IRVINE, Calif. — The aches last a little longer and so do some of the pains.
“Yeah, I’m getting a little older,” Los Angeles Rams star defensive lineman Aaron Donald conceded behind a grin after a recent training camp practice. “I definitely feel it.”
The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year celebrated his 30th birthday May 23.
“Old man, that’s an old man, AD!” defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day said jokingly, only a moment before hollering at Donald to wait for him as he walked toward the weight room. “I mess with him and call him old man just to bust his chops, but it’s amazing to see a guy at that age still doing what he’s doing, as strong as he is, as fast as he is, still.”
As the Rams prepare to open the 2021 regular season next month, Donald is the elder statesman of the defense, two years older than outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and cornerback Darious Williams, who are 28. However, entering his eighth season, Donald undoubtedly remains the centerpiece of the top-ranked defense that held opponents to 18.5 points per game last season.
And Donald has shown no signs of slowing.
Through nearly three weeks of training camp, Donald is typically the first player to arrive at the “Dawg Pit” — where the defensive linemen work on individual techniques before practice officially begins. He has kept a presence in the backfield during 11-on-11 drills, and in a joint practice with the Dallas Cowboys, Donald went to work against offensive guard Connor Williams, who held his own but didn’t exactly keep Donald from entering the backfield.
“He looks pretty damn good to me,” Rams coach Sean McVay said when asked if Donald is showing any signs of aging.
“He playing like he 22,” Floyd said. “You know what I’m saying? He makes it look easy.”
In seven seasons, Donald has 85.5 sacks. That’s six more than the next-best defender, Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones, in that span.
Often faced with double- and triple-teams in 2020, Donald is coming off a 13.5-sack season that included four forced fumbles and earned him a third Defensive Player of the Year trophy, making him only the third player to win the award three times (joining Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt).
But the key to some of Donald’s success this season won’t just depend on his ability to excel, but will also be determined by how quickly some of his younger counterparts develop.
Gone from last season’s top-ranked unit are safety John Johnson III, cornerback Troy Hill, outside linebacker Samson Ebukam and defensive lineman Michael Brockers, with whom Donald had played every season of his career.
“We got guys that need to step up big time,” Donald said. “[Brockers] being gone, there is definitely going to be a void …”
A sixth-round pick in 2018 from Rutgers, Joseph-Day has continued to develop, expanding his repertoire during training camp from run stopping to include improved pass rushing. He is expected to start for a third season and play an increased number of snaps. A’Shawn Robinson reported to training camp in the best physical shape of his six-year career in preparation to take over Brockers’ spot. Third-year pro Greg Gaines has also continued to develop.
Not necessarily known to be outspoken, Donald has continued his style of leadership by showing his younger teammates how to approach their jobs — even as some arrived with stars in their eyes at the idea of meeting their idol, now dressed as their teammate.
Rookie defensive lineman Bobby Brown III, a fourth-round pick and the Rams’ youngest player at 20, was ecstatic when he first met Donald during the offseason program.
When you finally get to meet @AaronDonald97.
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) May 17, 2021
“AD come around and he was like ‘Hey, you was the one in my locker,’ and I was like, ‘Yo!’ And I was trying to calm down,” said Brown, who explained that he was taking a photo of Donald’s locker because, well, why wouldn’t you document the locker of one of all-time greats who’s now a teammate? “It was very surreal because that’s somebody I look up to, just before even football, just as a person.”
Donald has assured his young counterparts he “ain’t nobody special,” while providing a daily blueprint of how to succeed in the NFL.
“The guy is a workhorse and a technician,” said Brown, who has been slowed during training camp after undergoing a procedure to repair an injured thumb. “You can learn so much from him … the way he works, the way he carries himself and he goes about business, it’s very impressive.”
Elder statesman or not, Donald sees it at part of his job and the best path forward to earning a trip to Super Bowl LVI, which will be played at SoFi Stadium in February.
“Anytime you get young guys coming in, you want to try to teach them something or just show them how you work so they can try to gravitate to that,” Donald said. “The more guys you got stepping up that’s able to play at a high level, the better chance you got to win.”
As to whether any opposing quarterbacks can rest easy knowing that Donald is, at least by NFL standards, getting older?
“I don’t care if AD 35,” cornerback Jalen Ramsey said, “he’s going to be the best player in the league.”