By Cedric Williams
CBS Local Sports presents 32 Players in 32 Days, a daily feature focusing on one impact player from each NFL team.
Aaron Donald – DT – #99
Weight: 285 lbs.
Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA
Ask Aaron Donald and he’ll tell you, without a doubt, that he believes he couldn’t have landed in a better spot when he was selected by the St. Louis Rams in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft with the No. 13 overall pick.
“This defensive line was good without me,” Donald said, following a particularly productive day of training camp for himself and his linemates against St. Louis’ re-vamped starting offensive line. “My job is to just come in here and be an extra piece to the puzzle.”
Through the first 10 days of practice though, Donald, a consensus All-American who won just about every prestigious award a college defensive player could – including the Lombardi, Nagurski, Bednarik, and Outland trophies following his senior season at Pittsburgh last year, has shown himself a potentially spectacular piece to the Rams’ defensive line puzzle.
Some have even said St. Louis’ current defensive front, which with the addition of Donald now boasts four first-round draft picks among its starters, is the club’s best unit since the franchise’s glory days when Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen led the Los Angeles Rams, as members of the renowned “Fearsome Foursome.”
“We don’t really talk about us all being first-round picks or anything,” Donald said. “But we do talk about being great and what it takes to be great. I just want to come in and do my part.”
For now, doing his part means the rookie must simply watch and learn from veteran teammates Chris Long, Robert Quinn, and Michael Brockers—St. Louis’ other first-round gems now starting on its defensive front—while also competing with backups Kendall Langford, William Hayes, and Eugene Sims for playing time.
“Those guys are in my ear all the time,” Donald said. “Mostly cracking jokes on me and kinda getting after me because I’m a rookie. But they also are there to help me if I have any questions or don’t understand something, they’re right there to help me figure it out. So it’s been great. I can’t wait to get into that first game and go to battle with these guys.”
Some scouts that have been in to see the Rams this summer have described Donald as “sensational,” “dominating” and “unblockable” through the early days of training camp.
But Donald says he’s just doing what he’s always done—competing as hard as he can for as long as he can.
“Well nobody wants to come in and just get pushed around in practice,” he said. “We’re all out here working to get better. That means me too. I’m just working on things and trying to get better. Hopefully, I am.”
The Rams also expect its defense, which ranked 15th overall in total yards allowed last season, but was third-best in the league with 53 sacks, to be bolstered by the return of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Williams was hired for the same job in 2012, but then was suspended for that season by the league for his role in the New Orleans Saints “Bountygate” scandal.
The suspension was lifted in February 2013, but by then, St. Louis had another defensive coordinator. So Williams was hired as a special assistant with the Tennessee Titans last year.
This year though, the Rams hired Williams again to be their DC, and he’s spent the entire offseason implementing his system.
“It’s been a lot of fun already,” Donald said. “It’s an attacking type defense. And I love that. That’s how I like to play. Everything we do is physical. I think I fit in perfect. It’s the kind of system I love to play in.”
And it’s a system that could make Aaron Donald a household name very early in his NFL career.
“I don’t know about that,” the rookie DT said. “I still need to play my first game. I don’t even really feel like a pro yet. That probably won’t happen until I play my first game. I’m excited. I can’t wait. I think we can be really good. I just want to do my part.”
St. Louis’ preseason opener was Friday, August 8, when the Rams hosted the Saints at the Edward Jones Dome.
From there, the club will have exactly 30 days to get ready for its regular season opener, September 7, against the Minnesota Vikings.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do before then,” Donald said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m still learning all this. I want to be ready to show what I can do when the lights go on for real next month.”
Cedric Williams, a lifelong St. Louisan and proud UMSL alum, has been a freelance reporter/photographer covering St. Louis area sports for nearly two decades. Most recently, he has been working as a credentialed beat writer covering the Rams and small-school college sports for Examiner.com and other outlets from around the area. Please share any comments, questions, or feedback with Cedric at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.