Aaron Donald is getting paid.

After considering retirement around the Super Bowl, the word around the Los Angeles Rams was that Donald would be expected back and that a new contract would be worked out for the star defensive lineman to return. A new contract was indeed worked out and in like a professional bodybuilder type of workout, not an “I’m going to sit on the stationary bike for 20 minutes” type of workout.

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Topping The Market Again

The Rams didn’t give Donald an extension but instead re-worked the remaining three years on his current contract to give him a raise that will hit $95 million. That’s easily the top contract given out to a non-quarterback with the $31.7 million average annual value coming in as the 12th-highest overall in the league.

Donald was set to make $55 million over the next three years on his previous deal. His original extension signed in 2018 was for six years and $135 million. His new three-year deal will now be 70% of that initial total figure. 

At $95 million over three years, Donald has the seventh-highest three-year cash flow on a contract, per data from Over The Cap. Unsurprisingly, eight of the top 10 are quarterbacks.

Top Three-Year Cash Flows On Current Contracts
data per Over The Cap

PlayerPositionThree-Year Cash
Aaron RodgersQB$150,815,000
Deshaun WatsonQB$138,000,000
Josh AllenQB$137,855,405
Matthew StaffordQB$129,000,000
Dak PrescottQB$126,000,000
Derek CarrQB$121,422,481
Patrick MahomesQB$113,850,000
Aaron DonaldiDL$95,000,000
Ryan TannehillQB$91,000,000
T.J. WattEDGE$90,961,000

Few players have made the type of immediate impact Donald has since he was drafted in 2014. Donald leads that draft class in weighted Approximate Value per Pro-Football-Reference and the next-best player in that draft by wAV (Zack Martin) only has 76.4% of Donald’s career wAV. If we look at the three drafts before Donald and the three drafts after, the next biggest gap comes from 2017 with T.J. Watt making up $85.7% of Patrick Mahomes’s value.

Top Player vs No. 2 in NFL Draft by Weighted AV, 2011-2017
data per Pro-Football-Reference

Draft YearPlayer 1wAVPlayer 2wAV% of No. 1
2014Aaron Donald110Zack Martin8476.4%
2017Patrick Mahomes70T.J. Watt6085.7%
2012Russell Wilson125Bobby Wagner11088.0%
2015Stefon Diggs63Jameis Winston5892.1%
2013David Bakhtiari80Travis Kelce7492.5%
2011Cam Newton115J.J. Watt10793.0%
2016Dak Prescott69Tyreek Hill6695.6%

That’s why Donald can reset the market with an extension and then reset that one before the first extension officially ends. On the previous deal, Donald made $80 million in cash over the first three years on a front-loaded deal. The new contract easily sets the pace for defensive players by this metric and blows by other players at the same position. The next-highest three-year cash flow for an interior defender belongs to DeForest Buckner at $63.75 million. Only two other interior defenders (Chris Jones and Leonard Williams) reach $60. Edge rushers are closer with Donald’s deal eclipsing T.J. Watt’s $90.96 million over the first three years. Joey Bosa is next, $10 million away at $80.64 million.

No player has a bigger premium over the next highest contract at his position than Donald by three-year cash, per Over The Cap. His new deal gives him a 149% premium over Buckner, which shows how unique of a player Donald is at his position. The next highest premium comes at fullback with Kyle Juszczyk holding a 131.8% premium over Patrick Ricard. Safety is the only other position to top 110% at 113%.

As we’ve seen with quarterback and wide receiver markets, this completely blows up the top of the defensive market but because Donald is such a unique player and force, there might be a limited number of players this deal actually impacts.

This probably raises the price tag for a player like Jeffery Simmons of the Tennessee Titans, a 25-year-old scheduled to make a combined $14 million on the cap over the next two seasons, but even after a breakout 2021 season, Simmons isn’t near the level of Donald. 

The closest comps come from edge rushers and now that the $30 million average seal has been broken, that could be something Nick Bosa looks to hit on his upcoming extension. There might not be many other pass rushers at that level, though. Others there such as Watt and Myles Garrett have already signed their extensions and could have to wait until a third contract to hit these bigger numbers. Players like Rashan Gary and Brian Burns, draftmates of Bosa, have flashed star potential, but neither has a sustained resume to warrant true top of the market deals, pending huge 2022 seasons.

Aside from edge rusher (and Donald) defensive players haven’t pushed significantly through. Jaire Alexander just topped the cornerback market with $64.5 million over three years and the top safety is currently Jamal Adams at $52.54 million.

Rams Impact

While Donald will be getting a significant raise, the bumps in cap figures will happen in 2023 and 2024 and the new deal will open up cap space for the Rams in 2022, decreasing what was a $26.75 million cap hit to $24 million, per Over The Cap. Los Angeles is currently over the projected cap for the 2023 season, but that’s a 2023 Rams problem and more extensions (Cooper Kupp) or restructures (Jalen Ramsey) will get that under control.

For the most part, this really isn’t a problem because of how the Rams have built the roster. Big money extensions aren’t on the horizon for former first-round picks because those are technically already signed with Ramsey and Matthew Stafford. For better or worse, the expensive core of this roster is already in place. For cap purposes, it’s easier to maneuver around a player making $20 million per year than it would be to add a giant bump from a rookie contract to a new market-setting extension. With players like Stafford and Donald in their 30s, the Rams have a window they’re looking to capitalize on and can take some short-term swings.

Donald just turned 31 years old in May, which will bring him through his age-33 season for this contract. Should Donald want to hang it up then, there’s a clean break — though clean may be relative with void years adding potentially over $20 million in dead money in 2025 (though that figure would likely be worked out by that time). But it’s hard to see Donald’s skillset aging poorly if he should want to continue playing. Even 80% of Donald is one of the best interior defenders in the league and that percentage could be even lower.

What we know is this current version of Donald has shown no signs of slowing down. In 2021, Donald was in another stratosphere compared to other interior defenders.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Donald was third among all defenders in pressures and had 18 more than the next closest defensive tackle.

Having Donald on the field has also impacted the way the Rams are able to line up and play along the defensive line. With such a force inside, the Rams can use more resources for run defense next to him, which leads to finding players late in the draft like Sebastian Joseph-Day and Greg Gaines. The outside edge rushers also get more one-on-ones because the double teams are so often focused on Donald. That’s helped a wide range of pass rusher skill from Dante Fowler to Von Miller.

On-off splits are dangerous in the NFL, but let’s go with some here. The Rams only had 83 dropbacks without Donald on the field in the regular season and playoffs combined. With Donald on the field, the Rams’ EPA per dropback went from what would have ranked seventh in the league to what would have ranked 32nd without him, per TruMedia.

Because of the nearly-assured double-teams, the Rams blitzed more with Donald on the field (28.4%) than without him (24.1%) to create free rushers. The pressure rate went from 33.4% with Donald to 26.2% without him and the average time to pressure went from an insane 2.38 seconds to 2.57 without Donald.

There is little double the entire foundation of the Rams’ defense would have to change without Donald. He’s a force multiplier type of player, making those around him better, adding value outside of his individual dominance.

Due to that impact, few players had more leverage than Donald, even with three years remaining on an already existing extension. We might see more players threaten retirement when angling for new contracts, but it doesn’t appear as if that consideration was used as a ploy only to get a raise. Players such as Donald and Aaron Rodgers are also uniquely qualified to pull that type of tactic.

When Donald finally does retire, he’ll go down as one of the best defensive players of all time. Lucky for us — and luckier for the Rams — we’ll have a few more years before that becomes a reality.

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