THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- So much is different about the Los Angeles Rams these days. They're coming off their first playoff appearance in 13 years, with a star-studded roster that now rivals any in the NFL, and the expectations are greater than they have been in more than a decade. The city is buzzing, the players are excited.
But one key similarity remains: Aaron Donald is absent.
Donald didn't attend the start of the Rams' offseason program on Monday. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year was absent for most of last year's program and is still in search of a new contract, one that would make him one of the game's highest-paid players. Donald is headed into the final year of his rookie contract, with no interest in showing up without a more lucrative deal.
After his team's first workout, Rams coach Sean McVay said they are "proactive towards finding a solution to make sure that everybody feels good about that."
"What I think we feel good about is the dialogue that has existed," McVay added. "We totally understand some of the other things that are going on with regards to wanting to get that deal. With respect to Aaron, we feel really good about where we're at with that dialogue. This is a voluntary offseason program. You know he's a guy that's going to work hard on his off time, and that's kind of where we're at. We feel good about everything that's going on with that."
Donald, who remains in Pittsburgh, is set to make $6.89 million in what constitutes the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. The Rams can then keep him for up to three additional years with the franchise tag, but they have expressed a desire to sign Donald long term dating back to last year's scouting combine.
At this year's combine, Rams general manager Les Snead said he and Donald's CAA-based representatives "came up with a nice timeline" for negotiations, a process that might pick up after the draft. The Rams have since taken up almost all of their cap space by adding cornerback Aqib Talib, interior lineman Ndamukong Suh and wide receiver Brandin Cooks. But Snead recently said that "none of it affects Aaron."
Signing Donald to a long-term deal might actually give the Rams more space under this year's salary cap, because the signing bonus is prorated for the life of the contract and would allow them to lower his 2018 base salary.
The Rams and Donald might be at a better place now, which could be evidenced by their exclusive, behind-the-scenes access to Donald's hometown for their "Behind The Grind" documentary series. Donald likes playing for McVay and is excited about the direction of the team. The Rams, meanwhile, would be more willing to pay Donald now because he's closer to free agency.
"I think the best thing that you have going is now there's been a year of working together," McVay said. "There's a rapport; there's a relationship that's been established, and we're in constant dialogue and communication. When this happened last year, we weren't really involved in much communication between myself and Aaron. I think you feel good about at least knowing where he's at."
Locking Donald up may require at least $80 million guaranteed and an average yearly salary of more than $20 million.
Donald, Cooks and safety Lamarcus Joyner, who signed his franchise tag prior to Monday's workout, can all be unrestricted free agents next offseason. The Rams would ideally sign all of them to long-term deals, though they face a July 16 deadline with Joyner.
Next year, their star running back, Todd Gurley, will be on the last year of his rookie contract, and the Rams might have to seriously consider a long-term deal for him, too. Gurley, represented by Jay-Z's Roc Nation, is now in the same situation Donald was in last year. But he didn't give much thought to staying away from the team.
Asked if he would like to start contract negotiations now, Gurley smiled wide.
"I think anyone would love to talk about contract situations."
Offseason workouts are voluntary under the collective bargaining agreement. Players can be fined only for skipping the mandatory veteran minicamp, which for the Rams takes place June 12-14. Donald showed up to last year's minicamp, but didn't participate in any of the team activities. He then skipped all of training camp and the preseason schedule, staying away from the team until the day before the season opener.
Donald now has a much better feel for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme, but his absence keeps the team from figuring out how Donald, Suh and Michael Brockers will work together on the same defensive line.
"I mean, we've dealt with it before, and we also know that it's a business," Brockers said. "You have the best defensive tackle in the league right now going through contract situations. I'll kind of just leave it at that. I don't really want to talk about if he's here, if he's not here. We obviously know that he's putting in the work to get back in shape."