THOUSAND OAKS – Aaron Donald emerged from the Rams weight room at their Thousand Oaks training facility on Wednesday, flashed a bit of a grin to some nearby observers, then made his way to the nearby practice field.
And just like that, Donald was back, present and accounted for with the Rams. He’ll presumably play Sunday against Washington at the Coliseum, although the certainty of that – and how much he actually plays – rests in how his body responds to the first full week of practice since December.
“I worked out a lot. I’m in great shape,” he said. “But it’s a different from running around out there then from being on the football field. Just going to take it day by day here and just seeing how I feel as the week goes on.”
For now, anyway, the long contract holdout that cost Donald most of OTAs, all of training camp, all four preseason games and, to be technical, the season opener against the Colts, is behind him.
We stress for now, anyway, because Donald’s triumphant return didn’t include the brand new, lucrative contract he hoped the holdout would eventually produce. And the longer that stays the case, the greater the chance we go through all this again at some point.
The fear of losing paychecks likely won’t mean another holdout happening during the regular season. But who knows what his position will be come next off-season as he approaches the final year of a contract he has thoroughly outplayed.
All of which was much too far into the future for Donald even ot consider, let alone discuss, on his first day back at practice.
“I’m just thinking about now,” he said. “I’m here now.”
What “here” really means remains to be seen, of course. Let’s be frank, Donald didn’t return because of his undying love for football or his teammates – of which he admittedly has an abundance.
He came back because he wasn’t about to start sacrificing actual paychecks in pursuit of a new deal. That doesn’t make him greedy, it makes him smart.
Donald offered no clues on whether he and the Rams are close on a new deal. And while he said he is “hopeful” something eventually gets done to keep him in Los Angeles a long time, he didn’t sound all that convincing.
Conventional wisdom says when two sides are motivated to get things done, it usually gets done. The Rams want Donald around long term and understand the kind of financial investment it will take to make that happen. And Donald seems to want to be here.
But that’s been the case now for months, and no deal has materialized.
It’s all about money,of course.
The Rams believe he’s worth A, B and C over the current highest-paid defensive player. Donald, obviously, believes he’s worth X,Y and Z.
With the Rams owning all leverage in the situation – they have him under contract the next two years, under control for the next four with the franchise tag tool – you would think the number they have in mind is the number that ultimately gets it done.
But again, that’s been the prevailing thought for awhile now.
Yet still no dice.
Is Donald will to lower his demand?
Will he play this year and revisit talks during the off-season?
Does he hold out again? Or play the final two years under the current deal and try to hit free agency.
“I’m going to let my agent handle that,” Donald said. “I’m going to play football.”
But while athletes have this uncanny ability to compartmentalize the two distinct sides of their world – the love for the game they play and their rightful insistence on being fairly compensated – it’s fair to wonder how successfully Donald can separate the disappointment of not getting the contract he was seeking and laying it on the line the next 15 games in a way that makes him the best interior defensive linemen in the league.
One who absolutely understands he’s massively underpaid.
Can he set aside his misgivings about one side of his profession to fully engage in the other?
When asked directly about that, Donald said being around his teammates helps.
“Anytime you’re around the guys again, you know, they’re going to pick me up,” he said. “You’d like for things to get done but, like I said, I’m going to let my guys handle that side of things. I’m going to handle football.”
Donald shed absolutely no light on why he decided to hold out, whether he ever felt a new deal was close or if the Rams, as many suspect, have an offer on the table that makes him the highest-paid defensive player in the league.
Over and over, he kept saying he was here to take care of the football side of things and he’s letting his agents take care of the business side.
It didn’t sound terribly convincing. Not in a way that would indicate Donald is absolutely happy to be back, new deal or no new deal.
He wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t at least somewhat frustrated.
But can he set all that aside in order to play like the best defensive lineman he’s been the last three years?
We’re about to find out.
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