Aaron Donald became the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history to sit among quarterbacks in terms of annual salary.
It was only a matter of time before the Los Angeles Rams opened up their chequebook and paid their best player the kind of money worthy of his talents.
Aaron Donald’s holdout has come to an end after signing a six-year, $135 million extension with the Rams on Friday that includes $87m in guaranteed money. It’s the richest deal for a defensive player in NFL history and puts the 27-year-old in exclusive company.
At $22.5m annually, Donald’s figure easily surpasses the previous high for a defensive player, clearing Von Miller’s $19.1m. The Rams pass rusher now sits among quarterbacks, ahead of Super Bowl winners Joe Flacco ($22.1m), Russell Wilson ($21.9m), Ben Roethlisberger ($21.8m) and Eli Manning ($21m). Only nine players – all quarterbacks – are set to make more than Donald yearly, led by Aaron Rodgers’ mark of $33.5m after the Green Bay Packers star inked his own record deal this past week.
This is exactly the kind of contract Donald was seeking and one that was inevitable once he made his intentions clear that he wasn’t willing to accept anything less by holding out.
No non-quarterback arguably affects a game more as Donald’s ability to bring pressure up the middle is as destructive as anything on that side of the ball.
Since he entered the league in 2014, no defensive tackle has more sacks (39.0), quarterback hits (108), tackles for loss (72) or forced fumbles (nine).
Last year, Donald earned Defensive Player of the Year honours for racking up 11.0 sacks and five forced fumbles in 14 games to help the Rams win the NFC West and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Los Angeles were aggressive in the offseason to strengthen their defence, adding cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib through trades, and signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a one-year, $14m deal.
Donald, however, remains the lynchpin of the unit and should make life easier for Suh by absorbing double teams to open up pass-rushing lanes, while shortening the time Peters and Talib have to spend in coverage.
Suh, Peters and Talib weren’t the only noteworthy players the Rams added or handed lucrative deals to in the offseason though.
The team also traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks before handing him a five-year, $81m extension; gave running back Todd Gurley a four-year, $60m extension; lavished right tackle Rob Havenstein with a four-year, $32.5m extension; and placed the franchise tag on safety Lamarcus Joyner, paying him nearly $11.3m for the coming season.
Despite splashing so much cash, the Rams have still managed to stay under the salary cap, with Donald’s cap hit for 2018 taking a small leap from $6.89m to $8.89m because of the way his deal is structured.
Los Angeles will also have wiggle room in the coming years, as their salary cap space stood at $58m for 2019 and $113m for 2020 before Donald’s new contract.
But even with several of their stars locked up for the foreseeable future, the Rams won’t be able to keep everyone long-term as Suh and Joyner come off the books next year, while the contracts of Peters and Talib expire in 2020.
That’s also when quarterback Jared Goff will be due for his next deal. Currently on his rookie contract, Goff affords the Rams a luxury as they can devote money that is usually slated for the starting quarterback on contenders to other parts of their roster, like the Seattle Seahawks were able to do when they reached the Super Bowl in consecutive years while Wilson was still on his rookie deal.
Since Wilson inked his extension in 2015, however, Seattle have struggled to reach the same heights and have discarded many of their veterans to free up money.
The Rams could potentially follow a similar trajectory, but considering the talent they’ve assembled, a win-now attitude is more than justified as they have the chance to be special over at least the next two years.