ST. LOUIS — With the 13th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on Thursday night, the St. Louis Rams selected the most decorated defensive lineman in college football.
No, not Jadeveon Clowney. But Aaron Donald enjoyed a far better season in 2013 than the No. 1 pick.
Donald needed to clear out a room to make space for all the awards he took home as a senior defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Panthers. "I got a couple of tables," he said. "We had to make a little bit of space."
A little? Among the awards Donald won were the Outland Trophy for being the nation’s top interior defensive lineman and both the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bedarik Award, which go to the nation’s top defensive player. He also was named a unanimous All-American.
"Aaron is very, very productive," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.
As in a nation-best 28 1/2 tackles for loss, plus 11 sacks, four forced fumbles and 59 tackles. That was in one season.
"In terms of tackles for loss, there may not be another human being in the country that’s had as many as him in his college career on the D-line," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "He does that in a way where he penetrates and beats one-on-one blocks and gets in the backfield a lot."
OK, you’re probably thinking, if the guy’s so good, why did he last until the 13th pick?
The knock on Donald is size, or an alleged lack thereof. At 6-foot-1, 285 pounds, he’s not as big as most interior linemen, though he’s not much smaller than Sheldon Richardson, the 6-3, 294-pound defensive tackle from St. Louis who was drafted 13th last year by the Jets and won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. But the Rams’ starters at defensive tackle last season, Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford, both have at least four inches and 30 or more pounds on Donald.
"I never let that get to me," he said. "Letting it get you isn’t going to get me any better. All I have to do is worry about what I have to do on a football field and that’s compete, make the plays."
After he excelled at the Senior Bowl and put up strong measurables at the NFL Combine, teams started to take a closer look. Snead said that Donald’s stock rose as the draft neared. The Rams, clearly not concerned about his height or weight, had him rated as one of the top six-to-eight players in the draft.
"His game is not size," Snead said. "His game is speed and quickness. Getting bigger doesn’t really help him. One of the reasons we were fine with the pick is he’s short, so he always has leverage. He’s a strong kid. He knows how to use his hands, to get low and take on a double team."
Donald becomes the fourth first-round pick on the Rams’ defensive line, joining Chris Long (second overall, 2008), Robert Quinn (14th, 2011) and Brockers (14th, 2012). The way the Rams see it, they can’t have too much talent on the defensive line.
"Feed the beast," said GM Les Snead, repeating for emphasis, "Feed the beast."
The second defensive lineman drafted, Donald showed greater strength at the Combine than Clowney, who plays on the outside. Donald did 35 reps in the 225-pound bench press to 22 for Clowney. While Clowney’s 40 speed of 4.51 is considered freakish by NFL scouts, Donald’s 4.61 hardly is lumbering.
A Pittsburgh native, Donald sounded like a lunch-pail kind of guy in a conference call with St. Louis media. He said he turned down an invitation to go to New York with the other top draft prospects because he wanted to spend the evening with his family.
"I’m not the red-carpet guy," Donald said. "I wanted to be around my family back where it all started, and that’s in Pittsburgh."
He said he’s thrilled to join what he called "the best defensive line in the NFL" but humbly hedged when asked if he will make it even better. He knows how deep the front already is.
"I’m going to let me game speak for me," Donald said. "It’s already a great defensive line. All I can do is get out there and play my part and we’re going to see."
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.