THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- As Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead, coach Sean McVay and vice president Tony Pastoors realized the changes that were coming to their defense following a disappointing 2022 season, they wanted to check in with their future Hall of Famer.
Aaron Donald sat with them in Pastoors' office before the start of free agency, where they discussed what the defense might look like in 2023 around the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The Rams knew they'd likely be "losing guys that have been big-time contributors."
"He's a great competitor," McVay said of Donald. "He loves a challenge, but I think you don't want to catch people off guard. And the best thing that you can do, and what I've learned and it certainly hasn't been perfect, is let's try to do that. Try to be able to give people an honest understanding of where we're headed."
Donald's reaction resonated with Snead.
"He looked you in the eye and said, 'Here's the deal ... I'm good, just make sure they care,'" Snead said.
Donald, widely considered one of the best defensive players ever, has been named first-team All-Pro seven times. The defensive tackle, who finally added Super Bowl champion to his resume during the 2021 season, was up for the challenge.
"I just said, 'Bring in guys that's hungry, that's just willing to work, and that's willing to just find ways to tune up and not be satisfied with just being here,'" Donald said. "Obviously, you getting a bunch of new guys, and as long as they come in working with the mindset to want to get better we can win with that."
Unlike last year, the expectations for the team's 2023 success 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 not fazed "because it's like ain't no pressure at all." Now in his 10th season, Donald has played 140 games, all with the Rams. He has 103.5 sacks, which includes at least a half-sack on 50 different quarterbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"Obviously, the past couple years you been praised so high, now everybody is against you kind of thing," Donald said. "You hear it, but me personally, kind of trying to feed off it a little bit because we all need something to try to push us a little bit. So it is different, but I'm for the challenge."
Although Donald, 32, 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 ET, ESPN/ESPN2), it's clear that a roster many thought would be a rebuild is capable of winning games. On defense, a large part of that is because of the presence of Donald, not only during games but in the way he has led his young teammates.
"Not just in this draft, but in many drafts, we've often somewhat joked, 'OK, does this meet the AD standard?'" Snead said.
Often when Snead is evaluating a player in the draft, he'll see someone who "passes the beauty contest" with the skill level "but maybe from a love of the game standpoint doesn't really cut it."
"And it's like, 'Oh man, I don't know if he 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 his office whiteboard with 15 names on it. It's "AD's 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.
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. Though he wasn't keeping up with Donald, he was "doing some of the stuff he did, just at a slower pace." But on the second day of their workout, Turner "caught a cramp halfway through and they had to send me down."
"It is hard to keep up, but that just goes to show how bad do you really want it?" Johnson said. "I'd be midworkout and I'm like, 'Damn, we ain't done yet,' he still wants to do some more. I'd just be like, 'I can't complain. That's what it takes to be the best.' So I tried my best not to complain. I just embraced the moment and towards the end of the camp as we working out, I asked him, 'S---, you ready? What else you want to do?'"
When asked for his workout routine, Donald smiled and said, "I just do a lot of work."
"Obviously, the days I'm able to get a lot of extra work in, I'm in there with [Lovett] working certain things," Donald said. "I like to look good. So certain things I feel like is getting a little mushy, make sure I keep it feeling the right way."
Donald has yet to identify a rookie who can keep up.
"They ain't been too steady with it," he said.
Before a newcomer tries to work out with Donald, Lovett said, he'll try to get him to work his way up to the volume the All-Pro is doing.
"We talk 'em through it," Lovett said. "Say, 'He's going to do three sets, he's going to do four sets, maybe you start off with two.' But they don't want to hear that. They want to be AD. There needs to be a ramp for those guys. So, he's got people that can hang with him for a little bit, but usually it's not as consistent as he would like."
Even though Donald wants a challenge, Rams defensive line coach Eric Henderson said he sees the defensive tackle continue to outwork everyone because "that's who he is. He doesn't take second."
"He wants somebody to be competitive with," Lovett said. "He doesn't just want to be cooperative and bring you along, he'll bring you in to beat you and to watch you suffer because that actually gives him a little bit more stamina and juice."
WHEN TURNER MAKES a mistake on the field, he knows he's going to hear about it. The rookie said Donald isn't hard on his teammates in the meeting room, but if you "get punked a little on the play, he'll make little sound effects." Henderson is in on the bit, and he'll replay the clip to let Donald continue to make the sound effect -- noises designed to make sure those in the room knows he sees the player on the field getting "owned," Turner said.
"I wouldn't say he teases you, but he definitely let it be known that he seen what happened," Johnson said. "So if a play didn't go your way, he'd be like, 'Mmmm,' like damn. One of them, I'd be like, 'Wow, he seen that.' It helps you in a way because when you out there on the field you like, 'I don't want AD to see something bad that he start talking junk.'
"So it helps you in a way of trying to be on yourself, so when a play do come up and your play is on the field, you made the play and instead of making sound effects he'll say 'good game, good s---.'
Henderson says this helps "keep it loose in that room and allow those guys to be themselves."
Sound effects aside, there's also a lot of learning going on. Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris called Donald a "quiet leader."
"People don't give him credit for is his above-the-neck approach to the game," Henderson said. "He has an elite feel for what's going on out there on the field, and that's why he's able to anticipate what's happening and play the way he's played. ... He's big-time for these guys that haven't played a lot of ball. They're able to pick his brain."
Whether it's talking to linebacker Byron Young about how to sell his rush or going against rookie left guard Steve Avila in practice and showing him pass-rushing moves he has never seen done that way before, Donald is always teaching.
"There's a couple times where he's grabbed my back shoulder," Avila said. "I'm like, 'Dude, I've never had that happen to me.' But then again, in a way of making yourself better is like, 'OK, how do I not let that happen?'"
And while Donald has a wealth of knowledge, McVay said he chooses his spots to be vocal.
"There's nothing more powerful than showing instead of saying, and so he shows what it looks like," McVay said. "He shows what it looks like to do right in the meeting room, on the practice field, the way that he competes relentlessly in every single opportunity he gets. The great ones elevate people around them, and I think we would all be in agreement and in alignment that certainly Aaron is checking all those boxes."
THROUGH TWO GAMES, the Rams' defense -- which has two starters remaining from the Super Bowl lineup -- ranks 28th out of 32 teams in total DVOA.
At the start of the season, the Rams had the second-youngest team (25.49 years) -- behind the Green Bay Packers (25.3) -- with 15 rookies on the 53-man roster.
While this squad has a far different look from veteran-heavy past Rams teams, Los Angeles hopes its young and hungry roster built around Donald, 32, will compete with the best in the NFL in the near future.
"We got to just keep working," Donald said. "Obviously, none of us is there yet, but we looking good. I feel like we looking good, we got them flashes where we look like the type of defense we want to be. It's just about being more consistent and trying to play mistake-free football."
The confidence comes from having a future Hall of Famer leading the way.
"[Donald] sets a really high standard for the guys in his room and really that whole defense," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "And they all know they got to go out there and play at a really high level because they got one of the best of all time, if not the best of all time, going out there with them.
"He raises everybody around him."