Your Contract Questions About Aaron Donald

Per a report today from Adam Schefter, Aaron Donald of the Rams intends to hold out into the regular season if he does not receive a new contract. This really should be no surprise given that he decided to push the issue this year and play his lone trump card. Once you get beyond a certain date you are going to cost yourself money by simply ending the hold out with nothing to show for it. So I have gotten a bunch of questions on the topic and will do my best to answer them here rather than random Twitter replies. As usual these are my interpretations of the rules and it is possible that they are not 100% accurate and any opinions on the contract are just that- my opinions not some inside info or anything like that. I will gladly update if anyone supplies me with any verified corrections.

  1. Why do you say that this was his only “trump card”?

Rookies generally have very little leverage when it comes to forcing the issue on a new contract. The lone leverage they have is by refusing to report and play with the team. However rookies also only reach true free agency if they play a certain amount of years in the NFL. First round rookie contracts run for 5 years, assuming that an option is picked up on the contract. In order to qualify for free agency when their contract expires they must earn an accrued season in 4 of those 5 years. By holding out this long Donald can no longer earn an accrued season this year. If he were to hold out again next year he would be unable to earn another accrued season and be stuck at 3.

The difference between 3 and 4 years is gigantic. At 3 years a player becomes a restricted free agent and can be tendered at 110% of his prior years salary with draft compensation coming back to the team in the event he signs elsewhere and they elect not to match the contract. Its essentially a low cost, slightly lower compensation version of the franchise tag. So you can pretty much be certain that he will not hold out next year if a contract extension doesn’t come his way this season.

There is also more money at stake right now in the event of a holdout due to the potential of bonus forfeiture on top of fines. Next year this is no bonus proration to forfeit. Teams, I believe, would also be far more willing to not fine a player if the agreement is finally made to either get the player back to the team or to extend him.

Obviously I understand the threat of injury that these players face but in terms of keeping a good relationship with the team, having more leverage with a hold out and even finances I think next year would have been the time to do this.

  1.  How much money is Donald losing?

Right now the Rams have the right (but not the obligation) to fine him $40,000 per day. I haven’t calculated the dates here but as a loose guide he is also potentially forfeiting $350,000 of his signing bonus. At the start of the regular season he would lose about another $250,000 and $106,015 for each game missed. He was only scheduled to earn $1.8 million this year so essentially he would lose his entire year’s salary to fines and forfeiture if he just ended his holdout with nothing to show for it. Again that’s the reason why he has to be pretty firm to come out ahead in some way.

  1. Does his contract toll?

As of today no it does not. For the Rams to gain an additional season out of him he would have to miss the entire year. IIRC, players who fail to report can not be reinstated in the last 30 days of the season, so basically that’s the end of November. If he is still holding out then an extra season will be added to his contract. So the timeframe for this is really from now to Thanksgiving.

  1. Does anyone hold out that long?

I believe back in 2010 when there were some very different rules in place that Logan Mankins and Vincent Jackson held out for some time, though neither was technically under contract (they were 5th year RFAs). Both came back in time to make sure they would earn a year towards free agency, with Mankins coming back after 8 weeks and Jackson after 6 and then serving a 4 game suspension. Kam Chancellor a few years back held out for two weeks I think.

  1. Does Donald have any leverage?

Star players always have some leverage, but I would think its minimal. I remember when Darrelle Revis held out back in 2010, which may have been the last real rookie contract holdout of merit, he benefitted greatly from not only being recognized as the best defender in the NFL but by the fact that the Jets just came off an AFC championship game. Revis was also immensely popular at the time and there was both media and fan pressure to get a deal done and that Revis was being wronged by his contract. They needed him on the field and after pleading from the coach came to a deal on the eve of the regular season.

The Rams haven’t been a good team nor are they in a position like the Jets were. For as good as Donald is, right now he is not the difference between a potential title and a disappointing year. This is a work in progress and one seemingly focused more on offense and the development of a QB. The Rams can probably hold out longer than he can. The Rams are also in a new city and admittedly I don’t know if there is that kind of connection with the fans or media that Revis had.

  1. Does Donald void his guarantees?

Yes, but as a practical matter it makes no difference. Guarantees are all wonderful to talk about but when you have a player of this caliber hes not going to be cut.

  1. Why haven’t the Rams signed him yet anyway?

I can’t say for certain, but it is worth nothing that the Rams traditional way of doing business is to extend after the conclusion of the preseason in late August or early September. My guess is had he reported as a show of good faith they would get a deal done sometime between preseason game 4 and the kickoff of the regular season. Of course maybe they were way apart on numbers and he felt that it wasn’t going to happen anyway, but that is the general timetable for LA.

  1. What might Donald be looking for?

I’d think at a minimum he wants to be the first $20 million a year defender. I think that could be easily doable given some of the Rams recent contracts which have been very optimistic. The guarantees could be trickier. If the goal is to surpass Suh the Rams would need to guarantee him, at signing, $60 million. That’s a ton and the Suh contract was just silly when it happened.   The going rate for other players would be around $42M+ at signing and $65M+ for injury.  I’d target $49M at signing to take into account the $7M or so he is originally guaranteed and $70M for injury just to hit a new benchmark number that sounds cool.

  1. What could be some contract hangups

I’d imagine one possibility is the amount of raise that the Rams would offer him. The Rams don’t have much cap room (around $5 million by my estimates) and Donald’s base is so low its not as if they can lower his cap charge. But more than that again comes down to Rams tendencies. If you look back on their extensions for Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, and Tavon Austin the Rams generally put very little new money in the existing contract years.

Quinn received about $3.8 million in a raise, while Austin and Brockers were close to $3 million. Over the existing two years for Quinn and Austin the grand total of new money was $12.6 million and $6.1 million respectively. None received big signing bonuses. While their overall first year payout (for Donald that would be the new salaries from 2017-2019 if extended) as a percentage of the three year payout is on par with everyone else in the NFL they are not giving away money like other teams in the year the extension is signed.

Another issue could be contract length. The Rams, wisely, have stuck with shorter deals on their extensions which gives them a pretty good deal of flexibility and I think a better chance to strike deals. In order to reach the kind of threshold numbers I’d assume that Donald would be looking for they would need to do a 6 year extension.

The final issue deals with the CBA. The league is now at the point where the expiration of the CBA occurs after the 2020 season. There is a small rule in the CBA that prevents teams from avoiding cap charges in the CBA seasons and deferring them to potentially uncapped years. This is called the 30% rule which limits the amount of raise in every year after 2020 to 30% of his 2020 salary. So the two sides need to be willing to pack enough into that year to make the contract work out. This shouldn’t be a problem if extended this year but it does reduce some flexibility if doing a contract that will run through 2024. There are some other small issues with guarantees but I doubt those come into play for anyone until 2019.

  1. Is the salary cap an issue?

It should not be long term. Like I said above the Rams will run very close to the cap which they generally do, I’d imagine by design and can help with situations like this, every year. Moving forward, though, they will be in the top 1/3 of the league in cap room. Their QB is only in his second year so they don’t have a QB contract to deal with and they can also move some players around if they need to in order to keep players like Sammy Watkins if he was to break out.

  1. Is there a compromise if no long term contract can be reached?

I’d look towards some other team moves to come up with a compromise. What the Steelers did with Antonio Brown was move money forward in his contract to bring his salary more in line with his play without redoing a whole deal. The Patriots added incentives to Rob Gronkowski’s contract. Years ago the Titans did a small raise for Chris Johnson. I’d have to check the rules on raises and extensions for next season if they did that, but Id think this might work. In return Donald should be held accountable for the highest forfeiture of bonus but not fined.

  • NW86

    Great article Jason. Frankly, I’m a little surprised we got to this point. I honestly expected both sides to be eager to get a deal done, and figured negotiations would have been well underway before camp started. The Rams are in a new city and would love to make a big, splash contract. They’ve shown willingness to extend their rookies early. They also should be looking to get it done before Khalil Mack hits the $20M mark.

    On the other hand, I would have expected Donald’s agent to realize that holding out is very unlikely to help negotiations, since owners rarely give in to holdouts, especially with 2 years remaining on their contracts. That would be a bad precedent for ownership to set. I have to wonder, if Donald had just shown up in camp on time, would he have a deal done by now?

    To add to your “Potential Hangups” discussion, I would add that DT is a strange position that doesn’t generally get really highly paid unless your name is Suh, or a couple of others. This means that the DT franchise tag number is fairly reasonable ($13.6M in 2017), so not only can the Rams keep Donald for cheap this year and a cheap option year in 2018, they could reasonably tag him in 2019 and again in 2020. Knowing that they can keep him for 4 years that way, I’m sure they aren’t eager to offer him more money guaranteed now than he could possibly get over the next 4 years playing it out.