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Aaron Donald gets a record-breaking deal from the Rams. It’s about damn time

The Rams finally decided to pay the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year what he deserves.

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NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

In May, Aaron Donald’s new teammate Marcus Peters told the Los Angeles Rams to “pay the man.” Months later and after well over a year of Donald asking for a new deal, the Rams are finally doing paying up.

On Friday, the Rams announced a lucrative extension for Donald. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, it’s a six-year, $135 million deal with $87 million guaranteed. Donald’s contract comes in the same week that Aaron Rodgers and Odell Beckham Jr. received record deals.

Donald’s isn’t just the highest ever for a defensive player — it puts his pay in a tier that only elite quarterbacks have reached. His $22.5 million annual average easily eclipses the $19.1 million average that Von Miller got from the Broncos two years ago. Now, Donald is the 10th highest-paid player in the entire NFL, in terms of annual salary — behind only nine quarterbacks.

The Rams are going all-in on 2018

It’s the second massive extension Los Angeles has doled out to a former rookie of the year this season. The club locked up running back and reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley to a four-year, $60 million deal that could keep him as the crown jewel of the team’s offense through 2023. Head coach Sean McVey assured reporters Gurley’s contract wouldn’t affect the team’s quest to lock in Donald — and on Friday, they proved that.

The Rams, who are fresh off their first NFC West title in 14 years, have had a busy offseason beyond just securing Gurley. They added three former All-Pros to their defense (Peters, Aqib Talib, and Ndamukong Suh) and also traded for — and then extended — a No. 1 wide receiver (Brandin Cooks). Los Angeles is loading up its roster and locking down young players to fill out its salary cap space while quarterback Jared Goff plays out his rookie deal; the third-year QB will count for just $16.5 million against the cap the next two seasons.

Paying Gurley and Cooks will keep the core of that 2017 division champion intact and create the foundation for the team’s future. But signing Donald to an extension and ensuring he doesn’t hit the free agent market next year was their most important move yet.

The interior defensive lineman has been the anchor for the Rams’ defense since he entered the league in 2014, when he won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He has been named a Pro Bowler in all four of his seasons and is also a three-time All-Pro. Last season, he took home his biggest prize yet: the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award.

But because Donald was still playing under the final year of his rookie contract, his salary didn’t match his production. Before his new deal, he was scheduled to make $6.9 million in 2018 — which would have been his highest annual salary yet, but still wouldn’t even rank in the top 30 among defensive linemen.

This new contract fixes that.

Donald’s extension has been a long time coming

Donald is still just 27, but he was overdue for a raise and has tried to get one since last offseason.

Last March, Rams general manager Les Snead said Donald’s new contract was just a matter of time. “It’s definitely coming,” Snead said. “The guy deserves a raise, there’s no doubt.”

However, the Rams had a favorable contract on their hands (Donald earned $1.8 million in 2017) and an unfavorable salary cap situation, so they decided to punt on signing him to an extension. They did pick up his fifth-year option, though, guaranteeing he was under contract for 2018.

Donald held out through training camp and the preseason in 2017. He returned to the team, without a new deal, on Sept. 9 and missed the season opener. Despite the absence, he still racked up 11 sacks in 14 games and was honored as the league’s best defender.

Despite another monster season, the impasse between the club and its game-changing defensive tackle remained. Donald skipped 2018 OTAs in May and mandatory minicamp in June, then watched as players like Gurley and Cooks had their extensions seemingly prioritized over his. Without the new deal, it seems likely that another holdout was on the horizon.

This was a move the Rams had to make

Donald has earned his reputation as one of the most feared players in the league. SB Nation’s Stephen White wrote in December, “I really can’t imagine the nightmares offensive linemen have before they line up against Aaron Donald. Russell Wilson called Donald “the best defensive player I’ve ever played against.” Pro Football Focus named him as the NFL’s best pass rusher and their No. 1 player in 2017 due in no small part to his ability create pressure.

In just 14 games last season, Donald racked up 11 sacks and five forced fumbles — and that was after transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Wade Phillips.

Donald can rush the passer as a defensive tackle and defensive end. His rare combination of size, speed, and strength allows him to terrorize opponents anywhere on the defensive line. In four seasons, Donald has been a game-changer, registering 148 tackles, nine forced fumbles, and 39 sacks. He has missed just two games, and recorded at least eight sacks each season. He’s led the Rams in sacks in the last three seasons and has had a historic start to his career:

The Rams made the smart decision of making sure Donald wouldn’t become a free agent in 2019. But it was really the only decision they could make. Donald is the best defensive player in the NFL right now — and he’s finally getting paid like it.