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NFL head coaches react to Aaron Donald's retirement, reflect on his legacy and impact

ORLANDO, Fla. – With Aaron Donald retiring after a decorated 10-year NFL career earlier this month, asked a handful of head coaches at this year's annual league meeting about his legacy and impact.

Here's what they had to say:

Steelers HC Mike Tomlin

Given his lengthy tenure in Pittsburgh, Tomlin is very familiar with Donald – a native of the city who went to Pitt, which shares a facility with the Steelers – and has known him for a long time. So for him, what he remembers most about Donald is who he is as a person off the field, and his work ethic, more so than the on-field impact.

"I think my memories about him are probably more than personal than impact on the game. I have had the pleasure of knowing him since he was about 18 years old, and I just have witnessed his relationship he has had with the game. I have seen him getting out of his car when it was still very dark in the morning, and working solo over the course of a 12-month calendar.

"I remember when when the Rams won the Super Bowl man, it was probably less than a week later, man I saw him getting out of his car in Pittsburgh, PA, with sweats on and his bag, going to work. And I think that's just indicative of who he is as a football man, and why he's had the type of career he's had and impact on the game he's had. The secret is, there is no secret, man. This guy has built that thing brick by brick, and I'm just so respectful of what he's done and how he's gone about it."

Bengals HC Zac Taylor (former Rams assistant WRs coach 2017, QBs coach 2018)

"He's a game-wrecker. That's who you had to start with when you play the Rams is, 'How are we going to protect against this guy? How are we going to run against this guy?' I'm thankful we don't have to play him anymore."

"(In practice), he's one of those guys who, you just let him do his thing. And his wife Erica and my wife kind of came up together in Green Bay, their dads are close together. So I'm always pulling for them as a family. He always did it the right way, worked his tail off. He earned everything he ever got. So when you see him – he wasn't always in every training camp I was at, and it always worked out well for him. He always showed up, and immediately hit the ground running, and I appreciated that. You always hold your breath, and then he showed up the first game, and all was good in the world. But a big fan of Aaron Donald and thankful we don't have to play him anymore."

Bills HC Sean McDermott

McDermott was a defensive coordinator for the Panthers when Donald entered the league, and was in his second season as head coach of the Bills when Donald won his second NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.

With Carolina, he saw Donald go for 4 total tackles, 2 sacks and 2 QB hits, though the Panthers won 13-10 in 2016.

With Buffalo, he coached against Donald twice. In the first game in 2020, Donald's performance of 6 total tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery was highlighted by recovering his own forced fumble on a strip-sack on Bills quarterback Josh Allen, though the Bills won 35-32.

In the second game in 2022, Donald had two total tackles and one sack.

"He's a former wrestler, that's what I love about him. Going against him, I hated going against him, because he can wreck a gameplan. When you watch (him), I mean that's what an elite 3-technique does, is he makes you gameplan for him. He makes those around him better, because when the protection's going to him, other guys are being productive. And so what a great career. Super proud of him and the way he's handled himself. And for him to get a ring is special. He capped a heck of a career."

Texans HC Demeco Ryans

Ryans has an extensive background on defense between his 10-year NFL career playing linebacker and his sixth seasons on the 49ers' staff, and that tenure in San Francisco gave him a twice-a-year look at Donald.

So while he didn't necessarily have to gameplan for him as a coach – obviously he was focused on Los Angeles' offense with San Francisco, and Houston didn't play L.A. in his first season as head coach – he still has a great appreciation for what Donald did for interior defensive lineman, particularly once who may be viewed as undersized.

"With Aaron retiring, we're losing a great one. He's truly one game who changed the game, when you talk about the defensive tackle perspective and getting pressure on the interior, quick pressure, Aaron Donald, he set the trend. I think he also set to trend for more smaller, athletic defensive tackles being selected in the draft. Where he was selected, there was a lot of doubt and uncertainty about it, but he proved a lot of people wrong. He was dominant for every year that he played in the league. He was a dominant player.

"You talk about having to slide protection to him, having to always account for where he lined up. When you're game planning an interior defensive tackle, you know he's a great player. So congrats to Aaron on awesome career. Always loved watching him, always loved the intensity in which he played with. He played the game the right way, and he deserves all the accolades he received."

Chiefs HC Andy Reid

The head coach of the defending Super Bowl champions called back to one of the highest-scoring games in NFL history – the Rams' 54-51 win over the Chiefs at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 2018 – a game in which Donald was a force with 4 total tackles, 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles.

The first forced fumble – a strip-sack on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes – led to an 11-yard scoop-and-score by linebacker Samson Ebukam. The second – also a strip-sack – set up a touchdown-scoring drive by the Rams offense.

"That fifty-whatever to fifty game we had in L.A., he was a disruptor. We had a nice plan for him, and he dismantled that plan (laughs). So he's a heck of a player. Great kid, too. Like the person."

Falcons HC Raheem Morris (Rams DC 2021-2023)

A longtime NFL coach hired as the Falcons' head coach earlier this offseason, Morris has a unique perspective having coaching against and with Donald throughout his career. Of course, that tenure coaching with him was highlighted by two core memories: Seeing Donald win the Super Bowl in 2021, and watching him bring along and have fun with young teammates in 2023.

"Coaching against him was a hot mess, because no matter what you planned, it really didn't matter, because he was the X-Factor. He was going to beat whatever you thought, or whatever the case could be. He was going to figure out a way to make that play happen. And then coaching with him, you just marvel at the amount of things that he could do. Whether it was watching the outside was from the inside. Actually got a chance to see him rush some off the ball, which you pointed out, but there was nothing he couldn't do and have fun.

"And I love the fact of watching him go from winning the Super Bowl, the reason you came here with all the pressure going all in, and then I watched him get with a young team and absolutely develop people and make them better. And I don't think you get better perspective from watching the guy and his greatness in the three years that I did."

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