Los Angeles Rams Can't Afford to Not Extend Aaron Donald

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 24, 2022

Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) in action against the Cincinnati Bengals during the NFL Super Bowl 56 football game Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Steve Luciano)
Steve Luciano/Associated Press

Aaron Donald is the best defensive player of his generation and should be paid as such. The Los Angeles Rams surely know this. If they don't, they run the risk of losing the greatest player in franchise history.

Some may scoff at the final statement, yet Donald has more Defensive Player of the Year trophies than Deacon Jones, more first-team All-Pro nods than Merlin Olsen and made arguably the biggest play in the biggest moment to capture the organization's second title of the Super Bowl era. 

Donald is an all-time great. Because of his standing and the possibility of retirement, the defensive lineman holds significant leverage in negotiating a new deal despite three years remaining on his contract. 

The market has significantly changed over the last year. The Rams can't hold strong on their current agreement, or they run the risk of losing Donald altogether. 

"Keep in mind that the retirement buzz around Donald ... was always real," ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported. "And it's my understanding that Donald has a number he will play for. If it's not met, retirement can still go down. Adding years to an already existing three-year pact takes Donald well into his mid-30s, and who knows whether he wants to play that long? But that's the best way for Los Angeles to stretch out the money for cap purposes." 

The eight-time Pro Bowl selection turned 31 this week. Donald likely understands the next deal he signs will almost certainly be his last.

And he should be looking to become the game's highest-paid defender, like he was when he initially signed his six-year, $135 million deal in 2018. He held the designation for exactly one day because the then-Oakland Raiders traded Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears and signed him to a contract that included a higher total value, a greater average annual salary and more guaranteed money. 

Since that point, the Cleveland Browns' Myles Garrett, Los Angeles Chargers' Joey Bosa and Pittsburgh Steelers' T.J. Watt have surpassed both, with average annual salaries ranging from $25-28 million. Both Garrett and Bosa met or exceeded $100 million in guarantees.

Those numbers should continue to grow even without Donald reentering the market. The San Francisco 49ers' Nick Bosa and Tennessee Titans' Jeffery Simmons both entered the window to negotiate their first contract extensions this offseason. 

INGLEWOOD, CA - JANUARY 30: Nick Bosa #97 of the San Francisco 49ers rushes the quarterback  the game against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on January 30, 2022 in Inglewood, California. The Rams defeated the 49ers 20-17. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/S
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

It's not just edge-rushers getting paid at the same level or above Donald's pay scale. Defensive tackles and corners have entered the same stratosphere, too.

Like Donald, Simmons is another interior defender. DeForest Buckner recently signed an extension with the Indianapolis Colts that's only $1.5 million short of Donald's average annual salary. The cornerback market, meanwhile, exploded within the last month. The Cleveland Browns' Denzel Ward and Green Bay Packers' Jaire Alexander now sit at $20.1 and $21 million, respectively, compared to Donald's $22.5 million annual salary. 

Donald's actual cash flow for 2022 is only $14.3 million. At that number, he'll be the NFL's 10th-highest paid interior defender in cash spent, according to Over the Cap. In fact, Donald hasn't ranked among the top three at his position since he signed the deal four years ago.

His number will enter said range in 2023 and '24, which is why it would be smart of the Rams to redo his current deal: Give the all-time great more upfront money now and extend those salary-cap hits over a longer period of time. 

Considering all of those factors and how the NFL financial landscape continues to change, Donald is well worth a deal with an average salary of $30 million or more to once again become the NFL's highest-paid defender. Tyreek Hill became the first non-quarterback to reach the number after the Miami Dolphins completed a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs for the wide receiver and handed him the contract extension.

But as talented as Hill is, Donald is the NFL's most dominant player, even in a pass-first league. 

The defensive lineman's on-field value is without question. His 502 pressures since the start of the 2017 campaign rank first, and no one else is even within 140 of his production, according to Pro Football Focus. Over the last two seasons, Donald's 28 tackles for loss or no gain are more than any other player's output. He's been a near-unstoppable force in the middle of the Rams defense, as the NFL's highest-graded defender for six straight seasons. His play has yet to show any regression.  

When the Rams needed a critical play during Super Bowl LVI against the Cincinnati Bengals, Donald obliged.

He registered seven pressures and two sacks. One of those moments couldn't have come at a more opportune time. Donald ended the contest when his quickness off the snap and ease of beating left guard Quinton Spain allowed him to pressure Joe Burrow on the Bengals' last offensive play to the point where the quarterback couldn't do anything other than hopelessly flutter a pass attempt as he crashed to the ground. 

At that moment, Donald cemented his legacy.  

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

A true war daddy along the defensive front must be accounted for at all times. He's both a dominant run defender and able to consistently collapse the pocket. He changes the entire complexion of a game and how an opposing offense must game-plan. Donald isn't just a great defender capable of doing these things; he's in the conversation with Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White as the greatest of all time, though it may be a tad premature to say so. 

The Rams don't seem too concerned about losing Donald in the short term. Head coach Sean McVay told reporters at the owners meetings in March that Donald's decision not to retire proved to be a "major relief." 

"We definitely have chatted with Aaron, his representation, and we're trying to come up with a win-win solution to reward Aaron but still definitely be able to continue trying to compete as a team at the highest level," general manager Les Snead said two months ago. "So, we're in progress there.

"I know Aaron's articulated to us that he would like to be back, and he would definitely like to continue to try to do special things not only as an individual player but as a team."

The Rams aren't in the red for the next two seasons in projected salary-cap space, though they don't have a ton of wiggle room. A lowered number on Donald's contract in 2022 would create extra space to use next year and help offset the extension.

Los Angeles' projected free agents for 2023 aren't overwhelming, with possible new deals for offensive tackle Rob Havenstein, guards Bobby Evans and David Edwards, running back Darrell Henderson, nose tackle Greg Gaines, defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson, edge Justin Hollins, cornerback David Long, safety Taylor Rapp and kicker Matt Gay.

None of those should be viewed as high priorities. They're all solid players, but none of them are franchise building blocks. They certainly don't warrant the same type of attention as Donald. 

Maybe the reemergence of retirement talk this month is nothing but a strategy to get another contract extension. Even if it is, the Rams can't take the risk. They must get a new contract done and make sure Donald finishes his Hall of Fame career as the centerpiece of the franchise. Otherwise, the thought of repeating as Super Bowl champions will be gone in an instant. 


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.