Rams players were due to report to training camp on Friday, and criminally underpaid all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald was a no-show.
As Robert Mays detailed last month, Donald can’t be paid enough. He was just named the no. 15 player on the NFL’s top-100 list after logging another dominant season in what has been a dominant career. His release off the ball is mythic, his ability to disrupt plays approaches the platonic ideal, and he’s a 99 in Madden this year. Those words don’t match the paltry $1.8 million in base earnings Donald is due to make this season, which slots him outside the top-600 highest-paid players in 2017 by total cash earnings. Donald will be looking to swing that pendulum the other way with a market-altering deal that will easily clear nine figures. If Donald can handle the back-and-forth negotiations the same way he handles back-and-forth ping-pong, the Rams are in trouble.
The Rams have been preparing for this. Last offseason, with Donald’s megadeal looming, they let homegrown cornerback Janoris Jenkins walk to the Giants. This offseason, the franchise slapped the franchise tag on Trumaine Johnson, rather than sign him to a long-term deal, making him the highest-paid corner in the league this year. The team wants to see how Johnson will play in new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’s 3–4 system after excelling, but the Rams are also wary of burdening themselves with too much salary as Donald’s deal looms. Now Donald, arguably the most valuable non-quarterback in football, has accelerated the process. The pitiful Rams will be worse if Donald’s holdout extends into the season, but they won’t be competing for anything this year anyway. What might be more important than Donald’s immediate return is the way the franchise treats its star during what may be tense negotiations. Los Angeles, which has had the youngest team in football every season since 2012, can’t afford to lose its star DT’s exemplary play. Rams general manager Les Snead has said that signing Donald is a priority, but talk is cheap, and Donald won’t be.
Donald is just one of the outstanding members of the 2014 draft class in line for a new deal, along with players like Odell Beckham Jr. and Khalil Mack. But Donald is the only one still conspicuously absent from camp. Beckham, who was drafted one spot ahead of Donald, showed up to Giants camp Thursday after skipping voluntary workouts in June. His teammates were unconcerned by Beckham’s previous absence — defensive tackle Damon "Snacks" Harrison didn’t want to be there, either. Beckham showed up to OTAs and said he wants to be a Giant for life, echoing Giants co-owner John Mara. (This may conflict with his desire to be the NFL’s highest-paid player.)
Mack, another star from the class due for a massive payday, showed up to Raiders camp, but the Raiders have their own holdout drama.
Starting left tackle Donald Penn was an integral piece to a rejuvenated Raiders offensive line becoming one of the league’s best, and without him the Raiders’ Super Bowl hopes will take a serious dent. Penn reportedly wants to be paid like a top-10 left tackle, which would put him in line for around a 50 percent raise. Penn’s stance is understandable. At 34 years old, his next contract will likely be his last big payday. He is due to make $7.15 million this season, making him the 16th-highest-paid left tackle in football this year.
While it is a headache for teams to address these holdout situations, as Marlo from The Wire once said, these are good problems. Many teams would love the burden of making Aaron Donald the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, or having a left tackle as talented as Donald Penn. More likely than not, we’ll see a resolution for both Donalds before September, and then we can get back to complaining about why Aaron Donald is stuck on a team that won’t make it to January and February.