Nobody made better use of the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine than Aaron Donald. Nobody. Not any of the other 329 participants, for sure, and none of the information gathered by the hundreds of NFL coaches and personnel people could possibly as definitive as a 285-pound man running 40 yards in 4.68 seconds.
As Larry Foote tweeted, "Aaron Donald making himself some money."
Aaron Donald came to Indianapolis as quite possibly the most highly-decorated-yet-under-the-radar prospect in the history of the week-long event. Donald completed his senior season by winning the Outland Trophy, the Nagurski Award, the Bednarik Award, and the Lombardi Award for an unprecedented sweep of all the hardware reserved for the college players who don't handle the football. But Donald accomplished that as a 6-foot-1 defensive lineman for a 7-6 Pitt team, hence his under-the-radar status.
The first couple of days of every Combine bring coaches and general managers into the media center, where they spent 15 minutes apiece behind a microphone. Even though Rams GM Les Snead wasn't specifically talking about Donald, what he said referred to players like Aaron Donald.
"I think what happens is when you take a player who's productive (in college) and maybe there's a deficiency in some area, whether it's height, weight, arm length or hands, what teams will do then is say, 'OK, how does that affect the scheme we're in?'" Snead said. "The key is always when you take that type of player, having a plan for success, a detailed plan for success. Somebody is going to come out of every draft that maybe you didn't have rated as high as he played to. I think good organizations say, 'Let's look at that case study and learn from it.'"
Donald finished his senior season at Pitt with 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss, and then he went to Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl and ended up being dominant during the week of practices, which for many teams count more than the actual game.
Still there seemed to be something of a wait-and-see buzz in Indianapolis about Aaron Donald, but then came the on-field portion of the Combine. He ran a 4.68 in the 40, did 35 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press, and his time of 7.11 seconds in the three-cone drill was the fourth-best among all defensive linemen.
According to NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, some scouts told him they are concerned about Donald's "lack of length and short arms." His official Combine measurements were: 6-feet, 3/4 inches in height; and 32 5/8 inches of arm length. And here is where history could step in and help Aaron Donald.
Back in 2010, there was an interior defensive line prospect from Georgia named Geno Atkins, who measured just a hair over 6-1, weighed 293 pounds, and had an arm measurement of 32 inches. Even though Atkins dominated at the Senior Bowl, and performed quite well at the Combine (4.8 in the 40; 34 reps in the 225-pound bench press), scouts were concerned about his height and arm length, and they wondered whether he could be an every-down player in the NFL. Geno Atkins wasn't picked until the fourth round (120th overall) by Cincinnati, and before the Bengals faced the New England Patriots last season, this is what Coach Bill Belichick had to say:
"He'd probably be the first pick in the draft," said Belichick of Atkins if there was a do-over. "He was an athletic guy that you saw maybe as a sub rusher, a nickel sub rusher, but he's way more than that. . . . This guy has some power rushes where he just takes linemen back and it just looks like they're on roller skates. He just walks them, literally, right back into the quarterback. He's very quick. He can get the edge and work up or up-and-under on the guards. Then when they try to set deep or take those quick moves away from him, he can turn those into power moves and collapse the pocket. He can ruin a game, there's no question the guy can ruin a game by himself."
During a 25-game span in 2012-13 before an injury landed him on IR, Atkins had 73 tackles and 18.5 sacks. There is a lot of Geno Atkins in Aaron Donald, or at least there sure seemed to be during a week of Senior Bowl practices against some of the top offensive line prospects in college football.
"It was a plus just to be able to work with NFL coaches and get a little feel for where I was going to be," said Donald at the Combine about his experience in Mobile. "I continue to try to open their eyes that I'm an athlete, that I'm athletic, just to show that I can move. I feel like a lot of things I showed that I can do already.
"I love the way (Atkins) plays. I watched him a lot, watched him a lot my junior year in college. Explosive, fun to watch, he just makes a ton of plays. What he's doing in the NFL is amazing. It's an honor to even be compared to a guy like him."
Figure the comparisons to continue through the bulk of the pre-draft process, with the comparisons always containing the cautionary reminder of how many times Atkins was bypassed before the Bengals pulled the trigger in the fourth round.
"You never know," said Donald about where he thought he might get drafted. "All I can do is do my part and keep trying to open eyes with what I did on the football field, with what I did in my career on film. Just go out there and try to compete and shock a couple more people."
This is Mayock's opinion: "Think Tampa Bay. Think Chicago. Think Tennessee. Think St. Louis. Four-man front teams whose coaches like to get up the field and be disruptive. Can he be a first-round pick? He's done everything he needed to do this week (at the Combine). It's a long process. Right now, I believe he's a borderline first- or second-round guy."
Thanks, in part, to what he did at the NFL Scouting Combine.