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Are the Rams going to trade Aaron Donald?

The evidence is circumstantial but....

Los Angeles Rams v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr /Getty Images

Let’s be ultra clear about one thing — I’m not breaking any news here. I have no direct evidence for what I’m about to say. This is pure speculation. BUT ....

It looks increasingly like the LA Rams might be planning to trade Aaron Donald.

What? That’s insane, dude. He’s the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. ESPN reported that he’s close to a deal with the Rams, earlier this month. And that’s all true. But that report of a close deal was weeks ago and nothing happened. LA Times columnist Dylan Hernandez recommended trading him earlier this month.

Here’s my thinking:

1) The Rams are spending money like a con man whose Ponzi scheme is just about to collapse. They’re grabbing expensive free agents and extending everyone except Aaron Donald. Hell, they just gave right tackle Rob Havenstein $8 million a year for 4 years, while stiff-arming their best player.

2) Salary issues aren’t getting any better in the future. Ndamukong Suh and LaMarcus Joyner are on one-year deals at $14.5M and $11.3M respectively. Jared Goff and Marcus Peters will need extensions. Todd Gurley’s salary jumps from $7.2M this year to $9.2M in 2019 and $17.25M in 2020. Brandin Cooks jumps to $15M next year and keeps going up. How are they going to extend Donald, who should make somewhere between $23M - $25M under his next contract, after paying everybody else?

3) They obviously have a short term focus. Les Snead seems to think he has Tom Brady’s Patriots, in the last year or two of a Super Bowl window that’s rapidly closing. They’re trading draft picks for veterans, and building around players like Aquib Talib (age 32, at a speed-focused position), Ndamukong Suh (31) and Sam Shields (30). Hell, LT Andrew Whitworth is 36.

And Goff is certainly no Tom Brady. If anything, Snead should be stalling for the future when Goff might develop into a franchise quarterback. Might. Snead is mistaking the salary cap window of a rookie contract for the Super Bowl window of an elite quarterback.

4) They’re burning bridges with Aaron Donald. Donald has indicated that he wants to stay with the Rams, and I get the argument that the team has leverage — especially since at age 27, Donald’s only likely to get one full-sized contract in his career (as Joe McAtee of Turf Show Times noted on the last Better Rivals podcast).

But everyone has feelings, and the Rams are just openly disrespecting Donald at this point. ELEVEN Rams make more money than him, including three offensive linemen (Havenstein, guard Rodger Saffold, and center John Sullivan). Donald is already holding out, and missed game one last year as a result. You can only push a man so far, while denying him money he richly deserves, before it comes back to bite you.

5) Les Snead loves to trade. But he’s not as good at it as he thinks he is. Ever since the RGIII trade, he thinks he’s a master wheeler-dealer (while forgetting that he did nothing with all those picks.)

He spent a fortune for a first round pick, then chose Goff over Carson Wentz, surrendered a second round pick for one year of Sammy Watkins, and just gave up a current year first for Brandin Cooks. (Cooks is fine, but his big numbers came with Brees and Brady at QB, yet those teams were both eager to dump him. Hmmm....)

So what’s the play?

My guess is that Snead thinks he will surprise everybody and pull off his own Herschel Walker trade, re-stocking the larder that he just depleted himself and making all his salary cap worries disappear in one master stroke.

The stigma against trading for elite players with expiring contracts is going away. Heck, Snead did that exact thing himself with Brandin Cooks this summer.

If he can’t swing a deal with his star DT, there’s always the franchise tag, whose rules kill elite players like Donald. The franchise tag gets him the average of the top 5 players at his position (with him, the best, counted at his way-below-market rookie contract of $6.892 million).

For defensive tackles, the tag is under $14 million, barely half of what Donald could get on the open market. The Rams could tag him two years in a row and still save a lot of money, leaving their star 29 years old and on the decline before he finally gets paid what he deserves. That might trigger a full year holdout, or at best grudging play. And discourage any free agents from signing with the Rams in the future.

Trade with who, though?

What team could trade for Aaron Donald, and pay him $25 million or more? It would have to be a team with lots of cap room. A team that has stockpiled some extra draft picks. A team with a solid roster except for their pass rush, so that spending that much on the line would make sense.

A team like the San Francisco 49ers.