Seemingly brimming with enthusiasm on a 24/7 basis, it shouldn't come as a surprise long-time Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was smiling ear to ear and urging applause from a trio of his assistants during a video conference call with new linebacker Aaron Donkor on Tuesday.
But while some may choose to chalk it up as a "make it until you fake it" type situation made for television and social media clicks, there was nothing phoney about Carroll's exuberance for Donkor becoming a Seahawk. There was a genuine excitement in every word that rapidly came from his mouth during their brief conversation and considering Donkor's athletic gifts, it's not hard to understand why.
Donkor, a 26-year old German basketball-turned-football player, will join the Seahawks as part of the NFL's International Player Pathway Program, which was created in 2017 to help facilitate opportunities for non-American and Canadian players to play in the league. Carroll and his staff plan to play him at linebacker and he will also compete for snaps on special teams.
"The more you can do is obviously the old NFL way, so let's make sure you take full advantage of that," Carroll excitedly told Donkor. "Welcome to the Seahawks!"
Though Donkor has only played football for five years, he adapted to the game quickly and has excelled at each step up in competition. He dominated in his first action with the Düsseldorf Panthers of the German Football League, amassing 74 tackles, 14.0 sacks, and 20 tackles for loss. He then found his way stateside, first earning Junior College All-American honors at New Mexico Military Institute, where he produced 27 tackles and 11.5 sacks in... four games.
Coming off a sensational first season of football in the United States, Donkor transferred to Arkansas State, leaping up to the FBS level in 2019. Appearing in six games, he recorded 25 tackles and received a quality 73.5 overall grade from Pro Football Focus. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from coming back for the 2020 season to continue harnessing his craft, as he was forced to go back home.
But like many other international NFL hopefuls, Donkor didn't let his dream fade due to circumstances out of his control. He continued to train and then put on a show at the NFL's International Combine. Weighing 240 pounds, he ran a blazing 4.46-second 40-yard dash, posted a 39-inch vertical jump, and bench pressed 225 pounds 22 times, turning in a performance that would turn heads at any combine.
To put Donkor's performance in perspective, per Pro Football Reference, since 2000, only three prospects at 240-plus pounds have ran a 4.46 or faster 40, jumped at least 39 inches vertically, and produced at least 22 bench press reps. Donkor would have joined Vernon Davis, Manny Lawson, and Quincy Black in rare company.
Carroll and general manager John Schneider are always on the lookout for players with unique skill sets and there's no question Donkor fits the bill, at least athletically. While he hasn't played against NFL competition, he did see significant snaps against a few SEC opponents in his lone season at Arkansas State, including facing a Georgia offensive line with numerous future NFL players.
Currently, the Seahawks have only five linebackers on their 90-man roster. K.J. Wright remains unsigned and certainly could be back, while former second-round pick Darrell Taylor may make the transition to strongside linebacker. But depth isn't great behind Bobby Wagner and Jordyn Brooks, meaning Donkor may have landed in an ideal situation to actually push for a roster spot earlier than expected.
If such a premise sounds far-fetched, consider that the IPPL has only been in existence for five years. During that time, three players from the program have become eventual contributors in the NFL. Jordan Mailata, a former rugby player from Australia, started 10 games at left tackle for the Eagles in 2020. German fullback Jakob Johnson started 11 games last season for the Patriots, while defensive end Efe Obada recorded 5.5 sacks for the Panthers a year ago.
All three of those players needed time to get acclimated playing football at the highest level, but their individual successes provide clear proof the program is unearthing quality NFL-caliber from unlikely places. Given Donkor's elite athletic traits, he's the ball of clay every NFL coach would love to get their hands on and there's no question Carroll is looking forward to the opportunity with hopes of molding him into an NFL linebacker and/or special teams cog.
Even in the likely event Donkor isn't ready yet to play on Sundays, the NFL allows a practice squad exemption for players coming from the IPPL. While he wouldn't be allowed to suit up for a game if Seattle chooses to go that route, Carroll and his staff would be able to develop him on the practice field for the entire season, giving him a better chance to compete for a roster spot in 2022.
Regardless, Donkor possesses rare tools for a player of his size and he has a better football background than many of the international counterparts who have entered the league before him. While it may take some time and there will be learning curves aplenty, he has a legitimate chance to transform himself into much more than an uplifting story for the Seahawks.