It’s no longer news that the Los Angeles Rams potentially have one of the best defenses in the NFL going into the 2018 season. However, all is not perfect in La La Land, as a contract decision for one of the team’s biggest stars is looming, and it’s already causing a bit of trouble.
Aaron Donald, Los Angeles’ 2017 leader in sacks (11), tackles for a loss (7), and forced fumbles (5), is entering the final year of his rookie contract after the Rams picked up his fifth-year option. Donald is set to make nearly $7 million due to this decision, but this is just a fraction of what he is worth based on his performance on the field.
It was reported on May 21 that Donald would not be attending the Rams’ organized team’s activities, as he and his agent lobby for a contract extension. Head coach Sean McVay is aware of how important Donald is to the team, but told ESPN he is unsure when the contract dispute would be resolved.
“It is something we want to get resolved,” McVay said. “As far as a timetable, we don’t really have any dates on that.”
Although a new member of the team, cornerback Marcus Peters didn’t hold back in letting his feelings be known on the situation, imploring Los Angeles to, “pay the man.” Despite his undeniable talent, Peters was shipped from Kansas City to Los Angeles in a move that signified that the Chiefs were unable to put up with his on-field antics any longer.
Peters’ opinion on Donald’s contract is almost universally shared, but the context for his presence in Los Angeles, coupled with how unabashedly he spoke on the matter, does leave him open to criticism about his past, whether one believes this is fair or not.
To begin to get a grasp on the amount Donald will be looking to receive, let’s look to the highest paid defensive tackle in the NFL, Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox. The Eagles gave Cox a six-year, $103 million contract extension with $63 million guaranteed against injuries in 2016. According to overthecap.com, he is guaranteed to make $36,299,000 over the life of the contract, and is guaranteed a base salary of $11.5 million, 10 percent of the team’s cap space, in 2018.
There is no doubt that Donald will be looking for a higher guaranteed amount than what Cox received, and while his skill level does deem him worthy, the Rams have an eye for building a perennial contender, and will have to make some tough decisions in the coming years to ensure they do.
Fourth-year running back Todd Gurley is also on his rookie contract, and is currently costing Los Angeles very little. In 2018 he is set to make just over $2 million and accounts for just 2.5 percent of the team’s cap space.
The Rams did pick up Gurley’s fifth-year option as well, giving them one more season before going through the same contract issues they currently face with Donald. However, if they pay Donald everything he is asking for now, they may not be able to afford Gurley down the line.
Then there’s third-year quarterback Jared Goff, who the Rams traded up to the number one overall pick in 2016 to acquire. Goff cemented himself as the team’s franchise quarterback in his second year, throwing for 3,804 yards and 28 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions.
As of now, Goff is guaranteed just under $3 million for the coming season, a legitimate steal for a quarterback of his caliber. In 2019, that number will jump to slightly over $4 million, and unless the unexpected happens, the Rams will assuredly pick up his fifth-year option for 2020.
Goff’s pay day seems far off, but with Donald’s needing to come this season, Gurley’s coming next, and then Goff’s the year after, Los Angeles needs to think wisely about how they distribute their money to three very deserving players. This means sacrifices will have to be made for both team and players.
Defensive tackle Michael Brockers and safety Mark Barron, role players who both make strong contributions to the team, may find themselves being traded away before their contracts end, in order for L.A. to afford their cornerstone players.
Brockers will be owed just $750,000 in dead money if the Rams were to cut him before June 1 of 2019, which makes that a financially viable option as well, although a trade would allow Los Angeles to receive assets to help ensure future success.
While the Rams will be forced to let go of talented players for the sake of their superstars, their superstars may have to forsake record-breaking contracts if they want to remain with Los Angeles. This is, of course, if players like Donald believe staying in L.A. is in their best interest.
Currently, the Rams will have the second most cap space going in to the 2019 season, and are also the closest to reaching the Super Bowl of the top five teams with money to spend. Los Angeles will have over $72 million in cap space, a number that will significantly shrink if Donald is paid what he is seeking. This may not be a problem for Donald, but it will pose one to both Gurley and Goff when it comes their time to get paid.
The Jets will have the most cap space in 2019 at nearly $86 million, and unlike the Rams, will have no significant contract extensions to handout. Although New York isn’t close to being even a playoff contender at the moment, the drafting of Sam Darnold out of USC, and the addition of Trumaine Johnson, previously of the Rams, has them trending in a positive direction.
The addition of a talent like Donald would give the Jets a potent defense, and may help them reach the postseason, while simultaneously hurting any title hopes the Rams may have. Fortunately, even if Donald doesn’t receive an extension before the season begins, Los Angeles will have all of 2018 to avoid any sort of doomsday scenario.
This is the business side of the NFL, where dollars and cents are king. In a perfect world, the players who sacrifice their bodies for the sport they love would get paid everything they deserve. At the end of the day, though, teams have to make conscientious choices that set themselves up for long-term success, long after superstars retire.
One thing is for certain, Donald is one of the most talented players in the league, and a team will definitely pay him like one. Whether or not that team is the Los Angeles Rams remains to be seen.