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Aaron Donald’s $31.6M Salary an Outlier in QB-Focused NFL: Data Viz

Fourteen of the past 15 NFL Most Valuable Player Award winners, and 10 of the past 15 Super Bowl MVPs, have been quarterbacks. Although the Los Angeles Rams’ quarterback Matthew Stafford played a great game in Super Bowl LVI and wide receiver Cooper Kupp won MVP, the Rams wouldn’t have won without two massive late plays by defensive tackle Aaron Donald. On 3rd-and-1 with the Cincinnati Bengals at midfield and driving toward what could have been at least a tying field goal with 48 seconds left, Donald stuffed a running play at the line. Then, on 4th-and-1 with 43 seconds remaining, Donald blew past his man to wrap up Bengals’ QB Joe Burrow and force an errant throw to seal the Rams’ 23-20 win. 

Earlier this month, the Rams rewarded Donald with a raise on the last three years of his contract, bringing his annual salary to $31.6 million and making him the highest-paid non-quarterback in NFL history. 

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It’s still a quarterbacks league, however. Donald is just the NFL’s 12th highest paid player overall, trailing 11 quarterbacks, including Carson Wentz, who has made just one career Pro Bowl. While more than a third of the league’s starting quarterbacks earn an average annual salary over $30 million, Donald is the only non-quarterback to do so.

A defensive player holding the title of highest-paid non-QB is surprising given that wide receivers have emerged as the position in the highest demand other than signal callers. Six of the 10 highest-paid non-quarterbacks are wide receivers, including Kupp. Donald is also an outlier by being the only player on that list over 30 years old.

Zoom out to the top 50 highest-paid players overall, and the full picture emerges. The league revolves around quarterbacks, but wide receivers claim 13 of the top 50 salaries. Combined, those two positions make up more than half of the league’s most handsomely compensated players. Meanwhile, not a single running back makes the cut.

There are 17 defensive players in the top 50, and that group is almost exactly evenly split between defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs. 

Donald is an anomaly, though, as he now earns $6.6 million more annually than the next highest paid defensive lineman, which is significantly greater than the corresponding gap at every other position in football. The second most highly paid defensive tackle, DeForest Buckner, earns a whopping $10.6 million less than Donald. 

Donald has earned it by separating himself from the pack on the field, though. His 59.0 sacks since 2018 give him a comfortable lead over Myles Garrett’s 51.5 for the most by a lineman. Chris Jones’ 41.0, the next highest by a defensive tackle, is nearly a full record-setting season behind Donald’s four-year total. 

Not to mention, he also had the plays that saved the biggest game of the year. 

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