Tied by record contracts, Bears’ Khalil Mack and Rams’ Aaron Donald to face off
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There’s more that connects Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack than sack prowess and a relentless motor.
There’s pen and paper.
‘‘They both play tenacious, both play with a love of the game,’’ Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said last week. ‘‘And both held out. And both got rewarded handsomely.’’
Within a day of each other.
After not reporting to training camp each of the last two seasons, Donald signed a six-year, $135 million deal Aug. 31. His contract, worth $87 million guaranteed, made him the highest-paid defensive player in league history.
That distinction didn’t last 24 hours.
On Sept. 1, Mack was traded from the Raiders to the Bears, who signed him to a six-year, $141 million deal with $90 million guaranteed. The day he was introduced in Chicago, Mack was asked what he thought when he saw Donald’s deal. He joked that he couldn’t say because his parents were in the room and wouldn’t want him to curse. But he was thrilled his market value was set.
‘‘I was excited for him, just as a person, knowing him through the grapevine and being drafted and going through the process,’’ Mack said Friday. ‘‘You get a feel of what it is to go through this league and play in this league. Seeing somebody get what they earned is always a blessing.’’
That financial connection will link Mack and Donald for the rest of their careers. Both entered the league in 2014, with Mack going fifth overall to the Raiders. The Bears were ready to draft Donald 14th, but the Rams selected him one spot higher. Both held out and signed new deals rather than play under their fifth-year team option.
For years, fans will debate which one better earns his historic paycheck. Thus far, both have been worth every penny. They arguably have been the two best defenders in the NFL. Donald is a legitimate MVP candidate, and Mack’s acquisition put the finishing touch on the Bears’ turnaround.
‘‘One of the best in the league,’’ Mack said of Donald. ‘‘When you see his play, he just jumps out on film. Helluva player.’’
Asked what traits they share, Mack said it was too difficult to compare an edge rusher to an inside man.
‘‘But when you talk about his motor, there’s nothing like it,’’ he said.
Donald didn’t post his first sacks of the season until Week 4, but he has had at least one in eight of the Rams’ last nine games. He has had two sacks in each of his last two games — during which he forced three fumbles — and had 2½ in the game before that.
His 16½ sacks are already a career high. With four games left, he’s only six shy of tying the single-season record Michael Strahan set in 2001.
While the MVP award might be reserved for a quarterback at the forefront of the NFL’s offensive golden age, Donald figures to win the Defensive Player of the Year honor for the second consecutive season.
‘‘Gosh, he’s playing like it,’’ Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara said. ‘‘I was hoping Mack would be in contention — and Mack’s still playing well — but what Aaron Donald’s doing . . . it’s insane.’’
Mack, who won Defensive Player of the Year in 2016, started the season strong, with five sacks and four forced fumbles in his first four games. After being slowed by an ankle injury that caused him to miss two games and hampered him in two more, he has posted four sacks in his last four games, giving him nine for the season.
‘‘It’s the elite talent matched up with the elite effort they play with every single snap,’’ Rams coach Sean McVay said. ‘‘They violently attack the football. I think they both have a repertoire of pass moves. There’s some suddenness, some explosion and some twitch.
‘‘You see two great players that find ways to consistently get to the quarterback or disrupt the run game and get the ball back for their offenses. Both guys are outstanding players.’’