A few years ago, the San Francisco 49ers selected outside linebacker Aldon Smith in the top 10 of the NFL draft. Smith was essentially just a pass-rusher during his rookie season, but he was a very effective pass-rusher who immediately proved worthy of his high selection.
Despite the difference in where they line up on the field, 2014 defensive tackle prospect out of Pittsburgh Aaron Donald will be looking at Smith as someone who has established the career path he will be hoping to follow.
Donald is considered an undersized interior defensive lineman. He is listed at 6'1" and 285 pounds.
The soon-to-be 23-year-old has rare skills and consistency as an interior pass-rusher, but he is not a well-refined, all-around player. He has some notable deficiencies against the run because of poor awareness and technique.
Because today's NFL is permeated by pass-happy offenses, nobody is complaining about the Smith selection after all this time. With that in mind, it's easy to fathom that Donald could be a top-10 selection in this year's draft.
An accepted premise in today's NFL is that you can't have too many pass-rushers.
This isn't simply a cliche, it's something that helped the Seattle Seahawks win last year's Super Bowl. Stockpiling on edge-rushers who can be effective in a rotation is hard, but it's not impossible to do. Stockpiling on interior rushers is exceptionally difficult.
Finding consistently productive interior rushers is difficult. Of the top 25 sack-getters from last season, only five were interior defensive linemen: Jurrell Casey, J.J. Watt, Muhammad Wilkerson, Kyle Williams and Jason Hatcher.
Donald has the talent to be consistently productive like those players from the inside, but also his main concerns against the run are things that can be rectified through coaching. His size may be a notable talking point, but its effect isn't really felt on the field.
In fact, he often used it to his advantage against bigger offensive linemen and double-teams as he got underneath blocks to win the leverage battle.
Donald is the kind of player who doesn't need a specific scheme to excel. What he needs is a smart coaching staff and a roster that will allow that staff to be patient with him early on in his career. He could go anywhere from the top five to top 20 depending on who looks past the supposed limitations that come with his size.
This pick is unlikely to happen because the Jaguars pick third overall and will likely take a quarterback, Sammy Watkins or Jadeveon Clowney. However, if the Jaguars decide to trade down, Donald could come into play.
Gus Bradley, the Jaguars head coach, became the Jaguars head coach after serving as the Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator.
Bradley had an impressive first season in Jacksonville as he worked with an underwhelming crop of players. He is slowly putting his imprint on the roster with free-agent moves and last year's draft class, but there also appears to be a patience in Jacksonville that should serve them well moving forward.
The connection between Bradley and the Seahawks' philosophy was already considered strong before the franchise signed former Seahawks defensive ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons in free agency.
Clemons and Bryant are both good players, but both are also coming toward the end of their careers. They will still be expecting to start and be prominent players in the defensive rotation, but they should also provide the Jaguars with veteran leadership that will help any incoming rookies.
With veteran leadership on and off the field, Donald would be in a good situation to build on his flaws. With Sen'Derrick Marks coming off an impressive season as a penetrating defensive tackle, the Pittsburgh prospect also wouldn't be forced into the starting lineup from Week 1.
The Jaguars aren't in win-now mode, they are building their roster in stages to recover from the Gene Smith era. Donald could unleash his pass-rushing talent as a sub-package player while also playing enough run-downs to give him on-field development without the expectation of a full-time starter.
St. Louis Rams
It's unlikely that the St. Louis Rams take Donald with the second overall pick. They are expected to take an offensive tackle, Watkins or Clowney. However, they also appear to be in a good spot to trade down, and they have a second first-round pick, 13th overall, that could give them an opportunity to take the defensive tackle.
Most expect the Rams to take a safety in the first round of the draft or even a cornerback because of their inability to play disciplined coverage last season.
Someone like Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix or Kyle Fuller would improve the Rams' coverage, but that's not the only way to prevent the opposition from passing the ball effectively. With Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Chris Long, Kendall Langford and William Hayes atop their rotation, the Rams already have a strong defensive line.
However, they don't have such an overwhelming pass rush that they can hide the flaws in their coverage.
Unlike the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South, the Rams' front four doesn't take over games on a consistent basis by dominating the opposition's offensive line. If the Rams are able to land Clowney with their first pick, they could still take Donald with their second to turn their defensive line into one of, if not, the best in the NFL.
In this situation, Donald could be a true situational pass-rusher. Brockers and he would perfectly complement each other on the interior of the line, because Brockers swallows up space, but Langford's presence would allow Donald to stay fresh during his rookie season.
When Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams were last together on a coaching staff, their defense excelled primarily because of their talent up front. Williams may be a controversial addition to the Rams staff, but he clearly knows how to develop defensive linemen.
Defensive tackle isn't the immediate need that comes to mind for the Vikings in the first round of the draft. However, if each of the top quarterbacks are gone and the Vikings recognize Donald's talent, then new head coach Mike Zimmer could push the front office toward him.
When you watch Donald, there is one name that immediately comes to mind—Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals. Donald wore Atkins' No. 97 in college, but that's not the reason why.
Atkins was a fourth-round pick back in the 2010 draft. He was selected by the Bengals, and he developed under the watchful eye of their then-defensive coordinator, Zimmer. Having watched over the development of a similarly undersized, but very effective, pass-rusher who developed into an all-around dominant defensive tackle, it's easy to see why Zimmer could now be swayed to take Donald.
The Vikings selected a penetrating defensive tackle in the first round of last year's draft, Sharrif Floyd, but an underwhelming rookie season and Zimmer's preference for a deep rotation should mean that Donald is still in contention.
Having two young, talented interior pass-rushers could work well for both players and the franchise as a whole.
Early on they could compete for the same spot, while the ability to accommodate both in the starting lineup would remain unless free-agent addition Linval Joseph has a huge, breakout season. After the success of Atkins in Cincinnati, there is no reason to worry about starting two potentially similar players.
The Vikings have major issues in the secondary, but one safety or one cornerback won't fix that. One defensive tackle won't either, but building a strong defensive line would allow Zimmer to focus on getting the most out of lesser talents on the back end.
That's something he did to great effect when he was the Bengals coordinator.
If drafted by teams such as the Chicago Bears, New York Giants or Dallas Cowboys, Donald would be expected to be an immediate starter on the defensive line. While those teams would love to have him, those fits wouldn't be perfect for him as a player.