Nick Gates hasn’t been around a long time. He’s started just six games in his NFL career and is now playing a new position at center. In many ways he is still learning . . . about the league, about himself and about the opponents he faces each week.
But there is one thing he seems fairly certain about.
"Aaron Donald," he said, "is the best player I have ever gone up against."
He’ll face that challenge on Sunday when the Giants play the Rams in Los Angeles when he – and the rest of the offensive line, really – will try to mitigate the damage that Donald can inflict. It will not be easy.
Donald so far this season has 3.0 sacks, eight quarterback hits, 12 hurries and 20 pressures. Pro Football Focus, which grades players on a scale of 0-100, has given Donald an 89.6 overall rating and a 90.3 in pass rushing.
"The effort he plays with is just truly relentless," Joe Judge said of Donald. "This guy does things you watch and think ‘Wow.’ He really will show up and ruin your day. You watch the Buffalo game [last week], the fourth quarter especially as they are climbing back in the game, this guy almost single-handedly ended the game for Buffalo the way he got after the quarterback and the way he played."
Offensive line coach Marc Colombo went one step further than calling Donald the best player Gates has ever faced.
"Probably one of the best to ever play the game," he said. "He’s got a tremendous get-off. This guy gets up the field really quick. He’s excellent with the snap count. He’s explosive. He’s extremely smart. He’s a great leverage player. If you lean and make a mistake and beat yourself, he’s going to win every time, and he’s a guy who can win when you take a perfect set."
Playing perfectly is not something that has been a forte of the Giants’ offensive line so far this season.
They already have faced some of the better edge rushers in the league through the first three games, going against T.J. Watt and Khalil Mack. But those were players who can influence a game from the outside. Donald attacks from a very different place. Right up the middle.
"A lot of times, you see those guys that are game-wreckers on the edge, and they have their share of them out there as well," Judge said of the Rams. "But with Aaron in the middle, it makes you be a little more creative in terms of how you protect and how you use some different tools in your toolbox to make sure your guys don’t always get isolated up on him. He’s definitely a guy that lives for that one-on-one matchup."
And it could be one-on-one against Gates.
The third-year pro may not be complete roadkill. He does have some things going for him. He is a natural tackle, which is something that can sometimes be a hinderance to his playing center but in this case might help because of his pass-blocking skills.
Gates also has some size to him that many centers in the NFL lack. He is listed at 6-6 and 318 pounds compared to Donald’s 6-1 and 280.
"Nick being a tackle with his footwork and his length, that’s something he can use to an advantage," Colombo said.
Gates won’t be the only player who will be called upon to handle Donald.
"The thing they’re doing different with him this year is they are really moving him around and using him on all three downs," Judge said of Donald. "They’re going to find matchups so there is no one player on the offensive line who you say ‘He’s got a tough day ahead of him.’ Everyone has to be alert and we have to make sure we know where 99 is on every snap."
Over Gates is a good starting point for that search, though.
Judge insisted that having Gates at center is "absolutely not an experiment."
"I think he’s making improvements game by game. This guy has made a lot of progress for us on a daily basis in his communication and his understanding of the position. It was a different move at first for Nick going from the outside to the inside so he’s had to learn not only from a technique standpoint but from a different way you look at [a defense] . . . He’s handled that very well for us."
So Gates will be tested like never before on Sunday. A team that has struggled to run the ball, to put it mildly, will be counting on him to stop the most disruptive player in the league. A quarterback who has been under siege for most of the season has to hope Gates never turns around to him and yells: "Donald! Duck!"
It’s a daunting task, and the realistic part of Gates was able to acknowledge. But it is not one he is shying away from.
"I’m excited," he said. "I like going up against good players. It makes you better. It teaches you what you need to work on and what you’re good at, things like that . . . I’ll just try to take it snap by snap, get a good game plan for him, and see how it goes."