The most recent time Aaron Donald participated in a joint NFL preseason practice before Thursday, he ripped the helmet off a Cincinnati player and swung it at a few Bengals during a big brawl last year.
A few years before that, he was part of a knock-down, drag-out fight when his Los Angeles Rams held workouts against the Raiders.
Donald is perhaps the best defensive lineman of his generation, so it’s not surprising if youngsters do a little something extra when they go up against him, particularly in the adversarial atmosphere of a joint practice. Donald is used to it, but he’s grateful he didn’t have to fight this week when the Rams hosted the Raiders again.
“Not too much stuff, but obviously football is football,” Donald said. “You’re going to have those days when (it’s) a little chippy, but it comes with it. But it was a good day’s work.”
The Rams’ two days of joint workouts against Las Vegas this week didn’t include anything nearly as bizarre or as exciting as that scrap in Cincinnati, not even when Donald joined the second day of practice ahead of the Raiders’ preseason visit to SoFi Stadium on Saturday night. Donald had a brief post-whistle exchange early Thursday with Raiders offensive lineman Netane Muti, but it amounted to nothing.
The biggest fight of the engagement occurred Wednesday while Donald was taking a veteran rest day. Los Angeles running back Cam Akers and Las Vegas defensive line star Maxx Crosby threw punches after a play, prompting Rams coach Sean McVay to send Akers to the showers.
Donald didn’t see that scrap, but he wanted to hear all about it a day later.
“Who won? I was asking both of them,” Donald said with a laugh. “I had them together. I was like, ’Who won? ‘I won, I won.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m going to say it’s a tie.’”
Donald is focusing his energy on a rebound year after the first significant injury of his NFL career forced him to miss six games last season. That sprained ankle wasn’t career-altering, yet the 32-year-old Donald sounds determined to prove he can be just as good in his 10th NFL season.
“Always, I feel like I’m not where I want to be,” Donald said. “But I feel like I’m getting better, obviously. I did some good things today. I did some things that I didn’t like. Me personally, I didn’t think I had the type of practice that I wanted to, so I’ve just got to watch the film and see what I did wrong, or see what I need to do better. I’m always my worst critic. Just got to continue to study, continue trying to find ways to be better.”
Donald’s task will be daunting: Because the Rams are focused on cleansing their payroll after cutting ties with several key veterans, Los Angeles’ defense appears to have less talent than any unit since McVay’s debut season in 2017. The Rams cut ties with six of their top seven tacklers from last season, along with all of their top six defensive players by snap count, and didn’t sign any significant free agents until late summer.
Donald and linebacker Ernest Jones are the only major contributors, although the Rams made a concession to the grimness of their situation last week by re-signing veteran safety John Johnson, a key contributor for four years in Los Angeles before spending the past two seasons in Cleveland.
Donald doesn’t appear to be bothered by the possibility of a rebuilding season for the Rams. He has spoken repeatedly of his desire to be a leader and a mentor to young teammates as he attempts to return to dominant form.
The Rams’ longtime opponents have little doubt they’ll have to watch for the No. 99 jersey whenever it’s on the field.
“AD, he’s a special talent, man,” said Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who saw plenty of Donald during his career with the 49ers. “Going against him twice a year these last couple of years, I’ve seen it firsthand. We had to plan for him. The dude is all-world man, he really is. He doesn’t get enough credit for it, I think, but hell of a player.”