The SI 64, No. 10: DT Aaron Donald
With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64 -- which can be found in its entirety here -- uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and why they’re slotted as such. Our rankings finally enter the top 10 here, opening the homestretch with one of college football's most dominant defenders from the 2013 season.
No. 10: Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald
Bio: Before wrapping an interview with Sports Illustrated on the topic of Aaron Donald earlier this offseason, Pittsburgh defensive tackles coach Inoke Breckterfield requested a moment to riff.
"The thing I do want to mention, I don't know if people know this about [Donald], his work ethic is unreal," Breckterfield said. "Everything he's got right now he put himself in that position -- whether it's film study, extra time in the weight room. He knew he was a good player, he decided he wanted to be great.
"Over the last year, it was awesome to see him do the little things. That's just who he is. Whatever team takes him, he's a high-character kid. Whoever picks him is going to be happy. You'd be the smartest guy in the room if you take this kid. I didn't want to oversell him, just let his actions and production speak for itself."
Donald's play for the Panthers did just that. The 2013 ACC Defensive Player of the Year and winner of the Bednarik, Nagurski, Lombardi, and Outland Awards last season, Donald finished his college career with 29.5 sacks and 66 tackles for loss -- an NCAA-best 28.5 coming in his final campaign. Undersized for his defensive tackle spot at 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds, Donald was nonetheless a man among boys.
He did nothing to curtail his positive momentum at February's combine, running a 4.68-second 40 (an extremely impressive time for a DT), tossing up 35 reps on the bench press and flashing his superior footwork in the three-cone drill. Donald entered that weekend as a possible Round 1 pick; he left it pushing for a top-10 spot.
"All I can do is do my part and keep trying to open up eyes with what I did on the football field, what I did in my career on film," Donald said. "Just go out there and try to compete and shock a couple more people."
Donald played for three different head coaches over his four years at Pittsburgh -- actually, five, if you count interims Phil Bennett and Keith Patterson, who each handled one game to bridge the gaps between Dave Wannstedt and Todd Graham and then Graham and Paul Chryst, respectively. The constant fluctuation in systems tasked the talented defensive tackle with varying responsibilities. He handled each and every one well.
"Junior year, 3-4 nose tackle, he had 11 sacks," Breckterfield said. "Comes back his senior year and knocks it out of the park. I think he can play anywhere on the defensive line."
Donald did admit at the combine that he sees a three-technique position as the best fit for his skills, analysis with which Breckerfield concurred. In an era of hybrid fronts and versatile linemen, though, Donald should be of interest to just about every team out there.
And Donald dipping even into the back half of Round 1 would be a surprise at this point. At least a couple of recent expert mocks have paired up Donald and the Raiders at No. 5 overall. Detroit (No. 10), Chicago (No. 14) and Dallas (No. 16) also all look like potential landing spots, too. Given what Donald accomplished in college, those teams likely will not be alone in coveting the talented tackle.
Strengths: Not only experienced at lining up in multiple spots, but productive everywhere. Donald brings a smart, varied rush to the table, which allows him to work with effectiveness from the one-tech spot on out. Most of his victories up front come as result of an explosive first step off the snap. The quickness he flashed for a national audience at the combine was no fluke. Donald also can win with power, if he cannot break through immediately. In that regard, his stature actually can play to his advantage -- being a little lower to the ground allows him to get his hands into a blocker's chest naturally, allowing him to push opponents back.
True to the praise for his work ethic, Donald can stay on the field as a three-down player and rarely downshifts in intensity. He'll chase the ball whistle to whistle, sideline to sideline, showing enough recognition to keep locked on the right target despite misdirection.
Weaknesses: Can be neutralized when he does not get the first step, with his size occasionally proving problematic against strong guards. Though he more than held his own as a nose tackle at Pittsburgh, his lack of girth makes it difficult to project him there in the pros, potentially limiting his role. Only average arm length plus 6-1 height means that he will not swat many passes at the line if he fails to get home on a rush. May have a tough time if asked to anchor versus the run as a two-gap player.
Conclusion: When it comes to pure disruption of opposing offenses, Donald may not be all that far behind -- if he's behind at all -- Jadeveon Clowney. Donald is that much of a force from the interior, as his whopping tackles-for-loss numbers indicate. There will be times that quick, aggressive NFL offensive linemen neutralize him simply because he does not have the size to blow through them, but Donald's strength and ability to keep driving are underrated traits in his game.
Plain and simple, Donald is one of the best players available in this draft, certainly on the defensive side of things. He ultimately may not land in the top 10, but few would question the decision if he did.