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Aaron Donald doesn't show up, and remains the topic of conversation at Rams camp

The first day of training camp is generally about hope and optimism, so let’s start with a positive note.

The Rams’ workout Saturday outdrew the Chargers’.

Of course, the Chargers didn’t practice. They open camp Sunday.

Now, to reality, which was less charitable.

All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald remained a no-show on the UC Irvine campus because of a contract dispute.

On the first day of what was supposed to be the new era of Rams football, the most talked-about player in camp was the one who wasn’t there.

“Any time your best player’s not there, you always would feel better if he was,” coach Sean McVay conceded.

You think?

The Rams are coming off a four-win season, trying to change a hypercompetitive market’s perception about what they’re about.

They fumbled the football last month, when developers announced the opening of their permanent home in Inglewood would be delayed by a year. If being subjected to Rams football isn’t bad enough, their fans will have to endure three more years in the dilapidated Coliseum.

Now this.

In fairness to the Rams, there are reasonable explanations in both instances. Developers blamed the record rainfall for affecting the new stadium’s construction schedule. Donald is under the Rams’ control for at least two more seasons, perhaps more if the team places a franchise tag on him.

Except 12-loss teams don’t receive the benefit of the doubt.

Which was why there was a sign in the crowd with Donald’s picture that read, “Pay the man.”

The sign followed the Rams up and down one of the sidelines. It was there when Jared Goff was floating passes to receivers. It was there when Trumaine Johnson walked over to interact with fans who were taunting him. And it was there as players marched off the practice field.

Holding the sign was a Nick Galarreta, a 24-year-old fan from San Diego.

“I do get the economics,” Galarreta said. “I do get that fiscally it’s kind of hard. My gripe is with extending guys like Tavon Austin, who’s never been to a Pro Bowl.”

Austin was signed to a four-year, $42-million extension around this time last year.

“I think it reflects badly on management,” Galarreta said. “They put themselves in a situation to where they couldn’t give him the money he deserved when he deserve it.”

Even with a salary cap, creative solutions always exist. But there are presumably countless other fans who share Galaretta’s thoughts and feelings, which speaks to how the Rams’ brand is perceived.

As it was, the crowd at UC Irvine was significantly smaller and less festive than last year’s.

Donald is under contract this year for $1.8 million. The Rams have already exercised their option on him for 2018, which will pay him another $6.9 million. They can place a franchise tag on him in each of the three seasons after that.

The highest-paid player at Donald’s position is Ndamukong Suh, who signed a six-year, $114-million deal with the Miami Dolphins in 2015.

That’s a significant gap.

There are other players from Donald’s draft class who want to be paid, except they reported to their camps. Odell Beckham Jr. said earlier this week he wanted to be the NFL’s highest-paid player. Beckham is practicing with the New York Giants.

As a fourth-year player, Donald has minimal leverage. His power in this situation comes from the fact he is a great player — perhaps the best in football — on an awful team.

Goff is still unproven. Todd Gurley has to rebound from a down season.

Kevin Demoff, the Rams chief operating officer, pushed back against that idea.

“If you look at our team, we’ve always tried reward our players after their third year,” Demoff said. “We did it with Robert Quinn. We did it Johnny Hekker. We did it with Tavon. So if you look at our history, we’ve always tried to extend our players two years out [from free agency], if we have the ability.

“Aaron’s a special player. He’s going to sign a special contract.”

Similar to McVay and general manager Les Snead the previous day, Demoff wouldn’t speculate when Donald would sign.

“It does us no good to comment,” Demoff said. “If we say it gets done and it doesn’t, it’s bad. If we say it’s ominous … and it gets solved tomorrow … there’s no good outcome, right?”

At this stage of camp, with players not in pads, with the intensity level on the low end of the spectrum, Donald’s holdout isn’t affecting the Rams on the field.

Goff made light of Donald’s absence, joking that when the offense faced the defense in drills, “That makes our job a little easier.”

This won’t be a laughing matter for long.

McVay is a first-year coach. He needs his best player back and he needs him back soon. The exhibition season starts in two weeks.

As much as Donald could be hurt by a prolonged holdout — each day he misses is costing him $40,000 —the Rams could be hurt more.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez

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