Futures: Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald

Futures: Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald
Futures: Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

By Matt Waldman

Help Wanted: Football Players

Candidates must demonstrate efficiency and productivity while performing in a fast-paced, stressful environment. Speed, quickness, and strength required. Toughness and quick thinking are essential. Prototypical height and weight for role preferred, but will consider candidates with exceptional compensatory skills. Major college program is a plus. Relocation required. Job entails travel for 50-65 percent of work year. Submit a portfolio of work, at least five professional and five character references, and a working phone number to NFL.com. Eligible candidates should expect to receive a call in May for a summer training program at one of our 32 branches.

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.

Tale of the Tape: Atkins vs. Donald

Player Height Weight 10 40 3-Cone Vertical Broad Bench
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.


9 comments, Last at 12 Apr 2014, 3:49pm

#1 by sjeble // Apr 09, 2014 - 4:06pm

Atkins measured in at 6013 at his combine and pro day per nfldraftscout.com:


Points: 0

#3 by jim1060 // Apr 09, 2014 - 5:24pm

If the Giants can pick him and don't, I will puke.

Points: 0

#4 by Sifter // Apr 09, 2014 - 5:44pm

Interesting. I've JUST read the NFL.com profile on Donald (written by Nolan Nawrocki) and he is particularly low on Donald - had him pegged as a 4th-5th round guy. Based on the negatives trumping the positives really, that his lack of size will lead to swamping by O-linemen in the run game.

He also mentions Donald's frame might be maxed out. Atkins on the other hand started at 293 and is over 300lbs now, presumably helping in the run game. Atkins also got drafted in the 4th round. For Donald to be considered as a top 15 guy in a really deep draft?...well he must owe a lot to Atkins NFL production.

Definitely not saying Nawrocki's completely right...I can certainly see Donald's pop and potential on tape, but I don't see how it's much different from other undersized guys. Picking them and relying on their transition is always a gamble. For every Geno Atkins there is your Peria Jerry's or Trevor Laws', smaller DTs with big motors who haven't really done anything in the NFL.

Points: 0

#5 by bubqr // Apr 09, 2014 - 7:25pm

Trevor Laws was in no way close in terms of athleticism. He was a high motor DT, ala Patterson. Donald's burst looks closer to a Gerald McCoy or Atkins than anyone else, and since the Senior Bowl, I'm fairly convinced he's going to be a very good one. Peria Jerry is a good comparison too though, but Donald's burst is even more impressive.

Points: 0

#6 by nath // Apr 10, 2014 - 11:35am

Nolan Nawrocki has spent too much time cranking out thinly-veiled racial stereotyping for anyone to take his prospect analysis seriously.

Points: 0

#7 by mehllageman56 // Apr 10, 2014 - 3:18pm

Usually that stuff only comes out in his projections for quarterbacks. Cam and RGII pretty much proved him wrong, but Geno hasn't. Yet. As a Jets fan, I'm hoping.

I can understand worrying about Donald's size, or lack of it, but I think NFL people have a tendency to worry too much about physical traits, and not enough about what's on the tape.

Points: 0

#8 by KB // Apr 12, 2014 - 12:20am

Another shorter DT or a 3-4 DE in this case is Mike Daniels. The guy had a monster of a year last season and will only get better. I'd be curious as to how you compare Daniels to Atkins and Donald.

I've been a big fan of Donald all season, when others were saying he was a fringe 1st rd pick at highest I was saying he is my favorite DT prospect in the 2014 draft.

Daniels is nearly identical as far as a height goes and weighed 291 lbs entering the draft. I'd say Daniels uses his leverage a bit better as of now and is stronger(He now plays above 300 lbs but has a similar frame to both Atkins and Donald). All 3 players are very strong and it shows even more because of the leverage they are able to get. All 3 are also very quick off the line and have a nasty streak to them, donald is probably the quickest of all though.

I'm also curious as to why Donald is basically ruled out of consideration to play in a 3-4. With the similarities between Donald and Daniels, isn't it reasonable to assume Donald could be a 8-10 sack guy from the 3-4 DE spot? Or is it more that he can do it but wouldn't be able to use his talents to all his potential in a 3-4?

All I know is if he slid to 21, I wouldn't be upset at all if GB grabbed him to play DE in Capers 3-4.

Points: 0

#9 by TacticalSledgehammer // Apr 12, 2014 - 3:49pm

I would, but only because the Packers are far more needy in the back 7. If the safeties and Mosley are gone though, I suppose Ted could do worse.
My ideal (and at least semi-realistic) first round pick for the Pack:
1) Clinton-Dix
2) Mosley
3) Prior (Or Pryor?)
4) Ebron
5) BPA


“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”

Points: 0

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