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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Aaron Donald Is Digging In

Illustration for article titled Aaron Donald Is Digging In
Photo: Christian Petersen (Getty)

The Los Angeles Rams’ aggressive offseason—timed to coincide with a quarterback on his rookie deal and with a crucial period to sell personal seat licenses—continued with the recent signings of wideout Brandin Cooks and running back Todd Gurley to lucrative contract extensions. Nonetheless, the Rams held their first training camp practice yesterday without their best player, defensive tackle Aaron Donald. And there’s no telling when he might show.


Donald is the reigning NFL defensive player of the year. He’s a human wrecking ball on the defensive interior. His 91 quarterback pressures last season led the league, per Pro Football Focus, with the Broncos’ Von Miller a distant second at 83. And Donald didn’t even play in two games, including one that coincided with a holdout that extended right up until the eve of the regular season. Yet here he is, nearly a full year later, still waiting on a second contract, even as his team wheels and deals to stock the roster while also extending some of his teammates. Anything else you’d like to know? Fire away.

What happened with Donald’s holdout last year?

As he entered the fourth year of his rookie deal, Donald felt he was worth more than the $1.8 million he was slated to earn in 2017, in addition to the $6.9 million he was due in 2018, since the Rams had already picked up his fifth-year option. He wanted a new deal, so he held out until Sept. 9—one day before the start of the regular season. The CBA calls for fines of $40,000 per day for holdouts by players under contract, so Donald accrued roughly $1.4 million in fines. By the time he reported for work, it was too late to play in the Sept. 10 season opener. The Rams could have docked him a game check for that, too, but they decided not to do that—or to fine him the $1.4 million.


Did his holdout accomplish anything?

No. In fact, by not reporting 30 days before the start of the regular season, Donald even lost an accrued season toward free agency. So even though he has played four seasons, the league only credits him with three. Which means if he were to hold out for an extensive period again, he’d be a restricted free agent next year, rather than unrestricted.

That sucks.

Eh. Not really, at least in this case. As a restricted free agent, Donald would have to be tendered by the Rams next offseason, which means another team could make him a gargantuan offer. The Rams could then match that offer or risk losing him in exchange for a first-round pick. And a lot of teams would likely make gargantuan offers, even at the cost of losing a first-round pick, because he’s very good.


So what happens if he holds out again? Could he lose another accrued season?

Yep. If he doesn’t report by Aug. 7, his free agency clock would stand still at three seasons.


Which is not that different than if he were to show, right?

You’re catching on.

What about the fines?

Donald would be docked just $30,000 per day this year, as opposed to last year’s $40,000 per day, since the rules are different for holdouts by players on fifth-year options (because of course they are).


What else?

He’d also get fined one regular-season game check for each preseason game missed. Which would be right around $405,000 per game. The Rams’ first preseason game is Aug. 9, so you can see how this could get pretty expensive pretty quickly.


So where do things stand?

I’ll let Schefter take this one ...


Now, that could certainly be some posturing from Donald’s camp, but the threat of sitting out is at least out there.

Have other players held out into the regular season recently?

Texans left tackle Duane Brown held out into October just last year, and he forced a trade to the Seahawks. Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor did it in 2015, but he didn’t accomplish anything. The heavy fine structure that’s baked into this CBA really disincentivizes holdouts.


Why won’t the Rams do a deal with Donald?

All long-term deals are complex, but the system kind of allows the Rams to wait this one out. As a first-round pick, Donald has a fifth-year option, which, as I mentioned above, pays $6.9 million. That’s maybe a third (or more) of what he might get on the open market. And when he’s eligible to be a restricted free agent, the Rams could then place the franchise tag on him to retain his rights without allowing him to field other offers. And just how Washington did with Kirk Cousins and the Steelers did with Le’Veon Bell, they can use that tag more than once. By 2020, the Rams likely will have done (or would be close to doing) a lucrative long-term deal with quarterback Jared Goff, whose fifth-year option season is that year. As a result, the Rams could be thinking it’s more prudent to go year-to-year with Donald. They even could tag Donald up to three times, which would cut off his bargaining position but pay him a total of $58.7 million in that span—less than market rate, but at least somewhat in the ballpark. The risk for Donald is that a brutal injury could keep him from seeing all that money. And by 2021, he will be 30.


Huh. I didn’t know he was already that old.

Yep. He’s 27. Teams in recent years have been hesitant to give big money to non-quarterbacks. As Joel Corry of calculated, the top of the non-quarterback market has grown 18 percent since this CBA was enacted in 2011, while the quarterback market has shot up 67 percent—with a 20 percent jump happening in just the past year. Matt Ryan crossed the $30 million per year threshold, and Aaron Rodgers is likely to be next. At the same time, the highest-paid non-QB is the Broncos’ Miller, who’s pulling in a shade over $19 million annually—on a deal he signed two years ago.


What gives?

The scarcity of quality quarterbacks leads teams to place a lot of value in them. And defensive linemen like Mario Williams ($16 million in average annual value in 2012), Ndamukong Suh ($59.5 million fully guaranteed in 2015), and Muhammad Wilkerson ($36.75 fully guaranteed in 2016) all signed megadeals they never lived up to. J.J. Watt signed a big deal in 2014 but has been wracked with injuries the last two years. Hell, look at the kind of shit Raiders head coach Jon Gruden is saying about edge rusher Khalil Mack, his best player:


Mack, like Donald, is holding out as he enters his fifth-year option season. Mack’s option will pay him $13.846 million, which is well below market rate, given what a terrific player he is. Now, Mack’s circumstances are somewhat different, in that the Raiders have a quarterback in Derek Carr who is on a second contract that will pay him $25 million per year. But still: The cap has jumped 14 percent just in the last two years, and the Raiders are estimated to have more than $40 million in cap space in 2019. And the overall trend here is very real: Corry noted that in 2011, the first year of the current CBA, the highest paid non-QB was making 89.7 percent of the average annual salary of the highest paid QB. By 2017, that figure had dipped to 70.7 percent. Teams appear to be afraid of setting a trend by crossing a $20 million threshold with non-QBs.

But, like, why?

Robert Mays of The Ringer wrote back in May that only four of the 28 teams to have reached the conference championship game since 2011 had non-QBs who accounted for more than 10 percent of their cap, as Donald would if he were to sign a market-rate megadeal. And the Rams have the franchise tag in their quiver.


What’s Donald worth? Like, annually and in terms of a guarantee?

I’m again going to refer to this piece by CBS’s Corry, because it lays all of this out. Corry compared the highest AAVs, total guarantees, and full guarantees of QBs and non-QBs from 2011 to 2017, and averaged them out. Assuming an AAV of 78.7 percent, a total guarantee of 84.9 percent, and a full guarantee of 79.5 percent, Donald (and Mack, for that matter) ought to be looking at something in the range of $23.6 million in AAV, an overall guarantee of $85 million, and a full guarantee of $67.5 million. A deal like that for a non-QB would be a trend-setter, for sure. No one knows what Donald is asking for, but given the gaping disparity between those numbers and what he’s set to earn this season, it’s easy to see why he again plans to stay away for a while.

Dom Cosentino is a staff writer at Deadspin.

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