Pitt’s Donald likely to hear his name before end of NFL draft’s 1st round

Nearly every day, it seems like, Anita Goggins calls her son, Aaron Donald, to update him on the latest draft projections.

One day, it’s No. 14 to Chicago; the next, it’s 16 to Dallas. Sometimes, it goes as high as the No. 10 overall pick to the Detroit Lions.

And every time, Donald’s response is the same.

“Mom, it doesn’t matter,” he’ll say. “It doesn’t matter until they call me that day.”

“I’m the only one that pays attention that stuff,” Goggins said, with a laugh. “He doesn’t.”

Part of that might be because, while the NFL draft is notoriously difficult to predict, Donald’s stock is about as secure as it can be. Almost every mock draft has him going somewhere at or before the Cowboys at the 16th overall pick.

If and when Donald hears his name called Thursday night, he will break a two-year drought for Pitt players getting drafted and would be the first former Panthers player to go in the first round since wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin in 2011. If he goes off the board before the 18th overall pick, a fairly likely scenario, he would be the highest drafted Pitt player since wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald went third overall in 2004.

“If I have eight or 10 favorite players every year, [Donald’s] one of them this year for me,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said in a conference call this week.

Donald, a Penn Hills native, wrapped up his Pitt career as the most decorated player in its football history, taking home four major awards including the prestigious Outland Trophy as the best offensive or defensive lineman in Division I-A. He led Division I-A with 28.5 tackles for a loss, including 11 sacks. Multiple opposing coaches referred to him as a “one-man wrecking crew.”

Still, when initial draft projections came out in January, most had Donald as a late first- or early second-round pick. They cited size concerns and difficulty fitting into some NFL defenses.

All Donald has done since is prove he belongs.

He was named the most outstanding player in practices at the Senior Bowl in January, going up against the best offensive linemen in college football. At the NFL Scouting Combine, he was fifth among all defensive linemen with a 4.68 40-yard dash and second in the bench press with 35 reps.

“He did everything you could do to become a top 10 or 15 pick,” Mayock said.

“Great college career. Tremendous Senior Bowl week where he dominated, ran like crazy at the combine. He did everything. He should be a top half of the first round, and I hope he is.”

Of course, there are some concerns. The draft can be notoriously difficult to project as one pick influences the next and so on. For Donald, fit also will be a major factor. At 6 feet 1 and 285 pounds, size will limit Donald somewhat.

He is most likely to go to a team that plays a 4-3 defense, which means he could play the same three-technique position he did his final two seasons at Pitt. Teams that play a 3-4 are less likely to be a good fit for Donald, so, as nice as the story line would be, it’s unlikely he ends up with the Steelers on draft night.

“[A 4-3 defense] is where I believe he fits in best,” CBSSports.com draft analyst Rob Rang said. “I think you’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole if you’re going to use him in a 3-4.”

Because he’s a somewhat unique fit, there is the rare chance that Donald could slide down draft boards if chaos starts to reign in the first round. If he doesn’t get picked by Dallas at 16, Mayock said there’s a chance he could start to slide down the draft board.

“There are some concerns,” Mayock said. “I don’t buy into it, but there are teams who say he’s too short, too small and that, if he doesn’t win immediately with quickness, he’s done.

“I hope he doesn’t slide. He’s too good a football player, too good a kid, but it has to be the right fit.”

Whenever Donald is picked, his life changes forever. Goggins said she hasn’t talked to her son about the financial windfall about to come his way, but has faith he’ll handle it right.

“Money has not even come up,” she said. “I might sit there look at him and say, ‘Wow he’s going to be a millionaire,’ but Aaron is still Aaron, you know?”

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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