When it comes to draft prospects, comparisons to NFL players are easy to make but difficult to legitimize.
You might have heard that University of Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald seems very similar to Bengals All-Pro Geno Atkins. Both are undersized, pass-rushing, three-technique tackles. Scouts have made the comparisons. Chiefs general manager John Dorsey told TheMMQB.com that it’s fair, too. And now, Atkins has given the comparison his stamp of approval.
"Yes, definitely," Atkins told TheMMQB.com this week. "He has the tool set and skills to be a dominant three technique: motor, speed, leverage and strength. I’m definitely looking forward to see what he does in the league."
Atkins wasn’t drafted until the fourth round in 2010 by Cincinnati. Now Donald is being talked about as a first-round selection after a decorated college career and, like Atkins, an impressive Senior Bowl week during which he looked unstoppable. How did that happen? Atkins (6-1, 293 pounds at the combine) busted the mold and paved the way for players like Donald (6-1, 288 at Senior Bowl).
"I think [Atkins] showed that if you can play, you can play no matter your size," Donald said this week from Arizona, where he was training at Athletes Performance Institute. "If you can be productive, make plays and help the team win games, that's what it's all about. He did that and all the teams passed on him because they thought he was undersized. I bet a lot of teams are regretting that now. He's one of the best three techniques in the NFL for sure. The success he's having in the NFL, I think he paved the way for a lot of guys that were undersized."
Atkins was a little bit of a different prospect. He wasn’t a flashy player at Georgia with 11 sacks and 33.5 tackles for a loss in his four-year career. The only time he made the All-SEC team was in ’07, his sophomore season.
Donald won the Lombardi Award for the nation’s top lineman or linebacker, and became the fourth player to win both the Nagurski Award (top defensive player) and Outland (top interior lineman) after leading the country with 28.5 tackles for a loss as a senior. Donald had 29.5 career sacks.
"He'd probably be the first pick in the draft," Belichick says of Atkins now. "The guy can ruin a game by himself."
Don’t expect NFL teams to make the same mistake they did with Atkins.
"He’d probably be the first pick in the draft," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Atkins before facing Cincinnati last season. "He was an athletic guy that you saw maybe as a sub rusher, a nickel sub rusher, but he’s way more than that. . . . This guy has some power rushes where he just takes linemen back, those guards back and it just looks like they’re on roller skates. He just walks them, literally, right back into the quarterback. He’s very quick. He can get the edge and work up or up-and-under on the guards. Then when they try to set deep or take those quick moves away from him, he can turn those into power moves and collapse the pocket. He can ruin a game, there’s no question the guy can ruin a game by himself."
Donald shows the same type of disruptive potential as Atkins. Donald owned the one-on-one pass rush drills against top offensive linemen at the Senior Bowl (he won 12 of 15 battles) just as Atkins did in ’10. Donald used a variety of moves and, in what will be very important in the pros, he showed he can win with both quickness and power. Possess only one of those traits, and you might last a long time as a role player. Use both, and you can be a star in the NFL. Donald has decent arm and hand length despite his size, and uses them violently at the point of attack. His feet are too quick to be cut. Donald is going to be a problem to block for 60 minutes. The game film backs it up as well. There isn’t much he can’t do.
"Just by his performance here [at the Senior Bowl], he's caught a lot of the scouts' eyes," Dorsey said in Mobile. "He uses his quickness and athleticism; he's probably a better fit in the 4-3 than a 3-4 scheme. I think he's helped himself this week and shown he'll be able to play at a high level in the NFL."
Donald (left)more than held his own against the top talent at the Senior Bowl in January, dispelling notions that he thrived against weaker competition at Pitt. (G.M. Andrews/AP)
Even though talents like Atkins and Donald can find a home in any scheme, they are ideally suited to play just one position: three technique (on the outside shoulder of a guard, next to a legit nose tackle) in a 4-3, so that will eliminate some teams as far as Donald’s draftability. But the Atkins lesson will be on each team’s mind.
"I think what happens is when you take a player that’s productive (in college) and maybe there's a deficiency in some area, whether it’s height, weight, arm length or hands, what teams will do then is say, ‘OK, how does that affect the scheme we're in?'" Rams general manger Les Snead said. "The key is always when you take that type of player, having a plan for success, a detailed plan for success: how you're going to use him in your scheme and then always the perseverance to execute the plan. But you always go wait a minute, we have a guy who's maybe a rectangle in a square, but this guy's a really good rectangle. How can we use him?
"Somebody is going to come out of every draft that maybe you didn't have rated as high as he played to. I think good organizations say, ‘Let's look at that case study and learn from it.’ You can't change it, but you can learn from it. I think Geno is one of those cases. What did we all miss on him? We all learned something from that."
Donald will have a few more things going for him as well heading into the draft. While there was some question about Atkins’ desire—he’s proved to be a bit of an ambivalent superstar given his laidback nature—Donald is a nonstop, in-your-face competitor. He’s going to take that to the NFL Scouting Combine this week in Indianapolis where Donald said he’s going to “shock” people with his physical testing. He could best all the marks Atkins put up in ’10, including running an unheard of 4.6 40-yard dash at nearly 290 pounds.
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"Everything that I do, I want to be the best at it. That's why I want to shock a lot of people," Donald said. "They probably think I'm going to do this and do that, and I want to exceed expectations."
Donald has also grown to love film study, which has been a key to Atkins’ rapid rise from situational pass rusher as a rookie to All-Pro. Donald was known to be the first guy in and last guy out with the Panthers.
“Each year I improved at becoming a student of the game, started breaking down film a lot better, stayed in the film room a lot more," Donald said. “[Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield] helped me a lot learning the little keys that offensive linemen give you so you can take advantage of it and learn the formations a lot better as far as how the back's set up. When you know what you're doing out there, it makes things a lot easier and allows you to play faster. The film room has helped my pass rush and run stops, so I’m non-stop grinding at it.”
Undeniable production. Top-notch competitor. Would-be combine test freak. Relentless in the film room.
Go ahead, make the comparisons to Atkins. They sound on point. And Atkins agrees.