THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Star defensive tackle Aaron Donald is headed for another Pro Bowl, but it has also been another trying season for one of the game's fiercest competitors.
"It’s been tough," said Donald, his Los Angeles Rams sitting at 4-10. "It’s definitely been tough this year. I had high expectations for this year, thinking we were going to do some big things, and a lot of things just didn’t go the way we expected. But the only thing we can do is finish these last two games strong and try to build on what we have. Next year it’s going to be a totally different team."
A lot will change about the Rams in 2017, which will mark the team's second season back in L.A. The head coach will certainly be different, as Jeff Fisher was fired Dec. 12. Soon the entire coaching staff will be overhauled, and the front office might be, too, if general manager Les Snead does not stay. Then the roster will change. The Rams need depth at linebacker, cornerback and safety. They need to inject talent at receiver, overhaul the offensive line and make decisions about several key free agents, most notably Trumaine Johnson, Kenny Britt, T.J. McDonald, Benny Cunningham, Greg Zuerlein and Case Keenum.
Simply put: They need to figure out ways to surround Donald with the type of talent that will maximize his strength as the game's best interior pass-rusher.
Donald has gone to the Pro Bowl every season he has been in the NFL, becoming the Rams' first defensive player to make three straight trips since cornerback Jerry Gray from 1986 to '89. Donald leads the NFL with 29 quarterback hits and is tied for the lead with 16 tackles for loss, adding seven sacks, four pass deflections and two forced fumbles despite being the focal point of opposing offensive coordinators every week.
They throw double- and triple-teams at him, structure game plans around their quarterbacks getting the ball out of their hands quickly, all to negate Donald's overwhelming presence.
"He's still a game-wrecker," said Hekker, who has already tied an NFL record with 46 punts downed inside the 20-yard line this season. "He's just so disruptive. He's got such an amazing burst off the ball, and he's just a hard-working guy who has once-in-a-couple-generations type of talent."
Donald can still make a case for defensive player of the year, especially with Texans star J.J. Watt injured, but he doesn't much care for it.
"It ain’t about individual success," Donald said. "It’s a team game."
And Donald is part of a team that has lost nine of its last 10 games and is coming off four consecutive blowout losses. His Rams have never been better than 7-9.
"It’s frustrating," Donald said. "You train, and you put so much time into this game to try to win, to get your body in top shape, to get you physically ready. And then you go through such a grind, where you wear your body down and you do so much, to go play a game, and you lose week in and week out, you’re going to be frustrated."
That frustration has seemingly spilled over a couple of times already this season. Late in a season-opening, 28-0 blowout loss against the San Francisco 49ers -- the Rams' next opponent -- Donald was ejected for unnecessary roughness and for making contact with an official, then slammed his helmet to the turf as he walked off the field. Late in a 24-3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks last Thursday, Donald received 30 yards' worth of penalties on one play, first for grabbing a facemask and then for flinging the official's flag.
The Rams' roster might get an overhaul this offseason, but Donald still sees promise within it.
It's part of what has made this season so trying.
"I think there’s a lot of talent on this team," Donald said. "I think we have a lot of big-time players that can be stars in this league. That’s the thing that makes you frustrated, because you have so much talent on this team and then you go out and play week in and week out and you’re not winning games, and you just don’t know why. It’s definitely tough, man. I couldn’t even put it in words. Just have to try to bottle that anger in and not do certain things that hurt the team."