‘You got your guy’: How the Rams landed Aaron Donald 10 years ago

NFL

WHEN BRAD HOLMES went to scout Aaron Donald at the University of Pittsburgh, he was given a tip from Panthers defensive coordinator Matt House.

Show up to practice 30 minutes early.

Holmes, then the St. Louis Rams’ director of college scouting, thought House asked him to arrive before the start of practice because he was planning to give him more background on Donald.

Instead, he arrived at the Pitt practice bubble to see the group of specialists and ball boys. And Donald.

“He’s just sitting down on the pop-up dummy, taped up, ready to go, and he’s got this twitch in his leg, where’s everybody at?” Holmes, now the Detroit Lions general manager, said. “You could see it coming out of him like, ‘I’ve been waiting for this all day.’

“So I saw the coach when practice started. He goes, ‘Hey, did you come out early?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Did you see it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ And that’s all I needed to see. And that’s when I knew he had elite, special football character. And he was the same person throughout his career. He was always the first one out at practice. That’s just who he was.”

But even as Holmes wrote his notes that day, he knew he’d be facing an uphill battle with the Rams’ coaching staff because of Donald’s size. He knew he’d have to “defend that.” During his senior year at Pitt, Donald was listed at 6 feet, 285 pounds. At the time, Holmes said, the Rams “really liked bigger guys.”

Perhaps because of the skepticism about Donald’s size, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer slipped down to the No. 13 pick 10 years ago. He quashed every doubt about his size in the 10 seasons before he retired in March 2024.

Donald was the 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, an eight-time first-team All-Pro, and a 10-time Pro Bowl selection. He left the NFL on his own terms, saying he felt complete and satisfied with what he was able to accomplish during his career.

And while Holmes couldn’t have known he was watching a player who would end up one of the best defensive players to ever play, it didn’t take long for him to get confirmation Donald would be the right pick for the Rams.

“I’m writing my notes,” Holmes said. “I’m like, ‘there’s nothing wrong with this player. There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s a damn good player.'”

MIKE WAUFLE KNEW what he was doing. During Donald’s top 30 visit in 2014, the Rams’ defensive line coach knew some in the organization were concerned about the defensive tackle’s size.

So in what he called “a veteran moment” with Donald in tow, Waufle barged into the meeting room where Rams decision-makers were studying game film of quarterback Johnny Manziel.

“I remember, it was [head coach Jeff Fisher] and [general manager] Les [Snead], everybody in there like a draft meeting … Coach Wauf like, ‘This is Aaron Donald, this is the kid that’s gonna be here,'” Donald recounted in an interview with his wife Erica after he announced his retirement. “And I was like, ‘How you doing?’

“It was super awkward. But, you know, that was my introduction to everybody.”

Waufle was so convinced — and wanted to make sure the others in the room felt the same way — that he took Donald’s magnetic name tag and stuck it all the way at the top of the draft board, above all defensive linemen.

“I threw it up there and it stuck,” Waufle said. “And it was [defensive end Jadeveon] Clowney and a lot of people. And I really just believed in him that much.”

Waufle was one of two “major advocates” for Donald in the building, then-Rams assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. The other was then-director of pro personnel Ray Agnew, now the Lions assistant general manager. When the team was discussing Donald, someone asked whether Donald would be an every-down player or whether he’d need a specialized role on third down.

“Ray Agnew said, ‘No, no, no, no, I don’t want to hear this,'” Holmes recalled. “‘No, he is an every-down player.’

“And Ray Agnew, [is] a man of a few words. But when you heard the passion coming out of Ray Agnew’s voice, when that whole size debate came up about Aaron Donald, that’s when you knew it was real. That was it. That was the mic drop.”

Snead said he thinks Donald’s height and size might have been one of the reasons he fell to No. 13. But, Snead said, he’s had conversations with Donald where the defensive tackle said his height is an advantage.

“He would say, ‘I was born with leverage so there was no offensive lineman who could block me,'” Snead said. “So it’s interesting, the paradigm sometimes [of] us front office, coaching [staff] you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a negative.’ And really when you said that to Aaron, he couldn’t comprehend that we felt that was a negative. He’s like, ‘Why would that be a negative? Do you realize I have leverage? Like I was born with it.’ So it’s pretty neat to hear him articulate.”

Leverage is being able to play underneath another man’s pads, Waufle said. The coach did the defensive line drills at the combine and was timing Donald in the 10-yard dash when Donald caught his eye. Donald’s time of 1.63 was impressive, Waufle said, comparing it to the time a defensive back would have been able to run in that drill.

“But he also had long arms,” Waufle said. “His arm length was like 34 inches, which is like a 6-foot-4 guy. And so he had that. He had tremendous power. Power is force times velocity and strength times speed. And his ability to generate that power, which is kind of evident of what he did in that 10-yard dash. You put all those combinations together and that’s why he was very successful against most linemen.”


AS THE 13TH pick approached on draft night, Waufle wasn’t even paying attention. The defensive line coach knew the Rams didn’t really need Donald, and since he knew St. Louis was taking offensive lineman Greg Robinson with its No. 2 pick, he didn’t think the defensive tackle would fall to No. 13.

But when he looked up and saw the New York Giants take wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. at No. 12, Waufle snuck into the draft room. While he was standing to the side of the room, he saw team president Kevin Demoff on the phone.

“I go, ‘Oh, son of a gun, man, please don’t trade,'” Waufle said. “‘Don’t trade back, don’t trade back.’ And he didn’t. And Coach Fisher … looked up high on the board and there was Aaron’s name and he said, ‘Somebody go get Coach Waufle.’

“And I said, ‘I’m right here, Coach.’ And he says, ‘You got your guy.'”

What Ran Carthon, then the Rams’ director of player personnel, remembers from that draft room was the moment after. As he saw everyone high-fiving in the draft room, he watched Waufle walk out. It was kind of weird, he said, because he knew Donald was Waufle’s favorite in the draft.

“And so I go around the opposite way and then I come up and I see him and he’s got his head down on the cubicle,” Carthon said. “So I put my hand on his back and I’m like, ‘Hey Coach, you good?’ And I looked up and he had a tear. And I was like, ‘Man, is everything OK?’ He was like, ‘You guys don’t realize this. That kid is special and he’s going to change things for us.’

“And as if I didn’t believe it already, to see Mike Waufle, who’s been around other Hall of Famers have that type of response to him, I knew that we had us a real one.”

Donald called getting drafted “a dream come true.” In the interview after he retired, he recalled the times he told a teacher in elementary school that he wanted to be an NFL player one day.

“The teacher’s like, that’s what everybody wants to do,” Donald said. “Let’s be real, more realistic, you know? But that was my dream. That’s what I wanted.”

THE RAMS DRAFTED Donald despite knowing their defensive line wasn’t a need, Snead said. St. Louis had drafted defensive tackle Michael Brockers in the first round two years before and signed defensive end Kendall Langford to a four-year, $24 million contract in 2012.

Even Donald said years later that he didn’t think the Rams would draft him because when he did his homework on them, he saw defensive end Robert Quinn was coming off a 19-sack season and they already had “a pretty good team, a good D-line.”

“But it was really the thrill of thinking … ‘Wow, what if we do use a very valuable resource on another defensive lineman?'” Snead said. “We’d be slightly unbalanced on defensive line, but we felt like that unbalance would be a net positive for sure.”

It didn’t take long for the Rams to see what Donald could do that would make him a star and an integral part of their defensive line. During organized team activities that spring, Carthon noticed how Donald was winning “really quick” at the line of scrimmage against veteran players.

“And you look, you’re like, ‘OK, he got lucky,'” Carthon recalls. “‘The vet doesn’t know him.’ And then you start seeing that consistently. And just his ability to use his hands. It’s something I had never seen before and we knew pretty quickly it was like, ‘OK, this dude is special.'”

Donald’s career accolades speak for themselves, but he was also the face of the franchise for a long time, helping the Rams make the transition from St. Louis to Los Angeles in 2016. He “started to come into his own” when he came to LA, Demoff said.

Donald was a steadying force for the Rams as they hired Sean McVay as their head coach, drafted Cooper Kupp, lost a Super Bowl and then went all-in by trading for quarterback Matthew Stafford before the 2021 season.

One of the most memorable moments during the 2021 season was Donald essentially sealing Super Bowl LVI by pressuring Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow to force an incomplete pass. Donald ran around with his arms outstretched after the play and then pointed at his left ring finger, where his first Super Bowl ring would go.

Ten years after Donald began his NFL career, Carthon is in charge of a draft, his second as general manager of the Tennessee Titans. After being in the room where Donald was drafted, Carthon has adhered to the lesson he learned that day.

“Never pass up on a special player.”

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