New York Giants Draft Countdown: Making the Case for Aaron Donald

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New York Giants Draft Countdown: Making the Case for Aaron Donald
USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Donald's ability to disrupt an offense makes him an intriguing first-round option for the Giants in next month's draft.

Nearly three months ago I went on record with my belief that North Carolina’s Eric Ebron should be the New York Giants' choice with the 12th overall pick in this year’s draft.

While my opinion hasn’t changed, Aaron Donald would be an excellent consolation prize for a team that suddenly has an unimposing group of defensive tackles following the loss of Linval Joseph in free agency.

Despite being somewhat undersized at 6’1”, 285 pounds, Donald is a quintessential 3-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme. He has an incredible first step that consistently beats opposing centers and guards. In addition, he is very strong, possesses a good motor and demonstrates consistent effort from the first snap through the last. With all of these attributes, it is no surprise that Donald racked up 11 sacks and a whopping 28.5 tackles for a loss in his senior season at Pittsburgh.

Aaron Donald's 2013 Statistics
Games Played Total Tackles Tackles for a Loss Sacks Pass Defenses Forced Fumbles
13 59 28.5 11 3 4

College Football Sports-Reference

Simply put, Donald lives in the opponent’s backfield.

The former Panther has had an excellent draft season. He earned high praise at the Senior Bowl in January and posted exceptional results at the combine a month later. Most impressive was his 40-yard dash time of 4.68 seconds and 35 reps in the bench press. Both marks led all defensive tackles in Indianapolis.

While a vast majority are in agreement that Donald’s pass-rushing skills should translate well into the NFL, his ability to contain the run at the next level is up for debate. Some, like Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com, believe that, despite his bloated tackles-for-a-oss number last season, Donald actually struggles against the run. Others, such as Nawrocki’s colleague, Bucky Brooks, have no such concerns.

Donald … was the most dominant college defender that I watched last fall. He routinely pitched a tent in the opponent's backfield, displaying exceptional quickness, burst and snap-count anticipation. And despite diminutive stature for a defensive tackle (6-foot-1, 285 pounds), Donald showcased the ability to play with leverage by frequently holding the point against double teams. He controlled the middle of the line against the run, and allowed his teammates to run-and-chase without obstruction.

From what I have seen on film, Donald could have his issues against the run. While he is very strong, the 20 pounds and two inches he lacks compared to most other starting 3-technique defensive tackles in the NFL will put him at a disadvantage against good run-blocking guards and centers.

He’ll certainly have his share of plays where he beats his man off the snap due to his quick first step, allowing him to drop a ball-carrier for a loss or, at the very least, force him to improvise. However, if he gets blocked initially, he will get pushed back and out of the play fairly consistently.

The good news is that stopping the run is secondary for 3-technique defensive tackles to rushing the passer. If Donald emerges as player who annually approaches or exceeds double-digit sacks, it will be easy to excuse average or even slightly below-average play as a run-stopper.

If New York does end up selecting Donald, he probably wouldn’t become a full-time starter right away, despite being a high pick. He would likely share 3-technique duties with incumbent starter Cullen Jenkins. Figure that the 33-year-old, who saw 718 snaps last year—per Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—would still get about 500 to 600 snaps as the starter with Donald accumulating around 400 snaps as his main backup.

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Donald’s opportunity to start and log a majority of the snaps should come in 2015, when Jenkins would be a year older and on the last year of his contract. With the potential to save over $2 million against the cap, it is possible that Jenkins could even get cut by New York next offseason—especially if he has a subpar 2014.

Mapping out Donald’s first few years with Big Blue is premature, though, since he is far from a guarantee to end up with the team. Tight end, offensive line and wide receiver are all arguably more pressing needs for the Giants than defensive tackle, and the smart money is that they will address one of these areas in the first round.

The latest mock drafts tend to agree that Donald will land elsewhere, with only Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller and CBSSports.com’s Will Brinson predicting his NFL journey will begin with the Giants. Most experts actually believe that Donald will end up with the defensive tackle-starved Chicago Bears, who hold the 14th pick.

However, if Ebron and wide receiver Mike Evans are both gone when the Giants are on the clock, Donald would likely be the best combination of need and best player available. In that scenario, it would certainly be tempting for Jerry Reese and company to snatch him up.

 

Mock draft information pulled from Bleacher Report, CBSSports.com, NFL.com and ESPN.com (Insider subscription required). 

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