Once upon a time, back in 2010, Aaron Donald was a 3-star high school prospect, ranked as the 37th best defensive tackle prospect. The only schools to offer him a scholarship were Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Toledo, and Akron.
Once upon a time, just before the start of the 2013 NCAA football season, Aaron Donald was considered a decent, if not exceptional prospect by the media types; the 17th best senior DT, nowhere near, for example, Mel Kiper’s Preseason Top 50 for 2014 (which is a funny read when done with the benefit of hindsight).
Once upon a time, a couple months into the 2013 NCAA football season, Aaron Donald still wasn’t attracting much attention from the media. For example, he had failed to crack Chris Burke’s top 40 NFL Draft Big Board near the end of October.
Once upon a time, about three months ago or so, with the bowl season wrapped up and on the strength of a terrific senior season, people had finally started to take notice. Aaron Donald was a mid- to late 2nd round prospect in the eyes of many. He was 53rd on the CBS Big Board!
Once upon a time, about a month and a half ago, after the NFL Scouting Combine, during which Aaron Donald put on a show, he had continued his skyrocketing ascent up the media rankings. He was now 15th overall with Drafttek, 14th with PFF, had lept up to Mike Mayock’s overall #1 DT, and was now routinely being mocked to the Cowboys at pick 16.
Once upon a time, about a month ago, after the Pittsburgh Panthers’ pro day, Aaron Donald’s ascent was complete. He now sits firmly entrenched in the 6-15 range of top prospects in the 2014 NFL draft, with most mocks having him selected before Dallas’ pick at 16.
Truly, a remarkable rise!
So what was it about him that caused people to overlook him for so long? He’s had three straight years of excellent production at Pitt. Plenty of TFL and sacks. Lots of conference honors.
The obvious answer is, of course, his size.
Prior to the Senior Bowl, his height was often reported as 6’0" (that’s what Pitt’s official athletic site listed) and his weight as 285. The NFL Combine confirmed that weight, but also helped to mitigate some of the size concerns. His height measured officially as 6006 (or 6’ ¾"); closer to 6’1" than 6’0". And his arms and hands measured plenty big enough!
And yet that height and weight...
If he played today, Aaron Donald would be the shortest and the lightest defensive tackle in the NFL. The average height and weight for a starting 4-3 defensive tackle in the NFL is 6’3" and 311 lbs. Donald come in 2 inches and 26 pounds under those averages. And there are some scouts who believe that Donald’s frame is pretty much maxed out, so he wouldn’t be expected to gain much more mass.
Don’t get caught up on size, you say! We've been over this already! Donald has proven his whole life that he can ball at his current size. And there are plenty of precedents: Geno Atkins, Warren Sapp, heck even Henry Melton who’s listed weight comes in under 300 at 295. Donald’s size gives him built-in leverage and his excellent athleticism lets him dominate much larger opponents-- HOLD ON! Let’s stop there and hold this thought.
Has Donald dominated larger opponents? Well, there’s that infamous .gif of him blowing up Cyril Richardson in a 1v1 drill in Senior Bowl practice. But what about real games?
In the 2013 season, Pittsburgh moved Donald around a lot to match him up against both guards on the opposing team, and even occasionally out wide at defensive end -- though those snaps were few and far between to be honest. Most downs, Donald was dealing with between 1-3 of the interior offensive linemen of the opponent. But who were these guys he was going up against? And how do they compare to their NFL counterparts that Donald can expect to face next year?
Let's look a little closer...
LaMar Bratton, LG, New Mexico 6’2" 281 lbs
Dominic Flewellen, LG, Bowling Green 6’3" 287
Dave Harding, LG, Duke 6’4" 290
Rob Trudo, LG, Syracuse 6’3" 284
EK Binns, LG, Navy 6’3" 287
Tanner Fleming, C, Navy 6’2" 276
Hey! Donald doesn't have a size disadvantage against some of these guys! But Donald won’t find guys like these in the NFL and, trust me, there are more such examples from his 2013 season. HALF of the starting interior offensive linemen that Pittsburgh faced in 2013 were under 300 pounds.
What SHOULD Donald expect at the next level? The average interior NFL offensive linemen stands a shade under 6’4" and weighs 313 pounds. That weight is brought down by centers. If we look just at guards, the average right guard weighs 315 lbs and the average left guard is 317 lbs. There are no LaMar Brattons in the NFL.
But, so what, Donald will translate. You can only play who they put in front of you and he DOMINATED college guys -- STOP! Let's hold that thought, too.
Did he dominate ALL of them?
Last year, Donald faced an interior offensive line that averaged over 300 lbs per man only 5 times. Again, this isn’t the NFL average of 313… just 300 pounds per guy. Those teams were Notre Dame, North Carolina, Old Dominion, FSU, and Miami (FL). That means that in EIGHT of his games, he was going against guys whose avg weight was under 300 and much closer to his own weight and mass index.
I wonder what we’d see if we look at Donald’s stats against the heavier teams and compare them to his stats against the teams featuring sub-300 lb linemen?
First, let’s look at his overall stellar stats and averages:
Tackles: 59 (4.5 pg)
Solo Tackles: 43 (3.3 pg)
TFL: 25.5 (2.0 pg)
Sacks: 11 (0.8 pg)
Amazing. Let’s see how he did against those small, sub-300 college lines, you know the likes of New Mexico, Navy, and Georgia Tech:
Tackles: 45 (5.6 pg)
Solo Tackles: 37 (4.6 pg)
TFL: 20.5 (2.6 pg)
Sacks: 9 (1.1 pg)
Wow! That IS domination! Okay, now let’s look at how he did against the big boys:
Tackles: 14 (2.8 pg)
Solo Tackles: 6 (1.2 pg)
TFL: 5 (1.0 pg)
Sacks: 2 (0.4 pg)
Now would you look at that? That’s 5 games’ worth of stats. Looks a little different, doesn’t it? Not sure I’d still call that "domination." Where is Donald’s explosive production? His per game averages drop by 50% or more across the board.
Let’s parse it even finer. Let’s only look at left guards, which I’d say Donald attacked more than any other offensive linemen last year. In 2013, Donald faced off against only FOUR left guards who meet or exceed the NFL average for that position: Jon Feliciano (Miami) 318, Josue Matias (FSU) 322, Chris Watt (Notre Dame) 322, and David Born (Old Dominion) 335.
So how did he do?
Games vs. LGs with NFL average weight or higher
Tackles: 9 (2.25 pg)
Solo Tackles: 3 (0.75 pg)
TFL: 2 (0.5 pg)
Sacks: 1 (0.25 pg)
Now these are small sample sizes, and that’s a point I cannot argue. But doesn’t it give you a moment’s pause that Donald’s worst games came against the biggest interior offensive lines he faced? Notre Dame, Old Dominion, FSU and Miami (FL) had the closest lines to what he might face this coming year in terms of size (but not even close in terms to the overall skill of NFL linemen) and his production nose-dived in those games.
Size is NOT the be-all-end-all, but don’t kid yourself that it doesn’t matter. Next year, Donald will be the smallest guy at his position and it won’t be 281 lb LaMar Bratton across from him, it will be 349 lb Carl Nicks or 333 lb Larry Warford or 331 lb Mike Iupati. Looking a little closer at his 2013 season, I’m not so sure anymore that you can say he’s already ‘proven’ himself against guys like that.
And, yes, this has been an exercise in player hating, I know. But for the record, if Dallas calls Aaron Donald’s name at pick 16 in May, I will be fine with that pick… even though I still may have my doubts until I see him mix it up with the big boys.