clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Notebook: Aaron Donald, master of technique

Pitt's Aaron Donald may not be as well known as some of the other defensive prospects in this year's NFL Draft, but that's going to change real soon. Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White took a closer look at Donald, only to find a player who will make some team very happy it drafted him.

SB Nation 2014 NFL Draft Scouting Reports

The subject of this breakdown is Aaron Donald, the defensive tackle out of Pitt. I watched him play against Florida State, Virginia, North Carolina, Miami and Bowling Green. Those games were the season opener, one game in the middle of the season and three games near the end, respectively.

After Donald's performance at the combine, I think the best compliment I can pay him in grading his play is that his film blows his combine performance away.

And that's saying something!

A full toolbox

The truth is, if Donald was three inches taller he would easily be my No. 1 overall draft pick in May. Although he measured at the combine at a shade less than 6'1, 285 pounds, he played like a much taller and bigger man. That speaks to the high level of technique he uses to win his individual battles play after play after play. I hate to pull a Jon Gruden, but THIS GUY just jumped off the screen in every single game that I broke down.

As I have lamented before, it is hard enough trying to teach most college level pass rushers one signature move that they can win with on a consistent basis, but Donald used at least four different pass rush moves to great effect in every game. That's not even counting the counter spin, which is as rare at the college level as spotting a unicorn. The thing that I love is that on almost every pass rush he ends the move with a rip. That is one of those little things that help you get sacks rather than pressures because it clears the blocker off of you and allows you to run free at the quarterback.

It isn't just Donald's pass rush repertoire that warms my heart. It's also his technique in playing the run. College defensive tackles just loooooove to try to arm tackle a ball carrier while still engaged with a blocker. This inevitably leads to many, many pancakes chalked up by said blockers.

Not Aaron Donald.

On tape, you see him use his hands to disengage from the blocker whenever possible to try to make a play on the ball. This is why he had such ridiculous tackles for loss numbers this year. Once Donald freed himself from a blocker, he allowed himself to maximize his athleticism and catch the runner before he could cross the line of scrimmage.

You just don't see guys coming out of college with that high level of technique on a regular basis. Hell, you have some guys starting in the NFL and playing well that don't show hand-fighting at that level. You can put Donald in any defense at any position up front and expect him to succeed because of how polished he is.

Let me tell you about some of the things I saw.

There was the compact arm-over Donald did on a left guard, and then he went right into a rip on the center with little to no wasted motion. He did this repeatedly, and time and again he got pressure on the quarterback. He wasn't quite as good as working against the right guard, but just the fact that he had this move down was impressive. Most guys would try a wide swim move and/or forget to rip the center.

Donald did it in identical fashion every time he tried it.

Then, there was the stutter move, where he chops his feet in front of the guard to get him to sit down (stop moving) and punch with his hands. Donald would then swat the guard's outside hand inside, execute a rip move and accelerate off the block to get to the quarterback.

You have to appreciate how many times a player has to work on a move like that to get the timing down and to trust your technique in a live game. If Donald misses when he tries to swat the blocker's outside hand, then he is likely going to get punched in the chest while he is off balance and either fall down or get stopped in his tracks.

The fear of making a mistake makes some guys refuse to try that move in a game. Donald looks like he could do it in his sleep.

Oh, I can't forget about the move where Donald tries to rip inside of the guard, then when he feels himself getting washed away from the quarterback he spins right back into the quarterback's face. That's what he did against North Carolina, and he ended up hitting the quarterback's arm and causing an incompletion.

Last but not least: yeah he runs over dudes, too.

Most of Donald's rushes are finesse in nature, but when he decides to bull rush it is a sight to behold. At times, it looked like the opposing guard was wearing skates. Even on the plays when Donald didn't get the sack, he usually pushed the pocket back so far that the quarterback scrambled into a sack by one of Donald's teammates.

Did I mention that he made all these moves with good pad level -- he stayed low -- and with his hips turned toward the blocker he was trying to defeat?

Simply put, the guy has a lot of tools in his toolbox and he doesn't mind using all of them to get the desired result.


There was something that ate at me watching Donald's film.

For folks who have followed me on Twitter since the 2012 season, y'all know that I had a man crush on Donald back then, thinking he could have gone high in the draft last spring. Watching his film from this year has only made me more of a fan of him when it comes to his technique. Unfortunately, I also saw Donald loafing quite a bit in every game, and that just goes against everything I was taught as a defensive player going all the way back to my days in college at the University of Tennessee (Go Vols!).

Larry Lacewell was our defensive coordinator during my true freshman year. During spring ball in 1992, Coach Lacewell taught us what a "loaf" was. He reasoned that some of us young players didn't know what was expected in terms of effort, so he would spell it out to get us all on the same page. In short, you are supposed to bust your ass from whistle to whistle and rest in between. If you are running to the ball, there shouldn't be a change of speed if the ball carrier breaks the tackle. Never allow yourself to assume that your teammate can make the play. Instead, put yourself in position to make the play should it be necessary.

Those are simple things, but they can be hard things to do every single play of the game, when you are hot and tired and the opposition is driving the ball down your throat. That is the standard, and you find a way to bust your ass every single play that you are in the game.

Not Aaron Donald.

I am not going to go overboard with it because if there is a play to be made within about a five-yard radius of him, Donald does indeed haul butt to the ball. Still, I can't overlook the fact that if it's not immediately apparent that he can make a play on the ball, Donald shuts down early. The most disappointing thing to me is that his loafs were not anomalies. That is just the way he played in all five of the games I broke down.

There are times when the play is still going on and Donald is literally walking. WALKING!!! What part of the game is that? I saw one play in the bowl game against Bowling Green when he shut down his pass rush after the quarterback rolled away from him. Had he been going full speed, he would have had a great opportunity for a sack because the quarterback eventually pulled up and held on to the ball for too long.

Instead, Donald coasted then tried to speed up when he saw the quarterback pull up, but he ended up getting there a step too late.

I get it. The guy makes a crap load of plays just about every game. Unfortunately, when you think about draft picks that were busts a common thread is usually their lack of hustle or work ethic. If a guy never shows up on the screen when the camera cuts to downfield plays, it should make you very nervous to draft him in the first round. It is what it is.

As much as folks talk about Jadeveon Clowney's effort and whether or not he was trying to protect himself (though I disagree with much of that), you can legitimately question if that was what Donald was doing, and that is not a good thing.

To be fair, he can convince teams that he was just trying to make sure he made it to the NFL and that he will go all-out from the moment he is drafted. I'm just saying that it will be a harder sell for some teams than for others. You can't just be chillin' on plays when everybody else is hauling ass. It looks bad.

Scheme versatility

In general, I consider myself to be someone who watches a lot of college football every year. I also consider myself to be pretty knowledgeable about a lot of the top players in college football. Going back and reviewing the games has shown me that I miss a lot more than I thought when I watch the games live.

I never realized how much Pitt moved Donald around on the line, for example. At some point he played each of the four positions on their defensive line: left defensive end, nose tackle, three technique and right defensive end. Not only that, he played them all pretty damn well. That goes back to his high level of technique, which translates to any position up front when you have it mastered.

Hell, he got a sack in that same bowl game against Bowling Green rushing from left defensive end. He got off the ball well, swatted the right tackle's outside hand away, finished the move with a rip and then proceeded to run through Bowling Green's quarterback.


To reiterate he did this RUSHING FROM LEFT DEFENSIVE END!

That's partially why I think Donald could play five-technique defensive end in a 3-4 defense at a high level, even though he doesn't have the prototypical height. Of course, another part of the reason why I believe that is the 35 reps of 225 pounds he threw up at the combine. There is no doubt that Donald is as strong as an ox. It shows on tape.

Marinelli's Guy

A 4-3 team that already has a good three technique could look to draft Donald as a nose tackle. I think he is much better suited as a three technique, but he showed he could hold up well at nose tackle against double teams. Teams would also be drafting him to rush inside on third downs with the normal three technique and with an eye that he might someday supplant the current three technique.

It doesn't much matter where you put this guy on first and second down, anyway. He is going to come out of the gate boosting somebody's pass rush on third down, period. That is why I believe Donald won't make it past the DAllas Cowboys picking at No. 16. Many moons ago the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on their defensive line coach Rod Marinelli's strong suggestion, drafted Anthony McFarland in the first round even though they already had a future Hall of Famer in Warren Sapp. The ensuing years played out much like the scenario I just explained.

Donald would, in many ways, be a perfect fit for the Cowboys. With last year's three technique, Jason Hatcher, likely leaving via free agency, Donald would fill an immediate need. If he lasts until the 16th pick, he will likely be the best player available, anyway. Even with his questionable effort at times, I have to think Marinelli will see a lot of Geno Atkins in Donald and pound the table for the Cowboys to take him so that Donald can be a cornerstone for a new foundation after the defense's wretched performance last season under Monte Kiffin.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that Donald should not drop that far. Even with the intermittent effort issues, this guy plays at a level, technique-wise, that I haven't seen from a college defensive lineman in the last decade. Yes, I'm including Atkins, Gerald McCoy, Ndamukong Suh, Marcell Dareus, Nick Fairley and anybody else you can name. None of them had what this kid has at that point in their football lives.

I can still see Donald sliding too, because, as much as we are talking this year about whether or not short quarterbacks will get a fair shake after Russell Wilson won the Super Bowl, many teams are still stuck on prototypical body measurements for other positions. They will see him as undersized and devalue him, regardless of what his film shows.

All it takes is one team, as the saying goes. I have a feeling at least one team in the top half of the draft will look past Donald's height and weight, and draft him on the merit of being a good football player. I know I would.