Bill Lund

Louis Nix III Vs. Aaron Donald: Different Ways Of Dominating Play

Created on Mar. 19, 2014 5:44 AM EST

Aaron Donald of Pitt was one the most productive interior defensive linemen in college football this past season. He backed up his play with a dominating week at the Senior Bowl and solidified his talents with a superb performance at the NFL Combine.

Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III had a solid 2013 campaign but did not have stats comparable to Donald's -- which in no way undervalues his ability in anchoring the young Irish defense. His size and ability are characteristics that NFL teams seek in an interior lineman.

Each player is outstanding in his own right, but which one is the better defensive tackle prospect? It is a question that is far more complicated to answer when you take into account what scheme a player has played in and how he fits into an NFL club’s plans. Some will place a value on production, which to most fans means tackles, sacks and pressures. Others will value potential, based on size, speed and strength.

Even a lot of football savvy fans will make the mistake of putting too much stock into a draft guru’s evaluation of abilities without really knowing how the players were being utilized in a given defense. It is important that performance on film must be viewed with an understanding of what a player is being asked to do by his coaches. Various defensive schemes will ask some defensive tackles to read and two gap along the front line, while other schemes want players to penetrate through one gap. Even in an odd front, not all defensive linemen are two-gappers, with some defenses utilizing players as penetrators. And some four-man fronts use interior tackles as two-gap players.

Those are important factors to consider when trying to determine whether Donald or Nix would be the best fit for your favorite NFL club.

Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh

The first thing scouts and draft evaluators see in Donald is his lack of size. But John Randle was an undrafted, All-Decade defensive tackle for the Vikings in the 90’s, and he measured 6-foot-1, 287 pounds. Donald is not an imposing player, but he measures in at 6-1, 285, and his play is reminiscent of Randle.

The display Donald put on at both the Senior Bowl and Combine essentially negated questions about his size. Donald’s 4.68-second 40-yard dash and his 35 reps in the bench press were among the best for all defensive front players. His explosive quickness, athleticism and ability to disrupt offenses in the backfield are what put Donald in the heart of the best interior tackle conversation.

Donald has tremendous first-step quickness and has the strength and power to impose his will on offensive linemen. Donald led the nation in 2013 with 28.5 tackles for loss and finished with 11 sacks on the season -- impressive numbers for an interior defender having to work through the clutter to get to the QB.

What makes Donald so dominant is his uncommon effort and his instinctive nose for the ball.  Donald is a single-gap penetrator, whose best fit would be in a 4-3 defense playing as a 3 technique. The Cowboys, Jaguars and the Seahawks are examples of teams who use a single gap style of play that would be good fits for Donald. The position of 3 technique in the 4-3 was made famous by Warren Sapp, and it’s a position that is ideally suited to Donald’s skill set. He is quick, powerful and has the ability to rush the passer -- all traits the position requires.

Louis Nix III, Notre Dame

Nix is a disruptive two-gap anchor capable of eating up multiple blockers. At 6-2, 331, Nix has good speed and movement qualities for a player his size. He shows he can come off the ball with good pad level, though he can be inconsistent in maintaining leverage. Nix has a strong punch and active hands to stay clean from blockers. His instincts are strong and has a nose to find the ball.

His production will not be an indicator of ability because of the nature of the defense he played in. He has some pass rush moves when placed in one-on-one situations, but a majority of the time he commands multiple blockers. When he's motivated and comes off the ball with a low pad level, he can collapse the pocket and get his hands in passing lanes, batting down balls.

Nix will need to work on his endurance and controlling his weight. He is one of the best interior two-gap defenders in the country and when called upon to penetrate, he shows good first step quickness and snap anticipation.

He has a unique skill set that NFL execs will sift through to determine his first round fit. Nix is the classic two-gap anchor in the mold of B.J. Raji and would be ideal fit in an odd front defense as a nose tackle. Defenses like the Packers, Steelers and the Patriots fit the style of play Nix exhibits.

Nix’s stance on many occasions was one used by a defender playing a read and react style of defense. After keying the opposing offensive lineman movements, Nix will work to play his responsibility. An evaluator looking for first step quickness may not see this as consistently due to the style and stance he was asked to play. One knock on Nix’s performance was his lack of sack production, but again he wasn’t placed in one-on-one pass rushing situations. He was used to push the pocket and to take on multiple blockers in hopes of opening up one-on-one situations for teammates.

Who is better at what they do?

Donald and Nix are ranked as two of the best interior tackles, but their styles of play could not be more different. They display elite skills in different ways. On paper, it’s easy to assume Donald may be a better player because of better statistics, but creative defensive minds could see other ways to maximize each of their skills.  Donald could be a five technique in a 3-4 defense because of the speed and versatility he has shown at Pitt. Nix could be a fit for a defensive scheme similar to what the Vikings had been running when they had the Kevin and Pat Williams playing the interior. Nix could be a 1 technique and rotated out in a four man front if a team is looking for run stopping power. When it comes to who’s the best, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and defensive fit will be the prevailing factor as to where these two players land.

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