LOS ANGELES — For the first time in his NFL career, Aaron Donald suffered a major injury that sidelined him for multiple games and required surgery. He recorded a career-low five sacks, and was not voted All-Pro, an honor he earned in each of the last seven seasons.
The Rams’ star defensive lineman was all smiles Wednesday, however, as he spoke to reporters for the first time since the Rams followed a Super Bowl title with a disastrous 5-12 season.
With star cornerback Jalen Ramsey traded and linebacker Bobby Wagner and edge rusher Leonard Floyd released, Donald is the only remaining pillar for a defense hit hard by the brain trust’s decision to go into austerity mode.
Donald, who turns 32 this month, said he did not ponder retirement.
“You never want to end your career the way it kind of was last year, so it never really crossed my mind,” he said during a post-workout news conference in Thousand Oaks. “I was just trying to do everything I can to get my myself healthy.”
Donald, quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Cooper Kupp are the only stars still on the roster from a team that won Super Bowl LVI at the end of the 2021 season.
In the celebratory aftermath of that victory, the Rams restructured Donald’s contract and gave Stafford and Kupp massive extensions. According to overthecap.com, Donald carried a salary-cap number of $27 million last season. He has a cap number of $26 million this season, $34 million in 2024.
Donald, a three-time NFL defensive player of the year, said he “made a commitment to this organization,” and would not let the team’s roster decisions affect his preparation for his 10th season.
“Obviously, it’s different than what we’ve seen in the past few years,” he said, “but a lot of young guys will have to step up.”
Donald is feeling his age — “aches and pains, they last a little longer but it comes with it,” he said, chuckling — but he said he was “100 percent” recovered from surgery for a high left ankle sprain.
“That’s all that matters,” said Donald, who has 103 career sacks.
Coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead have said the Rams communicated with Donald about their roster strategy. They do not anticipate any kind of drop off by Donald.
“Aaron’s motivated,” McVay said. “The greats elevate people around them.”
Outside linebacker Michael Hoecht, a converted interior defensive lineman, plans to use what he learned from Donald as he transitions into a leadership role. Hoecht described Donald as “the hardest working and best player in football” since Hoecht signed as an undrafted free agent in 2020.
“He shows you that level of work and what it takes to be good in this league,” Hoecht said. “And so I wanted to take some of the things that he does and the amount of time that he spends on his craft and working through things and bring that into our room too.”
The Rams selected several edge rushers and defensive linemen in the recent NFL draft. The rookies are eager to play alongside and learn from Donald, the 13th player selected in the 2014 draft.
“Amazing, man,” third-round pick Byron Young said of the opportunity to play with Donald. “I can’t wait to start training.”
Kobie Turner, also a third-round pick, said it was “insane” to be able to learn from Donald.
“When you’re very young, a defensive lineman, that’s who you watch,” Turner said. “And I have studied his game so much. … I am so excited for the opportunity to be able to pick his brain, ask him questions and learn kind of how he sees the game.”
Seventh-round pick Desjuan Johnson said he would absorb all that he could from Donald.
“I feel like I’m like a newborn trying to take as much in, as much skill, as much learning,” he said.
In 2021, with encouragement from former teammate Von Miller, Donald took on a more vocal leadership role as the Rams surged to a Super Bowl victory.
Donald indicated he would again assert himself in that way as the Rams navigate the season with so many young players.
The Rams will work to prove that they are better than “the little underdogs,” Donald said.
“It’s like starting all over again from scratch,” he said, adding, “so you just get to work and just play.”