Position: Defensive tackle
Height/weight: 6’1”, 285 lbs.
It’s likely that Nick Hayden, Ben Bass, Terrell McClain and Frank Kearse aren’t the final answer at the defensive tackle position behind newly-acquired Henry Melton. The Cowboys will still likely go after a defensive tackle addition via the Draft, and they could still find a player to start alongside Melton if their first round pick goes toward an interior defensive lineman. Aaron Donald is one of the best defensive tackles in the draft, and would be a valuable addition if he falls to no. 16.
The only way Donald could’ve won any more postseason awards in 2013 would be if he was directed by Alfonso Cuarón. The Pittsburgh senior won the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards for Best Defensive Player, as well as the Outland and Lombardi Awards given to the best defensive lineman. Donald’s name is on at least 10 All-American lists, and he received multiple ACC honors as well. The myriad of awards came in the wake of a prolific senior season in which Donald recorded 28.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. He was a decorated recruit (ranked no. 8 in the state of Pennsylvania) out of high school before playing four seasons as a Panther.
For the record, I actually doubt Cuarón is much of a defensive line expert -- in fact, I’m sure Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli knows quite a bit more about it -- but I hope the allusion to Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’ and its seven Oscar wins on March 2 was effective.
Why he’s a good fit for the Cowboys
Marinelli defenses have a history of utilizing two athletic defensive tackles, and doing the same in 2014 would be a logical upgrade to a unit that surrendered 128.5 rushing yards per game and recorded only 34 sacks (25th in the NFL) last year. Donald is a strong three-technique defensive tackle that would complement Melton well on the interior line.
“Donald equals disruption, and no player was more of a force against opposing offenses in college football last season. He's had a good combine and a good Senior Bowl and is now worthy of this draft slot,” ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper said in reference to the Chicago Bears’ pick at no. 14, according to Windy City Gridiron.
The Bears have similar needs to the Cowboys, and could be targeting a lot of the same players in the first round.
Undersized, and underrated
Donald will be on the smaller end of defensive tackles in the NFL, measuring in at 6-foot-1, 285 pounds at the combine. Small stature at defensive tackle comes with obvious issues - shorter arms can make it more difficult to push off of blocks, and, for some undersized linemen, small stature can lead to a sacrifice in strength. However, Donald ran the fastest 40-yard dash time among defensive tackles at 4.68 seconds. And that speed is complemented by immense strength, as Donald recorded 35 bench press reps - the third-best total overall and second-best among defensive tackles, and 14 more than Jadeveon Clowney.
Because of this impressive combination of athleticism, ESPN analyst David Pollack said Donald is "probably the best defensive player maybe in the country that nobody talks about," according to Bleacher Report.
Donald also makes up for what he lacks in size with a variety of rush moves. He has an explosive first step to get into the backfield, and ability to duck around blockers to make a disruption.
Donald’s draft stock has been steadily on the rise since the college football season ended. By Draft Day, the Pitt product may be coveted as an early first round pick. He has risen to the no. 1 overall defensive tackle on CBS Sports’ draft board, and could be valued high that the no. 16 spot. If he is available for the Cowboys at no. 16, it will likely be because of his lack of size, not because his stock has fallen for any skills-related reason. As mentioned in the last “Draft Focus,” defensive tackle may no longer be a first round priority for Dallas, as there are other areas of need on the defense. But if the strategy in the Dallas war room is to address the front line early on, look for Donald to be wearing a star on his helmet in 2014.
With the addition of Melton, I would advise the Cowboys to adress the safety position at no. 16 if Ha Ha Clinton Dix or Calvin Pryor is available. This year's draft is relatively deep at defensive tackle, so a starting talent could be found in the second or third round.