Aaron Donald Cashes In With Record Setting Contract

Aaron Donald officially became the highest paid non quarterback in league history today when he officially signed a six year, $135 million contract extension. The contract has nearly $87 million in guarantees and pretty much deserves every accolade that it is receiving today on social media. Mike Florio has the contract particulars over at PFT and I wanted to look at a few things about the contract now that the numbers are out.

Massive Cash Flows

When the numbers were first announced at $22.5 million a season I mentioned how the contract was about $1 million short of Ndamukong Suh’s free agent heist with the Dolphins back in 2015 (it would have also been similarly short of Mario Williams spectacular contract with the Bills in 2012). The one million is easily understandable since those players were free agents while Donald was under contract but the cash flows of the deal illustrate the strength of this contract even if the APY didn’t meet the highest end numbers. Here is how the inflated values of the contracts line up.

Player Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Year 6
Donald $43,108,000 $60,108,000 $80,000,000 $94,250,000 $113,250,000 $135,000,000
Williams $36,733,000 $58,773,000 $77,874,000 $97,857,000 $119,162,000 $141,055,000
Suh $32,774,000 $61,837,000 $74,204,000 $95,229,000 $118,727,000 $141,452,000

Those numbers are incredibly impressive especially when you factor in the fact that he could not sell his services to other team.  His three year cash flow blows away the other players before things take a turn in the other direction. This is basically a way that both sides can win in that the Rams can argue that they did not hit the highest highs while at the same time hitting new benchmarks in almost every relevant category.

Here are how some of the inflated metrics compare (for Donald we are using new money guarantees)

Metric Donald Suh Williams
Full Guarantee $43,108,000 $74,149,000 $36,586,000
Injury Guarantee $80,000,000 $74,149,000 $73,466,000
Prorated Bonus $40,000,000 $31,537,000 $39,672,000
Early non-guaranteed triggers $15,000,000 $33,392,000 $10,285,000
Likely Protection $80,000,000 $74,204,000 $99,032,000

Again we have exceptional value here for Donald. Big protection, decent early triggers in the non-guaranteed seasons, etc… The only thing he falls short in is the likely protection from contract structure where Williams is ahead and that has to do with free agency more than anything.  Likely protection is simply an opinion based on cap charges vs dead money plus salary to be paid. I don’t worry about the full guarantee because that’s just a paper term on a deal like this.

The Quarterback of the Defense

I’ve heard that phrase thrown around a lot in the past but rarely does it come to fruition. For Williams it did. For Suh it really did not. For Donald it does. Donald’s contract completely blows away that of any defender in the current NFL (Von Miller is the top player) and it would seem as if that wasn’t even a consideration as a comp. The contract itself does a strong job, at least early on, of mimicking the cash flows of some of the higher paid quarterbacks in the NFL. Whether by design or a coincidence here is how the cash flows for Donald compare with Andrew Luck (the 8th highest paid QB) and Derek Carr (the 6th highest paid QB).

Player Year 0 Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5
Donald $34,000,000 $43,108,000 $60,108,000 $80,000,000 $94,250,000 $113,250,000
Carr $24,022,481 $46,522,481 $66,522,481 $85,522,481 $105,147,481 $125,025,000
Luck $27,845,000 $40,845,000 $58,845,000 $79,970,000 $101,970,000 $122,970,000

The numbers to focus on here are the 3 year payments which essentially put he and Luck on the same level. He isn’t far off from Carr either and does have a better contract structure. This works out as one of those win-win arrangements as Donald can hit elite level QB metrics early before the Rams take the contract down a peg beginning in year four.

The Strength of the Cap Structure

I love contracts with big signing bonuses. It reflects awful on a team to have to turn around and release the player when they have massive amounts of dead money hanging over their head. It also generally leads to a season of a massive cap increase that can force a team into a restructure that increases the prorated money in the contract.

Donald hits two peak numbers- $25 million in 2020 and $27.9 million in 2021.  These years will coincide with two important points- the end of Jared Goff’s contract and the end of the current CBA. Who knows what the Rams salary cap situation will be in 2020 but Goff’s cap number that year will likely be in the ballpark of $23 million while he negotiates for an extension. Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks will both be over $16.8 million that year. There are some rules that year that could be a plus or minus on a restructure.

In 2021 the CBA expires. The last time around the salary cap fell about 7% from projected growth rates when a new deal came in place. Given how the cap is growing now it would not be a shock if a new reset caused the cap to shrink or at least not grow at the same rate it is now. That could lead to cap issues and restructures.

Any significant restructure of Donald’s deal in either year would like protect his non-guaranteed 2022 salary.

Impact on the Rams

This now gives the Rams two “market buster” contracts on the team with Donald and Gurley being about $6 million above the next highest paid player at the position. Im not sure there was ever a team to do that before. The contract should also clearly open the door for Goff, assuming he plays at a high level, to one day look to really reset the QB market.

Because the Rams recent drafts haven’t gone as well as hoped and players were allowed to leave in free agency the Rams cap space is still ok. They should have around $30 million next season which is about average. The following year they will likely be ranked around 22nd in the NFL.  Of course they do have other contracts that will need to be considered (Marcus Peters, LaMarcus Joyner, offensive lineman) but this does not put them in a pinch in any way.

Looking at the structure of the contract I’d say the Rams need to get a solid 5 years out of the contract to get value out of it. Getting year 6 and 7 would be great but as long as Donald is playing at a high level for the next 5 years I don’t anticipate them looking back at the contract as a mistake even if the team doesn’t play as well as they hoped.

Impact on the League

This should set the stage for pass rushers to really move into elite pay territory. Unlike when Williams was king of the hill and JJ Watt and others were signing with multiple years left on their contract we have a few players, in particular Khalil Mack of the Raiders and Joey Bosa of the Chargers, who will soon be looking for big money.

For the Raiders the money here should be eye opening. Mack is set to earn about double what Donald was this year, meaning they will need to account for at least an extra $7 million in total value (i.e. a 7 year total) on the cap just to match it. The cash numbers would be close to their current QB’s. If they think its too rich to have two players at the same time earning that kind of money then they should get serious about a trade. The massive cash flows will be difficult for the Raiders to even dream of matching if they don’t change their philosophy on signing bonuses. This isn’t to say they don’t have the room to do it but it has to be more of a consideration for them than a team like the Rams with a rookie QB.

I think the way this played out also will be a bit of a model for other positional players who are looking to push the issue. I am sure there is already a lot of talk about Donald’s holding out versus Odell Beckham’s attending camp as a reason why Beckham came in under expectations. There may be some validity to that though I think the Rams and Donald were always cordial during the process. He just was showing he was serious about it and holding whatever leverage he could. Donald was also in a string position because the team came off such a good year and this is much harder to do when coming off a bad season (i.e. Mack and the Raiders).

This should also help show that teams will give big extensions to players under the right circumstance. Many of the biggest contracts (this one, Gurley, Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Calvin Johnson) have come down with the player under contract to an organization. Suh and Williams were the two massive free agent ones in recent times but most of the free agent contracts are big numbers for second tier talent. I think its just finding the right place and time.

While pass rushers are the second highest valued position I think any player getting this far up beyond $20 million should push all players to look for this kind of money. If the league is ok with $22+ million for a pass rusher, receivers really should be close to $20 million and cornerbacks just below that based on the current hierarchy of salary allocations. Offensive tackles should be valued a bit higher than now as well.

Of course as with any big deal there may always be push back on outliers and the Rams will fit that bill with the Gurley deal also being on the books, but those arguments usually only last for a short period of time unless the contract is so outrageous you cant justify it. Even if Mack doesn’t get a deal done this should open the door for someone like DeMarcus Lawrence, if he has a good year, to hit $20 million and then the flood gates should open.