McGinn Files: Aaron Donald, man amongst boys
He's arguably the best player in football today but the L.A. Rams' monster of a defensive tackle had a ton of doubters out of Pitt. Our Bob McGinn chronicles Donald's remarkable rise to superstardom.
The McGinn Files is a series looking back at selected players from NFL drafts since 1985. The foundation of the series is Bob McGinn’s transcripts of his annual predraft interviews with general managers, personnel directors and scouts over the last 37 years.
The narrative regarding Aaron Donald eight years into his NFL career overflows with superlatives, and given his consistently elite play and wealth of accomplishments that’s justifiably so.
In January, Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long said on Fox that Donald would one day be recognized as the greatest defensive tackle ever. Heading that list would include names such as Joe Greene, Bob Lilly and Merlin Olsen. Troy Aikman, Long’s colleague at Fox and another Hall of Famer, has called Donald the finest defensive player he has ever seen.
After his Seahawks fell to Donald’s Rams in 2020, coach Pete Carroll summed up Seattle’s offensive failings in the three games by saying, “There is one factor in the whole thing since we’ve been playing these guys, and that’s No. 99. He hasn’t just torn us up. He’s torn everybody up. What happens is, when you pay as much attention to him as you have to, other guys can factor in, as their guys have over the years. So many things feed off that.”
A few days before his Packers defeated the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC divisional playoffs, coach Matt LaFleur labeled Donald as “a once-in-a-lifetime” type player.
Green Bay’s 32-18 victory at Lambeau Field was made far less difficult when Donald, who has never missed a game at the University of Pittsburgh or with the Rams due to injury, was a shell of himself in 40 snaps compromised by damaged ribs suffered against the Seahawks.
As a collegiate senior, Donald was the most decorated player in America as the winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Outland Trophy and the Rotary Lombardi Award. Not only that but he was the best player all week during the Senior Bowl practices in January 2014 and a phenomenal tester at the combine that February.
Nevertheless, for all of his feats and honors, Donald the pro prospect encountered his share of doubters across the NFL. No matter how much they admired his blazing fast 40-yard dash and exceptional production at Pitt, some scouts and coaches didn’t think his sawed-off dimensions would stand the litmus test against pro offensive linemen.
“His speed is rare … and I hate him,” a college scouting director for an NFC team said about Donald before the 2014 draft. “I can’t stand him. A 6-foot, 280-pound DT … who’s he going to beat in our league? I think the media has created this guy.
“Listen. He makes some plays, there’s no question. But put a game film on and when he’s double-teamed and down-blocked … he’s small.
“Our game is not built for him. He’s a great player, don’t get me wrong. I like him as a college player. But I don’t see him on our team making a difference.”
Executives in personnel for four other teams also categorized Donald as a second-round draft choice.
“He doesn’t fit what we do but some teams still use those little guys,” said another executive high up in his NFC organization. “Penetrator kind of guy. We need guys that hunker down in there and two-gap. He’ll get his ass kicked for 10 straight plays and then he’ll make a sack. It’s the damndest thing. He’s just so damn productive every game but, down in and down out, playing the run, it’s going to be hard. Everybody has us picking him but we wouldn’t take him in the first or second round.”
At the time, 17 teams used the 3-4 as their base defense whereas 15 played the 4-3. The 3-4 teams that expected their three linemen each to occupy two blockers enabling the linebackers to run free to the ball carrier had less regard for Donald.
“More value for a 4-3 team,” a personnel man for an AFC team with a traditional 3-4 scheme said. “He can be active into blocks to control the action early. He can brace against base blocks. His hands have led to some nice shed and scrapes falling in. But it’s not long before his lack of size catches up with him. He’s been tied up by bigger and longer bodies and moved out by combos and doubles.
“He doesn’t nearly show the relentless effort that I’ve become accustomed to from our defensive linemen. He plays fast enough with range but he appears to have the governor on in pursuit. He’s not an every-down terror. His smaller frame stalls out too often. He’s a smaller 3-technique with good, not rare, rush ability. He’d be a role/rotational player for us.”
Another scouting director for an AFC team with a 3-4 defense compared Donald to Jonathan Babineaux (6-2, 285, 4.88), the Falcons’ second-round draft choice in 2005 who started 133 of 185 games and posted 27 sacks in a 12-year career.
“He was the most valuable player in the Senior Bowl, not Dee Ford,” the executive said. “He’s a good player if you can get by with his size. I love him but he’s small. In a 3-4, yeah, he will get (swallowed). In a 4-3, not really. He’s a rarity.”
A personnel director for another AFC team with a 3-4 base rated him over Mike Daniels (6-0 ½, 292, 4.86), the Packers’ defensive tackle, but projected him as only a second- or third-round choice.
“You get those undersized fronts and they’ll like him,” the scout said. “The old Colts, the old Bucs. But not a lot of people run that anymore. They’re going to run right at him when he comes in the game. He’ll have to be a situational pass rusher.”
In my poll of 11 scouts from 3-4 teams asking them to rank the top defensive ends for a 3-4 on a 1-2-3-4-5 basis, Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman was first with 48 points followed by Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt, Missouri’s Kony Ealy, Virginia’s Brent Urban, Alabama’s Ed Stinson and North Carolina’s Kareem Martin. Donald tied for seventh place with two others.
“If he’s schemed properly he has the ability to be a good football player,” Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff said. “It’s a very important thing in today’s game. We have to put our players in the right spot to thrive. There’s no point (putting) the square peg in the round hole.”
Still, Donald didn’t dominate when it came to polling eight scouts from 4-3 teams regarding their top five defensive tackles in a 4-3.
Donald finished first with 29 points but Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan was a close second with 25 followed by Notre Dame’s Louis Nix (20), Hageman (15), Tuitt (14) and Florida’s Dominique Easley (nine).
“When the 6-foot guys go first round they usually weigh 300,” said a 4-3 scout who voted Nix No. 1 and Donald No. 2. “I don’t see growth (potential) with Donald and that height just bothers me. He had some problems against Notre Dame when they doubled him most of the game. He did nothing against them … he is really quick, he’s active, he finishes, he ran an incredible time. At times, I thought I saw (Warren) Sapp because of that quickness.
“He will hit A gap, he will hit B gap, he will penetrate and give you everything he has. But I can’t put him in the first round because of his height and I think he’s going to wear down against double teams.”
Donald never got a sniff in my predraft poll of 21 executives with national orientation asking who was the best player in the draft. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina drew 14 votes, far ahead of Buffalo defensive end Khalil Mack, Auburn tackle Greg Robinson and Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, each of whom got two votes, and Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews, who had one.
Of the 15 scouts that discussed Donald with me, easily the two strongest endorsements came from an area scout for an NFC team and Rich Snead, the senior player personnel analyst for the St. Louis Rams. (No relation to Les Snead.)
When the area scout arrived at Pitt for the school call, he came with bias against Donald. “I hate small front-seven players,” he admitted. “I went there in the preseason with every intention of hating this guy.”
He watched Donald in summer camp. He studied tape of the Pitt games. He saw him at the Senior Bowl, pro day and combine.
In the end, the personnel man was won over by Donald and gave him a first-round grade.
“You cannot deny what the guy did,” he said. “He does not play small. Even against Miami, which has enormous offensive linemen, they never kicked his ass or drove him out of the hole. They doubled and tripled him, and sometimes covered him up, but they never drove him out of the hole.”
His best comparison was John Randle, the free agent from Texas A&I who joined the Vikings in 1990. A shade under 6-1, he played at about 270 pounds in the prime of a 14-year Hall of Fame career that included 137 ½ sacks.
“You don’t want to build a team of exceptions but there are always exceptions to the rule,” said the scout. “He’s your John Randle, somebody like that. His initial quickness is just unbelievable. He can bend. Just knows how to play the game. You do have to take the size into perspective. But someone will be really, really happy with him.”
The Rams hadn’t enjoyed a winning season in nine years when they hired Jeff Fisher to replace Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. As a condition of employment, Fisher insisted that Snead, who had worked with him for years as director of player personnel in Tennessee, would join the Rams’ front office.
“I trusted Rich,” Fisher said last month. “Rich’s evaluations were always important to me. He studied so much film. He had an opinion and he voiced it and stood behind it. As time went on, he would say, ‘This is your guy.’”
One month before the draft, Snead said this to me about Donald: “Kind of a freak. Really good football player. You could compare him to Randle or the Notre Dame guy (Bryant Young).
“There’s no bad tape on this guy. You go through games, he doesn’t have a bad game. Usually guys can say, ‘Watch this game.’ This guy is, like, ‘Put on whatever game you want. It’s all the same.’
“You want to know how to play a double team? Watch this guy. You want to know how to play an angle block? Watch this guy.”
According to Snead, Donald almost never was badly displaced against the run because of his strength and ability to play low.
“On (pass) rush downs people have gotten away from a 3-technique and moved guys out farther in a 4i,” explained Snead. “Those tackles have to (wait) because it’s so hard for the guards to get out on them. They can’t run with those guys. He’s going to cause problems. My 10 (-yard split) at the combine was 1.55 (seconds). This guy can really go. Great kid. Bright-eyed.”
With Donald’s size such a polarizing issue across the league, it’s vital to present his official heights and weights. On at least four occasions, he was measured and weighed by NFL personnel.
In spring 2013, Donald was 6-0 ½ and 281. In January 2014, at the Senior Bowl, he was 6-0 7/8 and 288. In February 2014, at the combine, he was 6-0 ¾ and 285. Finally, in March 2014 at pro day, he was 6-1 and 287.
Donald’s workout in Indianapolis was incredibly good. Rather than simply listing his results, it might be instructive to compare them to other defensive tackles of similar stature and draft status. Donald is one of 23 defensive tackles standing 6-1 or below that was selected in the first three rounds of the past 30 drafts. Eight were taken in the first round, five in the second round and 10 in the third round.
My records from the combine and pro days are incomplete for those 23 players. In some cases, there are no test results because prospects didn’t participate.
Given my resources, here’s how Donald fared against the group in six measurable areas.
40-yard dash: He ran 4.67. That was a faster time than the other 22.
Vertical jump: 32 inches. His effort was better than 18 and worse than three.
Broad jump: 9 feet, 8 inches. His effort was better than 17, worse than two and tied with one.
Bench press: 35 repetitions. His effort was better than 13, worse than five and tied with three.
Arm length: 32 5/8 (at the combine; his arms were 32 at pro day, 31 ¾ at the Senior Bowl). The measurement at the combine is widely recognized by teams. His arms were longer than seven, shorter than five and the same length as one.
Hand size: 9 7/8. His hands were bigger than eight, smaller than two and the same size as two.
Although Snead, who was watching and timing from the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, recorded a 10-yard split of 1.55 for Donald during his 40 at the combine, his official time as recorded by scouts on the field was 1.64. The 1.64 still was faster than all the defensive tackles at the 2014 combine, as was his 3-cone time of 7.11. In the 20-yard shuttle, Texas Tech’s Kerry Hyder was the only D-tackle to beat Donald, 4.33 to 4.39.
At Indianapolis, Donald joined the other 300-plus invitees in taking the 12-minute, 50-question Wonderlic test. His first exposure to the Wonderlic had been in the spring before his senior year at Pitt when he scored 7, or about 12 below the NFL average of 19. At the combine, he improved to 25. At some point during their three years together in St. Louis, Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams brought up the discrepancy.
“He said the first time he went speeding through it,” Williams said last month. “He said, ‘I could give a crap.’ At Pitt, they set him down and taught him how important that was and also how to take that test. He said, ‘I didn’t realize it was a very important part of it.’ He’s bright. Yes, very bright.”
Suspended for the 2012 season by the NFL for his role in Bountygate, Williams was reinstated in early 2013. After one season assisting coach Mike Munchak in Tennessee, he became Fisher’s new defensive coordinator in St. Louis. Previously, Williams had worked with and under Fisher with the Oilers/Titans.
In 2012 and ’13, Williams had watched from the field as Virginia Tech, where his son, Chase, was middle linebacker, played against Donald and Pitt. “You hear it, you see it,” said Williams. “It’s much different from watching it on film. And I saw him wreaking havoc.”
After being hired by Fisher in mid-February 2014, Williams expressed substantial interest in Donald. “When we started the process as a staff it was amazing to me they really didn’t have him up there as high,” said Williams. “He was up there as a really good player, but not up where we picked him. Through tremendous other study and evaluations he rose to that rank.”
In 2012, the Rams hired Fisher as coach before shortly thereafter bringing on Les Snead, the director of player personnel for the Atlanta Falcons, as general manager. Fisher’s contract stipulated he had control of the draft.
“I like to say it was Les and I working together,” Fisher said. “Everybody in that room had an opportunity to voice their opinion. Once we made that pick, we made it together as an organization.”
Fisher remembered that Evan Ardoin, who was in his seventh year with the Rams as a college scout, “jumped on the table” for Donald during their pre-draft meetings. He said that the team’s two national scouts, Ted Monago and Lawrence McCutcheon, were pro-Donald, and he also recalled that director of college scouting Brad Holmes was, too.
Above all, Fisher seemed to rely on the evaluation of Rich Snead, who died of cancer in March.
“As always is the case when you’re evaluating players, people are trying to look for holes,” said Fisher. “They shoot holes in a player. This and that. There was some concern in the room about his height. I kind of chuckled at it during the weeks leading up to (the draft). All you had to do was watch a little bit of tape.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute. There’s been some really, really good players that have come through this league that didn’t have the classic height, the 6-2 to 6-4 kind of thing. It’s about a leverage thing, a hands thing.’ I also had an outstanding defensive line coach (Mike Waufle) that clearly fell in love with him. I mean, pick any game. You understood his work ethic. There was no doubt in my mind.”
Les Snead, who was entering the third year of his tenure with the Rams as GM that has now reached a decade, had to be convinced about Donald, according to Williams.
“There were several discussions with respect to his height,” Fisher said. “Les, being raised in the height-weight-speed and moving toward the analytics era and things like that, was a little concerned about drafting somebody with a lack of height. That’s my recollection.”