Aaron Donald held out all spring and summer from Los Angeles Rams activities, finally reporting for duty right before the regular season began without the new contract he'd been seeking.
His pursuit of the ball has been far more fruitful.
Midway through his fourth year in the NFL, Donald has established himself as the premier defensive tackle in the game. Though comparing different positions is a difficult assessment, Donald might be the best defensive player in the league. His dominance in the interior of the line is a significant reason why the Rams (6-2) were the first-half surprise success of the season.
"Hall of Famers aren't made three years in," Rams general manager Les Snead said during training camp. "But if there's a race to the gold jacket, he's started strong."
His consistent disruption and production since being drafted in the first round out of Pittsburgh earned him a unanimous first place finish for NFL defensive tackles from an Associated Press panel in voting revealed Friday. Donald is the only unanimous winner of the 10 positions ranked thus far by the 11-person AP panel in the weekly installments published this season.
The two-time All-Pro pick has 32 sacks in 55 career games. He's a force against the run, too. Fierce and fast at 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds, Donald is quite the bargain for the Rams this year with a rookie-contract salary cap hit of a little more than $3.2 million. The below-market price won't last much longer, though.
"He seems to have answered questions pretty quickly of how he would adapt to a 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips," said the AP's Schuyler Dixon, who is based in Dallas.
Donald was one of six defensive tackles listed on every ballot. The other five were Miami's Ndamukong Suh, who finished second; Philadelphia's Fletcher Cox, who was third; Cincinnati's Geno Atkins, who came in fourth; fifth-place finisher Damon Harrison of the New York Giants; and Carolina's Kawann Short, who was eighth.
Minnesota's Linval Joseph took sixth, Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy came in seventh, San Francisco's DeForest Buckner was ninth and Jacksonville's Malik Jackson finished 10th to round out the results.
The Dolphins made Suh the league's highest-paid defensive player in 2015, and he has remained the threat in the middle he was in Detroit. The knock against his game has stuck with him, too - the propensity for penalties and needless personal fouls.
"If he could just harness his emotions," said the AP's Arnie Stapleton, who's based in Denver.
While quarterback Carson Wentz and the Eagles offense has stolen the spotlight, Cox has been a significant factor in the team's NFL-best 8-1 start. Despite missing two games to injury, he has 4½ sacks, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and one touchdown.
"Don't forget this important part of a defense that's doing its part," Dixon said.
With 57 career sacks for the Bengals, Atkins leads all active interior linemen.
"When healthy, Atkins is as good as any defensive tackle in football. But like many of the top defensive tackles in the NFL, the folks around him don't measure up," said the AP's Barry Wilner, who's based in New York.
There's hardly a better story of overcoming the odds in the NFL than Harrison. He hooked on with the Jets as an undrafted rookie in 2012 out of a small NAIA school in Iowa, William Penn, after barely playing in high school and being cut from the team in middle school while growing up poor near New Orleans. Now with the Giants with a big-money contract to boot, the man nicknamed "Big Snacks" has been eating up offensive linemen for years.
"No one is better as a run stuffer," said the AP's Josh Dubow, who's based in the Bay Area.
EDITOR'S NOTE - The Associated Press is ranking the top 10 players at a different position every week of the NFL season, based on votes by Pro Football Hall of Fame member James Lofton and AP football writers Simmi Buttar, Dave Campbell, Schuyler Dixon, Josh Dubow, Howard Fendrich, Rob Maaddi, Arnie Stapleton, Teresa M. Walker, Dennis Waszak Jr. and Barry Wilner. This feature will move on Fridays.
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