When I played defensive back for the Green Bay Packers in the mid-1990s, my defensive coordinator -- the late Fritz Shurmur -- always stressed the D-line's impact on the rest of the defense. He frequently urged front-line guys to play on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage because penetration absolutely destroys the timing of the passing game and forces ball carriers to stop in their tracks. The offense simply cannot string together positive plays if the defensive line owns the point of attack.
Of course, it's easy to own the point of attack when you have a D-line of Reggie White, Santana Dotson, Gilbert Brown and Sean Jones. Each guy flashed outstanding strength, power and snap-count anticipation, in addition to excellent hand skills and reactions while fighting through blocks at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the 1996 Packers rode the NFL's top-ranked defense to a Super Bowl title, wreaking havoc on opponents with a punishing style up front.
Given the impact of Shurmur's words and my observations of that talented foursome at work, I expect blue-chip defensive linemen to exhibit a level of dominance and disruption that stands out on tape. This is definitely the case when you go to the film on Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald.
Donald, who racked up a whole bunch of hardware for his efforts in 2013 (Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award, Outland Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award), was the most dominant college defender that I watched last fall. He routinely pitched a tent in the opponent's backfield, displaying exceptional quickness, burst and snap-count anticipation. And despite diminutive stature for a defensive tackle (6-foot-1, 285 pounds), Donald showcased the ability to play with leverage by frequently holding the point against double teams. He controlled the middle of the line against the run, and allowed his teammates to run-and-chase without obstruction.
Now, I must admit that I initially questioned if Donald would be able to impose his will on blockers at the next level, but those concerns were allayed when I watched him dominate the competition at the Senior Bowl. He was unstoppable in one-on-one and team drills against elite competition, showcasing a game that is ideally suited for the 3-technique position in a Tampa 2 defense. With proponents of that scheme craving defensive tackles with the speed, athleticism and initial quickness to blow up blocking schemes, it's no wonder Donald has shot up draft boards over the past few months.
Given the buzz building around Donald, I thought it would be a good time to identify five NFL team fits (with first-round draft slots listed as a reference point):
Detroit Lions (No. 10 overall pick)
Adding Donald to a lineup that already features Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley? On the surface, it doesn't seem like a logical fit, but A) Suh is entering the last year of his rookie contract (while the Lions have expressed a desire to keep him around for the long haul, until pen hits paper ...); and B) GM Martin Mayhew publicly stated that Detroit will not be picking up the fifth-year option in Fairley's rookie deal. That latter point is noteworthy when considering the potential addition of Donald, who is an effective penetrator with a non-stop motor and relentless spirit. His presence would put pressure on Fairley to finally play up to expectations after teasing Lions officials for years with his immense raw talent. Factor in the potential to wear down opponents with a three-man rotation on the interior, and Mayhew could seriously consider making a radical move on draft day.
New York Giants (No. 12)
The Giants' defensive line has lost some of the spunk that made the unit one of the best in the business for years. While the notable departure of Justin Tuck has led many to focus on the edges, it is the loss of Linval Joseph that could prompt GM Jerry Reese to expend a top pick on an interior D-lineman. The Giants desperately need a disruptive playmaker in the middle; Donald certainly qualifies with his explosive quickness and athleticism. (The guy blazed a 4.68 40-yard dash at 285 pounds during the NFL Scouting Combine.) Donald would give the G-Men a young interior rusher to feature on exotic stunts and games in nickel downs. Reese clearly understands the importance of getting after the passer in the NFL, so Donald could be squarely in the Giants' crosshairs next month.
Chicago Bears (No. 14)
After suffering through one of the worst defensive campaigns in franchise history, the Bears are on a mission to get back on track by revamping the defensive line. This became evident in free agency, as Chicago shelled out a heap of cash on defensive ends Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston. Those additions definitely beef up a pass rush that posted a league-low 31 sacks in 2013, but the Bears still need an active presence on the inside to maximize Mel Tucker's scheme. Donald is an ideal fit for the 3-technique position, and offers the disruptive ability that the team missed a season ago, when injuries ravaged the middle of the defense.
Dallas Cowboys (No. 16)
Rod Marinelli takes over for Monte Kiffin as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, but the team's Tampa 2 scheme will remain the same. Thus, the Cowboys need to identify an active 3-tech to anchor the defensive line. While Henry Melton is the Cowboys' marquee free-agent acquisition, Dallas was able to sign him on what essentially amounts to a one-year "prove it" deal because he's coming off a season-ending ACL injury. Given the uncertainty there, Jerry Jones could target Donald as the explosive defender to build the defense around. Donald is capable of creating the kind of chaos the Cowboys' defense needs in order to contain the high-powered offenses in the NFC East.
Cincinnati Bengals (No. 24)
Marvin Lewis already has one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the game (Geno Atkins), but that wouldn't necessarily prevent him from taking another special talent if the opportunity were to present itself. First of all, Atkins is returning from a serious knee injury. Furthermore, while Atkins and Donald seemingly fill the same role in a 4-3 scheme, the ability to designate each as a right or left defensive tackle would prevent opponents from crafting blocking schemes specifically designed to neutralize Atkins. Additionally, the Bengals could seamlessly flip-flop Atkins and Donald between the 1- and 3-technique spots to create even more confusion at the point of attack. If Lewis subscribes to the theory of enhancing his team's strengths, Donald should look very appealing.