This story originally appeared in the Sept. 12, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
If you were to draw up a prototypical NFL defensive tackle, he would look a lot like Gerald McCoy of the Buccaneers. At 6' 4" and 300 pounds he's got it all: size, strength, length and explosiveness. But McCoy is also smart. He watches the rest of the league and looks for trends, and lately he's been feeling a little jealous.
"I'm the traditional guy, and that's fine, but the truth is, mutants are taking over," says McCoy. "Maybe the No. 1 mutant is Aaron Donald. You shouldn't be that small, pack that much punch and be that fast. What did he run at the combine, a 4.6? [It was 4.68, to be exact.] It's not fair."
The same things will be said about the 25-year-old Donald in the meeting rooms of every offensive line that will face the Rams this season. Despite being 6' 1" and 285 pounds, Donald has flourished. The 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year, he has gone to two straight Pro Bowls and was named first-team All-Pro in '15. Over the past two seasons he has 20 sacks—three more than McCoy, and a total surpassed only by J.J. Watt's 38 among interior linemen. According to Pro Football Focus, Donald had 26 quarterback hits, 42 hurries and 79 pressures in 2015 and was so dominating even without standout end Robert Quinn (who missed the season's last seven games because of various injuries) that Donald, not Watt, should have been named Defensive Player of the Year.
"Everybody wanted me to compare him to somebody else, but I didn't do it the first year because he's got to pay his dues in this league," says Los Angeles defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. "Last year I didn't do it either. Why? Because I think people are going to start comparing other people to him now, because he's that good a player."
As recently as the 2010 season there's no way a player Donald's size could be anything other than a situational pass rusher, because the running game was about brute physical strength: huge offensive linemen, fullbacks as battering rams through the holes, backside guards and tackles pulling and trapping. With offenses spreading the field and the rise of zone-blocking schemes, rushing attacks are more horizontal.
Good luck trying to stop Donald with one blocker. "How many teams line up with two backs and pound you to death?" asks Williams. "That's not what the game is about. It's about spreading you out. Now, all of a sudden, we have a dynamic, athletic, explosive pass rusher lined up against offensive guards that usually struggle the most with pass protections. Offenses don't know what to do with him."
There are plenty of light and quick rushers in the league, though, and they aren't nearly as effective as Donald. He has the arms (32 5/8 inches) and hands (9 7/8 inches) of a larger player, and that allows him to separate from linemen. During one-on-one pass-rushing drills in training camp those massive mitts were a flurry of motion, thwarting a blocker's punch and setting up a quick spin move that had him by the lineman in a blink. It's dizzying to watch and far harder to handle.
In the fourth quarter of a Week 14 game against the Lions last year, Donald was lined up on the outside shoulder of left guard Laken Tomlinson. At the snap he bolted straight upfield, slanted inside for two steps to get Tomlinson moving and then did a spin move back to the outside to take down Matthew Stafford for a sack. He executed all that in just 3.25 seconds. Most linemen would need a second or two longer.
"It's hard for those big guys to bend down for a guy that's under 6'1"," says Donald, who had a career-high three sacks against Detroit. "Plus, with the strength, quickness and speed that I've got, I like to change it up. I'll bull-rush you once, then come with the finesse. Sometimes they'll be blocking air."
Part of it is instinct, but preparation also plays a huge role. The Rams have discussed giving Donald his own laptop loaded with film for use in the facility because he screws up everyone else's. "He does all kinds of studies," says Williams. "We have to reprogram the computers every day before we can show our own film. He's a study-aholic. As soon as the schedule came out, he made me give him a computer loaded with all the film for our opponents. He never stops."
When told of this, McCoy sighed deeply. The mutants are inheriting his Earth.
"It's O.K. because he can really play the game," says McCoy. "We got to sit down and talk a lot at the Pro Bowl. He doesn't just play football, he's not just more talented than anybody—he's really smart and knows what he's going to get. That's why he's always ahead of the game and makes a million plays. He's making us all look bad, but I'm O.K. with it because I love watching him too."