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Rams shift focus to contracts for Aaron Donald, others

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The roars reverberated through the facility. Sean McVay informed his players on Wednesday afternoon that he was canceling the Thursday morning practice, the final session of his offseason program, as a reward for all the hard work they put in over these past nine weeks. They were suddenly free to go, on their own until they all reconvene for training camp in late July, and the room had a last-day-of-school excitement to it.

But the Los Angeles Rams' front office still has work to do, because some key contract situations remain unsettled.

Aaron Donald, the game's best interior pass-rusher, is dissatisfied with what he will earn over these next two years and is seemingly striving to be paid among the game's best defensive players. But there's also primary cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who was slapped with the franchise tag again and can't sign an extension after July 15. And inside linebacker Alec Ogletree, a free agent at season's end whom the Rams badly want to extend. And, perhaps, Lamarcus Joyner, a slot cornerback and free safety who is under contract for one more year and is very much a part of the Rams' long-term plans.

Donald didn't attend the three weeks that included organized team activities but did rejoin the team for this week's mandatory minicamp and spent the two days conditioning on his own. Rams general manager Les Snead said on May 22 that he was "very hopeful that this thing will get done" with Donald. But he stated Thursday that there is "nothing new" with those discussions.

"Aaron Donald is a priority for us," Snead said. "That's about all I can say."

Donald was not made available to speak with the media upon returning, but coaches and front-office executives have offered effusive praise in recent days. New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, never one to hyperbolize, called him "an elite player" with "a great attitude" after practice on Wednesday and said, "I can't say enough good things about him." While addressing hundreds of fans during the Rams All-Access event at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Thursday afternoon, COO Kevin Demoff called Donald "the epitome of what you want your players to be.

"He couldn't be a better person, human being, leader," Demoff said. "... There's a lot of time to get this done, but there's an urgency on our part because you want to reward players like Aaron."

Demoff was referring to the fact that Donald has two years remaining on his contract, which makes something like this tricky. Without an extension, Donald would cost just over $10 million toward the cap over these next two seasons. Replacing that with a contract that would rank among the highest for defensive players would significantly increase that figure. It's why J.J. Watt is the only one among the five highest-paid defensive players to sign his deal two years before free agency -- and his six-year, $100 million contract wasn't agreed to until early September.

The game's highest-paid defensive player is Denver outside linebacker Von Miller, who signed a six-year, $114.5 million contract with $70 million guaranteed last July. After Miller are a couple of defensive tackles: Ndamukong Suh of the Dolphins (six years, $114.375 million with nearly $60 million guaranteed) and Fletcher Cox of the Eagles (six years, $102.6 million with nearly $63.3 million guaranteed). Fifth on the list is Watt, whose deal was completed in 2014 and is probably no longer an accurate comparison.

"Aaron deserves to be paid among the elite players in our game," Demoff told fans at the All-Access event. "That's never been a sticking point for anybody in our organization."

"When he's here, he's a happy guy," McVay, the Rams' first-year head coach, said of Donald. "He loves football. He wants to be here, he wants to get something worked out. And I think with respect to his representation, what he's done for this organization, we're optimistic that we can come to a deal that's fair for both. ... I think we’re optimistic that something's going to work out."

The Rams have been very open about their interest in working something out with Donald but closed about their desire to extend Johnson.

The sixth-year cornerback is to make $16.742 million under his second consecutive franchise tag, placed on Johnson because the Rams couldn't afford to lose him and were uncertain about extending him. Snead had expressed a desire to wait until after the offseason program concluded to make sure Johnson was a fit for a Phillips system that asks its cornerbacks to play a lot of man coverage. It's over now, and he still sounds non-committal.

Asked directly about whether he would explore an extension with Johnson before traning camp, Snead said: "We're going to continue to sit and discuss -- because his situation is based on all the people we have, whether it's Aaron, Ogeltree, Tru -- and navigate those waters."

Snead nonetheless likes Johnson's size, which makes him especially effective in press coverage and against the run. McVay believes he "fits in any system," which Johnson tends to agree with.

"I can play man, I can play off, I can play zone, I can play waterboy," Johnson said. "I can play anything y'all want to play, man."

But Johnson would seemingly command a contract similar to the five-year, $69 million deal Desmond Trufant signed with Atlanta this offseason. His high salary for 2017 gives him little incentive to accept much less. But the Rams are also wary of the fact that Johnson hasn't necessarily performed among the elite cornerbacks in the game.

He is now one of 11 defensive players who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents at season's end. And the highest priority in that group is Ogeltree, a captain last season. The Rams have about $4 million in salary-cap space but are set up to have about $42 million in cap space in 2018, fifth-most in the NFL.

In other words, they have the ability to sign their players long-term.

It's just a matter of making it all work.

"When you have a 53-man roster, you have to be able to juggle a few balls in the air," Snead said recently. "It's not just one person; it's a team. All of those variables we have to work through."