When Aaron Donald came to Pittsburgh initially, he was used more as a defensive end but has evolved into an impact defensive tackle. He plays all over the line with a ton of energy, a great motor, and a good understanding of the position and how to be effective with technique, leverage, and a relentless attitude. In addition to having an outstanding year, Donald was able to win the Nagurski Award for the nation’s best defensive player.
There are definitely going to be questions about whether Donald can hold up against the run in the NFL and his size and length, but he is a player who just seems to find a way to make plays and has held up better against the run this year. His quickness, effort and technique are outstanding and he showcases effective functional strength. Donald projects as a top 75 pick and could be a hot commodity for a few teams that run schemes that take advantage of his ability as a 3-technique defensive tackle. There is a small chance he could slip to the third round if the limited number of teams that see him as a scheme fit are patient and wait to pull the trigger.
Vitals & Build
Donald is listed at 6’ 285lbs and he has done a good job of making sure he puts the weight on the right way. It would have been easy to just throw on weight for the sake of doing it to get closer to the magic number of 300 but he has maintained his athleticism of a defensive end while playing tackle. He is extremely quick and shows good burst with some impressive functional strength despite his size. Donald also demonstrates a good motor. His athletic potential seems somewhat limited but he is going to be trying to put on more quality weight as he goes forward and creep closer to 300 while getting everything out of his body he can.
Snap Anticipation & First Step
Donald gets off the ball extremely well. He anticipates the snap well and fires off the ball consistently with a quick step that gets up the field. Donald is able to get an advantage off of the snap regularly and forces them to adjust to his moves. The only thing he could stand to really improve is how high he comes out of his stance but he is not bad by any stretch; just an opportunity to improve. He has natural leverage by virtue of his height, so if he can stay low, he can get the most out of his strength. His first step is good as a defensive end but it is extremely impressive when he is lined up inside.
Donald has a variety of moves he will use to beat blockers which is in part why they are successful. He does a good job of executing his pass rush moves as well as just using good technique to beat opponents and get into the backfield. Donald showcases a bull rush that he can use to occasionally drive opponents into the backfield and into the quarterback. He is able to generate a ton of momentum in a hurry and with his quickness can catch opponents off guard. Donald also does a good job of using his hands to continually work and when he senses he can get underneath the opponents pads whether inside attacking a guard or outside against a tackle, he will take advantage, get underneath and either drive them backward or push himself a path under their shoulder depending on the situation. When he is able to get half the man, he is difficult to stop on the edge.
Donald is also uses moves that demonstrate his quickness. First, he will shoot gaps and force the opponents to try to adjust. He does a good job of getting low and making it difficult for opponents to find an anchor point. He will also use an effective swim move and he tends to not use it a ton, which makes it that much more effective and surprising to opponents when he does. It tends to be a changeup move for him rather than relying on it relentlessly. Donald has also flashed a spin move and a good push-pull move.
Donald holds up better at the point of attack than people might think. He has gotten much more powerful and has shown instances where he is able to collapse the pocket when he is single blocked. While he is certainly not going to have a lot of success against double teams, the talent around him at Pitt allowed opponents to do just that and while there were times he would give up ground, he held up pretty well and created a pile when he was moved off of the line. Because he generally uses good leverage, he can make the most of the strength he possesses.
Donald is able to shoot gaps and make tackles for loss with his quickness. He really does a great job when it comes to attacking into the backfield when opponents try to slide or pull and he gets through before they realize what is happening. The concern going forward is how he will hold up against NFL caliber talent on teams that are running the ball at him, but as long as he can win with quickness, he can keep opponents honest.
This is where Donald shows a lot of potential. He is able to rush the passer effectively from both the end and tackle spots. When opponents are pass blocking, he demonstrates the ability to take advantage and drive some opponents into the backfield. In addition to the fact he will use an array of moves, he is relentless with his effort and can make plays on the second and third effort. He displays good closing speed and can really get there quickly from up the middle. Donald bends around the edge well, breaks down in the backfield and makes the most of opportunities when they are there for him.
There are going to be continuing questions about how he can consistently hold up against the run, but he still looks like he should be an asset as a 3-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme. The Tampa-2 scheme that the Dallas Cowboys run stands out as a great fit for him. He could contribute as a power end for some teams but there will be concerns with his lack of length depending on his arm length. Donald could have a future as a power end on run downs and then slide down to the tackle spot on passing downs.
While it is possible a 3-4 team could take him to rush the passer, his lack of height is not a great fit as a 5-tech end, especially in a 2-gap system. He is not a guy who can really play well as a clogger, but he could conceivably play in a 1-gap scheme.
Donald’s game is somewhat similar to that of Glenn Dorsey of the San Francisco 49ers. Dorsey was originally drafted as a top 10 pick, but the Kansas City Chiefs immediately switched schemes to the 3-4 with a regime change which was a terrible fit for him. After years of being a bad fit, he finally was able to go to a team that was more willing to use him in a better fit and get more production.
Dorsey is able to win with quickness, speed and effort much like Donald. They are both shorter than people would prefer, but they have both figured out how to make plays and perform at a high level in spite of what they do not have by maximizing everything they do.
Aaron Donald has a significant amount of talent and ability. He uses outstanding technique and is an extremely polished player who should be extremely popular among defensive line coaches. There are going to be lingering questions about his length as well as his ability to consistently hold up against the run, but at the very least he should be an effective pass rusher. If he can rush the passer and play the run, his value increases significantly for the team that gets him. Donald projects as a top 75 pick, but the possibility that hurts Donald is a lack of teams that might like his fit in the second round.
Some of the film used in this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com