Cowboys 2014 Draft Targets: Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Because there has been such a high correlation in recent years between the top collegians invited to Valley Ranch for pre-draft visits and who the Cowboys end up drafting, its important to know as much as possible about these players. As a service to you, BTB offers a series of detailed scouting reports on these players, compiled from the work of top draft analysts. Today, we'll look at Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

After playing sparingly as a freshman, registering only two sacks, Aaron Donald had a breakout sophomore season in 2011, with 47 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. In 2012, despite a diminished sack total that caused some pundits to declare that his play had fallen off from its sophomore level, he still managed 64 tackles (a stunning 18.5 for loss), 5.5 sacks, one forced fumble and two passes broken up, leading the Big East and ranking twelfth nationally with 1.54 TFLs per game - sufficient to earn him first-team All-Big East laurels. Last season, he was probably the most decorated player in college football: First-team All-American and first-team All-ACC selection. Outland Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Award winner.

We all know about Donald's game: the incredible first-step quickness, the explosion and power he generates; the leverage he gains thanks to his less than towering stature; his athleticism (combine numbers: position best forty-yard dash and bench press marks - 4.68 and 35 reps at 225 pounds, respectively; 32 inch vertical and 9'8" long jumps; 7.11 second three-cone and 4.39 second short shuttle times); the hustle; the competitiveness; the nastiness; the fact that he always - always - plays to the whistle; the self-motivation; the high character. In fact, we've heard so much about Donald for so long that we have perhaps become inured to his many excellencies. Indeed, for this defensive system, he is excellent in every conceivable way.

Doubt me? Take a look at the tape, if you haven't already. Thankfully, the Viscounts of Video at Draft Breakdown have ten of Donald's games cut-up for you to view. Although every one is a veritable highlight reel, I suggest watching games from across his career: the 2011 game against Utah; the 2012 Syracuse tilt (the Orange O-line featured future first-rounder Justin Pugh); the 2013 battle with eventual national champion Florida State. For that matter, watch all his games. But be careful, it may cause covetousness...

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Let's see what our panelists think of Donald, shall we?

Dane Brugler (NFLDraftScout.com): top-ranked DT; no overall grade

Strengths: Above average initial burst and snap quickness to catch blockers off balance...explosive lower body and gets low to generate power from his natural leverage and get under blocker's pads to bully them backwards...very good natural dip with controlled body movements to get off blocks...relentless in pursuit and doesn't take plays off - plays with a lot of energy, always gives top effort and never quits...very good core strength and long, active limbs to swim and stacks/shed quickly to disengage...excellent read/react quickness and natural reflexes - smart with good football recognition, processing information quickly...bag of tricks as an inside rusher, setting up moves and using his upper and lower body to beat blocks...nice job in pursuit to finish in space with very good awareness vs. the run to make plays with his eyes...very high football character and works hard to be the best - dedicated and a favorite of the coaching staff...extremely productive as a three-year starter, combining for 66.0 and 29.5 sacks over his career - highly decorated in 2013, winning the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award, Outland Trophy, Rotary Lombardi Award and the Most Outstanding Overall Player Award during the week of practice at the Senior Bowl.

Weaknesses: Odd body type and lacks ideal height and bulk, especially in his lower body...style of play and size present questions about his fit at the next level and might not be ideal in every scheme...needs to consistently finish when he's in the area...lacks elite power to disengage vs. double-teams and can be washed out of the play...gives full effort on each snap, but will he wear himself out at the next level?

Summary: An under-the-radar high school recruit, Donald lacked ideal measureables, but Pittsburgh took a chance and he rewarded them with an outstanding career - finished his collegiate career with "wow" production and a bookcase full of awards. He is shorter than ideal with a very average build, but he has good arm length and wins with natural flexibility, power and leverage. Donald frequently finds his way to the backfield with active hands and instincts, staying energetic for all four quarters. He has versatile experience penetrating from inside and outside and will be an ideal fit in the NFL as a one-gap three-technique - will draw obvious comparisons to Geno Atkins and grades as a top-15 pick in a four man front.

Gary Horton (ESPN.com): top-ranked DT; 11th overall

Versus the Run: Short frame and lacks ideal bulk.  Has long arms for frame and a powerful upper body (35 reps).  Displays elite first-step quickness and explodes into backfield as a three-technique.  Low center of gravity and explosiveness make it tough to establish position against him.  Even flashes ability to split double teams. At best shooting gaps and making plays in the backfield. Uses hands to control blockers and tracks ball well.  Will struggle to anchor when forced into phone booth versus bigger OL.  Can get blown off ball by double teams if unable to split them with initial quickness and power.

Pass Rush Skills: First thing that jumps out on tape is elite get-off speed.  Shows above average snap anticipation and explodes upfield on snap of ball.  Makes it tough for quarterbacks to climb the pocket. Disruptive interior pass rusher that shoots gaps and gets hands up. Excellent quickness when crossing lineman's face to shoot inside gap, and also shows very good rip-to-spin move when working back across on double move.  Good job locating QB while rushing.  Doesn't have to win with quickness either. If OL tries to short set him, he will win with explosive first step.  If OL retreats with deep set, he convert speed to power and flashes ability to walk OL right back into the QB.  Was nearly unblockable in Senior Bowl one-on-one pass rush drills.  Elite college sack production (29.5 career sacks) and combine workout results match up.

Quickness: Heavy and violent hands. Makes it tough for blockers to get into frame and engulf him. First-step quickness is elite. Regularly beats blockers to the point. Above average agility and redirect skills.

Toughness/ Motor: Like his toughness when he knows he isn't going to win with quickness in run game.  Almost always hunkers down with good leverage and does all he can to maintain gap assignment.  Doesn't back down vs. double team and willing to mix it up vs. bigger OL. Effort is a touch inconsistent and better rushing the passer than is chasing the run, but good overall motor and flashes elite effort on several snaps per game.

Intangibles: Exceptional competitor.  Outstanding football character and football intelligence.  Self-motivator.  Best practice player coaches have been around.  Has developed into a film junkie and is learning how to transfer what he learns in film study to the field.  No off-the-field issues.  Son of Anita Goggins and Archie Donald. Brother Archie played linebacker at Toledo.

Dan Shonka (Ourlads): top-ranked DT; 11th overall

Three-year starter. An undersized but productive interior under tackle in a 4-3 scheme. He plays all over the Panthers' front looking for the best match-up. Sudden off the ball and up the field. Good lateral quickness and effort to finish. A slippery leverage player. Works hard every play from snap to whistle. Always puts in a good day's work. Good flexibility to dip and bend. Winner of the Bednarik Award (best defensive player), Lombardi Award (best lineman), Outland Trophy (best interior lineman) and Nagurski Award (best defensive player), unanimous All-American, ACC Defensive Player of Year, first team All-ACC after leading the nation with 26.5 tackles for lost yardage (2.2 per game). One of the most productive players in this draft class. An active player who plays low with heavy hands. He can do well at the next level in the right scheme. Shows great instincts and an ability to quickly diagnose plays. Has a great burst on first step and shoots gaps with explosive quickness. Very effective in backside pursuit down the line. Uses his incredible quickness to rush the passer, but is also a capable bull rusher. Uses a variety of moves and utilizes a dangerous swim move. Shows good hand usage to shed blocks or keep blockers at bay and move down the line of scrimmage. Solid wrap-up tackler who does a good job of finding the ball when tackling and forcing fumbles. Has surprising strength for his size. Can beat double teams with his speed.

Nolan Nawrocki (NFL.com): top-ranked DT; 10th overall

Strengths: Quick off the snap. Plays with natural leverage. Gets under pads and into gaps and is highly disruptive penetrating. Explosive in short area -- recorded a 1.64-second 10-yard split at the combine. Good foot athlete -- redirects well and can work the edges and loop and stunt. Flexible enough to zone-drop in short area. Plays with awareness and consistently locates the ball. Closes hard and fast. Keeps working to the ball. Disruptive penetrating ability. Outstanding career production. Tough and competitive with terrific personal and football character. Ran the fastest 40-yard dash by a defensive tackle and the combine and bench-pressed 225 pounds 35 times. Was unblockable in Senior Bowl 1-on-1 drills.

Weaknesses: Marginal height and frame is nearly maxed out. Hands are more active than strong -- could play with more pop and power. Overpowered in the run game and ground up by double teams. Gets snared and controlled by bigger, longer blockers. Not a two-gap player. Has some tweener traits -- lacks ideal length and bend to play outside.

Draft Projection: Round 1

Bottom Line: Short, scrappy, instinctive, highly productive defensive penetrator who does not look the part, but inspires confidence he can be an exception to the rule. Is the type you root for and has the first-step quickness, athleticism and motor to emerge as a havoc-wreaking three-technique in a fast-flowing 4-3 scheme such as the one deployed in Dallas, Chicago and Tampa Bay. Compares very favorably to (Tampa Bay 1999 15th overall pick) Booger McFarland and is a key building block and classic scheme fit for Tampa 2 teams.

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Our panelists are quite united in their appraisal of Donald: he's the best defensive tackle in the 2014 draft, and should be slotted right at the end of the top ten. For a long time now, the former Pitt Panther has been BTB's consensus candidate for the 16th pick. And with good reason: his production numbers from the defensive tackle spot are otherworldly. As the CBSSports profile for Donald notes, he's "demonstrated...what a stick of dynamite may lack for in size can be made up with explosiveness." Moreover, he's a perfect fit for a three-technique under tackle - the "motor" - in the Kiffinelli system. And that's why I'll grade him, with great confidence and no real debate, as one of the Cowboys sure-fire first round options. He goes in round one on the "little board."

However, as I noted in a recent post, a gauntlet of teams scheduled to pick between the seventh and fifteenth choices: Tampa Bay, (7) Minnesota (8), Detroit (10), St. Louis (13), Chicago (14) and Pittsburgh (15) have all met with, interviewed or extended an invitation to Donald. I think he's a cleaner prospect that Anthony Barr; we know for sure that he can do what the Cowboys will ask of him at the next level. Consequently, if he can manage to clear this gauntlet unscathed, its hard to imagine that Dallas wouldn't sprint to the table if he's still on the board when they come on the clock at # 16.

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Later today: Now that you've seen how the national draftniks rate Donald, stay tuned for our in-house scout, Joey Ickes, who will post a detailed film study of the Pitt product to add to what you already know.

Tomorrow: FSU defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan

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