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With Aaron Donald’s Megadeal, the Rams Have a Two-Year Super Bowl Window

Los Angeles has finally locked down the best defensive player in the NFL, but will the franchise be able to capitalize before the rest of its roster becomes too expensive?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Rams have finally paid the man. With less than a week before the NFL season kicks off, Los Angeles has re-signed all-everything defensive tackle Aaron Donald to a six-year extension with $87 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Including incentives, the deal could be worth as much as $135 million.

The contract will make Donald the highest-paid defender in the history of football, and will keep the 27-year-old Defensive Player of the Year in Los Angeles for the next seven seasons. It also reinforces the Rams for a two-year (at least) window in which the team will have its eyes set on the Super Bowl.

L.A. spent its entire offseason seemingly determined to pay everyone but Donald. Since the season ended, the Rams extended Todd Gurley, traded for and signed Brandin Cooks, extended Rob Havenstein, re-signed John Sullivan, and signed Ndamukong Suh. The team also traded for Marcus Peters, traded for Aqib Talib, and traded away Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree. The Rams are going all in while they still have Jared Goff on a rookie deal that will be incredibly cheap for the next two seasons.

The team now has its stars under contract through the 2019 season with a few exceptions: free safety LaMarcus Joyner, guard Rodger Saffold, and Suh. Suh, who signed a one-year, $14 million deal in March, is the important one, because he and Donald could potentially be the best pairing of interior linemen the league has ever seen. As this year’s Football Outsiders Almanac notes:

In FOA 2017, we mentioned that Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh tied for the most defeats among interior linemen. They nearly pulled off the feat again in 2017—Suh was one defeat short. It remains to be seen how opposing guards and centers handle these two together; our best guess is “not well.” They won’t even get a break with the two rotating out; they were first and second in percentage of team snaps among defensive tackles last season.

Donald’s contract—as well as the deals awarded to Gurley and Cooks—will make it tough to keep those players beyond 2018. Before accounting for the Donald deal, the Rams had about $58 million in cap room next offseason, per Over the Cap. While that number will decrease considerably depending on the structure of Donald’s contract, L.A. will have some flexibility. Joyner is playing under the franchise tag in 2018, and while the 27-year-old is an integral cog in L.A.’s defense (he gave up a passer rating of 27.4 when targeted, fifth-best among defenders with at least 100 coverage snaps, per Pro Football Focus), the safety market turned upside down this offseason, so it’s difficult to say what type of contract he could demand going forward. Saffold ranked fifth among guards in Pro Football Focus’s grades, but has endured a number of injuries during his career and will be 31 next offseason. L.A. will also need to reserve some money to re-sign depth players—it’s highly unlikely the Rams can keep Suh, Joyner, and Saffold. If the team is truly feeling squeezed, it could cut linebacker Mark Barron to save $7 million or defensive lineman Michael Brockers to save $10 million—though doing so would exacerbate the Rams’ depth issues.

In 2020, though, the Rams will really be in a bind. Gurley’s cap hit jumps from $9.2 million to $17.3 million during that offseason, and Goff will be on a fifth-year option which should carry a cap hit of more than $21 million. Goff could look to renegotiate his deal as early as next season. At the moment, the team has plenty of cap room to absorb those hits (every team has plenty of cap room two years out), but it’ll need to make tough decisions all over the roster in the coming years. Peters and Talib are both currently set to become unrestricted free agents that season. Talib will be 34, but Peters will be just 27, and if he keeps up his All-Pro-level play, will be in line for a massive deal. Brockers will also be up that year, and while he won’t command the salary of a star defender, he’s a quality player the Rams will need to consider.

Every current contributor along the offensive line other than Havenstein will become a free agent by 2020. That includes both Andrew Whitworth and Sullivan, who anchored the line last year and gave Goff the time in the pocket he needed to develop. Whitworth will be 38, so it’s likely the Rams will be in the market for a new left tackle. Sullivan will be 35 at that time, so there’s no guarantee he returns, either.

In other words, in two years, L.A. will have to almost completely rebuild its offensive line, which is currently one of the best units in football, and re-tool nearly its entire defense outside of Donald. They’ll have to do all this under the spectre of Goff, who—if he continues to play the way he did in 2017—will command a considerable pay raise, to potentially more than $30 million per year. The team went all in this offseason because it had a cheap quarterback under center, but by 2020, that luxury will be gone.

The Rams are betting long term on their skill positions. The team will have Gurley (through 2023), Cooks (through 2023), Robert Woods (through 2021), Cooper Kupp (through 2020), and Gerald Everett (through 2020), but that’s about it. The only defenders of note through that year are Barron (2020), Nickell Robey-Coleman (2020), John Johnson (2020), and Donald. They’ve assembled a superteam at tremendous cost to the depth of the roster. Gurley’s backup, Malcolm Brown, has just 85 carries in three seasons. Goff’s backup, Sean Mannion, has averaged 4.7 yards per attempt on 50 career throws. Behind Cooks, Kupp, and Woods is Pharoh Cooper, who has just 25 receptions in two seasons. Outside of Donald, Suh, and Brockers, only one defensive lineman on the roster (Ethan Westbrooks) has started at least 10 career games. The Rams’ linebacking corps was already one of the thinnest in football, though the secondary has an adequate number of contributors in Talib, Peters, Joyner, Robey-Coleman, Johnson, and Sam Shields.

The Rams have had the lowest adjusted games lost in back-to-back seasons, indicating they’ve had an incredible run of health. Any major injury could throw the team’s all in strategy off course, and the team’s depth issues won’t be a short-term problem—these contracts ensure that the problem will exist well into the 2020s, right when the team will need to reorganize the roster.

There’s no cap disaster looming for the Rams, but the margins they’re playing with are incredibly thin, especially since L.A. couldn’t afford to load much of Donald’s cap hit on the 2018 season. At $22.5 million in average value, Donald’s deal will account for more than 10 percent of the cap. As my Ringer colleague Robert Mays pointed out in May, only four of the 28 teams to make a conference championship game since the current CBA was signed in 2011 have rostered a non-QB making that much. The salary cap has exploded by more than $10 million per year in each of the past five years, but even with that rate of growth, Donald’s cap hit will likely exceed that magic 10 percent mark through the 2020 season.

But for the next two years, most of the Rams’ roster is in place. This team clearly has its eyes set on the Lombardi Trophy, and if that goal is accomplished, all the fallout from these megadeals will be little more than a footnote in one of the most aggressive team-building strategies in the league.