INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Aaron Donald is underpaid. He was underpaid coming into the season, underpaid coming into the Super Bowl, and now he’s underpaid heading into an offseason where a great many defenders are going to land a great many dollars.
Before we get to the report from NBC’s Rodney Harrison that the Los Angeles Rams star defensive tackle could retire following a Super Bowl win on Sunday, we first must consider the money. A financial conversation makes far more sense than a 30-year-old superstar suddenly contemplating the end. Especially when he’s now entering the mix with Reggie White, Lawrence Taylor and Bruce Smith in best-defender-ever conversations. And doing it at a time when the league’s salary cap is going to grow exponentially the next several seasons.
A discussion about the end? Mmmmm, no.
Instead, how about a discussion about Donald being the fifth-highest paid defender in the league? It seems far more likely that this is what all of this is about, starting with Harrison stunning everyone with Donald supposedly willing to walk away from the NFL if he won a Super Bowl ring. It was a news bomb that ended with Donald vaguely telling reporters several times that he was “just in the moment” after the game and not thinking about anything else.
He didn’t say he was considering retirement. He also didn’t say he wasn’t. He didn’t even say the word “retirement” on Sunday.
“I’m just in the moment right now. I’m going to enjoy this with my teammates [and] my family,” Donald said. “I’m just going to be in the moment and enjoy this today — a couple days, how about that? It’s a blessing.”
Donald’s teammates didn’t seemed concerned. Given an opportunity to talk about him, teammate Von Miller said some nice things, but hardly anything that seemed like the best player in Rams history was teetering on walking away. Head coach Sean McVay? Nothing in depth about Donald. Same for most everyone else.
Indeed, if Donald is really considering walking away, few people in the organization seemed to be taking it seriously. Granted, the team had just won a Super Bowl, but it wasn’t like anyone took a moment to empty out their heart about Donald. Taken at face value, it likely means few of them believe Sunday night could have been Donald’s last game in the NFL.
Given all of that, consider the underlying reality of Donald’s value to the team. He had a strong argument for his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award in five seasons, despite Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt winning it in a landslide. Donald also notched his seventh straight first-team All-Pro nod, the first time any defender in NFL history has accomplished that feat. And now he has a Super Bowl ring, thanks in large part to Donald wrecking the Bengals‘ offensive line in the second half on Sunday, then stopping Cincinnati almost single-handedly on third and fourth down in their final drive of the game.
Once again consider that four other defensive players outpace him in average annual salary — and that a multitude of others will bypass him if Donald plays out the next three years of his deal at roughly $22 million per season. That figure was impressive in the summer of 2018, but it’s now lagging far behind T.J. Watt’s league-leading extension paying $28 million per year.
Donald signed a six-year contract extension at a time when few fully realized where the league’s television contracts were going to land. And now he’s one of a handful of stars who are locked into sub-market deals deep into their prime — while other lesser players will land record extensions because timing worked in their favor.
What that likely means is something the Rams have known since last summer: If he continued to play at an all-world level, Donald was going to enter this coming offseason remarkably underpaid for his position. And now they’re here, with other salary-cap concerns weighing as well.
Something is going to have to get remedied in the middle of all this. That pay disparity is not going away. And until it does, neither will the speculation about Donald calling it quits. No matter how absurd that seems when he’s on the league’s Mount Rushmore of defenders, with plenty of history left to write.