clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Linebacker Contract Boom Is Coming. Will NFL Teams Regret It?

Fred Warner and Darius Leonard recently reset the market, but the value of linebackers in the modern NFL still isn’t clear. What makes a linebacker valuable in 2021?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2018 NFL draft class is starting to get paid.

A player is eligible for extension after three accrued seasons on his rookie contract, and the class of 2018 just passed that threshold. We saw the Bills hustle to get Josh Allen extended with an almost Mahomes-level deal, beating out the incoming extensions for fellow 2018 passers Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield. With teams able to pick up fifth-year options on their first-round players, most first-rounders have yet to agree to extensions—Allen is the only one. The other notable extensions belong to San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner, Indianapolis linebacker Darius Leonard, and Indianapolis tackle Braden Smith, players taken outside the first round.

Warner and Leonard have reset the linebacker market in consecutive weeks. First, Warner signed a five-year, $95 million extension—the first linebacker deal ever worth $19 million per season. Then Leonard signed a five-year, $98.5 million extension, worth $19.7 million per season. The average annual value (AAV) of both Leonard and Warner’s deals equals more than 10 percent of the 2021 cap, which makes them the meatiest linebacker deals signed in almost two decades. (Ray Lewis’s 2002 extension was the last linebacker contract to take up more than 10 percent of the cap at signing.)

Warner and Leonard are both talented players, but mega-contracts don’t just pop up out of the blue—especially for linebackers, a position that has been devalued in the modern passing era in favor of shutdown corners and dominant pass rushers. We’re in the middle of the domino line now, and it isn’t hard to find the first domino to fall in this line of hefty linebacker contracts. That domino was CJ Mosley.

When the New York Jets signed Mosley in 2019 free agency, they were trying to beat a LB market recently reset by Kwon Alexander, who had just signed with the 49ers for $13.5 million per year and $27 million guaranteed—figures 30 percent lower than the numbers we’re seeing right now. Teams expected Mosley to entertain a competitive market, but the Jets elected to blow that market out of the water, signing Mosley to a five-year deal averaging $17 million a season, with $51 million in guaranteed money.

It didn’t matter much what you thought of Mosley—you could have thought he was a Luke Kuechly–Junior Seau fusion dance with a dash of Ray Lewis sprinkled in. That was an overpay.

That overpay didn’t affect the Jets’ 2019 plans. They had so much cap room that they were still able to sign Le’Veon Bell, Jamison Crowder, Kelechi Osemele, and Anthony Barr—wait, whoops, scratch that last one. The Jets fired GM Mike Maccagnan that May, just two months after he spent nearly $200 million in free agency and weeks after he was allowed to run the 2019 NFL draft war room. The Jets have gotten just two games out of Mosley; he suffered a season-ending groin injury two weeks into the 2019 season and opted out of the 2020 season entirely.

So yeah, the Mosley contract has not worked out for the Jets. Yet it has become the benchmark for linebacker contracts. Just months after it was signed, pending free agent Bobby Wagner cited it directly as the deal he expected to beat during his next contract negotiations. Wagner didn’t take the field during OTAs or training camp, telling the media that he was preparing to leave Seattle if the team wasn’t willing to exceed Mosley’s figure on his next deal. “The number is the number,” Wagner said. “The market is the market.”

A month later, the Seahawks tacked an additional three years worth $18 million per season onto the end of Wagner’s deal. That made him the highest-paid linebacker in the league, and as quarterback Russell Wilson said, “He deserves to be the highest-paid linebacker. Ain’t nobody better than him in the game and that’s just the honest truth.”

It was true … at the time. Wagner was the head of a legendary 2012 linebacker class that also included Kuechly, Dont’a Hightower, Lavonte David, and Demario Davis. Each had been foundational to their respective defenses over the past decade, but none had a more recognizable impact on a championship unit than Wagner. Seattle’s famous Cover 3 defense of the mid-2010s could line up and play against just about anyone, and they could do it because Earl Thomas could teleport from sideline to sideline in the shake of a quarterback’s shoulders; Kam Chancellor could detonate at will over the middle of the field; and Bobby Wagner could run with just about anyone.

Wagner was the solution to the many weaknesses of traditional Cover 3. Seattle asked him to run with slot receivers and tight ends on vertical routes, protecting the deep safety from the conflict of multiple deep routes. On play-action fakes with intermediate crossing routes—a play that offensive coordinators are spamming in the current era of Shanahan-styled offenses—Wagner could fly from the line of scrimmage and find crossing patterns before quarterbacks could flip their heads around.

Wagner’s play in Seattle did more than just warrant his market-setting extension; it also foreshadowed an increase in match coverage in the NFL. Seattle wasn’t playing your grandma’s Cover 3. With players like Wagner and KJ Wright in the second level of the defense, the Seahawks could use their linebackers to deal with those over routes, climb routes, and seam routes that so often harried traditional Cover 3 shells. And as Seattle’s defensive coaching tree exploded, displaced defensive coordinators like Gus Bradley in Jacksonville and Dan Quinn in Atlanta looked to implement the same defensive structure, which meant they needed the same heroic play from their middle linebacker. Telling the Mike linebacker to run with the slot receiver down the field in the meeting room is easy enough. But the results weren’t the same, because the linebackers there simply couldn’t handle Wagner’s responsibilities. X’s and O’s can look pretty, but at the end of the day, it’s a game of Jimmys and Joes.

One Seattle branch didn’t have such problems: the one run by Robert Saleh, in San Francisco. Saleh ran more quarters shells in San Francisco than he did Cover 3, though the lines between those coverages are more easily blurred than many realize. (At USC, Pete Carroll based his defense out of quarters coverage.) One of those blurred lines was the responsibility he put on his Mike linebacker to carry vertical routes and undercut crossing routes in play-action. It was the Wagner role.

But unlike Quinn and Bradley, Saleh had the man for the job: Fred Warner. A 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker out of BYU, Warner’s size, inconsistent tackling, and role as a safety-linebacker hybrid in college made him fall to the third round of the 2018 draft. But with his WR-like frame and experience in coverage, Warner had quality man coverage technique and uncanny zone awareness in the middle of the field. As Warner said in 2020 of Wagner, “​​He was the guy I studied all throughout college. He’s always been the guy that I’ve watched and tried to take little pieces of his game. So if you see some of the things I do it probably looks a lot similar to what he does, just because I’ve watched him for so long because he’s been the best for a long time.”

Like Wagner, Warner wasn’t the earliest-drafted linebacker in a studly class, but he’s quickly become the best one—and is likely the best linebacker in the NFL outright. Warner was drafted in 2018 behind Roquan Smith, Tremaine Edmunds, Leighton Vander Esch, Rashaan Evans, and Darius Leonard—all good to great players in their own right. But not one of them is asked to do the difficult things in coverage that the Niners demand of Warner, and none executes their coverage responsibilities as well as Warner, either. He is, much like Wagner was, the crown jewel of a talented group; the guy with an edge over all the rest.

The Warner extension is explicable and deserved. He plays like a younger Wagner, and understandably got paid exactly like it—his $19M AAV extension was the first deal to top Wagner’s on the linebacker market. The Leonard extension is also explicable: Leonard has been an All-Pro in all three seasons he’s played, was the 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year, and has set records for early-career production. The Colts were always going to extend Leonard, and he was always going to command elite money. By waiting for the Warner extension, Leonard and his agent ensured he’d enter the 2021 season as the league’s highest-paid linebacker.

But Leonard doesn’t do the same things in coverage that Wagner or Warner do. While Wagner and Warner are cornerstones of their defensive schemes, Leonard is more like a cog in his. Matt Eberflus’s Cover 2 defense in Indianapolis is willing to permit underneath completions for short gains. Leonard isn’t asked to carry crossers or run with players on vertical routes—rather, he’s expected to sit in place and let those routes develop behind him. He will take the running back on late releases or watch for a quarterback to scramble. On clear passing downs, Leonard will be pushed onto the line of scrimmage as a potential blitzer, while other linebackers, like Anthony Walker Jr. and Bobby Okereke, are favored as coverage options.

Playing in a different defensive system doesn’t make Leonard a worse player. There are examples of Warner carrying a vertical route downfield with blanket coverage in Tampa 2. Perhaps, had Leonard landed in a different defense, we’d watch his coverage work with the same awe and reverence as we do Warner’s. In today’s league, linebackers are most valuable when they can deny targets, disrupt completions, and generate turnovers—not just fit the run and make tackles. Leonard’s ability in pass defense simply does not hold up relative to other elite linebackers.

For the Colts, the Leonard extension isn’t egregious. He’s a good player, he executes the defense well, and he has a knack for playmaking that few defenders in the league can match. Maybe he shouldn’t have gotten paid more than Wagner and Warner, but that’s how the game goes. As Wagner would remind us: The number is the number. The market is the market.

But eventually, the linebacker bubble will become egregious. The classes between 2012 and 2018 offered few star linebackers—Mosley in 2014, Eric Kendricks in 2015, Myles Jack in 2016. But after Leonard and Warner, the 2018 class still has plenty of ’backers to pay. Chicago’s Roquan Smith had a breakout third season in 2020, especially in regard to coverage production; Buffalo’s towering Tremaine Edmunds is still just 23, and does similar work to Leonard in a heavy Cover 2 system.

When Smith and Edmunds approach their fifth-year options in 2022, extension talks will begin. They’ll point to the deals of Warner and Leonard as benchmarks, but even if they’re unable to hit those marks, they can always circle back to our first, fateful domino: Mosley, his $17 million APY contract, and the effortless argument that they have been better than him over the past few years.

Smith and Edmunds will likely cash in with at least $17 million APY, especially if the cap rebounds as expected in 2022 and 2023 following new TV deals and the hoped-for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. And like Leonard, they’re good players who warrant extensions. But Mosley’s contract, and the early extensions of other linebackers in their class, will drag their contract numbers to stratospheric heights. In an era in which linebacker play is seemingly losing value, as pass rush and coverage are prioritized to combat the modern passing game, a ballooning linebacker market spells trouble for teams with second- and third-tier linebackers. What will the Buccaneers do a few years down the road when facing extension talks for Devin White, who was one of the most frequently and successfully targeted linebackers in coverage last season? Or the Cardinals in 2024 and beyond, when their pair of first-round linebackers in Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins both offer more as blitzers than zone coverage droppers?

Bobby Wagner helped change the way we value linebacker play; Mike Maccagnan and CJ Mosley changed the way that Wagner got paid. But once a new benchmark is set, the race is on for the rest of the position. There goes Warner and Leonard; around the bend come Smith, Edmunds, and White. The boom in the linebacker market has arrived, just in time to match a changing understanding of what makes linebackers valuable in 2021. But with big extensions come big expectations for rising free agents, and as the standard for coverage play rises, the linebackers of yesteryear’s mold may struggle to make the cut.