As the NFL moves closer toward a seven-on-seven league with rules curtailing physical plays by secondary defenders, the key for defenses will continue to be getting pressure on the quarterback.
As much as everyone loves a good outside pass-rusher and the havoc they put on an offense, there's nothing more frightening for an offensive coordinator than interior defensive line pressure. The key to stopping today's pass-happy offenses is to make quarterbacks uncomfortable, and moving the quarterbacks' feet and getting them off their spots are the best ways to do that.
Pittsburgh defensive lineman Aaron Donald is the top defensive line prospect in this year's NFL draft, and he can create that interior pressure that keeps offensive coordinators up at night.
Donald measured in at 6'1" and 285 pounds at the NFL combine, which is a bit on the smaller side of what you would normally see with a sure-fire first-round defensive lineman.
But despite the smaller stature, Donald uses his quickness off the snap to consistently disrupt plays in the backfield.
Donald finished last season with 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss, making him one of the top defensive playmakers in this years draft, regardless of position.
Best fit for Donald?
The question NFL teams need to answer is where Donald would fit within their defensive scheme, and would he even fit their scheme?
The answer isn't as simple as some might think, mainly due to the fact that his athleticism and pass-rushing ability would make him attractive to teams that might generally want a little more beef along the defensive line.
Donald's best fit is a 3-tech defensive tackle in a 4/3 defense. He could use his quickness and explosiveness to attack the backfield on every snap, but all schemes aren't created equal.
Anchoring against the run isn't Donald's game. There won't be any 3/4 defenses drafting Donald to play 5-tech and harnessing his quickness to anchor against the run.
That's like buying a Ferrari and never taking it on the highway.
But that's not to say 3/4 teams won't strongly consider Donald anyways, simply because NFL teams spread defenses out so much now with three wide receiver sets and joker tight ends that teams are constantly in nickel and dime situations.
For example, Donald would fit in the Kansas City Chiefs 3/4 defense as a sub-defense nickel pass-rusher, and while it wouldn't fit your traditional, archaic depth charts, the fact is Donald would get his snaps on the field in situations where he would thrive.
Tyson Jackson is an example of a player who anchors against the run and predominantly plays in the Chiefs base 3/4 defense. Allen Bailey is more along the lines of your nickel pass-rusher, like Donald could be. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Jackson finished the 2013-14 season with 509 snaps on the field while Bailey finished the season with 453.
That's not a huge difference, and teams will look more along the lines of how a player fits into their defensive schemes and the value he brings by a number of snaps, rather than fitting a regular depth chart.
It's that versatility that should help Donald become a hotter name as we move further into this process. Donald knows this as well and shared that with Chris Peak of Panther-Lair.com.
I have experience at every position, Donald said. I played nose tackle, I played [three-technique defensive tackle], I played defensive end, I played in a 3-4 with Coach Todd Graham at a five-tech (in 2011), so I have experience at every position. I think that's a plus for me.
Most defensive linemen can be crossed off a lot of teams' draft boards because they don't fit their particular defensive scheme, but Donald is one of the few that should be considered by everyone, which makes him that much more valuable.
Rebuilding the defensive line could quickly become a top priority for Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys this offseason. Pitt's Aaron Donald is the type of athletic, dynamic pass-rusher the team needs in the middle of its 4-3 scheme.
What makes Donald special?
Most draft enthusiasts rave about Donald's quickness and playmaking abilities along the interior defensive line.
It's hard to argue against the production Donald had at Pittsburgh.
SB Nation's Stephen White agreed with the quickness sentiment, but believes people shouldn't discredit the physicality Donald can bring while getting after the passer as well.
Most of Donald's rushes are finesse in nature, but when he decides to bull rush it is a sight to behold. At times, it looked like the opposing guard was wearing skates. Even on the plays when Donald didn't get the sack, he usually pushed the pocket back so far that the quarterback scrambled into a sack by one of Donald's teammates.
Per that same article from Peak, Donald believes teams like the way he plays the game.
A lot of teams just like the way I play the game, Donald said. I'm a high-motor guy that's always playing 100 miles per hour, so it's good to be noticed for that. I'm going to constantly keep working at what I'm doing and try to become a better person and a better football player.
According to Rob Rang of CBS Sports, the scouting report on Donald is about speed and an array of pass-rushing moves, but just like White said, Donald's bull rush is nothing to sleep on either.
Comes off the snap like he's shot out of a cannon. His first step routinely beats opponents for immediate pressures. Has an effective arm-over swim move, though he doesn't use this often enough. His stature gives Donald the leverage advantage which he uses well to get under the pads of opponents and drive them into the backfield on bull-rushes.
While Donald's size may hinder his stock for some teams, like Rang said, his ability to win the leverage battle by getting underneath offensive linemen's pads proves to be an asset in certain situations.
Don't expect Donald to slow down and savor the moment once he gets to the NFL, via Chris Peak of Panther-Lair.com.
"When I'm retired someday, when I'm done playing football, that's when I'll be relaxing and look back at some things," Donald said. "But right now I still have a lot of work to do."