2014 NFL Draft: Pre-Season Breakdown – Aaron Donald, DT Pittsburgh


December 3, 2011; Pittsburgh,PA, USA: Pittsburgh Panthers defensive end Aaron Donald (97) rushes the passer against the Syracuse Orange during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. PITT won 33-20. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

When Aaron Donald came to Pittsburgh initially, he was used more as a defensive end but has evolved into a defensive tackle.  While Pitt has been mentioned mostly in regards to head coaching miscues lately, they have had some talent in the NFL Draft and Donald is among a few that could go this year.  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.  This past year, he was extremely productive as a junior recording 42 solo tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a pair of pass deflections.

There are definitely going to be questions about whether Donald can hold up in the NFL but he is a player who just seems to find a way to make plays.  It stands to reason he will get a little more size before he gets to the NFL Draft process, but it is just hard to see how he lasts beyond the early part of day three and likely the fourth round with how he is able to make plays in the backfield against high level talent.

Vitals & Build

Donald is listed at 6’1” 275lbs 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.  If he can get to a good looking 280-290lbs and maintain his athleticism, it will go a long way in solidifying his stock.

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.

Block Shedding

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.  Despite his size, 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.

Run Stopping

Donald holds up better at the point of attack than people might think.  He is not a guy who is collapsing the pocket when the opponent runs the football, but he will hold up the opponent and at least avoid giving up a ton of ground.  Because he generally uses good leverage, he can make the most of the strength he possesses but it is not easy for him.  Donald is able to shoot gaps and make tackles for loss with his quickness.  The concern going forward is how he will hold up against NFL caliber talent on teams that are running the ball at him.

Pass Rushing

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.

System Fit

Donald is still going to have to prove he can play the run in the NFL but he is a fantastic situational pass rusher for a 4-3 team.  He could contribute as a power end or defensive tackle that comes in to rush the passer and gives a change of pace.  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.

2013 Schedule

Mon, Sept. 2vs. Florida State
Sat, Sept. 14vs. New Mexico
Sat, Sept. 21at Duke
Sat, Sept. 28vs. Virginia
Sat, Oct. 12at Virginia Tech
Sat, Oct. 19vs. Old Dominion
Sat, Oct. 26at Navy
Sat, Nov. 2at Georgia Tech
Sat, Nov. 9vs. Notre Dame
Sat, Nov. 16vs. North Carolina
Sat, Nov. 23at Syracuse
Fri, Dec. 29vs. Miami

Notable Games

In their welcome to the ACC game, Pitt takes on Florida State the first game of the season.  If they are going to pull off the upset, Donald is going to have to have a big game.  The game against Georgia Tech is intriguing because of Donald’s versatility and the fact that Pitt takes on triple option teams back to back with the Rambling Wreck as the second.  From a conceptual standpoint, it will be the same type of offense, so Donald could have a big game as he is comfortable playing against it.  Lastly, the game against Notre Dame should be a good matchup to watch.  Donald plays a talented offensive line in the Fighting Irish and the game has a little extra juice as Pitt almost managed to pull the upset last year in South Bound.

NFL Comparison

Donald could end up being a player like Wallace Gilberry, who has found himself a niche as a rotational pass rusher on a few different teams with the latest being the Cincinnati Bengals.  He is never going to fit the prototype or be the type of player NFL teams love in terms of drawing a guy up but his effort, technique, and attitude make him a valuable player, which is what has happened with Gilberry.

Draft Projection

There is probably going to be a conservative grade on Donald for most people until he goes to the post season All-Star games and proves it against the best competition, but he looked good in opportunities against Justin Pugh, a first round pick from this past year.  He is not ideally built for the NFL but he is athletic and fluid for his size and is an extremely athletic tackle with good technique and understanding of how he can be effective.  For those reasons, it seems like he should be able to go no lower than round four of the NFL Draft.  If he can continue adding weight and maintain his athleticism, he could end up securing himself a spot on day two, but it will depend on a team who is going to be creative with Donald.  It would not be surprising in the least if Donald outperforms his draft slot because people are afraid of the lack of measurables but he is just a terrific player who consistently impacts games.