IRVINE, Calif. -- Aaron Donald's holdout is expected to reach its seventh day Friday, with no real end in sight. The game's greatest interior lineman is engaged in a high-stakes staredown with the Los Angeles Rams, who appear to find themselves somewhere between doing what is sensible and doing what is right.
Donald is under team control for at least two more years, set to make a combined base salary of $8,694,250 in 2017 and '18. But he has performed to the level of the game's highest-paid defensive players, a group earning nine-figure salaries on six-year contracts. And now he wants to be compensated accordingly.
Donald didn't show up for the Rams' three-week organized team activities this spring and has yet to arrive for training camp, absorbing $40,000-a-day fines to make his point. This could linger. The Rams previously extended gadget receiver Tavon Austin and edge rusher Robert Quinn before their fourth seasons, but those deals weren't consummated until about September. Ditto for Michael Brockers, the Rams nose tackle who signed his second contract heading into his fifth season. Among the five highest-paid defensive players in the league, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt remains the only star to sign an extension despite completing only three NFL seasons. His deal got done in September, too.
None of those players held out.
For now, talks between the two sides are considered amicable. Donald's representatives at CAA have not commented, but the Rams have only said the right things.
At the scouting combine in early March, general manager Les Snead said Donald "deserves a raise." In early June, COO Kevin Demoff said Donald "deserves to be paid among the elite players in our game" during an event for season-ticket holders. In a joint news conference before the start of training camp last Friday, Snead and head coach Sean McVay used the word "respect" 11 times in 10 minutes when discussing Donald, his agents and the negotiation. And just two days ago, McVay said the front office is "tirelessly working to try to find a solution."
What, exactly, is the right solution?
There are two very different ways to rationalize it.
The financially prudent approach
The following point is almost inarguable: It's a lot cheaper to go year-by-year with Donald than it is to pay him what he would command in the open market.
Let's do some quick math. Donald will cost $3,225,250 toward the salary cap in 2017 and $6,892,000 toward the salary cap in 2018. Let's say, to make things easy, that the 2019 franchise tag for Donald costs $16 million. Let's assume that they franchise him yet again in 2020, which would consist of a 20-percent raise from the prior year and cost the Rams $19.2 million. With that in mind, Donald would cost the Rams $45,317,250 toward the salary cap in four years.
Now, just for reference, let's look at the contract for the game's highest-paid defensive player, outside linebacker Von Miller. In the first four years of his six-year, $114.5 million deal, Miller will cost the Broncos a combined $75.2 million toward the cap. That's a significant difference. And it's why one NFL agent, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of these negotiations, said: "The Rams should sit back and do nothing. Let him play out this year, let him play out the fifth-year option, and franchise him."
When it comes to getting a long-term deal done with Donald, the Rams face potential stumbling blocks.
First is the fact that the highest-paid player at Donald's position, Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, is very nearly the game's top-earning defensive player. Suh owns a six-year, $114.375 million deal that includes nearly $60 million in guaranteed revenue. Suh played five NFL seasons before venturing into the open market to get that deal, but Donald's side would probably argue that he deserves to be the highest-paid defensive tackle now.
Then there's the precedent the Rams may have set with their own contracts, paying what some would consider above-market price for Austin (four years, $42 million with $28.5 million guaranteed) and Brockers (three years, $33.25 million contract with more than $24 million guaranteed).
And there's that whole thing about location. Even if Donald doesn't file as a California resident, he would still be taxed at a rate of 13.3 percent for about 85 percent of the days he works throughout a typical NFL season (a little less so this year, because the Rams are playing in London and will thus spend an entire week outside of California). Suh and Watt, meanwhile, live in tax-free states, so they benefit from roughly 85 percent of their work days being free of state taxes. Donald, then, could easily say he deserves even more.
At that point, does it make sense for the Rams to give him a monster deal?
They have him even cheaper because he was drafted outside the top 10 and was thus owed less on his fifth-year option. They have less than $4 million in salary-cap space this year, according to OverTheCap.com. And though OverTheCap has them set up to have about $53 million in salary-cap space next year, the Rams also want to extend inside linebacker Alec Ogletree and defensive back Lamarcus Joyner, both of whom are heading into their final seasons under team control.
Is it worth blowing up their salary cap?
The 'do right by your star' approach
ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a former defensive back who spent 13 years as an NFL executive, considers this a no-brainer.
"There’s too many superlatives, there’s too many positives, there's too many benefits to getting this done, and there's not a single reason why you shouldn’t," Riddick said in a phone conversation. "... If you made Aaron Donald the highest-paid defensive player in the National Football League right now, no one would blink an eye. No one."
Donald has never failed to make the Pro Bowl, and has been first-team All-Pro in each of the past two seasons. Heading into this year, the reputable Pro Football Focus considers him the game's best player, regardless of position. His 28 sacks over the past three seasons are four more than any other defensive tackle. Last season, he led the NFL in quarterback hits (31) and tied for the NFL lead in tackles for loss (17). He has become an unstoppable force. But he's also a disciplined hard worker who's only 26, hasn't missed a game and hasn't been in trouble.
He is the perfect player to break the bank for -- the type of guy to build a franchise around.
"This isn’t a matter of what you can do to the player as far as controlling his salary and the cap ramifications of his salary," Riddick argues. "This is about what you should do."
If you're the Rams, it's hard to justify giving Austin more than $10 million a year and not spending big on Donald. They've suffered 10 consecutive losing seasons, are still trying to establish themselves in the nation's second largest media market and are coming off a 4-12 showing in 2016. The last thing the Rams need is a reputation for not taking care of their own.
But what kind of contract makes sense here?
Riddick sees a five- to six-year deal worth between $18.5 and $19 million annually as reasonable for Donald, a contract that would rank just behind Miller and Suh for third among defensive players. Jason Fitzgerald, who founded OverTheCap.com and co-wrote a book detailing the salary cap called "Crunching Numbers," suggests about $21.6 million per year, with upwards of $65 million paid in the first three seasons.
Those figures, Fitzgerald wrote in an email, would represent a raise over Miller's deal similar to the raise Miller received over the Chiefs' Justin Houston. The latter signed a six-year, $101 million contract in the summer of 2015. What really matters, though, is guaranteed dollars. Miller leads with $70 million, followed by the Eagles' Fletcher Cox ($63.30), the Bills' Marcell Dareus ($60 million), Suh ($59.96 million) and the Jets' Muhammad Wilkerson ($53.50).
Watt received $51.88 million guaranteed on a six-year, $100 million contract. His deal is widely considered the best comp for Donald, because he signed it heading into his fourth season and because he was deemed the game's best defensive player at the time. But Watt's deal was done in 2014. The cap has increased by $34 million since then, which means Donald's contract may need to surpass it significantly.
In Riddick's mind, this matters very little.
"I just get when you need to step outside your comfort zone for certain players," he said. "Aaron Donald lets you sleep at night. No matter how much money you're paying him, he lets you sleep at night."