'I've got a lot to prove': Aaron Donald out for redemption after down year

After missing a portion of 2022, defensive end Aaron Donald plans to return refreshed and with redemption on his mind this season. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

IRVINE, Calif. -- Aaron Donald has a Super Bowl ring and three defensive player of the year awards. There will be a Hall of Fame bust and gold jacket waiting for him in Canton, Ohio. He has a strong claim to being the greatest interior defensive lineman in NFL history.

But going into his 10th season with the Los Angeles Rams, Donald insists he still has something to prove.

“We all need some type of fire, something to push you, something to get you going, and that's something that I'm hanging on to right now,” he said. “And I feel like we’ve got something to prove as a team. I think I got something to prove as a player, and that's how we’re going to take it.”

Sean McVay, who has coached Donald for the past six years, cited that attitude as one of the main reasons why he has been able to put together that outstanding resume.

“That’s why he is who he is,” McVay said. “The great ones never get complacent. There’s always things that you can look at. Nobody has higher standards for Aaron than he does of himself. And I think that’s a separator, and I think that’s a consistent thing when you start talking about people that are in that kind of company, and he certainly is in rarefied air.”

Donald is coming off the least productive season of his career, making five sacks and 10 tackles for a loss in 11 games. It ended a run of five straight campaigns with at least 11 sacks.

He also sustained a high ankle sprain in Week 12 against Kansas City. The injury kept Donald out the rest of the season, the first time in his career he missed games because of injury.

That one-two punch served to motivate Donald this offseason.

“I’ve got a lot to prove,” he said. “I didn’t have the season I wanted, obviously coming off of an injury and things like that. I feel like to get to where you need to be, it's like starting over from scratch again. It's a brand new year. Last year was last year, but there’s a little fire lit into me.”

If his performance in training camp is any indication, Donald is more than ready to put 2022 behind him. He is throwing around offensive linemen in drills. In team periods, it is more common than not to see him meeting running backs yards behind the line of scrimmage and dismantling pass protection.

“It’s like it’s high school,” defensive lineman Earnest Brown IV said. “That stuff you see is like literally impossible for everybody else to do.”

It is all the more notable because the Rams have been treating Donald in practice as opposing offenses will in games by focusing their blocking schemes to account for him. That could range from sliding protection toward where Donald lines up to asking two or even three linemen to block him.

The Rams hadn’t done that in previous training camps, but with the heavy roster turnover around Donald it became imperative to give inexperienced linemen and edge rushers a sense of what their matchups will look like on Sundays.

“Nobody plays him different than that, you know?” McVay said. “He’s that good that most teams every week, the first thing that they talk about is where’s Waldo. Find 99, make sure you have an answer for him. And it’s what we would do if we played him, too."

As for how long the Rams can count on Donald dictating the game, he is under contract through 2024 after his deal was restructured following the Super Bowl LVI triumph.

The 32-year-old insists he isn’t looking ahead.

“I'm just here today and just focused on what I got to do today,” Donald said. “I’m not really worried about what's next right now. I'm just in this camp moment trying to get myself going.”