EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Before last Thursday night, if you wanted to come to the conclusion that the St. Louis Rams had a "type" when it comes to their defensive tackles, it would have been easy to see what it was.
The tackles brought in since the arrival of coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead in 2012 all cut an imposing shadow. Michael Brockers is 6-foot-5, 326 pounds, Kendall Langford checks in at 6-6, 313 pounds, Matt Conrath is 6-7, 284 pounds and newly-signed Alex Carrington is 6-5, 301 pounds. The only outlier is Jermelle Cudjo, who is 6-2, 304 pounds, but he is also the line holdover from the previous regime.
If those measurements were your sole way of viewing what the Rams value at the position, you probably were a bit surprised when they used the 13th overall pick in the NFL draft on defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald is listed at just under 6-1, 285 pounds. In a land of giants, Donald doesn't seem to fit.
And that's precisely the point.
"His game is not size," Snead said. "I think his game is speed, quickness. So I think getting bigger really doesn’t help him, and one of the reasons we were fine with the pick is he’s short so he always has leverage and he’s just a strong kid. He had very high, I forget his bench reps, but it translates to the field. He knows how to use his hands, get low and take on a double team. ... His game is to penetrate.”
In adding Donald, the Rams are getting the exact genre of defensive tackle that they've lacked. On a defensive line flush with talent, Donald provides a pass-rushing, penetrating style that has drawn comparisons to the likes of Cincinnati's Geno Atkins and former Vikings defensive tackle John Randle.
They signed Carrington after having discussions with other possible free-agent fits such as Antonio Smith and Henry Melton. In the pre-draft process, they hosted seven possible fits for the interior, Donald included.
But none of those players come with the resume of Donald. He won every major award for which he was eligible in 2013, including the Nagurski (nation's top defensive player), the Bednarik (defensive player of the year), the Outland (nation's best interior lineman) and the Lombardi (nation's top lineman or linebacker).
Those awards came after a season in which Donald posted 28.5 tackles for loss, the most in college football's Bowl Subdivision, and 11 sacks.
All of that was enough to land Donald in the top eight of the Rams' draft board, according to Fisher. Most teams say they were "surprised" when a player they draft falls to them but in this case, the Rams really meant it.
“We were," Fisher said. "Les’ guys did a great job with the research and we felt like there was a pretty good chance that he would disappear, and then a couple things happened. We were rubbing our lucky coin and he was there.”
Donald will join a line where he won't be asked to carry such a heavy load right away. The Rams' defensive linemen accounted for 47 sacks in 2013, the most by any group in the NFL. Flanked by ends like Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Hayes and Sims, Donald should see fewer double-teams on passing downs, where his immediate contributions will likely reside.
“I’m real excited just to have those veteran guys like that around me," Donald said. "I can learn from them and if I need something, anything answered that I feel like I’m struggling with, I can ask those guys and they can push me and help me to take my game to another level, so I’m real excited about it.”
Donald's production despite a lack of size compared to others at his position can be directly attributed to his athleticism. Donald ran the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds and bench pressed 225 pounds 35 times at the scouting combine. On Tuesday, he told ESPN.com that he can dunk a basketball on a regulation 10-foot rim and has been able to do so since about his sophomore year of high school.
Adding to that athleticism is the type of technique that had Fisher gushing soon after drafting Donald.
"[He] is very, very productive; he’s an outstanding young man," Fisher said. "He’s way ahead in hand use on the line of scrimmage. He does an outstanding job with his hands.”