THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Even as he dealt with missing games due to injury for the first time in his career and saw the Rams defense become younger, defensive lineman Aaron Donald never seriously considered retirement.
"Not really," Donald said Wednesday, speaking to Los Angeles reporters for the first time since suffering what became a season-ending ankle injury back in November. "Honestly, you never want to end your career how it was last year, so it never really crossed my mind. I was just trying to do everything I can to get myself healthy to be here today."
Donald suffered a high ankle sprain against the Chiefs in Week 12 last season, and confirmed Wednesday that he had surgery to repair the injury. He also said Wednesday that he is 100 percent healthy. The Rams took a week-to-week approach with Donald over the next three weeks after the Chiefs game before head coach Sean McVay said prior to their Week 16 game against the Broncos that Donald would probably not play again this season.
"It was different," Donald said. "Obviously this is my first time in my whole life playing football having a serious injury, so having to sit down and really get my body back to where I needed to be, treat my body how I needed to do it, it just was a long process. But it comes with the profession. It's a physical sport, anything can happen. So just try to do everything I can to get myself back to where I'm at today."
During the offseason, Los Angeles saw several defensive contributors depart in free agency, resulting in a much younger defense than Donald is accustomed to playing in throughout his career, especially during his time in L.A.
"It's going to be different -- you just said a bunch of different playmaker's names," Donald said when asked about the departures of Jalen Ramsey, Bobby Wagner and Leonard Floyd. "Obviously, you wish you could play with them my whole career, but it's not like that. It's different, but again, the young guys are going to have to step up. That's me as a leader to get those guys ready and them as professionals to get themselves ready as well. Just got to trust them. A lot of them guys played a lot of football last year, but again, I wasn't on the field to get to play with them."
That youth movement will cause Donald to be a more vocal leader at times, similar to the way he was during the Rams' Super Bowl run in 2021-22, but he sees other teammates like linebacker Ernest Jones and safety Jordan Fuller who are just as capable.
"Obviously you don't got a Bobby Wagner or a Jalen out there to do it, but you got a guy like Ernest that's going to step up and play a leadership role, you got a Fuller out there," Donald said. "There's guys that's young, but on this team they're no longer young. It's time to step up and be a leader as well. You just got to trust them guys are going to speak up and motivate me too. We all need it. No matter how long you've been playing this game, or how much success you've had in it, we all need somebody to push you."
When Rams general manager Les Snead spoke after the final day of the 2023 NFL Draft, he said that he and McVay had conversations with Donald about the direction they'd be going, when Donald looked them in the eye and told them, "I'm good. Just make sure (the rookies) care."
That was still the case Wednesday.
"You kind of got an idea of what was going on, as far as certain moves that we were going to have to make," Donald said. "But it was more, if we bring in young guys in, as long as they got the mindset to work and they got the right mindset to do what they need to do at a high level and want to put that work in, me personally, as a football player, as a competitor, I can work with that. I want a bunch of guys that are hungry. No matter if they've played no snaps or 10 snaps, as long as they got that mindset."