Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Oakland outside linebacker Khalil Mack are expected to be among the top candidates to win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. The award will be announced Saturday.
Rams NFL Nation reporter Nick Wagoner and Raiders NFL Nation reporter Bill Williamson discuss Donald's and Mack's candidacy here:
Wagoner: Bill, it seems Mack and Donald are sort of in the same boat in that they both were major difference makers but didn't garner much attention because they played on losing teams. I'm of the belief that Donald should win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. What's the case for Mack over Donald?
Williamson: Mack's case is pretty simple: He looked like a five-year All-Pro all season. He was so smooth, so smart. He was Pro Football Focus' top ranked outside linebacker in the NFL -- and we're not talking about just rookie outside linebackers. He never played like a rookie and he got better as the season progressed. He didn't have a ton of flashy plays, but he was just so steady. According to STATS, INC, he was second in the NFL with 11.5 "stuffs." Who led the NFL? MVP candidate JJ Watt with 13.5. He was also good against the pass. He hit the quarterback 25 times and had four sacks.
So, why Donald?
Wagoner: Well, like Mack the case is pretty simple. Also like Mack, Pro Football Focus rated Donald as the best defensive tackle in the league. Not the best rookie defensive tackle, the best defensive tackle in the league. But aside from a subjective grading system, Donald has the hard numbers to back it up. His nine sacks were the most among all rookies and he had 18 tackles for loss, fifth most in the NFL. His value is best recognized in what happened to the Rams defense after he stepped into the starting lineup. Without Donald in the starting lineup the first four games, the Rams had one sack, gave up 152.5 rushing yards per game and averaged a sack on 0.9 percent of opponent's pass attempts. After he entered the starting lineup, the Rams had 39 sacks, gave up 96.25 rushing yards per game and averaged a sack on 9 percent of opponent's pass attempts.
There are others involved in the mix in this, too. Namely, Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley, who has the numbers and plays on a winning team. What do you think are the chances that Donald or Mack is able to overcome that hurdle?
Williamson: I think they are the two frontrunners. If I had to guess, I'd say Donald is going to win the award and Mack will be second. They may not have been on winning teams, but their dominance was so strong, voters couldn't help but notice. That's a testament to both youngsters.
What were the Rams immediate expectations for Donald?
Wagoner: Honestly, the Rams expected this. I can remember how former Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer saying he thought Donald had a chance to be Defensive Rookie of the Year all the way back in Organized Team Activities when the players were not even wearing pads yet. Jeff Fisher echoed those sentiments. They believed this was one of the most polished players in the draft and they were absolutely right. He probably still exceeded those expectations. The scary part about Donald is despite how good he is right now, he's still just scratching the surface of his potential.
Mack is obviously part of the foundation for the Raiders moving forward whether he wins the award or not. What do you think his ceiling is?
Williamson: There is no doubt; Mack is a building block for the rebuilding Raiders. He will get better as the Raiders add pieces around him. ESPN analyst Merril Hoge told me during the season that he thinks Mack can become one of the most complete, versatile linebackers ever to play in the NFL. That is heady, heady stuff. I don't know if we can expect that type of career, but, because there are no downsides to Mack's game, approach and attitude, I think he has a chance to be a perennial All-Pro player.
Did the Rams focus on Donald or were they surprised he was on the board?
Wagoner: I was told by more than one person in the organization as far back as the combine that they loved Donald but they had little expectation that he would be available. It was made clear as the draft approached that they would take him if he somehow slipped. But even the day before the draft, I was laughed at for even suggesting he might be available. The Rams had plans to take Dallas offensive lineman Zack Martin or Mosley in more realistic scenarios but when Donald slipped to them, it was academic. They were thrilled to get him and that enthusiasm has clearly been justified. He's going to be one of their primary players for the next decade or so.