If Aaron Donald is ‘feeling 30’ these days, then it’s worth asking the question of how he feels about the final three years of the six-year contract extension that he signed in 2018. Not only will Donald be ‘feeling 34’ at the end of that deal, but more importantly he has no clear path towards guaranteeing himself the approximate $55 million that he’s set to make from 2022 to 2024.
Early this year, Donald converted $18 million in 2021 salary into a signing bonus in order to save the LA Rams money against the cap this year. What that did is raise his prorated signing bonuses over the next three years — and therefore his respective cap hits — but that move was not enough to necessarily guarantee that the Rams would keep Donald in the event of a serious injury.
Instead, Donald’s salary for the 2022, 2023, and 2024 seasons is non-guaranteed, and while LA would save a little bit of money if they released him next year, they would save a lot by releasing him in 2023 or 2024. Why am I even talking about Donald being “released” when the three-time Defensive Player of the Year is still the most dangerous person on that side of the ball in the NFL today?
It’s not because of how things look from the Rams perspective or a fans perspective. It’s because of how things might look from Donald’s perspective as he enters the eighth year of a career that places him in the 99th percentile of all football players in history.
On Monday, CBS Sports reported that the Pittsburgh Steelers are expected to make linebacker T.J. Watt the highest paid defensive player in the NFL prior to Week 1. But it’s not Donald — the person who beat out Watt for DPOY in 2020 — who Watt would be surpassing with his next contract. It’s actually not even going to be that close between Donald and Watt.
No, Watt is looking to eclipse the $27 million annual salary of Joey Bosa; the $25 million salary of Myles Garrett; the $23.5 million salary of Khalil Mack.
The six-year, $135 million contract signed by Donald three years ago carries an average annual salary of $22.5 million, having been surpassed by Garrett and Bosa within the last year. Next, he’ll be surpassed by Watt. Not long ago, he even saw his own teammate, Jalen Ramsey, come close to him at $20 million per year.
What will be going through Donald’s mind then when he sees the next contract for Watt, then looks at his own contract and see the “$0” under guaranteed salary for the next three seasons?
Though Donald will have three more years remaining on his contract after 2021, he still must earn a $5 million roster bonus in each of those seasons in order to get something that comes close to a fair value for his services. The only thing that Les Snead really has to worry about after 2022 is the $4.5 million in prorated bonus that would sit on the dead cap if the Rams had to release Donald for any reason.
And we know that $4.5 million in dead money to Snead is about the same as $4.50 in lost change between the seats and the center consoles in our cars for the rest of us.
If you think that Donald feels old for his position, think again.
Though Donald may admit to his body not reacting the same at 30 as it did at 24, it’s not as though he thinks he’s nearing the end of his career. Historically speaking, pass rushers of Donald’s quality have consistently been able to play effectively into their mid-to-late thirties and I don’t think there has been any defensive player in the NFL over the last 10 to 15 years who have been as good as he has, so why not believe that he can play another 10 years?
Chandler Jones of the Arizona Cardinals has been in the news during training camp this year because he’s unhappy with his contract and believes that at 31, he’s still as good of a pass rusher as the guys who are making $20 million per year. And at receiver, Julio Jones at is getting paid $22 million per year at 32 years old, even though he plays a position that is nearly impossible to dominate in nearly the same fashion that Donald dominates the defensive tackle position.
Meanwhile, 29-year-old DeAndre Hopkins is getting $27.25 million per year. Aaron Rodgers, at 37, is angling for more money and a new extension with the Green Bay Packers ... or somebody else.
And Watt is going to come close to $30 million per year when he signs his next deal in the coming days.
Donald may not be concerned with any of this now, but his roster bonuses and non-guaranteed salary of 2022 is no longer a distant expectation. It could be that Snead and Donald’s agent have always planned to address the contract again well before it ended, knowing that player after player would be angling to top it and do better — and that no defensive player would end up actually being better than Aaron Donald.
If T.J. Watt signs for $29 million per season this month, then I am quite certain that once again Aaron Donald will be ‘feeling like 30.’