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IRVINE, Calif. – For two straight offseasons, it was almost a ritual for Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. He’d be up early, walking through the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center complex and he’d see Aaron Donald. Head down and headed for the weight room, Donald had basically made a home inside the training facility shared by the Steelers and Donald’s alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh.
Rain or shine. Early and often. In the offseason after Donald’s rookie year, Tomlin saw the young NFL star nearly every day. And after Donald’s All-Pro second season, the first sighting came in the week after the Pro Bowl, a time when most NFL players are stretching out on a beach and sipping an umbrella drink.
So it’s no surprise that when Tomlin sees Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher in the offseason, he makes sure to remind him: “Your defensive tackle gets it.”
“[Tomlin would tell me], ‘I see Aaron every morning at 7:30,'” Fisher said with a grin.
If there’s any debate about whether Aaron Donald is the best defender in the NFL this season, that story will have roots in it. There is something special about envy that comes from outside quarters, particularly a hard-edged guy like Tomlin. It’s one thing for the Rams staff to dub Donald the “practice-wrecker” (which they have). It’s another thing for other coaching staffs to look at a player from afar and wish all their guys could do it like him (and they do). And what’s scary about Donald is he has risen to this level of esteem in only two years – and might actually still be getting better.
“[J.J. Watt] is the motivation,” Donald said of his benchmark in Year 3, noting the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, who has owned the award in three of the past four seasons. “That’s the guy that motivates me to work harder and push myself an extra rep or two. You’re trying to think, if I’m doing this in a workout, what’s [Watt] doing? I’m going to try and do everything in my mind to outwork that guy. Even though I might not know what he’s doing at that moment, I’m going to try and put it in my mind that I’m going to try and outwork that guy. … When I’m fatigued, I’m telling myself, ‘These other guys aren’t tired. Why am I tired?'”
That’s the mentality that has fueled the early mornings in Pittsburgh, with Donald trading vacation for morning fly-bys of Tomlin on his way to the weight room. It has driven him to an offseason regimen that cut his body fat to only 10 percent, essentially unheard of for a defensive tackle, at the start of the Rams’ offseason program. The kind of thing that made a shirtless photo of him playing Ping-Pong in training camp look photo-shopped. Even in today’s NFL, you don’t see many defensive tackles built more like brick-house linebackers. But Donald’s physique has arrived to that point.
He did it by changing his offseason eating habits, cutting off meals after 8 p.m. on training days and eliminating the candies and cookies that he loved so much. Oh, and the bakery visits. There’s one near his house in Pittsburgh that calls to him.
“Oakmont Bakery,” Donald said. “I have to do everything I can to keep myself away from that bakery. I promise you, it’s the best bakery around. They’ll get you. I try to stay away from the red velvet cookies they’ve got. It’s got this white icing on top of it, with chocolate chips baked into it. But I’m not going to lie, I did sneak a couple before I left.”
Donald is safe. Nobody is complaining. He cut his weight to 275 at one point this offseason. Then he allowed himself to bulk back up to 285 as training camp approached, getting back to the number he’s most comfortable playing at. But even with the 10 pounds back on his frame, he’s still remarkably defined.
“I’m going for a four-pack,” he said with a laugh, running a hand over his abdominal muscles. “It’s a two-pack right now, but you can kind of see the other two.”
That’s not really a benchmark. Just a side effect of what happens when you’re trying to push back against the “J.J. Watt is always working” apparition created in his head. But while Donald is pushing to increase his impact, his value to the Rams might be simpler. If he continues what he’s been doing in his first two season – dominating despite being the focal point of offensive game plans – that’s actually improvement. Maintaining consistency despite the rest of the NFL throwing the kitchen sink of blocking schemes is what elite defensive linemen do.
“Keep doing it, even though they are going to try and keep you from doing it,” Fisher said.
There’s certainly no denying that he’ll be the focal point of every offense going forward. As much as No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff has been the story of the Rams’ offseason, Donald is the cornerstone that kicks off opposing game plans. And it will likely be that way for a long time. Which is why Donald is already getting peppered with questions about his contract, despite having essentially three more seasons left on his deal (counting the fifth-year option). The Rams know this reality is coming, too. If Donald replicates his play from last season – or raises it – he’s likely going to be the rare player who has the final year of his contact (and the fifth-year option season) torn up for a new deal. The franchise knows it and doesn’t oppose that approach for a player of Donald’s caliber, a source from within the Rams said.
That makes sense. As the coaching staff will tell you, this is the kind of player they’re happy paying. And if the Rams weren’t, certainly the rest of the NFL would love the opportunity to make Donald the highest paid defensive player at some point. While Donald is chasing a guy like Watt in his mind, the reality is the respect for him inside NFL facilities has already cemented itself alongside Watt.
While Watt won Defensive Player of the Year handily last season, Donald made it a healthy debate in only his second season. So much so that Pro Football Focus, a scouting service utilized by some NFL teams, campaigned for Donald’s consideration as the most dominant player in the league. The superlatives weren’t a matter of statistical data. They came from all walks of the NFL. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler once gushed that Donald was “unbelievable.” Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith admitted that he essentially required a double-team whenever Donald was on the field. And in the run-up to the draft, when 12th overall pick Sheldon Rankins was asked who he modeled his game after, the first name out of his mouth was Aaron Donald.
To understand how rare it is for Donald to have risen this quickly among his peers, you might need to go all the way back to Hall of Famer Warren Sapp to find a defensive tackle who has become so universally feared before the age of 25. Even a young Sapp might not measure up considering it wasn’t until Sapp’s third season that he was named to a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team. With 20 sacks in his first two seasons, Donald has been a Pro Bowler since he entered the league. And he was a first-team All-Pro in Year 2, while Sapp didn’t reach that height until Year 5 (though Sapp was a second-team All-Pro in his third and fourth seasons).
While it’s hard to put Donald in Sapp’s category so early in his career, it’s fair to say the two already share one common trait: they both see the offense beyond the tackle box. Sapp was known to have a brilliant understanding of how offenses operated, and Donald has displayed that, too.
“He knows the receiver splits and tight end alignments and running backs and all that,” Fisher said. “He knows what’s going on. He sees the big picture. If sometimes he’s a little late to get down in his stance, that’s because he’s looking and logging in information [about the entire offense] so he can make a play.”
And the Rams will take advantage of that. So much so that it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see Donald drop into passing lanes.
“It’s not really good defense to drop him [into coverage]. You’re better off rushing him,” Fisher said. “But in the event you’ve got to keep people honest and send a couple other people and drop Aaron, he loves it. He does a good job. He knows where to get to, he understands routes.”
It’s here were Fisher drops that nickname again.
“He’s a practice-wrecker,” he said with a grin. “During the offseason program, before you put the pads on, you can’t get anything done offensively because he’s in the backfield all the time.”
To the staff, it’s a wonderful problem to have. But considering Goff is occasionally on the other side of that equation – and needing solid reps to improve – would Fisher ever throttle Donald back? Maybe let a few plays develop for the sake of his rookie quarterback’s confidence? Fisher shook his head. Not going to happen.
“Let him wreck it,” Fisher said. “Let him go.”
Entering Year 3, that’s red velvet cookies to Donald. And trouble for everyone else.