In many ways Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is a lot like New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
Taken with the 12th (Beckham) and 13th (Donald) picks of the 2014 NFL Draft, the two players have had remarkably similar careers. Both players are exceptionally athletic and productive in college, but were also knocked for being undersized for their positions at the NFL level.
Beckham exploded onto the national scene after a hamstring injury delayed his debut, but he electrified the NFL on his way to becoming the offensive rookie of the year and a trip to the Pro Bowl. Donald immediately made his presence felt and earned the defensive rookie of the year honors on the way to his own Pro Bowl invitation.
Giants’ fans are well aware that while Beckham’s athleticism grabs attention and makes him a nightmare for defenders. But what makes him truly dangerous, and one of the three best receivers in the NFL, is the technical side of the game. Beckham has never physically dominated defenses like Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, or Julio Jones. Instead, it’s his nuanced route running, razor sharp cuts, and ability to set defenders up and pick apart coverages are what makes him dangerous. His athleticism lets him turn good plays into highlight-reel plays.
Much like Beckham, Donald’s athletic traits leap off the screen, but is there more to his game?
The first thing you notice about Aaron Donald is his size, and the second is his athletic ability. Like all great players, Donald makes all his tools work for him. While he lacks length and size, he has an explosive first step and uncommon agility for the position.
Donald turned heads with his 4.68 second 40-yard dash at the combine, but his 35 reps on the bench press point to a lot of strength in that compact body. He isn’t just explosive in a straight line, Donald’s 7.11 second 3-cone drill was the third best of any defensive lineman at the combine.
He combines his explosive speed, power, and agility to overwhelm linemen at the point of attack, being on them before they have the chance to block him.
There is much more to Aaron Donald than just a spark plug of athleticism. He knows how to use his tools, and does so on every play. He uses a variety of moves and techniques in the hand-fighting battles at the line of scrimmage, using a bull rush, rip move, and others to beat blockers.
Donald also puts his size to work for him. His height, just over six feet, is normally seen as a hindrance, but Donald makes it work for him while other dominant pass rushing defensive tackles like J.J. Watt or Muhammad Wilkerson use their length to keep blockers off of them and clog passing lanes. Donald’s height gives him natural leverage on offensive linemen who are normally several inches taller than him. He is better able to get under their pads and get them off balance — As the saying goes in football: “low man wins.”
Donald puts that hand work and leverage together with his explosive athleticism and agility in a formidable combination
Aaron Donald is everything you want your DT to be. pic.twitter.com/d1oOxRLVwp— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) October 17, 2016
In the clip above, he explodes out of his stance and is one of the first players moving. He stays low, keeping his center of gravity down and giving himself leverage over the right guard. He then uses his hands to keep the guard from using his punch or in any way locking him in. The result is an off balanced lineman who is quickly turning perpendicular to the line of scrimmage ... A win every time for the defensive lineman. Donald then uses a rip move to clear the guard and create a path to the quarterback.
Finally, he shows off his agility with a truly impressive bend around the corner to the quarterback. You don’t often find defensive ends thirty pounds lighter who are able to cut a corner that sharply.
There’s more to Donald than just his athleticism and technique, though they’re a formidable combination. He also benefits from playing on a very good defensive line. Next to him is nose tackle Michael Brockers. He doesn’t get much talk in the national media — not many nose tackles do — but his ability to hold double teams and absorb blockers lets Donald play fast and attack gaps. The aggression with which Donald plays can occasionally get him in trouble, but it is also part of what makes him so dangerous.
Donald most often plays the “3-Technique” in a classic 4-3 front, lined up in the “B” gap between the guard and tackle. The 3-Technique’s (or 3-tech) job is to attack upfield and disrupt plays behind the line of scrimmage, while the linebackers or other defensive linemen come in to clean up. The Rams put Donald’s talents to good use at this position, either turning him loose straight ahead or in stunts or twists to create confusion on the offensive line.
It seems like a simple thing, but simply putting Donald in the the right place, in the right scheme, is a big part of his success. He likely wouldn’t be as dangerous playing nose tackle or defensive end for a 3-4 Over front such as the classic “Dick LeBeau” defense.
There isn’t any great secret to Donald’s success since being drafted. He is an exceptional athlete for his position (and in general). He plays with very good technique, which lets him maximize his athletic tools. And finally his coaches put him in position to take advantage of what he brings to the table.
What sets him apart from other players is how uncommon his traits are. There’s a certain Darwinism that takes place in football. Receivers get bigger, so defensive backs get bigger. Tight ends get more athletic and involved in the passing game, so defenses respond with smaller, more athletic linebackers who can cover them.
Defensive linemen have gotten both bigger, longer, and stronger over the years, so offensive linemen have gotten bigger and longer to better block them. But while they are better able to deal with defensive linemen on average, when a tackle like Donald comes along, with excellent technique and uncommon size and athleticism, they struggle.
It’s similar to how big, physical cornerbacks struggle to deal with Beckham’s combination of explosive athleticism and precise use of his abilities, and why both players are among the very best at their positions.