Tied by record contracts, Bears’ Khalil Mack and Rams’ Aaron Donald to face off

There’s more that connects Aaron Donald and 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,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said this 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, the Rams defensive tackle signed a six-year, $135 million deal on Aug. 31. His contract, worth $87 million guaranteed, made him the highest-paid defensive player in league history. It didn’t last 24 hours.

On Sept. 1, Mack was traded to the Bears, who gave him 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 first 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.

He was thrilled, though, that his market 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. They both entered the league in 2014, with Mack going fifth overall to the Raiders. The Bears were ready to draft Donald No. 14 overall, but the Rams scooped him up 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 their historic paycheck. Thus far, both have been worth every penny — they’ve been, arguably, the two best defenders in football. Donald is a legitimate NFL MVP candidate, while Mack’s presence was the finishing touch put on the Bears’ turnaround. Sunday night, on national television, will paint both facts in stark relief.

“One of the best in the league,” Mack said. “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 has recorded at least one in eight of the last nine games. He’s had two sacks in each of his last two games — during which he forced three fumbles —  and 2 ½ in the game before that.

His 16 ½ sacks are already a career high. With four games to play, he’s only six shy of tying Michael Strahan’s single-season record, set in 2001.

While the MVP title could be reserved for a quarterback leading the league’s offensive golden age, Donald figures to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year honor for the second-straight year.

“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 the 2016 defensive award, started the season strong, totaling five sacks and four forced fumbles through his first four games. After being slowed by an ankle injury that cost him to miss two games and be hampered in two more, he’s posted four sacks over his last four contests, 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 those guys are outstanding players.”

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