For a second consecutive season, Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald -- the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year -- is expected to stay away from training camp until a contract resolution is reached.
A first-round pick in 2014, Donald is entering the final season of his rookie deal and is scheduled to earn $6.9 million. If he does not report to camp by Aug. 7, he will remain a restricted free agent after the season.
Last season, Donald reported on the eve of the opener -- without a new contract in place -- and was activated in Week 2.
The Rams could be staring at a similar situation this season as they prepare to open camp Thursday.
We turn to our panel of experts to discuss the situation.
Should the Rams just pay Donald and be done with this?
Lindsey Thiry, NFL Nation reporter: Not exactly. The Rams should absolutely make Donald the highest-paid defensive player, something in the ballpark of $20 million, but beyond that they must proceed with caution. The Rams want to build a sustainable Super Bowl contender and to do that need to be able to keep several star players -- including Todd Gurley, with whom they reached a long-term extension earlier this week, and Jared Goff, who is entering the third season of his five-year rookie deal. Because of the salary cap -- and the need to field an entire team, not just a defensive tackle -- they cannot overspend at the position, regardless of how good Donald is.
Matt Bowen, NFL writer: Yes. The Rams went all-in this offseason on veteran talent to put this club in a position to make a Super Bowl run. But that only works with Donald in the mix as the team preps during camp. We are talking about one of the league’s premier players, a game-changer up front. And he’s still in the prime of his career. This should be an easy decision for the Rams' front office to extend the contract of the All-Pro DT.
Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief Football Outsiders: No team ever went bust paying one of the best players in the league in the middle of his prime. The problem is usually overpaying middle-class players or mediocre quarterbacks, not great defenders such as Donald. They can work the rest of the cap around him.
Mina Kimes, ESPN The Magazine senior writer: Yes. It’s Aaron Donald! The question, of course, is how much he wants -- based on the contracts given to players like Von Miller and Fletcher Cox, one would expect Donald to pull more than $20 million per year, a.k.a. quarterback money. But the Rams have a great deal of leverage here, given that they can keep franchising him at comparable cost, and one would think Donald doesn’t want to play that game for too long.
Dan Graziano, ESPN NFL Insider: Of course. It’s insane that it’s taken this long. The Rams have doled out new deals this offseason for Ndamukong Suh and Brandin Cooks, neither of whom has ever played a game for them. They traded for Aqib Talib, who carries an $11 million cap number. You don’t throw money at other teams’ stars without reserving some for your own. Donald will justifiably be upset if the Rams nickel-and-dime him, and given the way he’s produced for them, there’s no reason for them to do that. Fortunately, I don’t think they will. I think this is more about Donald and Khalil Mack each waiting for the other to go first.
Is Donald the league’s best defender?
Thiry: Yes. Donald’s first step is explosive, his hands are fast and he’s strong as an ox, making him a force to reckon with as an interior lineman. Not only does he put up big numbers, he had 91 pressures last season -- 21 more than the next interior lineman, according to Pro Football Focus -- and his 39 sacks the last four seasons are best among defensive tackles, but he does it while consistently taking on double and sometimes triple teams.
Bowen: Donald is the NFL’s “most disruptive” defender. And his tape is loaded with clinic-level technique. The hands at the point of attack, the quickness off the line of scrimmage and the ability to slice through gaps. This guy can create instant chaos. Simply put, Donald is a matchup nightmare inside. And his production speaks for itself.
Schatz: Donald gives you pass rush from the interior, so he’s both a run-stopper and a pass-rusher. He led all interior linemen in sacks, QB knockdowns, and average length of tackle. His “weakness,” comparatively, is run defense. His average tackle or assist on a running play came after a gain of just 1.2 yards; that was eighth in the league. When “eighth” is your weakness, that’s pretty good.
Kimes: Yes. Donald’s ability to generate pressure from the inside is basically unparalleled; he’s a game-breaking player, which is why he’s been named a first team All-Pro three times in four years. There’s no reason to believe he’ll slow down any time soon. He racked up 27 quarterback hits last year (fourth in the league), which bodes well for his ability to add to his sack total this season.
Graziano: I would say yes, because of the way he performs and produces at a position that doesn’t usually see his level of production. Delivering 9.75 sacks per year from an interior defensive line spot gives your team a huge advantage over most teams, which don’t get that kind of production in there. Watching Donald wreck backfields with his incredible first move is to watch a player who’s doing things others simply can’t do.
What should we expect when Donald does report?
Thiry: Donald has a superior work ethic and there is no doubt that he will be in elite physical condition when he reports, much like last season when he held out of training camp and reported on the eve of the season opener. Donald was activated in Week 2 and expressed some displeasure in his performance, saying that though he was physically sound he was not in football shape. By Week 3 Donald appeared in midseason form.
Bowen: The same professional approach that propelled Donald to the DPOY award in 2017 after he held out of training camp. Look, the Rams coaches will want Donald to be on the practice field this August. From a conditioning and team-building aspect, having the All-Pro DT in camp is a positive for L.A. But as Donald showed last season, he can miss time and still dismantle opposing offenses when he returns.
Schatz: Donald came back from his holdout last year, went right back into the Rams' lineup, and the Rams' defense was great. Donald will come back from his holdout this year, go right back into the Rams' lineup, and the Rams' defense will be great.
Kimes: I thought he might need a few weeks to ease back into the game after his holdout last season; I was wrong. Based on what we saw in 2017, Donald will look like Donald no matter when he starts.
Graziano: No reason to expect anything other than the usual. Heck, he held out so long last year that he had to miss the first game. And still came up with a typical Donald season. At his age, I expect to see the continuation of a career on cruise control.