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Opposing player to watch: Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald

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If Von Miller isn’t the best defensive player in the league, this guy might be.

Los Angeles Rams vs San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Over the first three games of the season the Cowboys have faced some great defenses that have stressed their vaunted offensive line. In looking at the front 7’s of the Giants, Broncos, and Cardinals you notice that they are primarily built around their edge rushers, with premier talents like Von Miller, Chandler Jones, Olivier Vernon, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Markus Golden. Each of those guys are among the best, and in some cases are considered the best at their respective positions. Needless to say, the offensive tackles of the Cowboys have faced some stern tests in the early going of 2017.

The Rams bring something a little different though. Their overall defense isn’t to the level of those first three opponents, and they don’t exactly have the edge talent that those other teams do although Robert Quinn is very good, but what they do have that those other teams don’t is an elite pass-rushing, potential game-wrecker on the interior of the line. Of course I’m talking about one Aaron Donald, arguably the best defensive player in the league.

Heading up to Week 1 I wrote about the Giants massive defensive tackle Damon Harrison and how he would be the key to the Cowboys offensive success, or lack thereof. Harrison is clearly one of the best defensive tackles in the league, just like Donald is, but they couldn’t be more polar opposites. Where Harrison stuffs several gaps at 350 lbs. and wins with better than expected agility, Donald wins with pure speed and quickness at a mere 6-1, 280 lbs. Donald ran an incredible 4.68 40 at the 2014 Combine and the speed translates to the field as he is able to get by guards and centers in a flash with an excellent first step explosiveness. Not only that, he has an excellent array of pass rush moves and uses his hands as well as any edge rusher to keep linemen off of his smaller frame.

In many ways he is the perfect 3-technique in Rod Marinelli’s defense, a modern-day Warren Sapp, and in all honesty he may actually be better. He is a bit of an awkward fit in the 3-4 system that Wade Phillips brought to the Rams this offseason but as most Cowboys fans will remember, Phillips does not run a traditional 2-gap 3-4 defense and can fit smaller players into his scheme, as he did with Jay Ratliff all those years ago in Dallas.

Despite the system change, as well as a contract holdout that spanned into the first week of the season, Donald looks as good as ever, notching a sack against the 49ers last week and getting consistent pressure despite missing all of training camp and the preseason. Over his first three seasons in the league Donald has put up an astounding 28 sacks and 57 TFL, making the Pro Bowl each season and being named First Team All-Pro twice. He is not simply a one-trick pony who only wants to get after the quarterback, he is able to hold his ground against the run despite his size and make plays behind the line of scrimmage using not just speed and quickness, but a combination of technique and leverage.

He is similar in that regard to his fellow 2014 first-round alum, Zack Martin, who he had legendary battles with during the 2014 Senior Bowl practices leading up to the draft. Both are arguably the best at their positions in the league and both will be heads-up on each other this Sunday for what is sure to be a matchup that is as good as it gets. The only question is, how often will the Rams look to move Donald away from Martin and line him up against Chaz Green, or potentially even Jonathan Cooper given the fact that Green missed Friday’s practice?

Will Green or Cooper be up to the task of handling an elite, probable future Hall of Famer, similar to what La’el Collins was asked to do against Von Miller?

Will the offensive line be able to identify what the Rams are doing with Donald and shift protection schemes to compensate?

Will Travis Frederick have to devote his efforts to helping out whoever is at left guard?

It’s anybody’s guess with a player as talented as him who can defy the best laid schemes and techniques, but what I do know is that no matter the talent level, defensive players tire out the longer they have to stay on the field no matter who they are and if the Cowboys running game is able to control the clock and lean on Donald his effectiveness will wane as the game goes on. This must be the objective on offense this Sunday, similar to how you deal with an elite edge-rusher. You don’t want to provide him with the ideal game circumstances to do what he does best and start feeling good about himself while he gets the offensive line off-balance and guessing.

If Donald can be kept under control the rest of the Rams defense does not intimidate. They have some talent at certain spots, namely Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree at inside linebacker, and Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin on the edge, but for the most part those are matchups that the Cowboys can work to their favor. Donald is the one who can ruin everything and enhance the play of those around him if he is allowed to flourish.

It will certainly be intriguing to see how the game unfolds given such a unique matchup of potential future Hall of Famers in Donald and Martin. Either way, let’s hope not only the Cowboys on the field keep an eye on him, but also the brass upstairs. After all, the contract holdout that kept Donald out the first game of the season has not been resolved and given the fact that he will almost definitely be looking to become the highest paid defensive player in the league, and that it is unlikely that the Rams will want to commit that kind of money given his less-than-perfect fit in the defense, he may actually become available for the right price in the next 12 months.

It’s certainly not the Cowboys M.O. to spend lavishly on free agents and big names anymore, especially not if it may require giving up a draft pick, but it’s also not very often that one of the few truly elite players in the league becomes available. And it’s even rarer for a player like that to come available and also be a picture-perfect fit schematically, as Donald is in Marinelli’s scheme. Throw in the fact that the team was very interested in him with their 2014 first-round just a few years ago, that they still have flexibility given Dak Prescott’s rookie deal, and of course that the missing piece to a title run could be taking the defensive line and pass-rush from good with Demarcus Lawrence and Maliek Collins, to potentially great with Donald, and you might have the makings of a rare once-in-a-decade type move where the Cowboys go all-in for right now with a high-stakes move.

Just a little something to keep in the back of your mind on Sunday.