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Former Lions Coach Says Team Passed On Aaron Donald Because Of His Size

Oh, what could have been.

November 28, 2018 - 6:59 pm

When the Rams visit Detroit on Sunday, the Lions will get a firsthand look at a dynamic duo that could have been theirs: Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald. 

With Suh already on board in 2014, the team had a chance to add Donald in the draft. But the front office was apparently scared off by Donald's relatively small stature. 

Then-defensive line coach Jim Washburn told the Free Press this week that he made a passionate pitch for the Lions to draft Donald No. 10 overall, but was overruled by the decision makers above him, including then-GM Martin Mayhew and then-head coach Jim Caldwell. In particular, Washburn said one person in the war room said Donald was too "little." 

At the time, the Lions were searching for big, rangy defensive tackles to plug into Caldwell's new defense. Donald measured a tick above 6'0 at the combine. 

The pushback left Washburn in a state of exasperation. 

“They had one guy there that said, ‘What in the world are we going to do with a little guy like that? I thought we were trying to get away from little guys.’ I said, ‘Well you make the exception to the exception,’ and then I went off and stood up and (fellow defensive line coach) Kris Kocurek did, too. We went on and on about Aaron Donald," Washburn said. 

"The guy there...shot him down," he added. 

In an attempt to get his point across, Washburn said he compared Donald, who had 28.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks in his senior season at Pitt, to both a character from Star Wars and one of the best defensive tackles of all time. 

“I was starting to get cranked. I said this guy is a Jedi. Everybody looked puzzled and Mrs. Ford was sitting there and she couldn’t figure out what the heck a Jedi was. And I said a Jedi, he’s like Yoda. It’s like a Jedi, they see things before they happen, and I said Aaron Donald sees things before they happen. And he’s John Randle. Maybe when it’s all said and done, he’s better than John Randle," Washburn said. 

It wasn't enough. The Lions ended up drafting Eric Ebron instead, due in part to the urging of then-assistant head coach Ron Prince, according to Washburn. To this day, Washburn, who was fired by Detroit midway through the 2015 season, said the decision to pass on Donald haunts him. 

"The best defensive player (I’ve seen) in the 20 years I was in football," he said. 

Without Donald, the Lions' defense was still one of the best in the NFL in 2014. Who knows how good it could have been with him. As far as Washburn's concerned, it would have lifted the team to at least the NFC Championship game. 

Instead, the Lions lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Cowboys. 

Donald's been nothing but a wrecking ball since entering the NFL. He's headed for his fourth straight first-team All-Pro selection, leading the NFL in sacks this season with 14.5. Right next to him on the Rams defensive line is Suh, who left Detroit after the 2014 season for a massive payday with the Dolphins. 

Their appearance at Ford Field on Sunday will only rub salt in the wound.