Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
09 Apr 2014
By Matt Waldman
If only it was as easy as it looks on the page.
I don’t get to visit often, but I’m a big fan of The Sideline View. Lance Zierlein, John Harris and the rest of the team provide the goods on the game. As I examined the first round of Zierlein’s latest mock draft, it struck me that for a class noted for its depth of talent, there are few "safe" picks.
Greg Robinson, Khalil Mack, Ryan Shazier, Eric Ebron, Dee Ford, Johnny Manziel, and Anthony Barr have a ton of upside, but they are just a small list of the top 50 players on draft boards with notable shortcomings. However, most starters in the NFL have flaws and the NFL knows that the upside it covets from these headliners outweighs the risks.
Some of these flaws have nothing to do with a player’s work on the field. Jadeveon Clowney and C.J. Mosley are two prospects with unquestioned skill, but rumors about Clowney’s work ethic (which I think are questionable in origin) and Mosley’s injury history generate lingering questions about them fulfilling their vast promise.
My short list of safe picks -- barring issues of character and injury -- includes Jake Matthews, Sammy Watkins, Teddy Bridgewater, Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, and Darqueze Dennard. I am confident that barring catastrophic injury, these six players will at least provide 6-to-8 years of serviceable work as starters in the NFL.
If I were a betting man, there are only two players in Zierlein’s mock draft that I’d wager on developing into Pro Bowl players. The one from the above list of players is Watkins, and the other is Aaron Donald.
Zierlein has the Pittsburgh Panthers defensive tackle going to the New York Giants at No. 12. The reason Donald isn’t slated as an earlier pick is that at 6-foot-0, 285 pounds, he has a niche market: teams employing a base 4-3 defense that are seeking an undersized, pass-rushing tackle they can use.
The only way I foresee Donald not earning a trip to Hawaii within the next three years is if he’s playing in the same conference as the player he’s drawn comparisons to: Geno Atkins. The physical comparisons are startling -- and often in Donald’s favor.
|Atkins||6 ft 2 in||293||1.68||4.75||7.33||33||9 ft 9 in||34|
|Donald||6 ft 0 3/4 in||285||1.59||4.68||7.11||32||9 ft 8 in||35|
Atkins is 1.25 inches taller and entered the league eight pounds heavier. However, Donald is quicker, faster, and his strength and explosion are nearly the same. I say this about the combine data with confidence because Donald also demonstrates his similarities to Atkins on tape.
Some of the highlights below make Donald look like a blur because the edits were too tight to the beginning of the play. However, there are enough plays on this reel where the compiler left time before the snap for the viewer’s eye to find No. 97, and his burst is evident and rare.
At the 2:12-mark of the highlights above, note the burst within five yards that ends with the Panthers tackle smacking the taste from the quarterback’s mouth for the rest of the season. The fact that Donald executes this burst after avoiding a cut block is equally impressive.
I also love Donald’s creativity. When I wrote about Kyle Van Noy two weeks ago, Ryan Riddle explained to me that offenses want to force defenders to make predictable decisions. Its players like Van Noy who offenses fear most, because they possess a creative-disruptive approach that forces the offense to think rather than react. That can destroy the rhythm of a play.
Go to the 1:55-mark of the highlights above. Donald doesn’t guess running back or quarterback on this read option; he wraps his arms around both players. It’s like watching a character inspired from an animated series on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
He has it all: the swim move (2:25); the swipe and rip (1:19); the club (3:03); the shoulder dip around the corner (2:47); the pad level and burst to split the double team (1:44); anticipation of the snap (0:15); and the presence of mind to redirect to the flow of the play (4:20). If the first two moves don’t work, Donald’s motor runs long enough to win on perseverance (4:33). And when he hits his target, you can hear the clack of pads as often as any player I’ve seen this year.
If you read my take on Will Sutton earlier this year, then you know that I have no qualms about Donald’s size.
Take another look at Geno Atkins’ work in the NFL and remember what Donald has in common with Atkins from an athletic standpoint as well as Donald’s display of technical skill.
Like Atkins, Donald will start in the NFL no later than his second season. I think he’ll be a star. I spend most of my time studying offense, but forget NFL Network and ESPN covering the draft; let me watch Aaron Donald for a few days in May and I’ll be happy. If you’re a fan of a 4-3 team that lands him in May, you'll be happy, too.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The 1284-page guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece. Take a video tour of the RSP.
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