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Aaron Donald finds true “partner in crime” with partner in line, Greg Gaines

The Rams might have the best interior defensive line in the NFC, and another one returning from IR

NFL: DEC 26 Rams at Vikings

Amongst his many accomplishments, one area that may be overlooked is that Aaron Donald has set a career-high this season with 77 tackles, which is 32 more tackles than he had last season and 29 more than he had in 2019. This comes at a time when Donald has played in 118 more snaps and a handful of more opponent runs, but no less signals that the 30-year-old defensive lineman may have never been asked to carry a heavier load than what he’s dealt with this season.

It’s a good thing he doesn’t have to move mountains alone. He’s got a mountain right next to him.

Seattle Seahawks v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

If it were a 16-game season, Donald would finish with career-highs in defensive snaps (but for the first time ever, did not play a down on special teams), and the following stats:

34 solo tackles, 43 assisted tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, 24 QB hits, 12.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, four batted passes.

For Donald, that’s a career high in total tackles and assists, the same number of batted passes as he had over the previous three seasons combined, and his fourth straight season with at least 12.5 sacks.

But with the trade of Michael Brockers, the loss of Morgan Fox in free agency, and the midseason loss of Sebastian Joseph-Day to injured reserve, Donald had to do more heavy lifting for the Rams defense than maybe ever before. A’Shawn Robinson was brought back in 2021 to help, and he has, but he’s not the defensive lineman who makes you wonder what LA will actually be willing to spend on a defensive tackle not named Aaron Donald.

That would be Greg Gaines, the 134th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft.

After getting 183 snaps as a rookie (in 10 games) and 201 in year two, Gaines has become a mainstay on defense since the injury to SJD and he has 711 snaps on the season. That’s actually more snaps than Brockers has had in a season since 2019 (766) and more than the usual Brockers season, and that’s before Gaines gets a full year to prove himself in 2022. The results since SJD went down:

Nine starts, 35 tackles, three tackles for a loss, nine QB hits, four sacks

Since playing in about one-third of the snaps prior to the SJD injury, Gaines has played in at least 93-percent of the snaps in six of the last eight weeks. He was in on 97-percent of the snaps in Sunday’s win over the Baltimore Ravens and that was in spite of a hand injury that was wrapped and appeared to be quite painful.

Greg Gaines has one more year left on the rookie contract he signed in 2019, but given the way he’s played this year it could be that the Rams extend him when they get the chance in the offseason. That’s not what Les Snead has done for many defensive players not named Aaron Donald, but Gaines looks to be a mid-round steal not often found by most teams. It doesn’t hurt his case that Joseph-Day will become a free agent and one who could be difficult to retain because he’s also been a standout day three pick for Snead.

It seems more likely that the team would extend Gaines than they would re-sign Joseph-Day, but perhaps both are still possible—and SJD could return for the playoffs, according to Sean McVay as recently as last week.

That would mean even less of a load on Donald, which could mean he’s more of a load against playoff teams that will now have to deal with him...and his enormous 2021 Gaines.