By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports NFL Writer

For Aaron Donald, the experience of winning his first Super Bowl earlier this year sits atop the list of his many accomplishments in the National Football League and serves as a driving force for him to return in 2022.

“Once you’re actually in that moment, it’s different,” Donald said during a recent appearance on former NFL receiver Brandon Marshall’s “I Am Athlete” podcast. “It’s hard to put it into words because all that hard work you put in over the years, everything you sacrificed to play this game, you finally completed the mission. It’s just different. 

“Then you get to have your family, your kids down there with you playing in the confetti. Every interview I was at, my kids and my wife were with me. That was just different. There’s no other feeling like it.”

Donald is usually a man of few words, but in an interview that went more than an hour, he went on to say that he understands Tom Brady’s motivation for unretiring and returning to the field after winning seven Super Bowls.

But for Donald, it’s not just a matter of returning to the field. The 31-year-old Pittsburgh native wants to be paid for who he is: the best defensive player in the NFL — and maybe ever.

Currently, Donald is set to make $22.5 million in total compensation in 2022, which makes him the sixth-highest paid defensive player in the league. Pittsburgh Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt sits atop that list with an annual average salary of $28 million.

When Donald signed his six-year, $135 million contract four years ago, he was the highest-paid defensive player in the league. However, with three years left on his deal, that’s no longer the case. 

The Rams understand the situation and are willing to redo Donald’s contract, according to coach Sean McVay. Currently, Donald is not attending organized team activities at L.A.’s headquarters in Thousand Oaks, California.

“The dialogue has been good,” McVay told reporters last week. “He’s done a great job of communicating. And he gets a chance to spend time with his family right now. So I feel good about that.”

Donald said after the Super Bowl that he would be content to retire. However, during the team’s Super Bowl parade celebration, he said he wanted to run it back. Now, with his representation working with the Rams on a new deal, Donald once again reiterated his willingness to retire if the two sides can’t come to an agreement.

Who’s retirement would hurt Rams more?

After the Super Bowl, both Sean McVay and Aaron Donald hinted at retirement. At that time, Nick Wright and Chris Broussard discussed which retirement would be more detrimental for the Rams in the long run.

Donald’s words do not seem like a hollow threat to make sure a new contract is in place by the time the season starts.

“Me talking about retirement, that was happening way before we won a Super Bowl,” Donald said on the podcast. “I’ve been saying that since I got into the league, that I was going to play eight years and then be done. That’s just what I’ve been saying, and then it just came out, and now everybody thinks if he wins a Super Bowl, now he’s going to retire.

“No, I’ve got teammates, coaches and family that know about this: I’m going to play eight years, and then I’ll probably be done playing football. But winning a Super Bowl, you kind of get addicted to it, and I want to feel that again. I ain’t going to lie. That experience is like none other. So if I was to play, it’s to win another Super Bowl. But at the end of the day, it has to make sense to me and my family.”

Donald said his relationship with the Rams’ organization is fine and that he’s going to McVay’s wedding to model Veronika Khomyn this week.

“I’m happy,” Donald said. “I’m fine. The thing is, I don’t need to play football to be fine. I was blessed to play this game to make the money I made. The accomplishments I made in eight years, I’m like, I’m complete. If I can win another Super Bowl, that’s great. But if not, I’m at peace.”

That said, Donald expects to be on the field this season.

“It’s probably going to get figured out,” he said. “But if wasn’t to, I’m not going to be mad at the organization. It’s fine. It’s cool.”

Selected No. 13 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft by the Rams, Donald has been the best player on the defensive side of the ball over the past decade. He’s a seven-time first-team All-Pro and three-time Defensive Player of the Year (2017, 2018 and 2020). He has the most sacks (98), tackles for loss (150) and quarterback hits (226) in the NFL during the regular season over that period. He’s the only player in the league to record at least 11 sacks in each of the past five seasons. 

Overall, he has been the highest rated defender by Pro Football Focus in each of the past six seasons. And Donald helps Los Angeles close out games. His 32 fourth-quarter sacks since 2016 are the most in the NFL over that time.

After signing frontline players such as linebacker Bobby Wagner and receiver Allen Robinson in free agency, the Rams have a shot to defend their Super Bowl crown. But they have to make sure a healthy and happy Donald is on the season-opening roster.

Donald showed in years past a willingness to hold out if the money wasn’t right, so the Rams understand that he isn’t bluffing. And they also know Donald is always working out and won’t show up to training camp out of shape.

“It ain’t about the money,” Donald said. “It’s a business, so that’s what you have to see at the end of the day. But for me, it’s about winning. I don’t want to play football if I can’t win.

“I feel like if I have a real opportunity to win another Super Bowl, then it makes sense to play. But again, it’s still a business. We have to handle the business side of things. And if that wasn’t to get handled, then [it’s a] it is what it is type of situation. I’ll be fine regardless.”

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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