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Painted into a Corner

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If Aaron Donald and the Rams are at loggerheads over a new contract, there is a danger that no matter how the situation gets resolved, it could end badly for the team. Here are some items to consider:

1. The salary cap isn't an illusion.

Since the Rams have created more space by restructuring deals in recent years, there is a misconception that all a team has to do is move money around to circumvent the cap and they can still fit in a bunch of expensive players under the cap. Last year, the Rams pushed about $13.5 million of Donald's contract into future seasons with a restructure. The move created room under the cap for the Rams during the 2021 season, but now we are seeing one of the tradeoffs. The Rams would experience substantial cap problems if Aaron Donald retired or if team traded him. Moreover, because there are already cap charges tied up in prorated bonuses, it reduces the potential savings available if the team signed AD to a new contract. Bottom line is that the Rams effectively painted themselves into a corner financially and now they have less flexibility and leverage in trying to find a solution that makes sense for both the player and the team.

2. Adding additional years and more guaranteed money to Donald's contract is risky.

Warren Sapp had at least 6 sacks in every year of his career from 1996 through 2002. He made 7 consecutive Pro Bowls during that period. Once he passed the age of 30, it was a different story. He played 5 additional seasons older than 30, but in only 1 out of those 5 years did he have more than 5 sacks (granted, it was an All Pro year). His TFLs plummeted in addition to his sack production.

The Bucs allowed Sapp to leave in free agency after the 2003 season. Sapp was close to signing with the Bengals, but instead signed a 7 year deal with the Raiders. It didn't end up being as great a contract as hoped, because Sapp wasn't as dominating a player as he had been with the Bucs.

Despite making a ton of money in his career, Sapp filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2012.

Aaron Donald turns 31 years old on May 23. He's already under contract through 2024, when he will be 33. Should the Rams add 2 to 3 extra years to his deal, we'd be talking about having seasons where he'd be 35 or older and for a player who has already expressed an interest in hanging it up and retiring, it seems unlikely that he'd actually play out those years and still be on the roster. If the Rams gave AD a huge payday with a large signing bonus, the more likely result is he'd take his money and still retire with multiple years left on his new deal, which would still result in a cap problem, just pushed down the road a couple of years.

3. Donald was well paid under his current deal.

In 2017, Matthew Stafford got a new contract that made him the highest paid player in NFL history at the time, with an average salary of $27 million.

Von Miller got a 6 year contract in 2016 that paid him $114.5 million with $70 million guaranteed.

Donald already was under contract for 2018, the 5th year option season of his rookie contract. In 2018, AD signed what was reported to be a 6 year $135 million deal with $87 million guaranteed, eclipsing the amount set by Miller and making AD the highest paid defender in NFL history. If you add up the "new money" that AD got paid over the 3 additional years he has played beyond 2018, effectively the Rams paid him approximately $27.3 million for those 3 years, which was more than Stafford was making under his contract. In other words, the Rams paid AD as if he were a franchise QB even though he was a DT.

ARod in 2017 was playing under a deal that paid him an average of $22 million and he got a new deal in 2018 that paid him $33.5 million per year. So, AD's effective salary under his new contract was about halfway between ARod's old salary and ARod's new salary.

4. It was foreseeable that Donald would want more money.

Most of the money under that 2018 contract was paid out early on. Donald got a $40 million signing bonus and was paid about $50 million in new money by 2019. Now that we have reached the back half of the contract, the terms aren't as favorable to the player, and since AD is still arguably the best defender in the NFL, it isn't surprising that he'd try to use his leverage to try to get a raise.

AD has tried to use any leverage he had in contract negotiations before, even if it risked alienating Rams fans. Donald held out in 2017 and missed the first game of the regular season. He held out of training camp again in 2018. At that time, I was adamantly against trading Donald, because he was a future HOFer and it is virtually impossible to get return compensation in a trade that would approach what you'd be giving up. I estimated that it could take more than 5 first round picks and there's no way you could find a team willing to surrender so much in a trade. Some Rams fans were angry at AD when he held out and wanted to trade him.

I don't have any issue with Donald wanting to get paid at a level commensurate with his talent level, but since Demoff and Snead haven't been frugal with their spending and cap management in recent years, as a practical matter it is challenging to make the numbers work in a way that it makes sense for the team and still puts enough money in AD's pocket to make him happy.

The issues is complicated by the contract status of other players on the roster. Matthew Stafford is scheduled or massive cap hits down the road under his new contract. To keep Cooper Kupp happy, the Rams presumably need to pay him more money. It is theoretically possible to make all of those contracts fit in the short term, but the long term result could be Salary Cap Armageddon for the Rams circa 2025.

5. How will the Situation be Resolved?

I have no idea. This is a tough one. It isn't as easy as saying "pay Donald whatever he wants" because if you look at the numbers, how are you going to do it in a way that avoids the Rams potentially getting hit by a devastating dead cap charge down the road? The Rams can't assume that Donald is bluffing and just let him retire or trade him, because both of those doors also lead to salary cap issues. If the Rams only care about trying to win another SB, maybe they are willing to risk it, even if it leads to the team falling off a cliff once AD retires.

The Rams are in a tight spot, but I'm not overly sympathetic with them, because they put themselves in this position. They were so focused on the Super Bowl, seemingly focused only on the short term and not concerned with the long term consequences. Now, they have less flexibility and few good options.