Pass Rusher Profile: Aaron Donald
It’s easy to get excited by a rookie season and get a little carried away with what is only one season and not necessarily proof of a player’s consistent level of performance. However, when that rookie produces a season superior to the likes of Sheldon Richardson and J.J. Watt when they were rookies, that excitement is not unwarranted.
The player receiving those kinds of comparisons is Aaron Donald, who many felt slid in last year’s draft based on his height and he proved the doubters wrong this season with a rookie campaign that was one of the best we’ve seen in the last eight years here at PFF.
As remarkable as Donald’s rookie season was, there is still room for improvement as much as a question over whether he can repeat his feats from this season. A slow start as a pass rusher (only two positively-graded games in the first five and only five pressures after five games) was paired with a slow finish in run defense (-2.1 in the final four games) leave open the possibility of even more to come down the line if he can really take his consistency to the top level.
Turning our attention to his pass rushing and again you are struck both by the figures that highlight Donald’s quality, but also in how he can improve in the coming seasons — there is no reason to think that his rookie season has to be a high-water mark in his career.
His balance between beating blockers inside and out is impressive. He’s not merely shooting upfield from the 3-tech and beating guards outside, he can also cross their face and work inside as well as driving straight through blockers converting the disadvantage of his height to an advantage in leverage, very similar in that way to Geno Atkins.
What strikes, however, is how low Donald’s conversion rate is in turning his pressures into hits and sacks when he beats blockers inside and out. His bullrush conversion is very impressive, but only a hit and sack a piece when beating blockers inside and out shows his room for improvement in finishing his pressures next season.
Another area for improvement for Donald is taking advantage of centers turning away from him in pass protection. This turn of the center has a bigger effect on interior rushers than edge defenders but Donald showed an ability to cope this season and still be extremely productive when the center turns towards him. On occasion, this would involve the extreme call for the center to block him with a guard pulling to the opposite side of the formation which Donald made an impossible task most times.
As impressive as his ability to remain productive with a center turning to his side is makes it all the more puzzling that he was unproductive with the center turning away from him. This scenario should leave the guard one-on-one with Donald and a clear advantage for him but Donald didn’t take advantage often here. This is almost an untapped resource for pressure for Donald that could see him increase his productivity further in 2015.
Further improvement could be forthcoming for Donald when we look at how he attacked different depths of drops by opposing quarterbacks this season. While he chewed up his blockers on deeper drops he was little better than average attacking five step drops. The likes of Sheldon Richardson and Ndamukong Suh were far more productive than Donald against these shorter drops whose production was more in line with the likes of Sen’Derrick Marks, Kawann Short and Fletcher Cox.
If Donald can increase his productivity on these shorter drops while continuing to be borderline unblockable on seven step drops then we could see a big step up in 2015, even after as impressive a rookie season as he just produced. In recent seasons we have seen Richardson and Watt star as rookies but develop further and take big strides in their second seasons, developing particularly as pass rushers. As impressive and productive as Donald was this season, when you breakdown his pass rushing production you can see the scope for him to make similar strides and join the league’s elite defensive linemen at a very early stage in his career.
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