The first thing to understand about Aaron Donald's training camp holdout is that Donald is right. He is grossly underpaid relative to his production and the victim of a system designed to limit both the income and freedom of first-round picks during their first five years in the NFL.
The question, though, as the defensive tackle sits out the start of Los Angeles Rams camp, is this: What's his hurry?
Donald is a unique, possibly transcendent player. He has 28 sacks in his three years in the NFL. Only nine players in the league have more sacks over the past three years, and all of them are edge rushers (as are the next eight guys on the list after Donald). Donald does his damage from an interior defensive line spot, employing an otherworldly quickness at the snap that's just too fast for interior offensive linemen to handle. He disrupts quarterbacks in the way they hate most -- right in their faces, right away.
So the fact that he's scheduled to make $1,802,250 this year and $6.892 million next year on his fifth-year option is a shame. Donald's better than that. The top defensive tackles in the league make upward of $16 million to $17 million a year. He's unquestionably one of those, and he has a right to believe he should be paid as such.
The thing is, barring a catastrophic injury, he undoubtedly will be. And if he waits a year or even two, Donald's payoff is likely to be light-years beyond any deal he made now.
With two years until free agency (at least, since the Rams could franchise him in 2019), Donald has no leverage in his negotiations with the Rams. They're paying him what the collective bargaining agreement says they have to pay him, and no one else can get their hands on him until 2019 at the earliest without their say-so. The Rams would do a deal now only to either make their star player happy or because it's the right thing to do. Neither of those reasons would typically induce an NFL front office to empty its coffers.
So if Donald got a deal now, it would have to be favorable to the Rams. Even if the team was feeling incredibly generous, the best he could hope for would be something along the lines of Kawann Short's five-year, $80.5 million deal with Carolina or Muhammad Wilkerson's five-year, $86 million deal with the Jets. And each of those guys signed in his franchise season -- two years beyond where Donald is now. Such a deal would be a coup for Donald at this stage in his career, and it would be surprising to see the Rams set such a precedent.
Which means doing a deal now would give away Donald's leverage and limit his capacity to truly make what he's worth in the prime of his career. Donald is good enough that, if he were to get to his franchise season, he could legitimately ask for Ndamukong Suh money -- the six-year, $114 million deal with $60 million guaranteed that Suh got from the Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent two years ago. And if the Rams know he's willing to sit out camp or even regular-season games, he'd have established the kind of leverage that would allow him to demand it.
Waiting a year or two could make Donald the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. He has no chance of becoming that right now unless the Rams are willing to toss away all of their leverage, which they're not.
The risk, of course, is injury. A career-ending injury in 2017 or 2018 would derail any dreams Donald has of a big NFL payday. This is true for any player, and this ever-present fear is yet another market factor that works in favor of the teams. Guys get scared, sign too soon and give away the leverage they have to move the market and make history. See: Watt, J.J., 2014.
Donald is right to feel underpaid. He is. So is Odell Beckham Jr., the superstar wide receiver whom the Giants drafted right before the Rams took Donald in 2014. Each was picked outside of the top 10, which makes their financial situation even worse, as it reduces their fifth-year option prices. The system is set up to keep these guys down, and if they want to kick and scream and hold out over it, that's their right.
In the end, the only leverage these guys have is to threaten to withhold services. Donald has chosen that route to start camp. Beckham has not.
"I don't have time [to hold out]," Beckham told reporters Friday. "I'm 24 years old. I'm trying to play football until I can't play football anymore. I can't get caught up taking days and not playing. "
We're not here to say which player is handling his salary dissatisfactions the right way. Big picture, though, if the goal is to become the highest-paid player, the better play is to wait. Letting your employer know you're desperate to get a deal done now is not the way to maximize your earning potential.