IRVING, Texas – Aaron Donald doesn’t pay much attention to the pre-draft hype, but his mother sure does.
“She’s pretty much looking at Google every day. So every day she says ‘This team says they’re going to draft you this time,’” Donald said. “I’m like, ‘Mom, just don’t look at that. None of that matters until your name gets called.’ But that’s what she does.”
Donald’s mother has that in common with thousands of others, mainly Dallas Cowboys fans, who are bound to be intrigued by the defensive tackle’s visit to Valley Ranch on Monday morning. The All-American from Pitt has been strongly linked to the Cowboys as the possible No. 16 pick since the draft process started, and his selection as one of the team’s 30 pre-draft visitors will do nothing to quell that.
The Cowboys are the third – and at this point final – team Donald has visited with this spring. With his highly-publicized work at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine behind him, Donald said this last bit of draft preparation will ready him for what comes after he is finally picked.
“I’m just staying in the weight room, conditioning, staying in shape – just getting football-ready now,” he said. “It’s been a grind, but I’m just making sure I’m ready for whenever I get picked and drafted so I can be ready for what’s about to come.”
What’s about to come is likely a lofty first-round draft status. Plenty of people think Donald will be unavailable by the time the Cowboys pick at the midpoint of the first round. If that’s the case, he can look back to his eye-catching Combine, as well his decorated college career, as the reasons why.
Donald rose from an unheralded high school recruit with just three scholarship offers to an All-Everything star for Pittsburgh. He capped off his career last fall by winning the Bronko Nagurski Award, the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Outland Trophy and the Rotary Lombardi Award, in addition to first-team All-America and All-ACC selections.
If some weren’t convinced by his on-field performance, he showed up at the Combine and dazzled with a 4.68 40-yard dash, best among defensive tackles, 35 reps on the bench press, second-best among defensive linemen, and remarkable aptitude in the agility drills.
“They want to see that this guy can do what he does on a football field, but they want to see how you move outside the pads and things like that,” Donald said. “It ain’t nothing but football drills. It’s nothing to be worried about or nervous about – you just have to go out there and do it.”
There’s bound to be those that still doubt him, as Donald’s 6-0, 288-pound frame hardly looks like that of a defensive stalwart. If the accolades don’t sway people, though, he said he’ll let his play speak for itself.
“There’s probably people that are still going to doubt you. It is what it is – I’m still going to go out there and play football the way I do and still have passion for the game the way I do,” he said. “All I can do is keep playing football the way I’ve been playing.”
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli doesn’t sound like someone who needs convincing. Donald is well-familiar with Marinelli’s history of coaching elite defensive tackles, and it seems like a safe bet he’d love a chance to pair the youngster with the Cowboys’ newly-signed Pro Bowler in Henry Melton.
“I had the opportunity to talk to him a couple times at the Combine, I talked to him last night and I talked to him today,” Donald said. “He’s a great coach, and just talking to him and looking in his eyes – the way he talks, he’s got a passion for the game of football and he loves the game of football.
“He loves doing what he does, so that’s a coach I’d love to play for and learn from. Knowing he coached guys like Warren Sapp, that just gets you excited just knowing he’s got history and is one of the best to do it. If I was able to play for Coach Marinelli that would be a blessing, but we’re going to see.”
He’s going to see soon, as a matter of fact. It feels like an eternity since Donald first turned heads in Mobile, Ala., at the Senior Bowl, but the NFL draft is now a matter of weeks away. As one of this year’s top prospects, he was invited to watch the proceedings from Radio City Music Hall in New York, but he opted to watch from home with his family.
Home brings an interesting dynamic to the story. As a native of Pittsburgh and a childhood Steelers fan, Donald has heard plenty about that rivalry, as the Cowboys and Steelers have faced off in three Super Bowls.
“I wasn’t born yet when the big rivalry with the Steelers and Dallas started, but you always hear about it getting ready for the draft,” he said. “Everybody in Pittsburgh is saying ‘I hope you don’t go to Dallas.’”
Much like his mom’s reports, Donald said he isn’t paying much attention to that talk, though. With time winding down until the big day, he’s focused on the final destination – of which, he said, Dallas is as good as any.
“I’m like ‘I’ll go to any team that wants me,’ and Dallas is a team I’d love to play for,” Donald said. “Getting coached by Coach Marinelli, one of the best to ever do it — he coached Hall of Fame guys, so I know he can get me to that level I want to play at. I want to be great, and I feel like he can help me do that.”
How ‘bout a quick look?
Making A Case For Aaron Donald