The Rams and Donald are still engaged in contract negotiations, a situation general manager Les Snead described as "delicate" and "complicated" while speaking to the media from the campus of UC Irvine on Thursday afternoon.
Donald, who seeks higher compensation for his stellar defensive play despite being two years away from free agency, was not present during the three weeks of organized team activities earlier this spring. He avoided a fine by showing up to the mandatory three-day veteran minicamp, but only worked out on his own. The Rams practice as a team in training camp for the first time on Saturday. If Donald doesn't show up, he faces daily $40,000 fines.
Snead said agreeing to an extension with Donald is "still a priority."
"And that’s been a priority for us then [during the offseason program], this summer, and even as we head into camp."
Asked if he is optimistic something will get done before the start of the regular season, Snead said: "We’re working to find a resolution. I don’t want to get into optimistic or pessimistic, because it’s a complicated situation. We respect Aaron and his group, and we’re working to find a win-win."
Donald has performed to the level of the game's highest-paid defensive players but is set to make less than $9 million in base salary over the next two seasons. In other words, both sides have a lot of ground to make up.
The largest contract on defense belongs to Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller, who signed a six-year, $114.5 million contract that guarantees him $70 million. But Miller signed that to replace a franchise tag. Among the five largest contracts for defensive players, only J.J. Watt's deal, signed in 2015, was agreed upon leading up to his fourth season. And that didn't happen until September of that year. Internally, the Rams extended Robert Quinn and Tavon Austin before their fourth seasons in the league. But those moves also took place around September.
"These are delicate situations," Snead said. "I think you have to respect Aaron and his side, and that business move. It’s really at that point all about respect. Yes, we’d love for him to be here, hope he’s here, would help if he’s here. But if he decides not to, then it’s a thing you have to respect."
Donald has been named first-team All-Pro each of the last two years and is widely considered the game's best interior lineman. Last year, he led the NFL in quarterback hits and tied for the lead in tackles for loss. Heading into this season, Pro Football Focus deemed Donald the game's best player, regardless of position.
Rams rookie head coach Sean McVay said he communicated with Donald "over the course of the offseason" and that he believes they have had "good dialogue."
"We're optimistic that Aaron will be here and be a part of what we're trying to do this coming year," McVay said. "I think the defensive line is a spot that we feel good about, and we'll be able to adjust accordingly if that's something that does come up."
While trying to get something done with Donald, the Rams opted against signing cornerback Trumaine Johnson to an extension before the July 17 deadline. Instead, Johnson will play under the franchise tag for a second consecutive year, set to make $16.7 million in 2017, more than any other player at his position.
The Rams are set up to have nearly $40 million in cap space in 2018, seventh-highest in the NFL. But Donald is a priority, as are inside linebacker Alec Ogletree and defensive back Lamarcus Joyner, both of whom are free agents at the end of the season.
"It's a little bit of a juggling situation in how you budget and how you strategize how much room you have, things like that," Snead said. "... We had some players who were coming up. We prioritized them, we tried to work through them, so I think that's where Tru falls."
It seems, though, that Donald's situation looms over everybody's.
The Rams are moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Though Donald's role won't change, his uncertain situation could develop into a distraction throughout a crucial training camp.
"Right now we're focused on trying to get an agreement done, and then we'll get to that phase next if that weren't the case," Snead said. "We'll take it step by step and tackle the rock in front of us, and that's trying to come up with a resolution."