THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The Los Angeles Rams just made Aaron Donald the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, with a $135 million, six-year contract extension that features $87 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
One season after coach Sean McVay led the Rams to their first division title in 14 seasons and first playoff appearance since 2004, with the reigning defensive player of the year locked up, their Super Bowl window is wide-open.
But it could close just as fast — we’re talking within two seasons — with contracts expiring and paydays looming for several defensive playmakers as well as quarterback Jared Goff.
Goff, the first pick in 2016, was on his way to being considered a bust after seven winless starts as a rookie. He completed a dramatic turnaround in his second season, catapulting the Rams’ offense from the lowest-scoring in the league to the highest, averaging 29.9 points per game.
Goff is entering his third season and will be looking for a new deal after 2019. It’ll be costly. With Donald’s deal done, Goff’s deal becomes the priority.
For comparison’s sake, the Minnesota Vikings recently signed free agent Kirk Cousins to a three-year deal worth $84 million fully guaranteed, and the Atlanta Falcons gave Matt Ryan a five-year, $150 million extension that included $94.5 million fully guaranteed at signing. What the QB market looks like in two seasons remains to be seen, but it’s not an issue that the Rams have to address immediately.
The Rams have, however, been proactive in making sure Goff’s top playmakers will be around for the foreseeable future.
Reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley was awarded a four-year, $60 million extension — with $45 million guaranteed, before training camp opened, keeping him with the team through 2023.
Also under contract for the next five seasons is Brandin Cooks, whom the Rams acquired in an offseason trade with the New England Patriots. Cooks received a five-year, $81 million extension before ever playing a snap in Los Angeles.
The Rams’ most pressing offensive concern — other than paying Goff — is their line. This is where things get tricky. The Rams hope this year’s draft class — with their first pick coming in the third round — develops quickly.
The Rams drafted three linemen in April, including third-round pick Joseph Noteboom, who can take over for Whitworth (a four-time Pro Bowl selection), and fourth-round pick Brian Allen, who can replace Sullivan. That will save considerable cash, considering Whitworth is playing on a three-year deal worth nearly $34 million and Sullivan is on a two-year deal worth nearly $11 million.
Austin Blythe, a proven backup, is a candidate to move into Brown’s spot, and Saffold — the Rams’ longest-tenured player — has expressed that he wants to remain with the team, perhaps at a hometown discount.
And then there’s the defense. The Rams boast a defensive line with three first-round picks: Donald, Ndamukong Suh — who is playing on a one-year, $14 million deal — and Michael Brockers, whose contract expires after the 2019 season. The star-studded secondary that underwent the biggest offseason makeover with the additions of All-Pro cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib also might not be together long. The Rams exercised Peters’ fifth-year option — he’s scheduled to earn $1.7 million this season and $9 million next — and will remain with the team at least through 2019. So will Talib.
But if the Rams decide they want to keep Peters long-term, and that’s likely, given he has a league-high 19 interceptions over the past three seasons, they’ll need to get his deal done after this season. It could cost $10 million to $15 million per season.
Talib, 32, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, is scheduled to earn $19 million in two seasons and will likely need to be replaced.
Safety Lamarcus Joyner will play this season on the franchise tag and earn almost $11.3 million after the two sides were unable to come to terms on a long-term extension. With Donald’s deal done, he’s no longer a candidate to occupy the franchise tag in 2019, and it could be used on Joyner again.
Linebacker Mark Barron, a first-round pick in 2012, is entering the third season of a five-year, $45 million deal. If future money is needed, Barron is among candidates for release.
The Rams have long known that extending Donald would require record-setting money. As they’ve completed other deals, Donald’s numbers have been taken into account. But with Donald’s deal now complete, the Rams were able to maintain about $5 million in cap space.
Next season the Rams are in decent shape, with $58 million available under the salary cap before Donald’s deal. But even with that amount of money, it’s likely that a star or two will become a cap-space casualty.
The good news, in 2020 there’s more than $113 million in cap space (before Donald’s deal), leaving room to give Goff the contract he’ll likely be seeking.
But with limited funds, the Rams won’t be able to keep all their stars, not into the foreseeable future.
That’s why this season and next, it’s Super Bowl or bust.
ESPN’s Dan Graziano contributed to this report.