I’m not sure how I got it so wrong.
My first impression of Aaron Donald was pretty middling. Sometimes when you watch full games instead of tape cuts, it’s hard to notice consistently good play.
That’s the excuse I’ll roll with, but at the end of the day I just made a bad call.
Donald can play.
And he could be a first round pick.
In going back to re-access his potential I wanted to focus on two games against very different opponents.
I wanted to see how he faired against the best of the best — National Champions Florida State. And I wanted to watch him against a much less polished opponent — Bowling Green State.
On both occasions he was superb. I couldn’t have been more impressed.
Again — how did I miss on this guy so badly?
I’ll get to the positives in a moment, but first here’s one lingering issue. You will be able to have some success in the run game versus Donald.
As good as he is at getting into the backfield and having an impact, you can scheme against him in the run.
He’s not an immovable object, and you wouldn’t expect that at 6-0 and 288lbs.
When you face off against him 1v1 — he nearly always wins with leverage because of the size. Being small is actually a positive in that sense. He also has the hands and lower body power to excel in that type of situation.
Yet when blockers take a different angle and try to stretch a run out wide, he can be moved. When he can’t set and get the hands up, the lack of size shows. That opens up cut back lanes and there are a few occasions where you think at the next level that would be exploited.
Whoever drafts Donald is probably just going to have to live with the fact he’ll give up the odd big hole/run play.
Even so, it might be worth it for all the positives you get as a pocket collapsing, dominating interior force.
I liked Jordan Hill a lot last year and was pleased to see Seattle spend a third round pick bringing him in — even if his rookie year has been severely hampered with injuries.
Donald is kind of like a top of the range version of Hill. In some ways they have a very similar game. But where as Hill flashed as a playmaker in the backfield, Donald practically lives there.
Time and time again he collapses the pocket. He ended the year with 11 sacks but was probably responsible for a lot more. In the two games I watched he was consistently having an impact — driving blockers into the backfield, forcing quarterbacks to move out of the pocket and recording a splash.
When he doesn’t get the sack, he’ll at least force a bad throw or get a teammate on the stat sheet.
It’s been a while since I saw a defensive lineman this busy, causing so many problems for two very different opponents.
In the FSU game I actually think he could’ve done a better job finishing, but the fact of the matter is he was there time and time again in position to make a play.
I wanted to see how he coped against the best in college football and it was interesting to see how much success he had against the Seminoles. He was the only one causing Jameis Winston any problems. And Winston had a day for the ages — a truly sensational quarterbacking performance.
He needed it too, with the way Donald was playing.
Then I put on the BGSU tape hoping to see him clean up against a much weaker team.
He did just that.
It’s unusual to see a defensive lineman just rag-doll a blocker, but there was Donald going to work. On a couple of occasions he practically tossed the guard or center into the quarterbacks lap.
Remember the way we looked at the three technique position last year? I wrote this piece in February 2013 titled ‘The Bill Walsh defensive tackle’.
It contains notes from Matt Waldman detailing what Walsh looked for when drafting players.
We know Pete Carroll’s links to Walsh and there’s some crossover between the two styles of coaching. This line quoted in the piece has stayed with me, referring to what he wanted in a DT:
The best defensive tackles move the offensive guard back into the quarterback. (emphasis mine) They won’t have nearly as many sacks as others, but if they can move the guard back into the quarterback, then the quarterback has to avoid his own lineman as if he were a pass rusher before he throws the ball. So this is a key ability.
This is Donald.
Even when he’s not getting on the stat sheet, he’s going to make life easy for the edge rushers. He’ll get the quarterback on the move, trying to make reads on the hop.
He uses his hands well, makes the most of his leverage advantage, has a strong lower base that generates plenty of power, his first step quickness is right up there and he’s capable of slipping blockers with a quick swim move.
Every time an undersized pass rusher like this comes onto the scene he gets compared to Geno Atkins.
Perhaps for the first time, that comparison may be legit.
Donald may never ever get anywhere near that kind of impact. There’s a reason Atkins is a bit of a freak of nature.
But if there’s one player capable of getting into the league and actually making it happen at this size, Donald is your guy.
One more time — I’m not sure how I got it so wrong before.
A good team should consider him late in the first.
A team with some edge rushers to compliment his ability to collapse the pocket.
A team that can rotate their defensive linemen and limit some of the issues he’ll have against the run.
In many ways Seattle would perfect for him. I think we should put him on the radar — especially if they lose Clinton McDonald to free agency. McDonald’s impact this year is really underrated — he had 5.5 sacks and it’d be an upset if other teams weren’t willing to reward him for that.
In fact I’d put money on him ending up in Jacksonville.
Spending a first rounder to replace McDonald might be overkill — but I do think it’ll be an option. You could argue Jordan Hill may be tagged for that role — and nobody should write him off after one year.
But if Donald’s there in the late first, you have to consider it.
One of Seattle’s biggest off-season priorities has to be getting a big bodied receiver for Russell Wilson to compliment the current group.
If Kelvin Benjamin or Brandon Coleman are there at #31/32 they have to be in play. It’s the one area Seattle can really take a tangible step forward, particularly with the way they’re structuring the offense.
They want to run the ball and hit big plays downfield off play action. Not having a starting receiver over 6-0/6-1 is conducive to that.
A bigger red zone threat would also be nice, especially considering the struggles they’ve had recently inside the 20.
Benjamin and Coleman aren’t just big — both have limitless potential. They’re also far from the finished article and need time. I’ll take a chance on either in the late first.
If they’re both gone, then you look down the list at other needs. And maintaining the depth and quality of the defensive line has to be up there.
Remember — McDonald isn’t the only free agent in waiting. Tony McDaniel and Michael Bennett are also set to hit the market.
Donald is a really exciting player to watch. He could go in the top-25. His size could also see him last into the second round.
Either way — I wouldn’t bet against him having a lot of success in the NFL.
Game tape vs Florida State & Bowling Green State: