THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — There was action spread across two fields during a recent practice at the Los Angeles Rams‘ training facility. Enough to keep eyes wandering.
But suddenly a large, fast movement commanded attention.
As the offensive and defensive starters jogged from the red zone back to midfield during an 11-on-11 drill, the 6-foot-1, 280-pound Aaron Donald broke into an all-out sprint that left his teammates behind.
It’s May, with the season opener still more than 90 days away, and it’s organized team activities, which are voluntary. But for Donald, the NFL’s two-time Defensive Player of the Year, that doesn’t affect the intensity, or speed, in which he approaches his craft.
“One of the things that you really appreciate about Aaron is you always hear that the great ones bring others with them,” coach Sean McVay said. “He’s got a way about himself where he raises the level of play of everybody around him and the way that he goes about his business.”
Donald’s presence was missed the past two offseasons. He stayed away from the team facility because of a contract dispute that eventually ended last August when he signed a six-year, $135 million extension, with $87 million guaranteed.
“Happy, excited, just football now,” Donald said, when asked about his return to the offseason program. “Ain’t got to worry about the business side.”
Despite a record-breaking contract, and an accumulation of honors, Donald, 28, has maintained the same work ethic that earned him such prestige. He said he took only “two or three days off” after the Super Bowl.
Donald’s off-field demeanor and presence, however, has changed.
Spending his offseason in Los Angeles for the first time since 2016, when the team relocated from St. Louis, Donald has taken an increased interest in the community. He recently headlined a fundraising walk in L.A. to help the homeless crisis.
“It’s been great just to get out there, people get to see you outside of football,” Donald said.
Donald’s regular meetings with reporters also have taken on a lighter tone. Where he used to routinely wear clothing that represented his agency, CAA Sports, through the contract dispute, he recently modeled a pair of fashionable Gucci shorts, coupled with a huge grin.
“I didn’t realize how much I enjoy him,” said McVay, who went through his first two offseasons as coach keeping in touch with Donald via text messages and phone calls.
As the Rams attempt to regroup following a disappointing loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, Donald has raised the bar for offseason workouts.
He sprints from drill to drill, repeats a drill if a mistake is made and leads the defensive line through extra workouts in the weight room.
“You kind of forgot — just because we weren’t really worried about him — we knew we would see him at some point in time these last two years, but it’s kind of dope having him around,” defensive lineman Michael Brockers said. “He pushes us in the weight room, leads us in the weight room. He’s always trying to get us better, so I like his atmosphere.”
Despite choosing to work out the past two offseasons in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Donald was hardly out of sight. He posted portions of his workouts on social media, including a drill in which his trainer used fake knives during hand combat. Through those workouts, Donald proved he was more than capable of preparing for the season alone.
Last season, he finished with 20.5 sacks, setting a new record for an interior defensive lineman. Despite facing a double-team on 63 percent of his pass rushes, he boasted the best pass-rush win rate in the league, beating his block within 2.5 seconds on 44 percent of his pass rushes, according to ESPN’s Pass Rush metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats.
Nevertheless, Donald said the team’s offseason program remained necessary, and that he has missed spending time with teammates.
“It’s important,” Donald said. “I think you need to be here with the guys. You just build that relationship. Just learning each other, being around each other, pushing each other.”
Among his to-do list now that he’s back with the team is acquainting himself with a new coach, and a new young teammate.
The Rams did not renew the contract of line coach Bill Johnson after he spent two seasons with the team and instead brought in Eric Henderson, who previously served as the assistant defensive line coach for the Los Angeles Chargers. All-Pro tackle Ndamukong Suh was not retained in free agency and was replaced with nose tackle Greg Gaines, a third-round pick in the NFL draft who is expected to play a significant role in early down packages.
Gaines expressed enthusiasm about the possibility of alleviating some of Donald’s double teams, and also was excited to learn from the four-time All-Pro.
“That’s the coolest part about being here is just being able to learn from guys like that,” Gaines said.
When the Rams’ offseason program concludes in June, Donald is expected to return to Pittsburgh to continue workouts with his long-time trainer.
In the meantime, teammates and McVay are pleased to finally have him around.
“There’s something special when you’ve got your two-time reigning defensive player of the year who works as hard as he does, and sometimes you don’t have to say …” McVay trailed off. “You just have to say look at what this guy does, and that’s what’s right.”