Defensive tackles don't often put together a season like Aaron Donald did for Pittsburgh in 2013. A first-team All American, Donald took home the Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski awards and the Outland Trophy. He also tallied 59 tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles.
Geno Atkins. John Randle. Warren Sapp. Pick any of those comparisons and it's appropriate for Donald. Like those three, he's an incredibly athletic defensive tackle who doesn't necessarily have the size many are used to at the position. Donald's game isn't built on power. He's a speed player with few technical flaws. There is no more athletic interior lineman in the 2014 NFL Draft than Donald.
That's not to say he's a perfect prospect, though. Some of Donald's issues are coachable. Others, like his inability to sustain against multiple blockers, will have to be creatively covered up by the team that drafts him. Whatever team that does will likely have to use a pick in the teens on him, if not higher.
Pass rush: Donald is dangerous as a pass rusher because of his versatility. While he predominantly played inside at Pittsburgh, he also found success getting after the quarterback on the end. From the interior, Donald is good because of his combination of hand use and quickness. A few times as a senior Donald showed an impressive spin move to shed blockers and get into the backfield.
While Donald often gets viewed as a speed-first lineman, it's his handwork that stands out. For an interior lineman, Donald has a variety of moves. He uses a swim to get inside. He can pop his hands out to jar an offensive lineman backward. He shoots gaps with a rare quickness to get in the face of a quarterback. This isn't necessarily a pass rush criticism, but it would be nice to see Donald get his hands up more when he gets stopped on a pressure.
Pursuit/Quickness: It's unfair to compare other defensive tackles to Donald in this category. He has the foot speed of a lot of athletic linebackers and can chase down the ball carrier from behind (when he's hustling after the play). Donald has a stellar first step when firing off the line of scrimmage. He uses his quickness to make up for slightly shorter arms by getting off the ball faster than an opposing lineman and getting under their pads.
Run defense: Donald will never be mistaken for a two-gap run stuffer. He struggles to hold his ground against multiple blockers and will get overpowered. But at the same time, teams shouldn't expect him to be that type of defensive tackle. Against the run, Donald utilizes his initial burst to either get penetration or push an offensive lineman backward. When he uses his foot quickness, Donald has shown the ability to effortlessly slide through a gap. From there, it's all about his closing speed. Donald has the speed to cover ground in a hurry and is a sound tackler.
Strength/Tackling: Because he's not a classic 315-pound monster, Donald doesn't have the power of some defensive tackles. While he doesn't get pushed around, he doesn't necessarily win because of his strength. Against running backs, Donald is sound as a tackler. His speed combined with sheer size versus a running back and Donald often has the advantage. It's worth noting, however, that Donald will sometimes lunge for tackles and miss.
Technique: In regard to technique, Donald is a player with few flaws. While some may view his size as a negative, it allows him to get leverage and underneath the pads of offensive linemen. As mentioned above, Donald possesses stellar hands. He's mastered an arm-over swim move and seems to know exactly where to put his hands to make the move work. He displayed a variety of moves at Pittsburgh and seemed to not only know how to use them, but when to as well. He's not a one-move player like so many defensive linemen coming out of college.
Final word: While teams that run a two-gap defense may not think as highly of Donald, the teams that like him will absolutely love his game. Donald's athleticism is unique to the position. He can often beat opposing linemen with his foot quickness and hand use. While he's a star on the inside, he showed a few times at Pittsburgh that he's capable of lining up at end and being disruptive.
Following a standout 2013, Donald only helped himself during the offseason process at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine. He starred at both and locked up a spot within the first 20 picks of the draft.