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.
Just to head off those “future cap jail” tweets, Rams were $58m under the cap for 2019 per @Jason_OTC. Don’t know next year’s AD cap number yet, but even after subtracting Donald’s $22.5m AAV from that figure, the Rams would have more cap room in 2019 than 20 NFL teams.— Joe Curley (@vcsjoecurley) August 31, 2018
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.
Fantasy NFL is kind of like the stock market – players’ values rise and fall as time goes on.
That’s especially true in preseason as it’s our first look at players before the games count for real. Even a small sample size can significantly affect players’ values, resulting in them being drafted several spots higher or lower than originally expected.
Here, we pick out five players who’ve seen their stock rise throughout August.
The Panthers running back was always being picked within the first three rounds of drafts, but with how often he’s been on the field during the preseason, he’s shot up near the first round. It looks like the second-year playmaker could be a workhorse and consistently receive 20-plus touches per week, making him a hot commodity.
The more we’ve seen of Goodwin with Jimmy Garoppolo, the more it’s becoming clear he’s the number one receiving option in the 49ers offence. The two have displayed their strong chemistry in the preseason, with Goodwin hauling in seven grabs for 119 yards. In Kyle Shanahan’s system, the wideout has the chance to flourish as a go-to threat.
The Browns backfield hasn’t been a reservoir for fantasy production in recent years, but Hyde looks like he could change that this season. In three preseason games, the running back has looked light on his feet and burst through holes to rack up 108 yards and a touchdown on 17 rushes. Exciting times in Cleveland.
There’s excitement building with Burton because of the way he’s been used so far in the Bears offence. Head coach Matt Nagy was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City last year and he’s brought some of the same concepts they used with Travis Kelce to Chicago, which could see Burton have a breakout year.
Gordon didn’t even have to play a snap in the preseason to see his stock go up. All he had to do was return from his absence and start practicing with the Browns again for people to take notice. We saw what he’s capable of in 2013. That upside is just too tantalising to not reach for.
Brees will turn 40 in January, and although he’s still one of the elite signal-callers in the league, New Orleans may feel his end is coming sooner than his current ability suggests.
The veteran signed a two-year deal with the Saints in March, which means Bridgewater would have to wait for his chance to be a starter again.
Bridgewater played 29 games for the Minnesota Vikings in 2014 and 2015, but suffered a gruesome knee injury in 2016 that kept him out for the entire season. After making one appearance since the injury last season, he signed with the Jets in March.
New York went on to draft Sam Darnold with the third overall pick, leaving Bridgewater in a quarterback battle with the rookie and veteran Josh McCown.
Through three preseason games, Bridgewater performed the best of the trio as he completed 28-of-38 passes for 316 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for a passer rating of 104.7.
A former first-round pick, Bridgewater has unquestioned talent and pedigree, but his injuries have stunted his development early in his career. If healthy and given the opportunity, he could be the franchise quarterback many viewed him as coming out of the draft in 2014.
Bridgewater will immediately assume the back-up role with the Saints, who have Tom Savage, Taysom Hill and J.T. Barrett also on the depth chart.
The Jets signed Bridgewater to a one-year, $6 million deal in the offseason, so New Orleans would have to re-sign him after this season – likely without seeing him play significant snaps.
In trading a third-round pick, however, the Saints are all but making it clear their intention to keep hold of Bridgewater past this season.
For New York, this clears the path for Darnold to be the team’s starter from Week 1.
McCown, who was the starter last year, hasn’t played in the past two preseason games and offers the Jets little in the way of upside.
In three preseason appearances, Darnold has completed 64.4 per cent of his passes with two touchdowns and an interception for a passer rating of 83.9.
He’s at times looked like a quarterback with immense talent, and at others looked like a rookie getting his feet wet.
Now, he’ll be in the spotlight from day one and have his chance to sink or swim.