During the NFL draft process, size becomes all encompassing. Scouts and analysts alike use measurements as the foundation for the vast majority of player critiques. Offensive linemen are graded based on arm length, quarterbacks are judged on hand size, and linemen are shuffled up and down draft boards based almost entirely on their height/weight combination.
Such has been the case with Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald (6-1, 288) whom many believe is too small to be a first-round selection in this year's draft. The familiar refrain during Senior Bowl practices this week has been:
"If Donald were two inches taller, he'd be a Top-10 pick."
It's an interesting criticism for a player who has been absolutely dominant on the practice field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala.
During Monday's session, Donald began his week by steamrolling Baylor guard Cyril Richardson, widely considered one of the top interior offensive linemen in this year's draft. Donald's bull rush so overpowered Richardson that he ended up flat on his back.
"I like to stay true with the bull rush," Donald said. "But I like to change it up a lot. I like to use my quickness, a finesse move, or I can use my power with a bull rush to hold the double team. I like to switch it up a lot on them and keep them guessing."
Donald did just that all week, routinely beating his blocker in both 1-on-1 and team drills. In fact, no one was more impressive in practice this week than Donald, who demonstrated a lethal combination of power and quickness that may have erased some of the doubts about his size.
"I don't put anything on my shoulders. It isn't a chip. I just play the game of football. That's all I can do," said Donald. "Me complaining about it or worrying about what people are saying, that isn't going to make me any taller."
The criticism of Donald's size is reminiscent of what folks were saying about Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (6-1, 303) when he entered the draft out of Georgia in 2010. Atkins fell all the way to the fourth round, 120th overall. In four seasons since, Atkins has been named a two-time All-Pro and has been to the Pro Bowl twice. Last offseason, he signed a five-year, $55 million contract extension, which is the second most lucrative contract for a defensive tackle in NFL history.
Like Atkins, Donald says he's a pure 3-technique who can one-gap penetrate and get after the pass rusher.
"I can play any position but I feel like I'm an inside guy at 3-tech," he said.
For 4-3 NFL teams, interior players who can collapse the pocket in the face of the quarterback are invaluable. Based on Donald's performance this week against some of the top competition in the country, it appears he'll have no problem doing just that at the next level.
"I like to change it up a lot," he said. "I like to use my quickness, a finesse move, or I can use my power with a bull rush to hold the double team. I like to switch it up a lot on them and keep them guessing. I usually go with what the linemen give me. I don't think too much before the play. I just go. If he gives me the inside, I'm going to take the inside. If he gives me the opportunity to do a quick swim or a wipe, I'll do that. I change it up a lot."
Coming into the week, Donald was a borderline first-round pick in this year's draft. The way he performed in front of NFL scouts the past three days has almost assuredly propelled him into the Top 32, although that's not something with which he's concerned.
"I don't know. I just go out there and compete and play the game of football. Hopefully I did something," he said. "You never know. God willing everything will work out for the best but there aren't any guarantees or promises, so you never know."
Donald led the nation with 28.5 tackles for loss in 2013, earning him the Nagurski and Outland Trophies as the nation's best defensive lineman. Yet questions about his size still have many NFL teams concerned that he won't be able to hold his own against the mauling offensive linemen at the next level.
Yet based on his dominance in Mobile, the team that puts aside Donald's lack of ideal size will end up with a lightning quick, powerful player who has repeatedly shown the ability to disrupt plays in the backfield. Ultimately, isn't that what's most important?
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.