LOS ANGELES — At last, Aaron Donald is back. The Los Angeles Rams‘ star defensive tackle ended his holdout Saturday and passed his physical. He will not play in Sunday’s regular-season opener, and he still doesn’t have the contract extension he seeks. But he’s here, and that is a very important first step. I’ll try to answer some of the key questions regarding his situation.
What is his roster situation?
The Rams sought a roster exemption for Donald, which is typical under these circumstances. It allows them to place Donald on the active roster — and thus ensure he gets paid for that game — without having to cut another player to get back down to 53. They’ll make that decision after Sunday’s game, and my guess is that it will be a center who gets cut. The Rams have four right now. Donald was previously on the reserve/did not report list.
What about his fines and compensation?
Donald was fined $40,000 for each day he did not report during training camp and the preseason, adding up to somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.4 million. But as ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported, the Rams waived those fines. Pro Football Talk also reported that Donald will not lose any of his signing-bonus money. If his holdout would’ve lingered beyond Sunday’s 4:05 p.m. ET kickoff, Donald would not have been paid one of his 17 game checks (players are paid during their bye weeks). Donald’s base salary this year is $1,802,250, so he would have lost out on a little more than $106,000.
So what was the point of all this?
It’s easy to say there was no point, because Donald showed up without a new deal and now he will not play in all 16 regular-season games. But look at it this way: Donald put pressure on the Rams to give him a lucrative contract extension, did not end up losing any money doing so and — this is the big one — avoided any injury risk leading up to the season. Fellow Rams defensive lineman Dominique Easley tore his ACL on a non-contact drill during training camp. Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., taken one spot ahead of Donald in 2014, narrowly escaped a serious injury during a preseason game, and he, too, seeks a bigger contract.
When will he play?
Tough to say right now. There’s little doubt on the Rams’ side that Donald stayed in shape while working out in Pittsburgh, but strapping on the pads and repeatedly taking hits along the interior is completely different. They’ll know more during practice this coming week, and they won’t rush him. If they’re confident he’s ready to play Week 2 against Washington, great. If they have to wait until Week 3 (the following Thursday in San Francisco) or Week 4 (Oct. 1 in Dallas), they’ll be fine with that, too. The Rams — and, clearly, Donald — are looking long-term here.
Does this mean they’re close to a deal?
Not necessarily. Donald showing up doesn’t mean there has been a major breakthrough in negotiations. There really hasn’t been. The 26-year-old wanted to be back around his teammates, and of course, he didn’t want to miss a paycheck. The Rams’ front office traveled to Atlanta the day before the final preseason game to meet with Donald’s representatives at CAA, but they didn’t really make much progress. They just want to keep the conversations going. I presume they will continue.
What’s the holdup?
It has been pretty clear to me that the Rams understand if you’re going to give Donald an extension, you basically need to make him the game’s highest-paid defensive player. J.J. Watt is the best comparison in this situation, because he was considered the game’s best defensive player when he signed his extension (with the Texans in 2014) and because he had completed only three NFL seasons by then. Watt’s deal ultimately made him the game’s highest-paid defensive player. There’s no reason Donald wouldn’t believe he’s worthy of that, too, particularly when you consider that the top earner at his position, Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, is very nearly the game’s highest-paid defensive player.
With that being the case, I would have to think it comes down to either ensuring that Donald is the highest-paid defensive player for a while — which might mean blowing past the Von Miller deal, which includes $70 million guaranteed — or giving him as much of his guaranteed money as possible up front. That could be a little tough. The Rams have only about $4.5 million in salary-cap space, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System. They can restructure player contracts to open up more room, usually by turning base salaries into signing bonuses that are prorated over the length of a contract. But the Rams don’t like doing that. They like minimizing what they prorate in order to maximize their salary-cap flexibility.
The best bet would probably be to give Donald a big chunk of his guaranteed money as a roster bonus that would be paid next spring. But what if Donald suffers a devastating injury before then? Maybe that’s a concern on his side. Keep in mind: These are assumptions; I am not privy to what has been offered and what has been asked.
How does the defense look with and without him?
With Donald out, the Rams will start rookie Tanzel Smart at the 3-technique spot, alongside nose tackle Michael Brockers and defensive end Ethan Westbrooks. Smart is a sixth-round pick out of Tulane. Veteran offensive lineman Rodger Saffold, who blocks Smart every day in practice, said he has “outrageous potential.” But he is also raw and a bit undersized. The Rams are fully healthy now. And when Donald returns, they should look very good on defense, especially in their front seven, with Robert Quinn, Alec Ogletree, Mark Barron and Connor Barwin making up a strong linebacking corps. ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks the Rams defense 14th heading into the year, but Wade Phillips can do better than that.