Aaron Donald could be the next J.J. Watt
Aaron Donald finished his rookie season as our top-ranked defensive tackle with a grade of +34.4. He had been at or around the top of the rankings all season, and by the end of it had created a significant enough gap between himself and the next best players – Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh. Leading the league at any position as a rookie is impressive, in fact it’s absurd, but Donald has managed to take a gigantic leap forward from even that point this year.
Right now, Donald is already 59 percent of the way to eclipsing that grade … after just three games!
Donald has amassed a grade of +20.4 through three block-crushing performances. The highest grade we have ever seen from a defensive tackle after three games before this season was the +15.2 posted by Albert Haynesworth back in 2007. The best grade at the position after three games averages +9.6 during the PFF era. Donald is double that. He is playing on another level to anything we have seen at his position and is so far out ahead of the pack we need to start looking at otherworldly comparisons for him — like J.J. Watt.
The best grade Watt has ever posted after three games was +21.9, back in 2012. That’s slightly better than Donald right now, but Watt has averaged +15.3 in his career excluding his rookie season. Watt’s average beats the best mark achieved by any other interior defender from 2007-14, and Donald this season is five clear grading points ahead of that. It seems insane to compare anybody to Watt, but right now Donald is matching him at the respective start to their careers.
It’s worth mentioning that Geno Atkins – the best defensive tackle in the NFL before getting hurt back in 2013 – has managed to post a +15.7 grade through three games this season, also better than Haynesworth. Atkins is healthy and truly back to his best; it’s just that his best is only 75 to 80 percent as good as Aaron Donald right now. That’s mind-blowing.
It took a while for people to accept that Watt was a generationally great player, but eventually there was no denying it. We assumed that we wouldn’t see another come along for a couple of decades, but it’s possible we are seeing one enter the league only three seasons later: Aaron Donald.
It’s fitting that Atkins is back to his best just as Donald hits his stride, because the two players are very much alike. At a time when the NFL was looking for freakish, giant defensive tackles that could still move well, Atkins (6-1, 293 pounds) and Donald (6-1, 285 pounds) scared teams off by being “too small.” What both are proving, however, is that the league was overvaluing size and mass, and that if you are quick and strong enough you can be a dominant force even if you’re not carrying an extra 40 pounds of weight.
The NFL equates size in the trenches with strength, but when you’re talking about guys this big they’re all monstrously strong, and you’re actually just confusing strength with mass. World record powerlifter Eric Lilliebridge only weighs around 275 pounds, and he can squat almost 1,000 pounds. That’s like lifting Marcel Dareus, Haloti Ngata and Ndamukong Suh all at once. Cian Healy, one of the strongest men in world rugby, weighs just 254 pounds but is renowned as a freak in the gym, lifting more weight than far larger men can cope with. Donald and Atkins do not lack for strength because they don’t weigh 330 pounds; they just lack for comparative mass, which physics will tell you only really matters when it comes to head-on collisions at speed.
The key to both players is that they don’t run into much larger bodies without shifting things in their favor, either by attacking a gap or by winning the leverage battle and getting underneath their blocker at the point of impact. If all Donald did was stand up and run into a guard, being 285 pounds would be a problem, but since he doesn’t, it’s actually far more of an asset than it is a hindrance.
It’s obvious to anybody watching that Donald is a fantastic pass-rushing defensive tackle. (Heck, the box score will tip you off to that after he ended his rookie campaign with nine sacks.) But he might actually be better as a run defender than he is as a pass-rusher. Donald understood from his first NFL snap how to use his quickness, speed and strength to defeat much larger blockers in the run game as well as rushing the passer.
Speed off the snap is Donald’s biggest weapon. He routinely blows up runs against both zone- and power- blocking schemes by being too quick for the conventional tried-and-tested blocks to be executed. Every week during his rookie season I was posting GIFs or Vines to Twitter of Donald destroying a play by being too quick for the blocks to be made.
Take the above play against Washington’s zone blocking. Donald is lined up on the outside shade of the guard – and the run is designed to go away from him. As it is drawn up on the chalkboard, the RG chips him on his way to get a linebacker at the second level, which buys the RT the time to get across the shade disadvantage he starts at by alignment. Donald is just too quick for it to happen, powering through the gap before the tackle has any hope of getting across, resulting in lost yardage on the play.
The same thing happens here against the Steelers this week:
Donald does the same thing against power running plays with equal effect, changing angles that offensive linemen need to take for their down blocks and firing into the backfield because they can’t even get to their assignment in time. Even when he actually gets blocked on the play, he is freeing things up for others by disrupting blockers that aren’t supposed to have anything to do with him. Take this run as a great example of a hidden positive play against the run that won’t show up in any box score, but earns Donald a positive grade.
Donald is supposed to be down-blocked by LT Trent Williams. His assignment is essentially to cave Donald into the line to open up a running lane outside of him. It’s a routine block which should be easy to execute, and while Williams does seal him inside, he can’t do so with authority or quickly enough to prevent Donald getting enough penetration to take out the pull block from the center, leaving Washington out-manned at the point of attack and blowing up the run by proxy. This is the kind of play that appears like a loss for Donald, getting taken out by being too aggressive getting up field, but his initial penetration and quickness against what should be an easy block to execute causes the play to fail.
The speed and quickness is evident in nearly everything Donald does, but what makes him so great is that there is strength married to that quickness. His explosiveness off the line puts him in advantageous positions, but he then has the strength to finish the play and win rather than allow the linemen to overpower him and rescue the play.
The other trait that shows up consistently watching his tape is that Donald has fantastic hands, using them to defeat blocks almost as an instinct. So many of his best plays come from swatting away his blocker’s hands with such quickness and force that they careen out of position, and he shoots past them into the backfield.
Take this sack against Washington, which is remarkable because he defeats a legitimate double team to get it. He attacks the LG Shaun Lauvao first, using his hands to fling the bigger man outside him as he slides out to meet the rush. He won that encounter instantly on first contact because of his hand use. From there, he spins inside the block from the center coming over to help and gets the sack.
That play also highlights another aspect of Donald’s game that puts him in the rarified air of J.J. Watt comparisons: he is beginning to receive J.J. Watt treatment. Donald plays the 3-technique position for the Rams. That position is usually one-on-one with a guard. By alignment the 4-3 “under” front, so called because the defensive front is under-shifted toward the strength of the offensive line, puts the 3-tech outside of one guard while the nose tackle lines up between the other and the center in an A-gap. The idea is to force those two players to block the nose tackle, and to create a one-on-one matchup for the “under” tackle and defensive end on the other side of the formation. As we saw from the play above though, Donald is drawing that extra attention.
Here is an even clearer example. Again, Donald is double teamed. Again, he beats it. The alignment is exactly as we described above, and in normal circumstances the center should be turning to his left and double teaming Michael Brockers, but instead the line turns to the right to try and get two guys on Donald. Look at the distance they need the center to cover for that to even be possible. That’s how important focusing on Donald was to Washington.
While people might look at the result and say they succeeded, the truth isn’t quite that simple. While Donald “only” got one sack, we have drawn up multiple other plays in which he was a destructive force in this article. Pass-rushing alone he had three more pressures and four more defeated blocks where the ball was gone before he could convert it into pressure.
Right now Aaron Donald is as close to unblockable as it gets in the NFL. He has outplayed Watt, and every other interior defender through three weeks of the season, and is on pace to rival the best seasons we have seen from Watt. Donald isn’t just good, he’s utterly terrifying, and quite possibly a generational talent in his own right.