EARTH CITY, Mo.-- Before the NFL draft in early May, Rams defensive line coach Mike Waufle hatched a plan. As St. Louis looked to beef up its already top-level unit, Waufle perused his options. He found himself keeping a close eye on two big defensive tackles, both comparable in stature to 6-foot-5, 320-pound Michael Brockers, the Rams' first-round selection in 2012.
But Waufle has never been a man for whom size is the ultimate prize. When he ran the Raiders’ defensive line from 1998-2003, the coach at times butted heads with Al Davis on that very subject, and he prides himself on winning a Super Bowl in with the Giants in 2007 with a line that weighed in lighter than most people realized. So when tape of one particular defensive tackle came across Waufle’s desk in the spring, he was compelled to give it a second look -- and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. Suddenly, those two big tackles were far less appealing than this undersized one, who stands just 6 feet tall and weighs in at about 280 pounds.
Waufle still touted the bigger players, though, until the draft got closer. Then, as May 8 approached, he asked Rams general manager Les Snead about calling a staff-wide meeting. Snead granted permission, and Waufle began to prepare his presentation.
“I lured everybody in thinking, okay, which defensive tackle were we going to choose between [those] two,” Waufle said. “And then I said, there’s one player, though, that’s better than these two guys. His name’s Aaron Donald.
“Aaron had some unbelievable tape that I hadn’t seen in 17 years. I’d never seen productive tape like that.”
Waufle’s colleagues agreed. With the 13th pick in the 2014 draft -- the Rams had already selected offensive tackle Greg Robinson second overall -- St. Louis took Donald, the too-short, too-small tackle out of Pittsburgh. It might have been the biggest steal of the first round.
When the Rams reported to camp last week, attention naturally shifted to the team’s defensive line. So what if quarterback Sam Bradford is back from a torn ACL -- if St. Louis wins come fall, it’ll be due in large part to its defense, and as if to drive that point home, Donald strode into camp and left fans on the sidelines drooling.
“When he reported with the rookies, the offensive line couldn’t block him,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “It was consistently, play after play after play … whether it was run or pass, what the protection was.”
Others around the Rams' facility resorted to less nuanced explanations of what they’ve seen. “Oh man,” was all Brockers could muster. “He’s keeping us vets on our toes.” Waufle’s sentiment was just as simple: “He’s showed up,” the coach said, with the self-satisfied smile of a man who fleeced the 14 teams who picked before him.
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Waufle got his first inkling of what Donald could accomplish as a pro in February at the combine. Waufle has been running defensive line drills in Indianapolis for years, and when he timed Donald, the rookie’s speed -- an unofficial 4.65 seconds in the 40-yard dash -- stood out. Add that to his low center of gravity, and that adds up to a force at the line of scrimmage, where he can get closer to the ground and up under offensive linemen’s pads.
By conventional NFL wisdom, yes, Donald is small. When his unit takes the field, he’s among the shortest, but only for those few seconds when he trots out in a pack. Then he bends over, the center snaps the ball, and size becomes irrelevant, even if numbers hint otherwise. In the past 20 years, there have been just 33 defensive linemen to play more than one season in the NFL and stand at Donald’s height or shorter. In the past 25 years, only one defensive tackle standing 6-foot or smaller has made a Pro Bowl: Dan Saleaumua, in 1990. And in a league where the girth of linemen is only increasing, Donald’s weight, which hovers around 280, is a good 30 pounds lighter than the average for defensive tackles over the past decade.
The Rams hope, though, that their rookie can be the exception to the rule, and they believe they have good evidence to back that up. Their defensive line has been built with size as only a secondary concern, and it’s managed to be consistently among the NFL’s best since Fisher took over.
“If you can play, you can play,” Donald said. “It don’t matter … It’s a perfect scheme that fits me perfectly, with great coaches.”
Donald’s is the right measure of confidence: enough to know he deserves what he’s earned, but not so much as to seem anything approaching cocky. The 23-year-old is soft-spoken off the field, and when asked what parts of his game he most wants to improve, he can’t pick just one. The whole thing, he says, sincerely enough that it’s believable, and then he shakes his head and laughs, because the playbook is just so freaking big. “You always hear about the playbook, but I’m like, ‘I’m the defensive line, there ain’t going to be that much,’” Donald said, having already shed that bit of overconfidence.
But don’t let his self-deprecation fool you: Donald knows his plays. He’s known them since he showed up for organized team activities in the spring, thanks in part to Waufle’s methods, which the coach sums up with one Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “To be simple is to be great.”
And maybe that’s the rub with Donald. Maybe it’s too easy to wonder about height and weight even when Donald’s size has yet to be a problem, when that very size couldn't keep him from winning the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, the Outland Trophy and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy in 2013. It’s too easy to overthink, to not just look in awe at that tape that dropped Waufle's jaw.
So when it comes to Aaron Donald, turn off your brain and turn on your eyes, and just watch for a minute.