Aaron Donald hinted at retirement this offseason, but the Rams were able to get Donald back in the fold for the season by basically doing something unprecedented in the NFL- they literally just disregarded the three existing years worth about $57.3 million on his prior contract and signed him to a new contract worth $95 million per PFT.
This type of contract is very rare in the NFL and unheard of at these dollar figures. Generally when there is a contract issue between a player and a team the sides will often come to an agreement on adding incentives to the contract or moving salary from a future year into the current one. In rare cases there is a raise to appease a situation but usually that raise is for a year. The biggest raise I can think of was the Patriots $8 million increase for Tom Brady in 2019 when the marriage was about to break up in New England between Brady and Belichick. The biggest move for a non-QB was, I believe Jason Kelce last year getting $3.5 million bump. Here we have a raise that will average either $12.5 and $13.3 million a year (it depends on how you value the 17th game which did not count on the cap but was being paid regardless) with $60 million being virtually guaranteed at signing.
Donald is clearly a very special player, but this is the kind of contract that will likely cause headaches with most of the other teams in the NFL. Donald is 31 years old and was already the highest paid interior defender in the NFL. He had three years remaining on his contract which generally cuts off negotiations before they can even begin. The contract itself is filled with superlatives.
Donald’s $31.67M per year average salary makes him the first non-QB to earn over $30 million a year. He will earn $10.67 million per year more than the next highest paid interior defender. He will earn about $8.7 million more a year than Trent Williams who held the distinction of signing the largest contract (measured by true value, not the fake years for Davante Adams) for a player over 30 at $23 million per year. It is $11.7 million more a year than the next closest defender over the age of 30. On a salary cap inflated basis this is the biggest contract ever for a D-lineman at 15.2% of the cap, 1.7% more than Warren Sapp’s contract from 1998. Basically it shatters every norm that has been expected in contract negotiations and that is never good for teams around the NFL who have to deal with players who are not Aaron Donald but expect to be treated that way.
Donald and Aaron Rodgers, both represented by the same agency, have likely set a blueprint for more and more players to follow. Both players discussed retirement off seasons where they were personally successful and the team was also very successful. Both players set massive new contract highs with Rodgers topping $50 million a season to go along with Donald’s $31.7 million. These numbers were incredible raises over the existing contracts and at ages when usually players are devalued.
Whether by design or just something that they lucked into, I would definitely expect more veterans to follow suit if their prior team is coming off a playoff season. Perhaps that will lead to more and more teams no longer willing to sign five and six year extensions and instead capping off most deals at three or four years and fighting harder to reduce the cash flows paid on the front end of the contract. For example Donald’s prior contract paid $26.7 million per year over the first three new years and just $18.3 million per year on the final three years, making it much easier for the player to look for the big raise, which Donald got. Donald’s overall deal with the Rams, valued over the original six years, stands at $29.2 million a year, which would be quite the haul for a contract signed back in 2018.
Donald will also hold the rare distinction of being a veteran non-QB who was able to set the market twice in his career. I believe Trent Williams did it in 2015 and 2021 and depending on how you look at Lane Johnson in Philadelphia he may have done it twice. On defense I’m drawing a blank at least in the modern NFL. Darrelle Revis signed two top of the market contracts at cornerback (one in 2013 and one in 2015) but his first contract was worth more than his second one so that didn’t set the market again. Players like Ndamukong Suh, Von Miller, Mario Williams, etc…all signed massive deals off their rookie contracts but didn’t take that leap the second time.
I know my Twitter timeline is filled with salary cap comments about the Rams, but the with the lack of draft picks they have the both avoid the big outlaying of cash in the first year of rookie contracts as well as the expectation of big extensions on the horizon for top picks. Though this is a major raise for a player it is not the same thing as extending a player who had no existing salary. So their situation is a bit different than many other teams.
It will be interesting to see where the league goes from here and how they react to this contract. It will also be interesting to see how much this impacts Cooper Kupp’s ability to get a massive new contract from the Rams.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.