THOUSAND OAKS, California — When Los Angeles Rams’ general manager Les Snead, coach Sean McVay, and vice president Tony Pastoors realized the impending changes in their defense after a disappointing 2022 season, they wanted to reach out to their future Hall of Famer.
Aaron Donald sat down with them in Pastoors’ office before the start of free agency, discussing how the 2023 defense might shape around the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The Rams knew they would likely be “losing guys who have contributed a lot.”
“He’s a great competitor,” McVay said about Donald. “He loves challenges, but I think you don’t want to catch people off guard. And the best you can do, and what I’ve learned and certainly haven’t been perfect, is let’s try to make this honest. Try to give people an honest understanding of where we’re heading.”
Donald’s reaction resonated with Snead.
“I was looking him in the eye, saying, ‘This is the deal… I’m good, just make sure they care,'” Snead said.
Donald, widely regarded as one of the greatest defensive players of all time, has been named first-team All-Pro seven times. The defensive tackle, who finally added a Super Bowl champion to his resume during the 2021 season, was prepared for the challenge.
“I just said, ‘Bring guys that are hungry, that are willing to work, that are willing to find ways to get better and not be satisfied with just being here,'” Donald said. “Obviously, you bring in a bunch of new guys, and as long as they’re working with the mindset of wanting to get better, we can win with that.”
Unlike last year, expectations for the team’s success in 2023 were low. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey was traded to the Miami Dolphins, linebacker Bobby Wagner returned to the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent, defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson signed with the New York Giants, linebacker Leonard Floyd joined the Buffalo Bills, and nose tackle Greg Gaines headed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Donald was unfazed “because it’s like there’s no pressure.” Now in his tenth season, Donald has played 140 games, all with the Rams. He has 103.5 sacks, including at least half a sack against 50 different quarterbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“Obviously, in the last two years, you were praised so much, now everyone’s against you,” Donald said. “You hear it, but personally, I try to feed off a little bit of that because everybody needs something that tries to push us a little bit. So it’s different, but I’m all for the challenge.”
Although 32-year-old Donald is in the second half of his career and wants to win now, he has welcomed the opportunity to lead a young team. As the Rams prepare for the Cincinnati Bengals on “Monday Night Football” (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN Deportes), it’s clear that a roster many thought would be a rebuild is capable of winning games. On defense, much of that is due to Donald’s presence, not only during games but in the way he has guided his young teammates.
“Not just in this draft, but in many drafts, we’ve often joked a bit: ‘OK, does this meet AD’s standard?'” Snead said.
Often, when Snead evaluates a player in the draft, he sees someone who “passes the beauty contest” with skill level “but maybe from a love of the game standpoint doesn’t.”
“And it’s like, ‘Wow, I don’t know if it passes the AD test,'” Snead said. “So we’ve definitely done that over the years as a barometer, as a standard.”
JUSTIN LOVETT HAS a list on the board in his office with 15 names. It’s the “AD body count,” a list of players who have tried, and failed, to complete a workout with Donald since Lovett was hired in 2020 as the Rams’ director of strength and conditioning.
.@tutuatwell finds the endzone for 6️⃣!
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) September 26, 2023
This year, rookie defensive linemen Kobie Turner and Desjuan Johnson joined Lovett’s list early during training camp. Turner’s entry came the first week of camp. Although he couldn’t keep up with Donald, he was “doing some of the stuff he was doing, just at a slower pace.” But on the second day of training, Turner “got a cramp mid-practice and they had to take me out.”
“It’s hard to keep up, but it shows how much you really want it.” Johnson said. “I was in the middle of the workout, and I’m thinking, ‘Damn, we haven’t finished yet,’ he still wants to do a little more. I was like, ‘I can’t complain. That’s what it takes to be the best.’ So I did my best not to complain. I just embraced the moment, and toward the end of camp, as we were working out, I asked him, ‘Are you ready? What else do you want to do?'”
When asked about his workout routine, Donald smiled and said, “I just work a lot.”
“Obviously, on days I can get a lot of extra work in, I’m in there with [Lovett] working on certain things,” Donald said. “I like to look good. So I feel like certain things are getting a little soft, so make sure they keep feeling right.”
Donald hasn’t identified a rookie who can keep up with his pace.
“They haven’t been very steady with that,” he said.
Before a newcomer tries to work out with Donald, Lovett said, he’ll attempt to have them reach the volume Donald is doing.
“We talk about it,” Lovett said. “For example: ‘He’s going to do three sets, he’s going to do four sets, maybe you start with
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