Rams knew all along Aaron Donald was retiring but can scheme or draft compensate?

Sean McVay met Aaron Donald outside the visitors locker room at Detroit’s Ford Field.

The Rams’ 2023 season had ended with a playoff defeat, and McVay was near certain it was Donald’s final game.

“This is it,” McVay recalled saying as he greeted the three-time NFL defensive player of the year.

“Yep,” Donald replied, “This is it.”

Donald’s retirement last week made official what McVay and those throughout the Rams organization knew for weeks. Donald and McVay spoke at length the day after the playoff loss.

“You could really feel there was a sense of peace,” McVay said Tuesday at the NFL owners annual meeting, before jokingly adding, “Maybe we’ll see if he gets that appetite later on.”

With the Donald era over, McVay now faces a first: building a team without a certain first-ballot Hall of Fame defensive lineman.

“Are you ever going to ask somebody to replace Aaron Donald?” McVay said. “Hell no.”

McVay expects first-year defensive coordinator Chris Shula to devise a scheme that will offset the loss. Shula coached edge rushers, linebackers and defensive backs during seven seasons as a Rams assistant. He replaced Raheem Morris, now the coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

“You’re never going to replace the personality of Raheem Morris,” McVay said, “and I don’t want him to do that. I want him to be himself.”

The same goes for players, McVay said.

Second-year pro Kobie Turner, for example, could at times move from nose tackle to Donald’s spot.

“Kobie Turner doesn’t need to be Aaron Donald,” McVay said. “Kobie Turner needs to be himself.”

Turner and edge rusher Byron Young, third-round draft picks in 2023, performed well in their first seasons. Nose tackle Bobby Brown III is entering the final year of his rookie contract. The Rams re-signed rotational lineman Larrell Murchison, and Tuesday outside linebacker Michael Hoecht signed a restricted-free agent tender for about $3 million.

The Rams, however, desperately need to improve a pass rush that last season recorded 41 sacks, tied for 24th in the NFL.

The Rams have the No. 19 pick in the draft, and 11 total picks.

Byron Murphy of Texas, Jer’Zahn Newton of Illinois, Braden Fiske of Florida State, Ruke Orhorhoro of Clemson and Kris Jenkins of Michigan are the top five interior-line prospects, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

Dallas Turner of Alabama, Jared Verse of Florida State, Laiatu Latu of UCLA, Chris Braswell of Alabama and Chop Robinson of Penn State are the top edge defenders, according to the website.

The Rams’ quarterback situation appears set — at least for now.

Matthew Stafford is the starter. Veteran Jimmy Garoppolo last week signed a one-year contract to be the backup. Stetson Bennett, who spent his rookie season on the nonfootball injury/illness list because of an undisclosed issue, is scheduled to participate in offseason team workouts.

Garoppolo signed an incentive-laden contract that includes a base of about $3 million. He is suspended for the first two games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substances policy.

Garoppolo, a 10-year veteran, played six seasons for the San Francisco 49ers under coach Kyle Shanahan, compiling an 8-0 record against the Rams in regular-season games. General manager Les Snead said Monday that Garoppolo’s proven ability to win games and his style of play “fit” in the offense attracted the Rams.

McVay concurred.

“He’s been kicking our ass for years,” McVay said, “so I’ve always respected his game.”

Last season with the Las Vegas Raiders, Garoppolo suffered a back injury and played in only seven games.

Now he will back up Stafford.

“Got a great leader in Matthew,” McVay said. “God forbid, if for whatever reason he does go down or he’s not able to play, you’ve got a guy in Jimmy who’s played a lot of meaningful games. He’s played in big-time games.”

Snead said Bennett has been working out in Dallas, and that new quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone has been in contact with the former Georgia star.

McVay said has not yet spoken to Bennett.

“Looking forward to getting him back and seeing how he’s feeling,” McVay said, “and we’ll just take it a day at a time with him.”

Veteran tight end Tyler Higbee, who suffered a knee injury in the playoff loss to Detroit, will go on the physically-unable-to perform list, McVay said.

“He’s meant so much to our team,” McVay said. “Don’t know exactly when to expect him back.”

The Rams signed free-agent tight end Colby Parkinson to help fill the void, and second-year pro Davis Allen will have a larger role. Hunter Long was put on injured reserve last December after suffering a knee injury that required surgery.

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