Aaron Donald doesn’t have ideal size (6’1”, 285 lbs) at the defensive tackle position.
But given Donald's college tape—along with his performances at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine—the Pitt product should be viewed as the top interior lineman in this year’s draft class.
Let’s break down Donald’s game and discuss why his talent will produce results as a 3-technique tackle at the NFL level.
Game Film Tells the Story on Donald's College Production
College stats can be overhyped depending on competition level, system, etc. That’s why I always look at a prospect’s talent/skill set over the numbers in the box score.
However, Donald’s production at Pittsburgh is legit when you break down the tape from 2013.
When watching Donald, it’s easy to see the explosive first step plus the ability to set up offensive linemen. He can win with speed to penetrate, and he plays with low pad level at the point of attack.
Donald is a good fit for a 1-gap system that caters to his talent as a disruptive interior lineman. Think of the 3-technique defensive tackle in the base 4-3 fronts and nickel sub-packages.
This is why Donald made so many plays behind the line of scrimmage at Pitt. That ability to win on the first step allowed the defensive tackle to live in the backfield and collapse the pocket.
Technique is also one of the keys to his high-level production. He is quick with his hands (countermoves) and has enough length for his frame (32.5-inch arms) to press blockers when he can engage quickly.
Donald was a dominant player at the college level (29.5 career sacks) who cleaned up during the postseason award circuit because of his consistent production inside.
Senior Bowl Standout
The Senior Bowl is my favorite event on the NFL calendar because you get to see prospects up close in a football-specific environment—and there is nowhere to hide in full gear.
Donald impressed throughout the week of practice during one-on-one drills, 11-on-11 teamwork, etc., with his speed off the ball and leverage on contact.
At times, Donald was unstoppable in one-on-one situations. He whipped offensive linemen with his initial burst and the same technique that shows up on the game tape.
However, the No. 1 thing that stood out was Donald’s competitiveness. I always look for prospects who want to compete in every drill and showcase their skill set/talent in front of league scouts and coaches.
Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith, who led Donald and the North squad in Mobile, had much of the same to say about the electric tackle during the week's practices, per Chase Goodbread of NFL.com:
Donald is a very explosive defensive tackle. I've been very impressed with him. He's short in stature by NFL standards. He doesn't maybe have all the measurables. But he's one of the more explosive guys we have on the North squad. He's done a nice job in the run and the pass game in the first two practices.
Donald immediately grabbed my attention every day because he acted like a pro on the field with his effort, tempo and conditioning level.
The defensive tackle played good football down in Mobile, and he took full advantage of the Senior Bowl platform to solidify his draft stock in an uncomfortable setting for prospects.
Combine Workout Showcases Athletic Ability
Just as I talked about last week when breaking down Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the testing numbers Donald produced at the combine mesh with his game tape—and that’s exactly what scouts want to see.
Donald ran a 4.68 official 40-yard dash time at 285 pounds (1.63 10-yard split) to go along along with a 32-inch vertical jump, a 7.11 time in the three-cone drill and 35 reps on the bench test (225 lbs).
In the positional drills, Donald showed more of his athletic ability/movement skills with his change-of-direction speed and lateral quickness. Again, another aspect of his game that shows up on the tape versus ACC competition.
Questions on Anchor vs. the Run Game
Does Donald have the size to anchor consistently versus the run game?
This is a valid question that comes up often when discussing how Donald projects as an interior lineman at the next level versus offensive guards and tackles with more size.
Compared to other top prospects who are a fit in the 4-3 front, such as Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman (6’6”, 310 lbs) and Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan (6’2”, 299 lbs), Donald doesn’t have the ideal frame inside.
Looking at the tape, if Donald doesn’t win with speed/quickness on the snap to shoot the gap or split a double-team, he can be overwhelmed. This neutralizes his ability to use his hands and penetrate vertically up the field.
Plus, Donald can expect NFL offenses to use the inside trap game—or the Wham block—to counter his speed off the ball.
Here’s an example of the “Wham” block from the 49ers versus the Rams' 4-3 over front this past season:
The 49ers use a “fold” technique backside (guard and tackle switch responsibilities) with the center working up to the Sam 'backer and the fullback leading on the Mike ‘backer. That allows the H-back to “Wham” (or trap) the Nose to create an inside running lane for Frank Gore.
In my opinion, there will be situations at the pro level where Donald may struggle in the run front versus inside double-teams.
However, you can’t substitute for his speed up the field that produces negative plays for the offense when Donald beats the down block or gains leverage versus a zone scheme.
Can 4-3 Teams Pass on Donald in the Draft?
Donald should carry a top-20 grade into the draft next month, but when does he come off the board? And can 4-3 teams afford to pass on the top interior rusher?
In his most recent mock draft, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has Donald going to the Giants at No. 12. We can also look at the Rams at No. 13, Bears at No. 14 or the Cowboys at No. 16 as other possible landing spots if the defensive tackle is still available.
I understand those teams I just listed have other needs on the roster, but given Donald’s talent, it would be tough to pass on a defensive tackle who could make plays in both the base and nickel sub-packages at the NFL level.
Forget the lack of ideal size here. Donald can play. And talent on the interior of the defensive line is hard to find.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.