How Aaron Donald's situation might be tied to Khalil Mack's

Aaron Donald is looking to get paid like the NFL's best defensive player, which many believe he is. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Aaron Donald will probably, at some point, become the game's highest-paid defensive player -- for some time, at least. His extension, whenever it gets done, promises to have a profound impact on the structure of the Los Angeles Rams' salary cap, the type that can greatly affect who can return and what can be added.

Given that, Rams general manager Les Snead was asked whether his star defensive tackle represents the first or the last domino of his offseason.

"I don't know necessarily in terms of last or first," Snead told a group of reporters Wednesday afternoon, four days after the Rams' season-ending loss to the Atlanta Falcons. "What I do know is he's an important domino."

Another important domino could be Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack, who might need to sign his deal before the Rams and Donald's representatives can get serious about their own extension.

Mack was drafted eight spots ahead of Donald, with the fifth overall pick in 2014. Like Donald, Mack is approaching the final year of his rookie contract (except Mack will make $13.85 million, more than double what Donald is scheduled to earn because he was selected within the first 10 picks and plays a historically more lucrative position).

Donald is an interior lineman who affects games more than any edge rusher. He could win NFL Defensive Player of the Year -- an award Mack won in 2016 -- and has been widely considered the game's best defensive player for at least the past two seasons, most notably by evaluators at Pro Football Focus. Donald's representatives at CAA would probably lean toward waiting to see if Mack's rep, Joel Segal, will set the market first, which is at least part of the reason a deal was never completed last year.

"To be honest with you, I would be probably lying if I put a timeline on this one," Snead said when asked about Donald's potential extension, which could pay him $20 million a year. "We want him to be a Ram a long time. So when we ink that deal -- or not -- I can’t put a timeline on it. But it is a major priority, as it always will be until we get it done."

It's a priority because of Donald's stature but not necessarily because of Donald's contract. The 26-year-old is under control at a very reasonable price this coming season, at $6.89 million, and the Rams can use the franchise tag on him up to three times thereafter. More pressing, from a practical sense, are potential free agents such as safety Lamarcus Joyner, cornerback Trumaine Johnson and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, a potential candidate to be tagged.

"We’ll have them all going on simultaneously and try to knock them out," said Snead, who plans to reconvene with his executives shortly after the Super Bowl. "We’ve got a little bit of a general plan as it is now. We’ll come back and fine-tune it."

Donald spent an entire summer holding out last year. He didn't report to the Rams until the day before their season opener, arriving too late to suit up in Week 1. He played in only 14 regular-season games, but he still finished with a career-high-tying 11 sacks and an NFL-leading 91 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. In the 26-13 loss to the Falcons on Saturday, he generated an additional 11 pressures, 10 of which came in the first half.

Donald recently talked about how he felt fresher than usual down the stretch because he didn't put his body through training camp.

He was asked, tongue in cheek, whether he would hold out again because of it.

"Nah," he said, smiling. "I ain't going to do it again. Well, I don't know. I hope I don't have to do it again."

Donald can't really engage in another prolonged holdout. If he fails to report a month before the start of the regular season, he would delay his free agency by a year, a risk Donald almost certainly will not take. But he can still make the Rams sweat a little bit, and Snead's hope is that his talks with Donald's reps are a little more constructive now than they were before.

Winning should help.

Donald was impressed with the culture change that had taken place under first-year head coach Sean McVay by the time he returned Sept. 9. The Rams then navigated through a surprisingly resurgent season, leading the NFL in points, finishing with an 11-5 record and winning their first division title since 2003. Now, given the overall youth on the roster, there seems to be a foundation in place for sustained success, all of which appeals to Donald.

"He probably hates losing more than he likes to win," Snead said. "I know he has told people how much he respects Sean, the other coaches on the staff, the culture they're building. What we're building, he's a main part of, so I do think that definitely helps. But I do think, like most players, they also want to be compensated well as well. Both sides of the street."