Donald’s drama extends back to last year when he stayed away all offseason and reported one day prior to the season opener against the Colts, which he missed. The Rams blew them out that day without Donald, and all he did was return to the field the following week and embark on a Defensive Player of the Year season for the NFC West champions. No big deal, really.
Really, though, nothing has tangibly changed with his contract status. Donald is slated to play this season on the fifth-year tender of $6.89 million, which ranks him 19th among defensive tackles currently. He’s also currently the 11th-highest paid Rams player — and third among the team’s defensive linemen, behind Michael Brockers and Ndamukong Suh.
The Rams’ strategy this offseason has been clear: Add elite talent with a shot to win a Super Bowl now. Hard to argue with that approach in the big picture. But at the risk of angering Donald? It’s a significant risk. Their talent gathering alone isn’t going to appease him as he seeks — like Mack — a position-shattering deal.
Unfortunately for Donald, the system benefits the team right now. The league’s CBA requires that players accrue four seasons in order to hit unrestricted free agency. And even though Donald played in 14 games last season, he’s technically only on the books right now for three years accrued because he missed the reporting deadline last year with his prior holdout.
That’s why a holdout this year really does him little additional good in the big picture. If he did so again, Donald would be a restricted free agent next year instead. It’s true, the Rams likely would have to franchise him in 2019 either way because there will be a dozen or more other teams lined up and ready to pay the first-round pick price to sign him to a lucrative contract offer sheet if the Rams don’t protect themselves.
The likely date Donald reports? Mark August 7 on your calendars. That’s 30 days prior to the Rams’ first regular-season game, so Donald showing up on that day would trigger the fourth year and allow him a little more leeway toward moving on next season, even with the team able to franchise him. That really would be the best-case scenario from the team’s perspective.
But if Donald is prepared to dig in his heels and miss multiple regular-season games, he has that option. The fines could really add up, if the Rams choose to enact them, but they also know that even with Suh and a slew of other talented defenders on the roster, there’s no one who can replace what Donald gives them.
The Rams would have to be highly creative to get something done now that appeases him. They have only $4.259 million in salary-cap space for this year left, and they’ve committed more than $122 million in salary to 61 players in 2019. That part can be worked around easily enough, but the Rams also have the contracts of Suh, LaMarcus Joyner (this year’s franchise tag recipient), Brandin Cooks and Rodger Saffold set to expire next offseason as well.
Beyond that, they’re also creeping up on the day when they’ll have to figure out how to get extensions done with Todd Gurley and Jared Goff eventually. This one is getting a bit sticky for sure.