The best defensive player in football might not play on the NFL’s opening weekend, and hardly anyone has noticed. The smallest developments in the NFL are discussed and analyzed to a granular level, and yet the holdout of Aaron Donald has been overlooked, somehow buried in the storm of preseason predictions and Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension and ensuing legal saga. The lack of attention proves, again, Donald is the NFL superstar who deserves to be treated more like a superstar.
The Los Angeles Rams should be the first ones to take heed. Donald has sat out all training camp, exposing himself to potential fines of up to $40,000 per day, should the Rams choose to impose them. The sides remain at an impasse as the team prepares to open the regular season Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. Star players holding out and sitting for games once happened a few times annually, but it has become nearly nonexistent. Donald is days away from breaking the trend. It’s mystifying that any team would let it happen, and it’s preposterous for the Rams in particular.
Donald is scheduled to make $1.8 million this season and $6.9 million next year on the rookie contract he signed as the 13th pick of the 2014 draft. He has outperformed the deal to a laughable extent, and he has reached the stage of his career when elite-among-elite players often get their deals torn up for a rich extension. He wants – and should get – a new contract. The Rams have not agreed on terms, and so Donald is not playing.
“I’m optimistic that we’re going to continue to work to find a solution,” Rams Coach Sean McVay said at his news conference Monday. “If we’re not able to, the game goes on Sunday at 1 o’clock. There’s going to be a kickoff.”
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The Rams are uniquely unqualified to argue against giving Donald a lucrative new deal. Last year, they handed disappointing wide receiver Tavon Austin, the eighth overall pick in 2013, a four-year, $42 million contract with $28.5 million in guarantees. Entering last year, Austin was a tantalizing unproductive wide receiver who had never reached even 500 yards in a season. He didn’t do much to prove the Rams prescient, gaining 668 yards from scrimmage in 2016.
Not all NFL teams are willing to tear up rookie deals after their third year, but the Rams proved they are. And if they think Austin is worth $10.5 million a year, they should value Donald somewhere around the GDP.
Few players are in Donald’s class. Pro Football Focus called Donald the best player in the NFL – not best interior lineman or defensive player, the best player – in 2015 and the second-best player last year. He recorded the third-most quarterback pressures in the league last year, a remarkable feat for a player who lines up exclusively on the interior.
At the draft combine in 2014, he ran the 40-yard dash faster than any defensive tackle had before. His quickness and low center of gravity make him unblockable. In a league of freakish physical attributes, Donald stands out. And he turns those tools into production like few, if any, of his peers. He has 19 sacks over the last two years, an enviable total for an edge rusher and a ridiculous total for a tackle who sees constant double teams and also defends the run at an elite level.
It’s fair to wonder whether Donald is the closest thing in the NFL to J.J. Watt or vice versa. Either way, Watt provides a fair template for how the Rams should view Donald. Donald’s low salary affords the Rams negotiating leverage. But the Houston Texans held the same advantage over Watt entering his fourth season, and they chose to make Watt the highest-paid defensive player in the league. The Rams have no excuse not to do the same for Donald, based on their own precedent and across the league.
McVay offered the typical boilerplate about how the Rams could take on the Colts without Donald, that they’ve had all training camp to evaluate and indoctrinate other defensive tackles. But they’re not Aaron Donald, because nobody is. The Rams should pay him. It would help them win, and it would get one of the very best football players in the world back on the field.