NFL Draft News & Analysis

2023 NFL Draft: Is Calijah Kancey the next Aaron Donald?

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Calijah Kancey (8) reacts after recording a sack against the Tennessee Volunteers during the second quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Tennessee won 34-27 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

  • A lot of similarities: From where they played college football to their play style, size and athleticism, there are many reasons why so many are comparing the 2023 NFL Draft‘s Calijah Kancey to the best interior defender of all time in Aaron Donald.
  • How Donald sets himself apart: Hand use and the ability to consistently shed blocks separate The current Los Angeles Rams DT from Kancey despite their similarities at first glance.
  • More reasonable comparison: While many compare Kancey to Donald, the Buffalo BillsEd Oliver may be a more appropriate comparison.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

This year’s draft features an undersized interior pass-rusher from the University of Pittsburgh. He was a dominant player in college and blew up the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Stop me if you’ve heard this before because we heard the exact same story back in 2014 when Aaron Donald entered the league.

Calijah Kancey’s comparisons to Donald are inevitable — there are too many parallels between the two — but comparing anybody to arguably the greatest defender the game has ever seen is an unfair endeavor. 

At 6-foot-1 and 281 pounds, Kancey ran a 4.67-second 40-yard dash at the combine, just one-hundredth of a second faster than Donald for the fastest time by a defensive tackle since 2003. His 10-yard split was almost identical to Donald, and their size is very comparable.

He was already drawing the Donald comparisons due to his size, playing style and the college they both attended, but their athletic profile at the combine was so close it makes the comparisons even more inescapable. 

Donald came out the same year that PFF started grading college football, so there is no data on exactly how dominant he was in college, but we can see how well Kancey compares to other elite prospects.

He posted a 91.8 overall grade this past season with a 92.4 pass-rushing grade and a 22% pass-rush win rate — all elite marks. His grade improved each year of his career, and he recorded 47 total pressures on just 275 pass-rushing snaps in 2022.

By any measure, he has been an elite disruptive force in college, just like Donald was.

His quickness and explosiveness are obvious on tape. You can certainly construct a highlight tape that is virtually indistinguishable from Donald’s college dominance. He wins similarly to Donald and is one of the few players capable of replicating some of Donald's signature plays we have grown accustomed to seeing in the NFL.

Kancey’s burst off the line and initial move can be so quick and decisive that linemen just can’t match it. Interior linemen don’t have that kind of quickness, and tackles are often making up too much ground to execute their assignment to have any hope of really stopping him.

Where he isn’t as good as Donald — and what makes any comparisons to Donald simply unfair for any player — is hand use and shedding blocks.

Donald's dominance is derived from his combination of speed, explosion and quickness with maybe the best hands in the game from a defensive line perspective. Donald always had that ability, and he separated himself from a lot of undersized, athletic interior linemen due to those skills. He is virtually impossible to block one-on-one because he will defeat the block on contact or shed it if given enough time.

It’s difficult to overstate just how good he is at that skill in the NFL, or how effective he was at it coming out of college, but it’s certainly helped separate him from the pack. Kancey isn’t by any means bad at that aspect of play — he’s just not Donald.

Donald is so good at getting away from blockers on contact that his pressure rate against double teams is better than almost every other player in the league when left one-on-one. Often, when Kancey’s rush is slowed or countered, it’s due to a lineman being able to get their hands on him in an effort to nullify his quickness and burst. When that happens to Donald, he almost immediately redresses the balance by freeing himself from the restraint that is neutralizing his athletic advantages.

Kancey has plays on his tape where he shows that ability, but his success rate is far lower than Donald, even when he was in college, and that’s where the comparisons fall down.

Donald also has freakish strength for a guy his size, which plays into his ability to defeat blocks once contact has been established. He’s a 285-pound man with a six-pack. He posted 35 reps of 225 pounds at the combine bench press, and he did that with arms that are two inches longer than Kancey’s. These are things that separate Donald despite similar athleticism. 

So, is Kancey the next Donald? No. Nobody is. Donald is a singular player in the history of the league, and we may never see somebody like that again. But we can aim our sights a lot lower and still end up with a dominant player at the next level.

Can Kancey end up as a more consistent and effective player than Ed Oliver — a similarly undersized interior lineman with freakish movement skills? That’s a far more reasonable target to aim for. Oliver was selected ninth overall in 2019. He weighed in under 290 pounds and ran a 4.73-second 40 time, ranking in the 90th percentile or better in seven different athletic tests. He has been a solid player for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL, but has never cleared 50 pressures over a season (including the playoffs) and never posted a PFF pass-rushing grade higher than 75.0. Oliver can go toe to toe with Donald in most athletic feats, but never had the same hands and ability to shed blocks.

The Donald comparisons are unavoidable for Kancey, but Oliver may represent a much more reasonable target. Kancey may prove to be a plus version of Oliver, which would make him an excellent NFL player — just not the next Donald.

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