Though he had signed a six-year contract extension in 2018, Aaron Donald had already set the stage for a holdout before winning the Super Bowl in February by vaguely threatening to retire (by using Rodney Harrison as the messenger) if he didn’t get a new deal in 2022. Unquestionably deserving even more money that what the Los Angeles Rams were already paying him, Donald no less used what leverage he currently has to force the franchise’s hand or risk testing the waters of a season without him while they remain in a window to “Win now.”
The Rams, not strapped for cash and wanting to keep interest flowing towards SoFi Stadium while the iron is hot, acquiesced to Donald’s demands and gave him a massive raise that only replaced the pre-existing three years left on his deal with a new $95 million contract without adding any additional years.
This was only a matter of the NFL’s best defensive player of his generation, the one we’ll still be talking about in 30 years like many do with Lawrence Taylor, telling his bosses that he knows that they have the money to give him a raise and that they shouldn’t let him fall behind the likes of T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett. I had estimated that Donald wanted to be the first $30 million AAV defensive player and then L.A. made him the first $30 million AAV defensive player.
And then right after the Rams paid Donald, I predicted that such a move would not be allowed to transpire without Cooper Kupp and his agent similarly demanding a raise despite already being under contract; Kupp signed a three-year extension in 2020, but then he won the 2022 Offensive Player of the Year award and suddenly his $15.75 million AAV looked goofy in comparison to many of his peers at the same position.
As we expected at Turf Show Times, Kupp was handed a three-year, $80 million contract extension that the team really did not have to give him. Kupp saw a window to reasonably demand a raise and he was right in believing that L.A. would reward him rather than risk as coming off as “cheap” or losing his services, just as the Packers had to face with Davante Adams and the Chiefs with Tyreek Hill.
Instead of trading Kupp for two first round picks and letting another team pay him $26 million per year on a new deal, the Rams made sure that Matthew Stafford’s number one target did not become somebody else’s number one target. And lucky for Kupp, he did not become Tua Tagovailoa’s number one target.
That’s a sure way to not repeat as OPOY.
But what message will these two raises, as well as Stafford’s own four-year, $160 million extension, send to the other key players on the Rams’ roster?
Because it is one thing to assume that you’ll always been able to find room underneath the cap to keep the band together, as the L.A. Rams have managed to do for the last few years in spite of so many bad contracts like those of Todd Gurley and Jared Goff. It’s another thing to think that you can predict human nature.
Like the human nature of players like Jalen Ramsey or Leonard Floyd or Allen Robinson to never want to play “at a discount” for the Rams if the Rams are obviously so willing to give out raises if the players know when the right time to start holding out is. This is not just a Rams issue, this is something that we’re now seeing play out all over the league as has been the case for forcing those wide receiver trades mentioned above, as well as the quarterback movement that includes Stafford, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, and even Tom Brady over the last few years.
We could see this exact situation play out with Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray, among others, in 2023. Including, potentially, Jalen Ramsey.
The fact that the Rams paid Ramsey a five-year, $100 million contract extension in 2020 will not matter if Ramsey ends up having his best career season in 2022. Let’s say that Ramsey ends up posting seven interceptions, makes his third-straight first-team All-Pro team, and maybe even wins Defensive Player of the Year. Another cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, took home that hardware only two years ago.
Of all the personalities on the Rams, do you think that Jalen Ramsey is the type to play at a discount, even if he is the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL already and will have three more seasons left on his contract? The same cornerback who has felt disrespected from having one anonymous person say he might be a “little overrated”?
That’s not the Ramsey that we’ve seen so far in his career. The same Ramsey who has already been traded once already.
Ramsey is set to carry a $23.2 million cap hit in 2022, with $15 million of that in base salary. He will have a $25.2 million cap hit in 2023, with $17 million of that in base salary BUT none of that base salary is guaranteed. Ramsey then has a $4 million roster bonus due in each of the 2024 and 2025 offseasons, meaning that his agent will already be keenly aware of the fact that the team could be wary of those deadlines after the next two seasons.
Essentially, right now Jalen Ramsey is on a two-year contract even though he has four years left on his current deal. What do I mean by that?
I mean that because the team saves $15.3 million by cutting Ramsey in 2024 (and $5.6 million if they cut him in 2023), he and his agent have to consider 2023 to be kind of a “contract year.” Either he plays like a superstar again and gets a raise that also guarantees his 2023 and 2024 base salaries OR he says that he wants to go to a team that will guarantee him those numbers.
There’s also a lot of pressure for Ramsey to not fail in 2022 and 2023 because he and his agent know that at his exorbitant cap hit figures, the team will always be taking his deal into consideration when looking for ways to save money. That is especially concerning if you play for the L.A. Rams because no matter what they tell you about the salary cap being fake, I assure you it is real ... and the Rams already have the 10th-most liabilities in 2023 and the 2nd-most liabilities in 2024.
That’s what happens when you give top-of-the-market raises to three of your best players in a single offseason.
Ramsey is the most obvious case of a player who will want a raise in the next 12 months, but he isn’t the only one on L.A.’s roster. I can’t imagine that the Rams want to give Floyd an extension given that he will already be 31 in 2023, but he is also the only edge rusher on the team with anything resembling a pass rushing resume. Can the Rams afford Floyd asking for his 2024 base salary ($13.5 million) to be fully guaranteed if he has a Pro Bowl season in 2022?
The team just signed Allen Robinson to a three-year, $46.5 million contract that is essentially a two-year, $30 million deal when you get right down to it. If Robinson has over 2,200 receiving yards combined in 2022 and 2023, he can void his deal and become a free agent again at 31, hoping to strike it rich one more time.
But will he ask for a new contract if he has a 2022 that looks a lot more like the 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns that he posted in 2015?
Even Tyler Higbee could have some leverage next year if it turns out for another season that Brycen Hopkins and Kendall Blanton don’t appear to be heir apparent options at tight end. Higbee is set to make $6.25 million in base salary for 2023, actually putting him below Gerald Everett (and 15 other tight ends) even though that’s a player that Higbee beat out year after year while they were teammates on the Rams.
This is all setting aside the fact that the Rams must reveal their plans on how to keep A’Shawn Robinson, Rob Havenstein, David Edwards, Greg Gaines, Nick Scott, and/or Matt Gay past 2022, if they plan to keep any of them, as they are all set to become free agents.
I do not question that Les Snead and Tony Pastoors have a plan for how to make this work beyond 2022. It’s that I’m curious what they have as a contingency plan if it becomes apparent that Donald and Kupp won’t be the last ones to ask for raises well before those raises were expected to be due.