I don’t think that Aaron Donald is the most important player in the NFC West — but outside of the quarterbacks, he has a pretty strong case. If the LA Rams don’t show him the same kind of financial love that they’ve shown to much lesser players in the last few years, he may officially write them off as a long-term partner.
That’d be stellar news for the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, and Arizona Cardinals, even if the Rams do look like the best team in the division regardless of Donald’s presence. It would still be a little crazy if LA had done so much to perch themselves atop the division for 2018 only to overlook the best player on the team.
Donald, the 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year and 2017 Defensive Player of the Year, is not in attendance during the Rams OTAs that started on Monday. He is entering the final year of his rookie contract — a fifth-year option that pays him $6.9 million if he plays — and would like a deal that pays him like what he has been for the last few years: widely regarded as the best defensive player in football.
Von Miller currently makes $19 million per season as the highest-paid defensive player in football. The Miami Dolphins signed Ndamukong Suh to a six-year, $114 million deal ($19 million annual value) and it proved to be a disappointing partnership, even if Suh was still a dominant player most of the time.
He was released halfway into the pact — and signed a one year, $14 million with LA, guaranteeing him twice as much next season as Donald.
I’ve personally always bet against paying any non-quarterbacks $15 million or more per season (this figure obviously goes up over time) but the Rams would also be in a difficult position to let Donald go over money. Especially given how overly-spendy they were in the past with lesser players like Tavon Austin, Alec Ogletree, Mark Barron, and Robert Quinn. Donald is set to be the 11th-highest paid player on the roster, behind such “newbies” (added 2017-present) as Suh, Andrew Whitworth, Aqib Talib, Robert Woods, and Brandin Cooks.
Donald is still only going to turn 27 on Wednesday, but in the NFL careers can end at any moment.
As of the start of free agency in March, general manager Les Snead said that the two sides had at least come to an agreement on a “timeline” of how to proceed during the offseason as far as a new contract goes. That assumes there is a deadline to meet, and if they go past the deadline without a new contract, then — well, we don’t know what “then.” Does Donald hold out, as he did for much of the 2017 offseason?
Does Donald agree to come back at a certain point, as he did last season?
Our friend Joe McAtee at Turf Show Times notes that it is unlikely that Donald won’t show up by August 7; if he doesn’t, Donald may not hit free agency in 2019 like he wants to: “Because he held out through training camp last season, he didn’t get it as an accrued season toward free agency. That means he HAS to get this season as an accrued season and in order to do so, he has to report to camp on or before August 7. Same goes for missing games. The likelihood is just too low.”
Donald’s 2017 holdout means that a 2018 holdout into the season would be both bold and potentially a very bad idea. He needs to at least make himself a pending unrestricted free agent in 2019 so that he can do no worse than the franchise tag, which is what Los Angeles may be hoping to do anyway.
“The bigger issue is, well, that we’re at this point. Simply due to a passage of time and the milestones as we get to them, it becomes more and more concerning that the Rams haven’t locked him up. Obviously, a deal could still get done, but the Rams have gotten lesser talents inked earlier than this point in Donald’s career. It’s hard not to think there’s an impasse that’s not being brought up and one the Rams don’t really have to pay into thanks to the fifth-year option and a franchise tag or two. The Rams could carry Donald into new CBA discussions and reevaluate the market then. As for the $60m or so Donald would lose out on over the next three years? That’s the cost of labor negotiations.
It’s a cold world.”
The biggest takeaway from all of this is, why wouldn’t the Rams take care of the best player they’ve had since the early 2000s? It may be as simple as the fact that because of the size of some player contracts and the salary cap, it be difficult to wager $20 million+ on anyone who isn’t a quarterback. Quarterbacks control almost everything on offense — which means that defenses mostly only care about stopping quarterbacks, so basically both sides are solely focused on the quarterback position — but Donald’s value remains limited compared to a high-end QB.
That’s no fault of his own, it’s just the nature of football. Donald has been the most dominant defensive player in football for the last three years but the Rams have not been dominant as a team, including on defense, until 2017. Donald was unstoppable from 2015-2016 too, but the defense was mediocre and they were below average against the pass.
Imagine the NFL’s most dominant quarterback being on an offense that was mediocre in passing the football. Imagine the NFL’s most dominant quarterback missing the playoffs most seasons. Even a top-8 quarterback has a very high percentage shot of leading his team to the playoffs. The best defensive players in football are often left out of the postseason, and that’s why paying $20 million to one could prove to be a bad idea if it limits you in how you can manage the rest of your roster. If you’re paying your quarterback on a rookie contract, it becomes doable, but LA has used up all of those extra resources saved because of Jared Goff on player who aren’t Donald; the Rams are basically at the cap limit for next season per OverTheCap.com but $72 million in resources (and an incredibly-talented list of unrestricted free agents) by the following year.
That may make them a more complete and talented team in 2018, but if they don’t make the Super Bowl and the decision costs them Donald long-term, their ineffectiveness in getting a deal done be even further proof that this team is still the Rams.