2018 NFL Training Camps: Aaron Donald and Rams playing fascinating game of chicken
As L.A. keeps waiting on its star, here's the latest on this saga's second chapter and other Rams/Ravens camp observations
OWINGS MILLS, Md. – The Los Angeles Rams don't expect to see star defensive tackle Aaron Donald anytime soon. They figure he will still be a holdout by the time they wrap up this week of work in Maryland with the Baltimore Ravens and head back west. They don't anticipate him participating in any preseason games.
But I certainly don't get the sense that they are freaking out over the matter. The front office, if anything, seems to be taking a pragmatic and reasoned approach to this contractual stalemate and, in Ndamukong Suh, they have a unique version of what amounts to Donald insurance, landing the former Pro Bowl on a one-year, team-friendly contract early in the offseason to guard against just such a loggerhead with Donald this summer again.
What remains to be seen is if Donald will match his words to deeds, as there are no shortage of people close to him or his agents who will whisper about how stuck in he is, how long he's willing to sit out, yada, yada yada. Of course, these are the same people who oversaw his shortsighted and unsuccessful holdout a year ago, when he sat out the preseason, only to play the entire season on his bargain-basement salary of $1.8M and risk his future over the course of an entire regular season and one playoff game and to do so while never accumulating a season towards free agency or other benefits. (Donald has played four full seasons and has been credited with only three by the NFL, the direct result of him not reporting to the Rams a year ago within 30 days of the start of the regular season.)
And by Donald not reporting to the Rams Tuesday as they practiced again with the Ravens at their glistening team headquarters here in the suburbs of Baltimore, he is now in a situation where he could play football again this season and still be stuck on three accrued seasons, depending on how this all plays out. It's a fascinating game of chicken, as the Rams saw this player come back and play for a relative pittance a year ago, he currently has a fifth-year option tender worth roughly $7M that he would be required to play on barring a new contract, and the team has an offer on the table that would make Donald the highest-paid defensive player in the game.
"We're really happy with the guys we have here," Jared Goff said, "but we love Aaron and we'd love to have Aaron as soon as it gets done. He's a big part of our team and a terrific player and a terrific person, and someone we want here … Hopefully it gets done soon."
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For all of the tough rhetoric out there about Donald being willing to sit out however long it takes, it's impossible to ignore or forget how this all ended a year ago, and I don't get the sense the Rams are in any hurry to bet against themselves and markedly alter their offer. They are taking a measured approach, going out of their way to praise the player – who is most definitely the most impactful defensive player in the game – but there also appears to be a degree of conviction in how they have valued the player and what they believe is a fair contract.
"It's a pretty interesting intellectual exercise," is how one front-office member termed it. "You can step back and see things from both sides … I think we all know about where it's going (financially) but it remains to be seen how we get there."
No one is debating whether or not Donald should surpass the record deal Suh got in Miami three years ago that reset the market for defensive players. The matter is, by what margin should he surpass Suh's free-agent haul (think three years/$60M as a practical matter), and the reality it is was Donald's camp, and not the Rams, who blinked a year ago.
I said so then, and will reiterate now, that last summer was the time for Donald to stick it to the Rams and hold out deep in to the season if need be. The Rams had just moved to Los Angeles from St. Louis with little fanfare, had a then-unproven rookie head coach with a quarterback (Goff) who had appeared overwhelmed in the prior season, Todd Gurley was coming off a sophomore slump season, the team was starved for star power and appeared quite vulnerable. Forcing Sean McVay to deal with a potential slot start and the daily distraction of being without his best player may have prodded owner Stan Kroenke to throw oodles of more money at the problem.
Instead, the Rams became one of the league's feel-good stories, they reached the playoffs, Donald was a stud making peanuts and the front office deeply fortified the roster in the offseason to the point where the Rams are a sexy Super Bowl pick in some quarters. Let them go on an early run and success against tough competition (at the Raiders, then home for the Cardinals, Chargers and Vikings), and Donald might be well served to go ahead and take this bird in hand. If they start slowly during a potential Donald holdout, then maybe the team folds this time around.
Either way, we're unlikely to find out for a while how the second chapter of this saga ends. Regardless, virtually nothing was gained from the player's standpoint by the way this sorted out a year ago. Perhaps that has hastened some resolve, and neither side is flinching for now.
"I don't think anything is going to change with that in the near future," McVay said of Donald's holdout. "We have an open dialogue with Aaron and we're hopeful that we'll get something done … Things remain the same."
Rams/Ravens camp observations
- The Rams offense seemed to focus on hot reads and quick hitters in the first practice between these teams and Goff was highly effective. He is clearly comfortable in this offense and especially with the short and intermediate tempo stuff. "I think he's more comfortable with some of the things we're doing," McVay said. Goff wore a brace on his left knee as a precaution – he generally just wears it in games, he said – and had a sharp practice against what should be a much-improved Ravens secondary. "As time goes on you just continue to get more confident," Goff said.
- Don't expect to see the Rams starters much on Saturday night in their preseason debut. The team is dabbling with the prospect of sitting virtually all starters if they accomplish what they want out of these joint practices. These two sessions with the Ravens could provide sufficient work. And with Baltimore having five preseason games, look for only a few series from its starters as well.
- Ravens first-round pick Lamar Jackson continues to look very much like a work in progress. Accuracy is something he is working on daily and it was refreshing to see the Heisman Trophy winner acknowledge how much faster the pro game is all the way around. Jackson isn't overly cocky and knew he had some rough patches in the Hall of Fame game. "The game speed is totally different," Jackson said. "All 11 [players] are running to the ball. There's no one back there jogging, trying to take a break. All 11 are there to the ball. People are trying to feed their families. It's a grown man game." Jackson should play a ton Thursday, but with Baltimore's backup offensive line looking awful in the preseason debut, it remains to be seen how they divvy up reps between Jackson and Robert Griffin III.
- The Rams are quietly hopeful that they may have found a potential edge presence in youngster John Franklin-Myers, their fourth-round pick out of Stephen F. Austin. He has had success against the Rams' linemen in practice and the coaches are eager to see how he fares in preseason games and if he can keep the momentum going.
- Both teams did a great job keeping things from getting too heated in the first joint practice despite tough conditions with extreme heat and humidity. Ravens receiver Michael Crabtree and Rams corner Aqib Talib have a long history and lined up against each other quite a bit without incident and there was good sportsmanship all around. "We knew he would be smart about it and he certainly was," McVay said of Talib, who he spoke to before the practice. "I feel like the two teams cooperated very well," John Harbaugh said.
- Ravens third-year linebacker Kamalei Correa has been a bust through two seasons, but he looked like a Hall of Famer in the Hall of Fame game and all eyes will be on him this week to see if he can keep being a factor off the edge. Baltimore is no longer trying to force him inside, and appears to be setting him free to attack the quarterback. He flashed at times on Monday. "If he sticks to what he's doing, I think he'll be just fine," Harbaugh said of a player who many figured was on the way out barring an impact training camp.
- Tuesday's practice will be hot and sticky again. The Rams are trying to stay on somewhat normal West Coast schedule in Baltimore, and requested late-afternoon practices; the Ravens had been going early in the morning all camp, with the humidity a factor in that decision, but were more than willing to accommodate the Rams. "It's definitely sticky; you feel the difference (from LA)," said McVay, who was having flashbacks to his time as a Redskins assistant having training camp in Richmond.
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