Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is holding out of voluntary organized team activities as general manager Les Snead works tirelessly to reach a long-term extension with the two-time All-Pro. Donald’s expected contract extension isn’t just a priority for the Rams, but it dictates their long-term future. For Snead and Co., finding a deal that is agreeable to both Donald and their vulnerable salary cap position is imperative to the Rams’ long-term goals.

The risk of capitulation is a real threat, otherwise.

Donald has been the anchor of the Rams’ defense since entering the league, emerging with Defensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl honors in 2014, before following up with consecutive first-team All-Pro nods. The 25-year-old quickly established himself as the NFL’s premier defensive tackle and featuring for a Rams unit that consistently plays worse than the sum of their parts would indicate, retaining Donald would allow them to maintain a semblance of some infrastructure.

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Snead signed a contract extension in December but it would be naive to assume it serves as a function of job security, considering the Rams fired head coach Jeff Fisher a week after announcing their identical deals. During Snead’s five seasons with the Rams, the club has compiled a putrid 31-45-1 cumulative record, and penning a long-term extension for Donald could be what saves or ends his tenure with the Rams. Now, more than ever, Snead has to get it right.

Under Snead’s watch, the Rams have descended into salary cap hell. Entering the 2017 season, the Rams hold just over $1.7 million in expected cap space, the second-worst total in the NFL, according to Spotrac. Miami’s Ndamukong Suh and Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox both received contracts that exceeded $100 million in total value and Donald has surpassed them both on the field. Thus, the Rams are faced with the necessity of giving their best player a lucrative deal with little means to do so.

Of course, the Rams could always circumvent the cap with a back-loaded deal. With Donald’s contract still to run for two more seasons, there is time to make the necessary adjustments to fit him under the cap. It’s rare that players of Donald’s caliber reach free agency without significant effort from their team to retain them first. Nevertheless, Snead is on a proverbial tightrope and he can’t afford to look down.

Donald is the Rams’ best player by a wide margin – with due respect to running back Todd Gurley – and deserves to be paid in the range of the NFL’s elite defensive tackles. The Rams can’t afford to let him go as he’s the centerpiece of the defense, but are facing financial constraints due in part to Snead’s cap mismanagement. How the Rams plan to go about addressing this conundrum will shape their long-term future.

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