Both are generational talents and among the best defensive players of all time, especially when it comes to getting after quarterbacks and wreaking havoc in the backfield. But when it comes to Donald vs Taylor, who was the more dominant player?
Aaron Donald vs Lawrence Taylor comparison
Nobody is saying that the Taylor vs Donaldson comparison is going to be easy. Frankly, it’s hard to deny that either player is a legendary figure on the football field. But let’s take a closer look at the careers of both players to see if we can determine who’s better between Aaron Donald and Lawrence Taylor.
By the numbers
Right off the bat, comparing Donald and Lawrence strictly by their numbers gives Taylor an inherent advantage. He spent 13 seasons in the NFL whereas Donald is just eight years into his career with no guarantee that he’ll stay in the league as long as Taylor. Over his 13 seasons, Taylor averaged just over 10 sacks per season, surpassing at least 10 sacks in seven straight seasons at one point.
That includes a career-high of 20.5 sacks in 1986 when he led the NFL in sacks. If we level the playing field, Taylor averaged 12.3 sacks per season during his first eight years in the league. He also had eight interceptions and 34 forced fumbles in those eight years.
For comparison, Donald has averaged 12.25 sacks per season over his first eight years in the league. His career-high, at least to this point, matches Taylor’s career-high of 20.5 sacks in a single season.
Alas, much like Taylor, he tallied a minimum of 12 sacks each year between his fifth season and his eighth season, which is when both players were in their prime. The difference is that Donald has just 23 forced fumbles in his first eight seasons, although he does have 16 pass deflections as a defensive lineman despite not having any interceptions, which is reasonable.
In his 13 seasons, Taylor was a 10-time Pro Bowler, being selected in each of his first 10 seasons. He was also an All-Pro in his first 10 seasons, making the First-Team eight times. Taylor also won Defensive Player of the Year honors three times in his career, including his first two seasons in the league and then again in 1986, which is the year that he won MVP honors.
It’s important to note that Taylor is only the second and most recent defensive player to win MVP. He also won two Super Bowls, although the second didn’t come until his 10th season when his numbers had started to decline slightly.
Much like Taylor, Donald won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and was a Pro Bowler during his rookie season. He’s also been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight seasons and has been a First-Team All-Pro selection every year but his rookie season. Donald has also collected three Defensive Player of the Year awards during his first eight seasons. He’s also led the NFL in sacks just once, which matches Taylor.
Outside vs inside?
While the numbers and accomplishments when comparing Taylor vs Donald are similar, it’s important to note that this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Not only did they play in different eras but they also played different positions. Taylor was an outside linebacker while Donald plays on the interior of the defensive line.
Outside linebackers are thought of as bigger difference-makers than interior linemen, largely because of Taylor’s influence on the game. Even if it’s universally agreed that both Taylor and Donald are head and shoulders better than the average player at their position, it’s undeniable that Taylor plays a more important position, especially by today’s standards.
However, the fact that Donald has posted similar sack numbers and all but matched Taylor’s accomplishments and awards while playing a position that’s expected to make less of a statistical impact makes him the more dominant player and the bigger difference-maker.
Changing the game
The one area where Taylor stands out from just about every other defensive player in NFL history, including Donald, is their influence on the game. Before Taylor, there was no outside linebacker who wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks the same way he did. He was not only strong and powerful but he forced teams to use formations and schemes specifically to slow him down.
Taylor was the first player that consistently forced teams to use offensive tackles to block blitzing linebackers. He helped to create a generation in which most of the elite pass-rushers in the NFL are outside linebackers, not defensive ends. In other words, he’s had a lasting impact on the game.
To be fair, opposing teams also have to game plan around Donald. At his best, he’s a disruptive force who can change games and throw a team completely out of rhythm. But the league is yet to get to a point where they are trying to find players with the same tools and skillset as Donald. Perhaps that will change, but for now, Donald doesn’t measure up to Taylor’s influence on how football is played.
Historically speaking, it’s difficult to argue that any defensive player in NFL history is better or more impactful than Taylor. He was a physical specimen, a feared player, and did things that no other player at his position did previously, forever changing the game.
But Donald isn’t far behind him, even with fewer seasons under his belt.
Thus far, Donald has matched Taylor’s numbers and accomplishments at a position that typically produces fewer sacks and receives far less recognition than players at Taylor’s position. He’s also doing all of that despite being dismissed by some early in his career for being undersized.
Right now, the fact that Taylor played more seasons and his influence on the NFL is still felt make him the more dominant player. When all is said and done, it’s unlikely anyone will ever eclipse him as the best defensive player in NFL history.
However, Donald is closer to being on Taylor’s level than most people realize. If Donald continues on his current trajectory, five years from now, Taylor could be 1A and Donald 1B when it comes to the best defensive players in NFL history.