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Aaron Donald’s next appearance of Rams offseason will be at training camp

The less we see of Donald, the more I wonder what role he will have with L.A. in 2023

Los Angeles Rams v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

When the L.A. Rams restructured Cooper Kupp’s contract on Wednesday to free over $10 million against the 2023 salary cap, it made me think of Aaron Donald and his current status on the team. The Rams gave Donald a new contract in 2022 and he’s one of only two players left on the team now who makes over $3 million in base salary this season, the other being Tyler Higbee.

Donald is set to make a $13.5 million base salary but L.A. has decided not to touch his contract (yet) and instead focused on Kupp. That’s fine, it makes sense, but would the Rams dare risk converting Donald’s salary into a signing bonus in order to save any money against the salary cap like they did Kupp? Almost certainly not.

At this point, it would be shocking if the Rams needed to free up any cap space, so Donald’s contract should remain as is, which continues into 2024 with a cap hit of $34.1 million.

Donald has the highest annual average salary of any non-quarterback in the NFL.

Then I wondered what role Aaron Donald will serve exactly in 2023, given that he has more experience than the rest of the defense. Combined. More snaps, more games played, more starts. It could easily be the biggest challenge of Donald’s career to carry the load of a defense that is expected to be the youngest and least-experienced in the NFL, but if you thought that he would be around in the offseason to mentor the new guys then you would be wrong.

Donald was not present at OTAs and Sean McVay noted that Donald has an excused absence from mandatory minicamp this week, too. Donald will return to the team on July 25th, when training camp starts. At OTAs last month, McVay noted that Donald had “family stuff” to deal with, as well as Kupp:

“They had some family stuff that they’re taking care of,” coach Sean McVay told reporters. “This has been consistent. We knew about this for a long time. These guys are engaged. Aaron was here for the first parts of [the offseason program], but this was always part of the plan to be able to be with his family a little bit and some of the things that he’s got to handle. And then hopefully sooner rather than later, Cooper and Anna will be expecting their third [child]. But those guys have done a great job communicating, staying engaged, and they know everything that’s going on, so [I] feel good about that dialogue that’s existed.”

Then this week at minicamp, McVay cited “family stuff” again as both Donald and A.J. Jackson were excused from showing up this week:

“That’s one of those deals where you talk to them, felt like that was the priority, and they’ll be ready roll, and they’ll be taking care of themselves over the break, and then they’ll be ready to roll when we report to Irvine on July 25th,” McVay added.

At his press conference this week, McVay praised third round defensive tackle Kobie Turner as one of the early standouts at practices. It would be interesting to see how Turner develops playing alongside a first ballot Hall of Famer who has made nine Pro Bowl rosters in nine seasons, but it’s unclear just how direct of a role that Donald will have with mentoring young players on the roster and carrying a defense that is almost entirely made up of first-time starters. Maybe we would have some idea if Donald was at OTAs and minicamps, instead we will first see him more involved when training camp starts in roughly six weeks.

Which is fine, Aaron Donald has earned that right. It’s just a fair observation to make that on a roster with few veteran presences to begin with, the Rams haven’t had two of those players—Kupp and Donald—very often during the offseason.

To what degree that impacts the upcoming season, whether it’s a negligible amount or more, can’t be measured. But it’s worth keeping track of.