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The Rams’ All-in Approach Has Complicated the Aaron Donald Contract Dispute

Why has Los Angeles been reluctant to give the reigning Defensive Player of the Year a massive payday?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Earlier this week, recently acquired Rams cornerback Marcus Peters was asked about the lingering contract dispute between his new team and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. Peters’s response had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer: “Pay the man,” Peters said. “I mean, shit. You win the MVP? Come on now.”

His comments echo the widespread sentiment surrounding the staredown between Donald and the organization that drafted him in 2014. Last season, Donald racked up 11 sacks and a league-leading 91 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, en route to being named the NFL’s top defender. Over the past two seasons, he’s set the standard for defensive linemen. Relative to peers at his position, he might be the most dominant player in the entire league. And yet Donald is set to make only $6.9 million in 2018. The Rams will pay linebacker Alec Ogletree, who now plays for another team, just $500,000 less than that in dead money. All of these factors seem to point toward one proper resolution to the ordeal that’s prompted Donald to skip this week’s OTAs: The Rams need to end this charade and give Donald a multiyear deal that makes him the league’s highest-paid defensive player.

My initial reaction to the Donald contract dilemma falls along those lines. Beyond the endless joy he brings fans each week during the fall, I think his impact transcends traditional positional value. Donald may be an interior defender, but he can ruin a game just as easily as Von Miller or Khalil Mack and deserves to be compensated as such. Still, before mindlessly joining the pay the man chorus, I want to take a step back and weigh the ramifications a Donald extension would have on the Rams given their hectic offseason, current roster construction, and outlook moving forward.

Those frustrated with the Rams’ hesitance to extend Donald often point to the huge reserves of cap space the franchise is set to have come 2019. Based on an estimated salary cap of $190 million (a reasonable jump from this year’s total of $177.2 million given the cap’s annual increases in recent years), the Rams are projected to hold more than $72 million in room, according to Over The Cap. But that number is somewhat deceiving. Ndamukong Suh, LaMarcus Joyner, and Brandin Cooks are all on expiring deals in 2018 and account for more than $34 million of the team’s current spending. It’s possible that Suh and Joyner will both leave in free agency next spring, but given that the Rams traded a first-round pick to secure Cooks, he’s likely to get an extension in the near future. And if Suh and Joyner walk, they’ll leave two glaring holes in the Rams’ defense that will also need to be addressed.

Aaron Donald
Aaron Donald
John Cordes/AP Photo

Even considering those contract decisions, though, general manager Les Snead has plenty of wiggle room to fit a Donald megadeal into the budget. The question isn’t whether the Rams can afford to give Donald the deal he wants. It’s whether giving him a deal that’d make up more than 10 percent of the projected 2019 cap would be more prudent than the alternatives.

If the Rams were to hand Donald a contract comparable to the one Denver gave Miller in July 2016, Donald would become the first defender in NFL history with an average annual value of more than $20 million. Miller’s AAV checks in at $19 million, and considering the rises in the cap over the past two years, Donald’s asking price could conceivably be in the range of $22 million per season with more than $75 million in guarantees. Under the current cap projections, that’d mean Donald would probably account for at least one-tenth of the salary cap even in the early, cheaper years of his deal. Since the league’s current CBA was signed in 2011, only four of the 28 teams that have reached the conference championship game have rostered a non-QB making at least 10 percent of the cap: the 2016 Falcons (Julio Jones, 10.3 percent); the 2015 Panthers (Charles Johnson, 13.8 percent); the 2015 Cardinals (Patrick Peterson, 10.2 percent); and the 2012 49ers (Patrick Willis, 12.9 percent). On average, teams that reached the final four over that stretch paid their most expensive non-QB only 8.2 percent of the cap. The extension Donald wants would force the Rams to blow past that number, leaving Snead to question whether Donald is worth leveraging other areas of his roster.

Of course, Snead’s options aren’t limited to giving Donald a record-setting deal or watching him walk in free agency. The GM hasn’t been shy about using the franchise tag in years past, and in Donald’s case, the tag would represent a better financial decision than it would with virtually any other player in football. Donald is listed as a defensive tackle on the Rams’ official roster, and that’s no accident. Although some outlets label him a defensive end in coordinator Wade Phillips’s system, Donald does nearly all of his work on the interior. That designation is particularly important when it comes to the value of the franchise tag. For the 2018 season, the tag for defensive tackles settled at $13.9 million; for defensive ends such as recent Lions tag Ziggy Ansah, that number jumped to $17.1 million. Using the year-by-year escalators currently in place, the Rams could tag Donald three times for a total of $58.7 million, which would likely be close to or less than the money he’d make over the first three seasons of the extension he covets.

If the Rams’ approach to this situation is motivated solely by squeezing every drop they can from Donald’s value, their reluctance to give him a long-term deal makes sense. But these decisions don’t take place in a vacuum. Take Peters’s reaction when asked about Donald’s predicament. In the corner’s mind, Donald has more than proved his worth, and the team’s unwillingness to admit that is telling. Like Donald, Peters is also a former first-round pick. He’ll be in a similar scenario a year from now, playing on a fifth-year option and ready to seek a new deal. There’s no doubt he’s paying close attention to how this standoff shakes out. And he’s not the only one.

How teams incentivize and ultimately reward their players doesn’t go unnoticed around the locker room. The Eagles’ decision to extend in-house talent such as Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz before the final year of their deals sent a message to everyone in the building. Over the past 18 months, the Rams have embraced a different philosophy. Of Los Angeles’s eight highest-paid players in 2018, five (Suh, Andrew Whitworth, Aqib Talib, Robert Woods, and Cooks) have been acquired since the start of March 2017. One of the remaining three (Joyner) is playing on the franchise tag, which players famously abhor.

In the past four months, the Rams have traded a team captain (Ogletree) who received a four-year extension the previous October and signed Suh to a one-year deal that will pay him more than twice what Donald is set to make in 2018. Those moves have been celebrated on a football level, and rightfully so. With Jared Goff set to count for about $16.5 million combined against the cap over the next two seasons, the Rams understand they have to maximize the championship window they have right now. But similar to playing chicken with the best defensive player in the league for another year, that approach could carry consequences.

It’s possible that Phillips and head coach Sean McVay can turn their stockpile of 2018 talent into a juggernaut, but there are risks to the Rams’ approach that go beyond sacrificing draft capital and stretching the cap for a single year. Their version of going all in has a different set of challenges. By anointing Donald as the highest-paid non-QB in the league, L.A. would alleviate some in-house concerns. The message that would send to the rest of the locker room, combined with Donald’s steady on-field dominance, make him the rare player who’s worth such a massive payday.