The Rams transformed into a winner under coach Sean McVay, Donald won an NFL defensive player of the year award, he earned a $135-million extension, repeated as defensive player of the year, and the Rams played in the Super Bowl.
So Donald on Sunday noted a much different vibe at UC Irvine than there was in 2016, when the Rams returned to the Southland from St. Louis.
“It wasn’t like this,” he said after the Rams completed a 75-minute workout.
Donald, 28, showed in 2017 and 2018 that he does not need training camp to dominate.
Despite staying away because of a contract dispute that was not settled until just before the start of last season, he became only the third player in history to win consecutive defensive player of the year awards. Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor achieved the feat playing for the New York Giants in 1981 and ’82. Lineman J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans did it in 2014 and ’15.
Will Donald become the first to win three years in a row?
“If it happens, it happens,” said Donald, who amassed 31½ sacks the last two seasons, including 20½ in 2018. “My main goal is just trying to win a Super Bowl.”
Donald, going into his sixth season, appears to be enjoying his return to camp. He is among teammates — “It’s good to be back working with the guys,” he said — his young daughter and son are in tow, and fans are going bonkers when Donald stops to sign autographs and pose for pictures.
“A lot of yelling, a lot of noise,” he said. ‘I’m like, ‘Hey, that’s a lot of love.’”
Donald also is embracing new defensive line coach Eric Henderson, who replaced Bill Johnson. Henderson was an assistant defensive line coach for the Chargers the last two seasons.
“He’s a young coach that’s hungry,” Donald said of the 36-year-old Henderson, adding, “He’s telling me my weaknesses and things I need to clean up, and trying to teach me things that I can do better and work better to help my game.”
Donald’s unrelenting workouts in hometown Pittsburgh prepared him for his success the last two seasons. But he indicated that his attendance at camp might enable him to avoid a slow start.
In 2017, Donald sat out the opener and had only one sack in his first four games. Last season he did not get his first two sacks until the fourth game.
“Hopefully, it don’t take me four games to get going this year,” he said. “So I think it’s going to be a plus for me getting here and getting going right away. If anything, I should be better.”
Donald’s presence already has lifted the Rams, McVay said.
“The biggest thing is just the way that he affects his teammates,” McVay said, adding, “The best part about Aaron is, he’s going to look at himself, he’s going to be critical and he’s going to come out [Monday] expecting to improve.”
As they are doing with running back Todd Gurley, the Rams will carefully manage Donald’s workload.
The last two years, Donald avoided the wear and tear of training-camp drills.
“My body was in great shape,” he said. “No aches, no pain, no nothing.”
But he is happy to put in the work alongside teammates.
“Being here with the guys, that’s what you miss — the grind,” he said. “This is where it all starts and where it all happens.
“So me being here now from the start until the finish is going to be a plus.”
Woods paid ‘like Picasso’
Receiver Robert Woods is pleased that the Rams slightly reworked his contract for the second year in a row.
The Rams folded what would have been money earned through incentives this season into guaranteed money. Woods, who caught 86 passes for 1,219 yards last season, has a salary-cap number of about $7.2 million, according to overthecap.com.
Woods is signed through 2021, but the Rams are expected to revisit the deal after this season.
“If you perfect your craft, you’re going to get paid for it, just like Picasso,” Woods said. “This out here is an art. I feel like if I perfect my routes and my game, it will be worth a lot of money.”
After practicing Saturday, Gurley did not work out on the field Sunday. That is part of the plan to manage Gurley’s workload, McVay said. “He’ll be back out here” Monday, McVay said. ... Cornerback Marcus Peters will earn slightly more than $9 million this season playing on a fifth-year option. The Rams have yet to offer an extension. “If you come in, you do what you need to do, man, everything will get taken care of,” Peters said. “We got bigger goals, really; all that other stuff will just take of itself.” … The Rams announced they have adopted the Watts Bears youth football program, which henceforth will be named the Watts Rams. The organization was begun by Los Angeles Police Dept. officers from the Southeast division. The Rams will fund all components of the organization, including uniforms and equipment.