The first full slate of NFL preseason games arrives with the league’s last two defensive players of the year, Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Oakland Raiders pass rusher Khalil Mack, still absent from their teams in holdouts over their contracts.
There even has been speculation that the Raiders could contemplate trading Mack rather than giving him a new deal resembling the six-year contract of Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller worth just more than $114 million.
Is it time for anyone to fret about the Mack and Donald holdouts?
At least not too much.
The likelihood is that both players will report to their teams, with or without new-contract resolutions, around the start of the regular season, and that both will play at their customary level of excellence despite the preparation time they’ve missed.
That’s simply how it works in the NFL. Players almost invariably show up and play, whatever their contract-related grievances, rather than opting to stay home and forego their salaries. And good players almost invariably play well. Donald, remember, held out last year as well. He showed up just before the opener and did not play in that game. Even so, he ended up being the NFL’s defensive player of the year for a 2017 season in which he had 11 sacks and forced five fumbles.
There are potential complications and issues, of course. Recall that defensive tackle Sean Gilbert once sat out an entire season — in 1997 — in a contract dispute with Washington related to the franchise player tag, then was traded to the Carolina Panthers for the 1998 season. Some wonder whether the Raiders, portrayed as one of the league’s less affluent franchises, might be forced to consider trading Mack because they can’t afford to keep him.
The Raiders, after all, already have handed out a series of hefty contracts, including a five-year, $125 million deal to quarterback Derek Carr last year that temporarily made him the sport’s highest-paid player, and a 10-year, $100 million contract to new head coach Jon Gruden. They have a reputation as one of the league’s poorest teams and are in the final stages of their time in Oakland as they await their pending move to Las Vegas.
Gruden, who also coached the Raiders from 1998 to 2001, has pointed out that the team’s defense wasn’t very good last season even with Mack, ranking 23rd in the league in total defense. Mack had 10.5 sacks last season, his lowest total since he had four as a rookie in 2014.
So would trading Mack make sense? Not to others within the sport.
“I guess you never say never,” said a front office executive with another NFL team, speaking on the condition of anonymity to address a player under contract to a different club. “But I’d be really surprised. You don’t trade a guy like that. You just wait it out and take care of his contract at the appropriate time.”
It’s also debatable just how poor the Raiders are. In last year’s estimates, Forbes put the value of the Raiders at $2.38 billion, 19th-best in the league. It estimated that the Raiders had a $41 million operating profit, a league low but hardly insignificant.
Mack is to make $13.846 million this season under the fifth-year option exercised by the Raiders in his original rookie contract. He would be eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. But the Raiders would have the option of using the franchise player tag on him. Mack is a three-time Pro Bowl selection in his four NFL seasons. He has totaled 40.5 sacks and once was named first-team all-pro at two different positions, defensive end and outside linebacker, in the same season. That happened in 2015. The following season, he was the NFL’s defensive player of the year.
Donald is to make $6.892 million this season in the final year of his rookie contract after the Rams exercised his fifth-year option. He did not qualify last year for an accrued season toward free agency because of his holdout and late arrival, and he missed this week’s leaguewide deadline to report to camp to be credited with an accrued season toward free agency this year. So he will be eligible for restricted free agency rather than unrestricted free agency next spring. That matters little. He is so good that the Rams probably would still have to place the franchise tag on him to keep another team from signing him to an offer sheet.
The Rams have Super Bowl aspirations after reaching the playoffs last season when their rookie head coach, Sean McVay, transformed Jared Goff into a legitimate franchise quarterback and helped running back Todd Gurley to develop into a league MVP contender. They bolstered the roster in the offseason by trading for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and adding defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to the defense.
That offseason shopping spree prompted finger-wagging by NFL traditionalists who contend that rapidly assembling such a would-be superteam has not been the path to Super Bowl glory. But the Rams have one of the greatest defensive coordinators in league history, Wade Phillips, to handle the task of blending so much talent and so many strong personalities on their defense to complement McVay’s offense. Their 2018 season could be a fascinating case study into whether their approach to roster construction can work.
They need Donald to make it all happen, however. He is such a disruptive force and such a unique talent that some observers regard him as the league’s top player, ahead of even the star quarterbacks.
Rams general manager Les Snead told reporters this week that the team and Donald are “in the same ZIP code, area code, ballpark” on the terms of a long-term contract. But no deal has been struck, and the Rams’ wait for Donald continues.
Some also wonder whether each player is waiting for the other to complete a new contract, which then could be topped. But the only real deadline of significance is the start of the season, and there remains time between now and then for things to play out and for the angst of some fans to grow.