Rumors that star defensive lineman Aaron Donald is open to retiring this year have been rampant since the morning of the Super Bowl. This could be nothing more than a rumor without merit, it could be posturing for a new contract, or Donald could be seriously considering a massive change in his life that leads to an early retirement.
But if it is posturing for a new contract, what would that cost the Los Angeles Rams and at what point should they tell the best defensive player of his generation, “No”?
Right now, Aaron Donald is on a six-year, $135 million contract with $86.8 million in total guarantees and it ties Donald to the Rams through 2024. Donald has a $9.25 million base salary in 2022 — $5 million is guaranteed — and that becomes a $14 million base salary in 2023 and a $16.75 million base salary in 2024.
Donald’s $22.5 million annual salary is $1.5 million more than Leonard Williams and DeForest Buckner, tied as the second-highest paid defensive tackles in the NFL. The $50 million full guarantee is $5 million more than Williams’, and the $86.9 total guarantee is almost $27 million more than second-place Chris Jones.
However, Aaron Donald transcends the “defensive tackle” position and he should be categorized as simply the NFL’s best defensive player.
Under those terms, Aaron Donald is still paid more than any cornerback, safety, and inside/off-ball linebacker in the NFL. But among edge rushers, Donald has room for more money to catch up to the highest-paid defensive players.
There are now five edge rushers who make more per year than Donald, including T.J. Watt ($28 million APY), Joey Bosa ($27), Myles Garrett ($25), Khalil Mack ($23.5), and Maxx Crosby ($23.5). It’s really when you get to Mack and Crosby that it becomes apparent why Donald would be confused about his $22.5 million APY these days, even if those are the terms that he agreed to when he signed the deal, knowing that within a couple of years his contract figures would be outpaced by those who agreed to deals after him.
Mack, drafted eight picks ahead of Donald in 2014, may still be an effective pass rusher. But coming off of an injury season and getting traded to the LA Chargers in the offseason, pales in comparison to Donald’s current career arc.
Crosby’s full guarantee is half of Donald’s, so his contract figures are ballooned to some degree. However, Donald couldn’t possibly be satisfied with a lower APY than a good 25-year-old pass rusher who isn’t in his same class as a dominant force in the trenches.
Even Von Miller closed the gap somewhat between himself and Donald after signing a six-year, $120 million deal with the Bills.
If Donald wants to be the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player, he would have to be targeting a contract that pays him about $30 million per year—and since that is a round number, it would make sense that Donald could want to be “the first $30 million per year” defensive player in the league. He is the best defensive player in the league of his generation, so why not break the $30 million barrier first?
His biggest obstacle right now could be the lack of leverage on his contract, since he still has three years remaining on it. His biggest advantage is the threat of retirement because Donald could convincingly argue that he’s “done it all” now after winning the Super Bowl.
Donald received a $40 million signing bonus on his 2018 contract extension.
Myles Garrett received a $21 million signing bonus and a $21 million guaranteed option when he got his extension in 2020—basically giving him over $40 million from the jump and he should be able to receive at least $100 million in guarantees in the first three years.
T.J. Watt received a $35.5 million signing bonus and $80 million guaranteed on his deal.
Roughly speaking, to hit a $30 million annual salary, the Rams could rip up Donald’s current contract and sign him to a four-year, $120 million contract with $90 million fully guaranteed. Donald’s APY would be $30 million and the Rams may only be tacking on about $3.5 million to $6 million per season in cap hits by making the move. It would, however, give Donald a new $35 million signing bonus, more money up front, and guarantee his base salary for the next two seasons.
The differences wouldn’t be quite so large and it would satisfy two needs:
- Aaron Donald’s need to be the highest-paid defensive player by any metric
- LA’s need to have Aaron Donald while they remain in a championship window
Would you be happy with a new $120 million contract for Aaron Donald or do you think he might be on the other side of his most successful seasons? This pact would guarantee Donald’s presence, at an extraordinary cap hit, through his age-33 or age-34 seasons.
Should the Rams make Aaron Donald the highest-paid defensive player?
This poll is closed
Yes, whatever he wants
No, he made an agreement
I’m not sure