on the sidelines, I’ll watch the game from the scoreboard and sometimes I’ll zero in on him — it’s just unbelievable. … He’s truly unblockable. I haven’t see a team block him yet.”
Titans coach Mike Mularkey is bracing for the challenge that Donald presents.
“Everybody tries to go in thinking that they can try to help out with guys,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “You don’t know where he’s going to line up. There’s multiple places that he lines up, so that’s kind of hard to do.”
Donald, the 13th pick in the 2014 draft, is earning $1.8 million this season and is scheduled to earn $6.9 million in 2018. The Rams and Donald’s representatives have been in contact throughout the season and they are expected to resume contract talks after the season.
But it would not be surprising if Donald waits for Mack to set the market.
Mack was selected fifth in the 2014 draft, eight picks ahead of Donald. As a top-10 pick, his fifth-year option salary next season will be the average of the 10-highest paid players at his position, a total of about $14 million.
The Raiders are expected to sign him to an extension before next season.
Donald said he was just concentrating on finishing this season strong and helping the Rams win more games.