Rams bet big on Aaron Donald’s unique contract, Super Bowl window

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – There’s a “spring workout jog-through” speed, and there’s a “Aaron Donald” jog-through ”speed.

Donald, the Rams’ star defensive tackle, was at the first day of minicamp on Tuesday morning – less than 24 hours after finalizing his $ 95 million contract restructuring with the team. The deal, a source said Monday, essentially completely re-worked the remaining three years on the contract extension Donald signed in 2018, and then added two non-functional years on the end (so, a five-year deal with three functional years) . Donald is now the highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL at 31, and the framework of the deal (and Donald’s communication of his future plans with the Rams) indicates that he’ll be a Ram for the rest of his football life.

“Feels good to be back with the guys on the field,” said Donald, grinning after Tuesday’s practice. With quarterback Matthew Stafford not throwing this spring and the Rams on a short turnaround since they won the Super Bowl in February, the team is mostly working through installations and drills. Still, Donald – as he always has – just moves different; he’s quicker, more technically gifted even in working on his hand techniques without real contact against offensive linemen. As contract negotiations continued through the spring, Donald (as he usually does) worked out in Pittsburgh and clearly has not been the worse for it.

“I’m always going to keep myself in shape, keep myself looking good,” he joked, “I like to take my shirt off, so I gotta make sure I’m in great shape… I’m always gonna keep myself in shape and be prepared for whatever, if I was playing or not. ”

This spring, and especially after finally winning his first championship, Donald publicly mulled the possibility of retirement as the Rams publicly expressed optimism that they’d get a deal worked out with him without the need for a holdout.

Donald also purchased a $ 17 million home in the Los Angeles area earlier in the spring, he was a major piece in the recruitment of inside linebacker Bobby Wagner as a free agency began and he RSVP’d “attending” to head coach Sean McVay’s wedding. Still, the Rams knew that his retirement consideration was real (and, both sides insist, not actually a leveraging ploy as many on the outside believed it to be).

“But we ain’t gotta worry about that now, because I’m here,” added Donald, chuckling, “I’m just happy to be here, I’m ready to go to work.”

McVay and Donald had several in-depth conversations over the past few months about Donald’s future prior to completing the deal, and McVay repeatedly (and publicly) expressed confidence that Donald would be back in the fold well before training camp in late July. He said Tuesday that while he wanted to give Donald the time he needed to reflect, he never personally felt like Donald was tilting toward official retirement.

“The communication between Aaron and us, and me and him personally, I felt really good about it,” McVay said. “He’s been very clear all along… He’s very clear, open and honest about the things that he was feeling.”

The last time Donald was in contract negotiations, they lasted for 18 months and included a holdout. From the jump, it was apparent nobody wanted that this time. Aside from the structure of the deal itself, the openness between parties was the most striking element of the process.

“It was great – being a lot more mature this time, understanding the business side of things,” he said. “I talked to Sean a whole lot, was on the phone going back and forth. We understood where I was at, and it’s more than just the business side that needed to get handled. There was a lot of things in my life, personally, that I had to handle. He understood that, and that’s why I love him – because it was so much deeper than football for me and for my decision to be made. ”

Donald’s deal, like Stafford’s before him (and likely receiver Cooper Kupp’s restructure after him) and even cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s before all of the others, saves the Rams cap space in the short-term. However, while both Donald and Stafford’s 2022 cap numbers do not reflect their full average per year, both players, in the latter context, do average $ 40 million per year – and the Rams are unique in this financial structure. Whether or not that proves successful in the longer term remains to be seen. Donald’s contract was also really rare in that the functional money was completely restructured over an existing timeframe on a previous deal.

Methodically over the past four months (and into the summer, when McVay and general manager Les Snead’s extensions are expected to be finalized), it’s clear that the Rams have gone about locking their “elite core” players into place while they feel they can remain in Super Bowl contention. There’s a big difference, as they now know from experience, in living in that place versus living in postseason contention. That specific discrepancy – at least for now – justifies the cost of these moves in their minds.

“If you look at Aaron Donald and what he’s done over (his) career, it’s really unprecedented,” Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff told The Athletic at Tuesday’s practice. “Cooper Kupp, obviously, had an amazing season that makes you want to make sure that you’re trying to make sure you’re seeing what’s happening in the receiver market, and act accordingly. Matthew is the one that probably had to get done (given the time left on his deal), but the rest is trying to make sure that you continue to be a team that rewards the players who do amazing things, rewards the coaches who do amazing things. Your goal as an organization is trying to make sure that your foundation is always taken care of. ”

Donald’s professional and personal context to the Rams is unique, and that is mirrored in the structure of the deal itself. But the magnitude of that deal, plus their moves before it and those still to come, indicate that the Rams are still committed to existing on the same high-wire they have since 2019, when they shifted their team-build model in the wake of their trade for Ramsey. Locking in a specific group of high-dollar players (Donald and Stafford, then Ramsey and Kupp in the financial hierarchy) will mean a continued dependency on younger players (often scheme and trait-identified middle-round picks) playing early snaps while on rookie deals, a coaching staff that can develop these players despite majorly overturning each offseason and – maybe above all else – the health of their core contributing players.

“That harmony is what allows all of this to go,” Demoff said. “Without that harmony, you’re just guessing each year.”

Regardless, if the Rams are going to keep betting that this particular core group can sustain their team-build model and help keep them in Super Bowl contention, there are far worse players to bet on than Donald.

04.30 Aaron Donald: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images

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