NFL

Rams' Donald becomes NFL's highest-paid defensive player

Aaron Donald's two-year quest to become the NFL's highest-paid defensive player finally ended in success Friday morning.

All-Pro defensive tackle agrees to 6-year, $135M US deal

Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) is the reigning NFL defensive player of the year and is signed through 2024. (Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press)

Aaron Donald's two-year quest to become the NFL's highest-paid defensive player finally ended in success Friday morning.

And just a few minutes after signing his deal, Donald was at work on the Los Angeles Rams' practice fields for the first time in months, determined to keep doing the same things that made him so very wealthy.

The All-Pro defensive tackle agreed to a six-year, $135 million US deal, ending his second consecutive pre-season holdout with a landmark commitment from the Rams.

"I feel good right now," Donald said. "To be back out here playing football again, that's what it is all about. Long process and a long wait. It was tough. Definitely it was tough for me, having a love for the game, having to push that to the side and handle the business side."

The reigning NFL defensive player of the year is signed through 2024, and the Rams' defence can rest solidly on its cornerstone as Los Angeles attempts to capitalize on last season's success with a Super Bowl run.

ESPN and the NFL Network reported the new deal includes a $40 million signing bonus and $87 million guaranteed. Donald is already under contract this season for $6.89 million in the final year of his rookie deal.

"It's a blessing," Donald said of his new deal, which surpasses Von Miller's contract in Denver as the new benchmark for defenders. "Growing up thinking about playing in the NFL, you never think that big, or expect something like that. But my dad told me since Day One, hard work pays off. I'm going to continue to work nonstop."

Donald finally suits up for practice

After skipping the Rams' entire off-season program and training camp, Donald started work right away, even showing up at the Rams' training complex to sign his contract earlier than scheduled Friday morning. When he joined practice later, the Rams finally got to see Donald alongside newcomer Ndamukong Suh and veteran Michael Brockers on their potentially destructive defensive line.

Earlier this week, Rams coach Sean McVay said Donald should be able to play in the Rams' Monday night regular-season opener in Oakland on Sept. 10 if he signed within the next few days. Donald has been working out at home in Pittsburgh during his holdout, and McVay checked in regularly with him.

"I feel good, but I've still got to get in football mode, as far as pass rushing moves and just knocking the rust off a little bit," Donald said. "But that will come in a couple of days."

The Rams managed to maintain a civil relationship with Donald throughout the two years of difficult negotiations. Donald and his representatives were determined to make him one of the NFL's highest-paid players at any position, but the Rams wanted to reward Donald while keeping their overall salary structure intact.

"I don't think you were ever miles apart," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "Everybody with common sense knew Aaron Donald was, at minimum, going to be the highest-paid defensive player in football. From there, you had to figure it out."

Dominant lineman

Since his rookie season in St. Louis as the 13th overall pick in the draft, the 27-year-old Pitt product has been one of the NFL's most dominant linemen with remarkable effectiveness against the run and the pass.

The compact powerhouse was chosen for the Pro Bowl after each of his four seasons, and he was a key component of Los Angeles' extraordinary one-year turnaround under McVay in 2017. With Donald adapting quickly to new veteran co-ordinator Wade Phillips despite missing training camp, the Rams won their division for the first time since 2003 and ended the franchise's streaks of 13 consecutive non-winning seasons and 12 straight non-playoff seasons.

Although Donald has 39 sacks in four NFL seasons, traditional statistics don't reflect the full measure of his disruptive play on the line. Phillips rhapsodizes about Donald's ability to force opposing offences into bad decisions by his ability to wreck any blocking scheme with his low, ferocious charges through the line.

With Donald in camp, the Rams finally have their near-term roster settled while still maintaining significant room on their payroll for 2019 — just in time for quarterback Jared Goff to reach the fourth year of his rookie deal with the chance to negotiate a long-term contract.

Los Angeles demonstrated its willingness to pay top dollar for talent in recent months by acquiring those three defensive stars and agreeing to lucrative long-term deals with NFL offensive player of the year Todd Gurley, receiver Brandin Cooks and right tackle Rob Havenstein.

Yet those deals also were structured to make sure Donald could get the contract he deserved.

"They all made some sort of sacrifice for this moment," Snead said of Gurley, Cooks and Havenstein. "They didn't take less money. They just may have delayed some gratification, because we always said, 'We have this room in the budget and we need to save it, and this is the goal."'

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