By late in the offseason, May 9 to be exact, Aaron Donald appeared to have made up his mind. The rumors that floated around the time of Super Bowl LVI had been swirling, but now he seemed certain.
And so the agent for the greatest defensive tackle to ever play sent a letter to the only team Donald’s played for, the Rams, and informed them of his decision to retire, according to several sources informed of the situation.
The letter, which has been an unreported secret since it was sent, was on Athletes First letterhead and addressed to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Simply, it stated that Donald had informed the Rams he was retiring effective on May 9. It came with instructions to send it in to the league office.
But the letter was never sent to the NFL.
What transpired next paved the way for a massive contract adjustment for Donald to commit to the Super Bowl champs for another two years. He will be on the field tonight against the Bills in the 2022 NFL regular-season opener (8:20 p.m. ET on NBC).
By that point back in May, contract talks for Donald, who was about to turn 31 and had three years left on his original six-year, $136 million extension, had stalled. His agent Todd France at Athletes First had pushed for a large raise but no new years on his deal — something that never happens for a defensive player, with the biggest such example for an offensive player being when then-Patriots quarterback Tom Brady got an $8 million raise in 2019.
What Donald and his camp sought was far bigger than $8 million.
The contract negotiations looked grim based on the views of everyone involved, and Donald appeared done playing in the NFL. He had accomplished everything one can accomplish, with eight Pro Bowls, seven All-Pro selections, three Defensive Player of the Year awards and now a Super Bowl title.
So, the letter was sent to the Rams, and Donald was at peace with his decision. The only caveat was this: The Rams brass, Donald and his agent had a zoom set up the next day to discuss his contract. The letter stayed unearthed until that meeting just to be sure there wasn’t anything they could do. Meanwhile, the Rams were endlessly respectful of Donald, regardless of his decision, simply wanting to know when and how to properly honor him for his stellar career.
Instead, there was a slightly encouraging conversation between Donald’s agent and the Rams and another one was scheduled. And then another. And another. And suddenly the two sides were even more encouraged that an impossible deal could get done.
Also, a key date in June 1 loomed. Had Donald’s retirement letter been submitted to the league at that time, it would have triggered a $21.5 million salary-cap hit in 2022 for the Rams. After June 1, the $21.5 million became only $9 million. So, the timing was important.
The thought of Donald’s retirement was very real. For both sides, however, continuing to talk made sense. Sparked by Donald’s letter, whether it was strategic or real, the parties had time and a window to get a new contract done.
Was Donald serious enough to retire? Would the Rams have sent the letter in? Was it a negotiating move aimed at handing a player with three years left some leverage?
No one will know. But Donald’s situation was treated with necessary seriousness from all sides, and in the end a deal was struck on June 6.
A $40 million raise over three years — without adding new years — meant Donald would earn $95 million over three years. The $31.6M average salary reset the market for all defensive players, but looking only at the average annual salary doesn’t tell the whole story of this unprecedented $40 million raise.
Essentially, a two-year commitment to the champs, with an opportunity to play a third if it made sense. And so, Donald won’t retire.
Instead, he’ll play tonight.
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