If you've been to Rams training camp over the past two years, there's been one conspicuous absence.
Sure, everyone knew defensive tackle Aaron Donald was in his hometown of Pittsburgh, training as hard as ever when the Rams and Donald's representation were negotiating a contract extension. Donald proved as much by becoming just the third back-to-back AP Defensive Player of the Year since the award began back in 1971.
But now the league's best player — a title that's fair to give him since his peers said it themselves — is back at training camp, setting the tone for what could be another record-setting season in 2019.
"You've been watching? He looks pretty good," head coach Sean McVay said of Donald. "Like I said, I think the biggest thing is just the way that he affects his teammates. Having him here, what that represents — when he turns it up, you see why the production is what it is and why he's the special player that he is. It's just been great having him out here."
"It's good to be back working with the guys, grinding and here with coaches — you know, getting better," Donald said. "So, it feels good."
Getting better, he said.
It's easy to look at the 6-foot-1 defensive tackle with a six pack who picked up 20.5 sacks in 2018 and say, "Wait, how can he possibly get any better?"
But Donald didn't reach the current heights of his career by being complacent. He often says, "There's always room for improvement." And that's part of why he's enjoyed being around new defensive line coach Eric Henderson through the offseason and camp.
"He knows football. He's a young coach that's hungry, that loves football, that loves teaching football," Donald said. "He's breaking down film, he broke down film and he's coaching me so that's what I like the most. 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 that can help my game. When you've got a coach like that, you just sit and listen and you try to keep what you've been doing but also add what he's trying to teach me and make me that much better."
Donald noted that Henderson's presence was "100 percent" a reason he stayed around for as much of the voluntary offseason program as he did.
"He's definitely a guy, once I saw the drills, after I got to talk to him and get to pick his brain a little bit — he's a big reason why I wanted to continue to learn and I felt like what he was teaching me could benefit me and help me a whole lot as far as improving my game," Donald said. "It's like I always say I want to get better, and that's what I've got to do. Listen to coach and work it."
Watching the drills over the course of training camp, it's clear that Henderson emphasizes staying low for proper leverage and quick feet. Those are two areas where Donald is clearly elite, but there are times when even he has to re-do a drill to successfully complete it.
So when it comes to getting better, Donald is serious about it. As he said, he wants to be coached. And with Henderson doing what McVay termed "an excellent job implementing some different things" with the Rams' front and DL rotations, there's reason to believe Donald actually could be better in 2019.
"The best part about Aaron is, he's going to look at himself, he's going to be critical and he's come out tomorrow expecting to improve on some of the things he did today," McVay said.
Again, you might ask how?
"[B]eing here and getting myself in football shape and working my moves, hopefully it won't take me four games to get going this year," Donald said. "I think it's going to be a plus for me getting here, getting going right away."