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Aaron Donald Can’t Be Paid Enough

And his next deal will set the market for all defensive linemen

(AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In April, the Rams went through the formality of picking up the fifth-year option on Aaron Donald’s rookie deal. Considering the 26-year-old defensive tackle has emerged as one of the best players in all of football, snagging him for another season at $6.9 million was never in question. Los Angeles now has its best player under contract through the 2018 season and can focus its front-office energies elsewhere. At least it would seem that way, but all spring long, general manager Les Snead talked about how a long-term deal for Donald is a near-term priority.

Looking that far into the future may seem misguided, but there’s a reason that conversations about possible extensions for superstars from the 2014 draft such as Donald, Odell Beckham Jr., and Khalil Mack are happening now. This fall, Donald will take home a base salary of $1.8 million and carry a cap hit of $3.2 million. In cash earnings, that puts him 43rd among defensive tackles and 618th in the entire NFL. There may not be 617 players in league history better than Aaron Donald.

The rookie salary scale has ensured that guys in the Donald-Beckham-Mack class are among the best bargains in the entire league, so it’s understandable that Donald would look at someone like Carolina’s Kawann Short — who, after a recent extension, will make $26 million in cash this year alone — and call bullshit.

Young stars drastically outperforming their rookie deals wasn’t a hot topic last year for a simple reason: There just weren’t many of them. Last summer, we would have been talking about players from the 2013 rookie class, but that was a historically putrid crop that’s already been sent on reclamation tours all over the league. The players from that group who did sign extensions after Year 3 were almost all linemen (Kyle Long, Travis Frederick, and Lane Johnson). All are elite talents, but there wasn’t nearly the star power that’s in play this year.

Still, since the 2011 CBA put the rookie salary scale in place, plenty of home run picks have signed long-term extensions after only three years of their five-year deals. Luke Kuechly signed his $62 million extension in September 2015, and Donald’s teammate Robert Quinn inked a six-year, $66 million deal following a 19-sack season in 2013.

So, there is plenty of recent precedent for players of Donald’s caliber signing monster deals with a couple of seasons left of team control. What those deals present, though, are myriad factors absent from negotiations for free agents or players nearing the end of their first contracts. Extensions handed out this early into a rookie deal come with their own complications that Donald and the handful of other stars from the 2014 draft will face over the next few months.

The first item to iron out with Donald’s deal is just how much he’s worth — and the answer is knottier than it initially appears. Defensive tackles have been paid in recent years, as both Ndamukong Suh and Fletcher Cox have fetched deals north of $100 million with around $60 million in guarantees. In terms of market value, Donald’s deal would reset the bar in both those areas. For the 2015 season, Football Outsiders Almanac credited Donald with 39 quarterback knockdowns, which combines hits and sacks. The next defensive tackles on the list were Fletcher Cox and Geno Atkins, who tied with 21. Donald is unquestionably the most dominant interior player in football, and pointing to Cox’s $63.3 million guaranteed would be an easy place for his agent to start.

His pitch wouldn’t end there, though. Extensions are typically formatted off comparable deals at a player’s position, but in Donald’s case, the money paid to Cox and Suh may not be indicative of what he deserves. Though he’s technically an inside pass rusher, Donald often impacts the game at a level reserved for the league’s dominant edge guys. Pro Football Focus credited Donald with 82 pressures last season, a mark that tied him for third-most in the entire league. In no universe should a player that spends every snap between the tackles have a pass-rushing impact that compares to Von Miller’s and Khalil Mack’s, but such is the majesty of Aaron Donald. His imprint on the game isn’t that of an interior player, so it would follow that his contract shouldn’t be either.

When Mack eventually gets his deal, it will almost certainly surpass Miller’s contract total and make him the highest paid nonquarterback in the league (which, after Derek Carr’s payday, will give the Raiders two very expensive, but absolutely vital franchise cornerstones). Considering the market at his position, anyone who has seen Mack play — and use the bones of opposing offensive tackles as toothpicks — would find that reasonable.

When it’s time for Donald’s offer, it would be more appropriate to throw around names like Miller and Mack than Cox and Suh. In recent years, contracts for interior and edge players have crept closer together than ever before. Among defenders, three of the five highest guaranteed-money figures belong to defensive tackles. But what Miller’s recent extension shows is that among the game’s best, a gap still exists between traditional pass rushers and those who wreak their havoc on the inside. If any player deserves to take the trajectories of superstar interior and edge salaries from converging to overlapping, it would be Donald.

Donald’s on-field value makes him worthy of a deal that at least scratches the ceiling of the marketplace, but both sides have legitimate reasons to not make a deal right now.

There are plenty of reasons for Donald to want a deal. Not only would an extension bring a hefty raise, but it would grant him some much-needed security. Injury concerns are constant in the NFL, especially for a player who spends all his time in the muck like Donald does. Getting a deal done now would allow Donald to at least approach his true value while also setting himself up for the long term.

Prioritizing a payday comes with its own drawbacks, though. J.J. Watt became one of the first players drafted under the new CBA to sign an extension when he inked a six-year, $100 million deal on the eve of the 2014 season. The deal gave Watt about $52 million in practical guarantees, with an average annual salary of $16.7 million. Three years ago, both those figures set a new bar for defensive players leaguewide. Today, both seem like a bargain for Watt — as long as he can stay healthy. His average salary puts him just ahead of guys like Melvin Ingram, Chandler Jones, and Short — undeniably excellent players but nowhere close to the rare air where Watt resides. With the cap expanding at such a rapid rate ($12 million this past year and likely a similar increase next season), extensions built around fixed salaries can quickly fall behind the market.

The other downside to reupping early is that negotiating with a single team inherently depresses a player’s bargaining power. With superstar-caliber players, the franchise tag becomes a weapon that teams are more than willing to wield. Under his current deal, the Rams would have Donald under team control for two more seasons at an average cap hit of about $5 million. Bring the franchise tag into play, though, and that quickly becomes three years. With the rising cap, the franchise number for defensive tackles will likely be around $16 million in 2019. That would mean three years of Donald for about $26 million. That’s a huge bargain when the starting point for Donald’s extension on the open market would be more than $17 million annually. In terms of value, the Rams should have no problem slapping Donald with the tag for at least one season, if not two.

Now, that’s a particularly sinister way of looking at the Rams’ intentions. In previous cases like those of Robert Quinn and Tavon Austin — both of whom signed extensions following their third seasons — the franchise has been willing to extend players long before they’d hit the open market. There’s no indication that the organization would look to squeeze every drop of Donald’s value without rewarding him with a long-term deal. But the franchise tag gives the Rams a ton of leverage at this stage of the negotiation.

On the open market, Donald would easily warrant a deal that rivals the best players at his position and some of the most impactful defenders in football. The problem is that for a host of reasons, he’ll probably never come close to a bidding war for his services. At this point, there’s not much more Donald can do to prove his worth to the Rams and their defense. Even if stepping into Wade Phillips’s attacking scheme turns Donald into an actual horror movie villain for opposing quarterbacks, any uptick in his market value would only be incremental. He’s already among the most valuable nonquarterbacks in the entire league, but based on the system in place, it’s likely that no matter how or when the two sides reach a deal, Donald may not get the deal he deserves.