The seemingly unending song and dance of the 2014 NFL Draft is closing in on the final number, and few prospects have risen to the front line like Aaron Donald.
The former University of Pittsburgh defensive tackle began draft season as an anomaly to scouts. He was nowhere to be found on early Round 1 mock drafts from ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay (subscription required), or NFL.com's Matt Smith.
But Donald's stock grew slowly. He received "best remaining" mentions from Kiper and McShay in their Mock 2.0s, which were published on February 6. McShay's Mock 3.0 finally had Donald going to Chicago with the 14th pick as the first defensive tackle off the board, as did SI.com's Doug Farrar.
Let's take a closer look at what's led Donald from relative obscurity to the consensus best defensive tackle in the draft.
Donald's only true weakness is one that has been out of his control from the beginning. At 6'1", 285 pounds, he's vastly undersized for a prospect at his position. Scouts Inc. took measurements of all of the combine participants between 2008 and 2012 and found that the average defensive tackle was 6'2-7/8" and 304.8 pounds.
There's also talk that Donald shuts it down early on in plays once he feels he can no longer have an impact. SB Nation's Stephen White broke down five games of film on Donald and this is what he saw:
I can't overlook the fact that if it's not immediately apparent that he can make a play on the ball, Donald shuts down early....There are times when the play is still going on and Donald is literally walking. WALKING!!!
His short arms will hamper his ability to shed longer blockers, and he won't be able to manhandle double teams in the NFL like he did in the ACC. But Donald did blow away scouts with his performance at the combine:
As impressive as Clowney’s 40 was, Pitt DT Aaron Donald’s 4.65 at 285 may be just as impressive. Lit it up at Senior Bowl too.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) February 24, 2014
Donald's 40-yard dash was the fifth-fastest among all defensive linemen. He also happened to churn out 35 reps on the bench press, per NFL.com, better than bigger tackle prospects Ra'Shede Hagemen and Timmy Jernigan. How else would he tackle two players at once?
Let's run down some praise Donald has received since the start of the 2013 season.
Brian Kelly really meant it when he called Donald a "one-man wrecking crew.
Kelly also called him a player you have to game plan around and find a way to slow down.
David Pollack, ESPN college football analyst, said he was an every-down player and "probably the best defensive player maybe in the country that nobody talks about." David Diaz-Infante, ESPN commentator and former Super Bowl champion, called him a student of the game who understands schemes.
What Donald lacks in size he makes up for with technique. White said it best:
As I have lamented before, it is hard enough trying to teach most college level pass rushers one signature move that they can win with on a consistent basis, but Donald used at least four different pass rush moves to great effect in every game. That's not even counting the counter spin, which is as rare at the college level as spotting a unicorn. The thing that I love is that on almost every pass rush he ends the move with a rip.
His swim move is silky smooth enough to make the Zohan jealous:
Donald also has an incredible motor. He made the offensive backfield his home, recording 11 sacks and an incredible 28.5 tackles for loss as a senior. That's five more than the next closest player and just 3.5 shy of Jason Babin's FBS-record 32. Quarterbacks rarely have time to step up in the pocket when Donald is on the field.
With a barrage of moves and the ability to burst off the line, Donald can fit in multiple positions. He is too small to be a traditional run-stopper in 3-4 but possesses the speed to play the edge in such a scheme.
As a 4-3 tackle, Donald also reads the run extremely well, playing with patience and explosion at the same time.
Donald was to college football awards this year what Titanic was to the Academy Awards in 1997. He was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous All-American. He won the Lombardi Award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Outland Trophy.
It appears that Donald has passed Jernigan and Hagemen as the most sought-after interior defensive linemen, despite issues over scheme fit. Several mock drafts have him going 14th to Chicago. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller likes him at No. 16 to Dallas. Both teams have massive holes on defense, though Dallas' have changed now that they let DeMarcus Ware go.
With Donald's stock rising so quickly, it's possible he may not be on the board by the time Chicago is on the clock. But the likeliest outcome is that he suits up in Soldier Field in 2014-15.