The NFL will never see another player like Aaron Donald again

It’s not often that the NFL loses a player who can credibly be claimed as “the greatest of all time,” but that’s what happened when future first-ballot Hall of Famer Aaron Donald called it a career over the weekend.

His name carries a level of star power that few defensive linemen attain over the course of an NFL career. Donald’s accolades loudly speak for him. A Rookie of the Year, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, 10 Pro Bowl selections, eight first-team All-Pro selections, 111 sacks and a Super Bowl ring as the cherry on top is about as good a career that anyone can ask for.

Watching how those numbers came to be showed that Donald was a one-of-one, generational type of talent. He capitalized off the moment of a final college season where he won the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman), Lombardi Award (lineman of the year), and the Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski awards (both for best defensive player), and showed that he wasn’t just another great defensive prospect — he was something closer to an immortal being. Donald cracked a 4.68 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine at 285 pounds, making him one of the greatest athletes in a game that has been filled with great athletes.

Right off the bat, in his first year, he showed the skill that allowed him to collect an absurd amount of trophies and the superhero-level athleticism that made him one of the greatest athletes in the recorded history of the combine. Nine sacks and the remains of dismantled offensive lines were his first steps on what undoubtedly became a career destined for Canton.

Donald was so damn good that it’s difficult for coaches to use his clips for aspiring defensive linemen who want to mold their game after him. There aren’t many people in the history of this planet who could move in the manner as he did, but it sure was fun to watch. The wildest part about Donald’s career was that even though he was smaller than the vast majority of offensive linemen he faced in college and the NFL, he was the one flipping people over and commanding multiple 300-pounders to block him at once.

Even with that level of attention and punishment, Donald’s physical skills never really eroded. He was that dude each and week, making otherworldly feats happen on a routine basis. Just ask Russell Wilson, the quarterback Donald sacked the most throughout his career (15 times!). Donald was continuously splitting double-teams and hawking down one of the most athletic quarterbacks in an era where athleticism has become a prerequisite for the position.

Single blocking this man was asking for a team's quarterback to get hurt or to get run over in an unnecessarily embarrassing way. Once Donald was hip-to-hip with a lineman trying to block him, it was game over.

And for good measure, Donald was athletic enough (even in his later years) where he could sincerely play on the edge and wreak havoc from that position. Remember when the Steelers worked Donald out at outside linebacker during his draft and were laughed at for it? There’s an alternate reality where Donald is a double-digit sack guy from the defensive end spot. He broke the barriers on what that kind of athleticism could do from every spot on the defensive line.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Donald’s career was that he didn’t hide at all just how damn crazy he was. Stifling the urge to inflict pain on other gigantic human beings was not anything that concerned him. From dual-wielding Bengals helmets during a joint training camp practice like a video game character to testing the strength of Alex Smith’s surgically repaired leg, it was obvious that Donald lived and died for the intense level of physicality it takes to be great at the game. That’s almost as important as the skills he honed and talent he inherently possessed.

There are only a handful of players who can have this kind of impact on the game. From start to finish, he was consistently one of the great defensive players in this league.

It does not feel hyperbolic to say the NFL will never see a player like Donald again. College football has yet to reproduce the level of dominance that Donald showed in 2013. The NFL hasn’t had a defensive tackle enter the league since 2014 who can be considered his peer. All of the best comparisons for Donald’s career — Deacon Jones, Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White — are from years past.

That's rare company to be in, and a career that should ultimately be cherished for what it was. Here’s one more clip for good measure as we say goodbye to the most terrifying defensive force of this era of football.

Salute, 99. Take it easy on folks in retirement.