While the relative success of the Los Angeles Rams offense in the first two preseason games has slightly dimmed the spotlight on the Aaron Donald holdout, this is clearly the most pressing issue facing the Rams today.
By extending Robert Quinn and Tavon Austin when they were heading into their 4th season, GM Les Snead has backed himself into a corner. Donald knows that the Rams are willing to extend players before their rookie contracts expire. Snead has even gone on record as saying Donald “deserves a raise”. Snead’s admission and history giving out extensions has removed a much of the negotiating leverage from his toolkit.
Donald clearly is among the best players in the NFL and deserves to be compensated as such. I enjoy crunching numbers so I took it upon myself to try to determine what a contract extension for Donald should look like.
The two primary reference points here are the aforementioned Quinn and Austin. They were both early-to-mid 1st round draft picks and provide the best starting point for contract structure of extensions entering the fourth season.
Quinn’s four year, $57M contract was widely considered a bargain when he signed it. The key takeaway from the contract for me is that Quinn essentially played year 4 under his rookie contract. That is great news for the cash strapped Rams. At the time, Quinn was one of the most feared edge rushers in the NFL. They rewarded his play with an extension, but that money didn’t kick in until year 5.
The Rams took a much similar approach to Austin’s extension. He signed a four year, $42M contract that kept his year 4 cap number the same. His extension picked up in year 5 and further sets the precedence that the Rams are willing to extend players - just not give them substantial raises earlier than year 5.
Interior DL Status Quo
Over the course of the last two calendar years, there have been two different deal structures that have taken shape: Five years/~$80M (Muhammad Wilkerson, Kawann Short) and six years/~$100M (Marcell Dareus, Fletcher Cox, J.J. Watt). Simple math equates the former to roughly $17M AAV and the latter to about $16M. See below for breakdowns of these structures.
While the status quo for interior lineman contracts would certainly be an improvement over Donald’s current situation, it falls short of his aspirations.
Becoming the Highest Paid Defender in the NFL
The clear goal for Donald is to be paid like the player he is: the best. Ndamukong Suh and Von Miller sit atop the salary perch - and for good reason. Their contracts are structured similarly and serve as a starting point for any player wishing to become the highest paid defender in the NFL.
The issue here is that Suh and Miller both got their monster contracts either in free agency and/or after being slapped with the franchise tag. In short, Donald simply doesn’t have as much leverage as they did.
Donald clearly deserves to be in this echelon, but getting the Rams to hand him this type of contract could prove to be difficult.
The J.J. Watt Comparisons Continue
The only player that can come close to comparing with Donald as an interior DL is J.J. Watt. The Houston Texans megastar was similarly dominant in his first three years and is one of few players in under the current CBA to earn a big money contract after just 3 years on their rookie contract.
As it was with Quinn and Austin, more good news for the Rams here by not increasing salary in year four. However, this is also great news for Donald because of the timing of the six year, $100M extension. Watt signed his extension when he had two years remaining on his current deal. Also, he signed it on September 2, which coincidentally happens to be the day of final cuts this NFL calendar year (spoiler: you’ll be hearing more about that).
Credit both sides here in doing the right thing in this situation. Watt realized he had less than ideal leverage since he was under team control for at least two more years and potentially more. On the same note, the Texans realized that their star player was drastically underpaid and rectified the situation.
Both parties in the Donald impasse need to heed to this wisdom.
The Best Resolution
Unfortunately for Donald and the Rams, there is no perfect solution. Given the Rams cap constraints in 2017, they just don’ t have the funds available to make Donald the highest paid defender this year. Luckily though, they have significant wiggle room in years to come to accommodate a salary this large. Take a look at their upcoming projections according to Over the Cap.
I realize that those numbers aren’t perfect, but it’s enough to build around. There isn’t a lot to work with in 2017, but with some creative accounting, the Rams could find a few million to entice Donald to end his holdout.
I think that the best solution would be something along the lines of a 6 year, $110M contract with $65-70M guaranteed and as throw much as realistically possible in the first three years. That would put his AAV at $18.3 million - a shade below Suh and Miller, but clearly above every other interior DL. It would also move the needle for players under their rookie contracts seeking extensions and guarantees for non-QBs.
As much as Donald wants to be the highest paid defender, he might have to settle for a few minor victories as opposed to the grandeur of being the highest paid by AAV. Instead of focusing on AAV, Donald could get wins with guarantees and salary in the first three years. f Donald could approach 60% of his contract fully guaranteed and frontload the contract, he’d be setting a great example for the NFLPA.
If Snead, Demoff, and Co. are willing to trim a bit more fat from the payroll, they may be able to entice Donald back to the negotiating table. More on that tonight.......