ESPM Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst) Contract in Football, LBs

With Texans-Jaguars, or “The Rabid Feces in a Deep Fryer Bowl” as dubbed by Cousin Sal on this week’s B.S. Report, beginning the final quarter of the NFL season tonight on Thursday Night Football, it is time to move on with my continuing series, Economics and Sports Management Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst) Contract in Football. Today I will investigate linebackers, grouping them (per Pro Football Focus) into three groups: outside linebackers in a 3-4, outside linebackers in a 4-3, and inside linebackers.

These are the Top 5 performing 3-4 outside linebackers through Week 13, who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps (PFF grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Justin Houston, KC (31.8)
  • 2. Elvis Dumervil, BAL (23.1)
  • 3. Robert Mathis, IND (23)
  • 4. Brian Orakpo, WAS & Trent Cole, PHI (16.2)

Also of note, despite missing six games in the middle of the season when he voluntarily entered a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, Aldon Smith of the San Francisco 49ers is tenth with a 10.3 grade. And these are the Bottom 5:

  • 37. Andy Mulumba, GB & Barkevious Mingo, CLE (-7.2)
  • 39. Quinton Coples, NYJ (-7.3)
  • 40. Mike Neal, GB (-8.6)
  • 41. Brooks Reed, HOU (-17.6)

Houston is firmly alone at the top, Reed is firmly alone at the bottom, and the average grade is a 4.2, with a standard deviation of 10.35. Here are the Top 5 paid 3-4 outside linebackers (average annual salary from Spotrac.com, in millions of dollars, in parentheses):

  • 1. Mario Williams, BUF ($16 million)
  • 2. Clay Matthews, GB ($11.628m)
  • 3. Tamba Hali, KC ($11.5m)
  • 4. Terrell Suggs, BAL ($10.417)
  • 5. Lamarr Woodley, PIT ($10.25)

None of these guys show up as worst performers, but none of them made the Top 5 either. As for the Bottom 5:

  • 37. Justin Houston, KC ($0.697m)
  • 38. Corey Lemonier, SF ($0.676m)
  • 39. Thomas Keiser, SD ($0.555m)
  • 40. Pernell McPhee, BAL ($0.546m)
  • 41. Andy Mulumba, GB ($0.497)

Houston, a third round pick in the 2011 draft, is one of the least paid outside linebackers among the league’s 3-4 defenses, yet has actually played the best this season. A good investment by the Chiefs. The average salary is $4 million, with a standard deviation of $3.845 million. Note that the $4 million average is about the same as the 4-3 defensive ends covered on Tuesday, who averaged $4.084 million, while 3-4 defensive ends averaged (“only”) $2.583 million.

You should not be surprised to see that as quarterbacks are the most expensive players, the most expensive defenders are those whose job it is to get to the quarterback. 3-4 linebackers, though they start the play standing up, have more in common with 4-3 defensive ends than with 4-3 outside linebackers. And among 3-4 linebackers, these are the Top 5 contracts (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Justin Houston, KC (3.53)
  • 2. Brian Orakpo, WAS (1.68)
  • 3. Elvis Dumervil, BAL (1.51)
  • 4. Jerry Hughes, BUF (1.35)
  • 5. Jabaal Sheard, CLE (1.07)

And Houston leads by a mile! A second congratulations to Chiefs General Manager John Dorsey, who also has gotten the best fullback value this season out of Anthony Sherman. Brian Orakpo, on the last year of his rookie contract, also makes an appearance. The following are the Worst 5 contracts (so far):

  • 37. Barkevious Mingo, CLE (-1.12)
  • 38. Brooks Reed, HOU (-1.37)
  • 39. Paul Kruger, CLE (-1.52)
  • 40. Clay Matthews, GB (-2.35)
  • 41. Mario Williams, BUF (-2.49)

Mingo is a rookie, so he may improve, but he also comes pretty cheap, so it is discouraging to see him so far down. Most likely Clay Matthews would not be there if he had not missed four games in the middle of the season, but then in the eight games he has played he has only earned a 0.4 grade. Perhaps the injury is lingering. Mario Williams makes an average of $16 million a year. He does have the ninth best grade (10.7). Rams’ 4-3 defensive end Robert Quinn, excelling at a similar role, is worth approximately $19.5 million, based on his play this season. That is what you get when you outperform your position’s average grade by an incredible 52.56 units, and Williams needs to (out)perform at a similar level. A good, even a great performance just is not worth that much.

Moving onto the other defenses in the league, here are the Top 5 performing 4-3 outside linebackers:

  • 1. Von Miller, DEN (30.9)
  • 2. Lavonte David, TB (16.6)
  • 3. Vontaze Burfict, CIN (15.8)
  • 4. Malcolm Smith, SEA (10.9)
  • 5. James Harrison, CIN (10.2)

Von Miller missed six games with a suspension. In half the games, he has put up twice the numbers of second-best Lavonte David. Offensive tackles beware! But for that suspension, he might have challenged J.J. Watt for Mr. Being-So-Much-Better-Than-Everyone-Else. As it is, still an impressive season, with games remaining. Here are the Bottom 5 performing 4-3 outside linebackers:

  • 29. Bruce Carter, DAL (-8.6)
  • 30. JoLonn Dunbar, STL (-9.1)
  • 31. Philip Wheeler, MIA (-9.5)
  • 32. James Anderson, CHI (-12.1)
  • 33. Chad Greenway, MIN (-18.3)

The average grade is 0.8, with a standard deviation of 9.66. All positions have varied more in performance than pay, but that is some serious variation. Also, note Chad Greenway, who is comfortably the worst in the league. Just hang on to that for a moment, as we see the Top 5 paid 4-3 outside linebackers:

  • 1. Chad Greenway, MIN ($8.12m)
  • 2. Thomas Davis, CAR ($7.3m)
  • 3. Jerod Mayo, NE ($7.121m)
  • 4. Lance Briggs, CHI ($5.833m)
  • 5. Von Miller, DEN ($5.25m)

Yup, Greenway is right at the top, by a cushy $1 million (almost). Oh dear. Greenway is pretty interesting. His third year in the league, 2008, he was PFF’s fourth-ranked out of 55 4-3 outside linebackers. In 2009, he was ninth of 54; in 2010, fifth of 41; in 2011, 32nd of 45 and went to the Pro Bowl (I am not making this up); and before last season signed his current contract, the most expensive among all 4-3 outside linebackers, before ranking 21st of 43 and going to the Pro Bowl again AND making the All-Pro second team. (Seriously, not making this up. Look it up.) The Vikings surely got a great deal on his rookie contract before making him the top paid man at his position and seeing his play slip. There could be a lot of reasons for this, including the possibility that the Vikings are not overpaying him but are rather reaping other benefits (he must be popular after making a name for himself, still going to the Pro Bowl and all) from having him on their roster. But for now, only pay and performance matter.1 Here are the Bottom 5 paid 4-3 outside linebackers:

  • 29. Jacquian Williams, NYG ($0.53m)
  • 30. Malcolm Smith, SEA ($0.521m)
  • 31. Joplo Bartu, ATL & Paul Worrilow, ATL ($0.495m)
  • 33. Vontaze Burfict, CIN ($0.48m)

The average salary is $2.242 million, with a standard deviation of $2.201 million. That is about half their 3-4 counterparts, as 4-3 guys are usually not responsible for generating a pass rush. And here are the Top 5 contracts:

  • 1. Vontaze Burfict, CIN (2.35)
  • 2. Lavonte David, TB (2.26)
  • 3. Malcolm Smith, SEA (1.83)
  • 4. Von Miller, DEN (1.75)
  • 5. K.J. Wright, SEA (1.3)

Congratulations to Bengals General Manager Mike Brown! He, too, has two players in the running for best value at their position, second-year man Burfict being alongside rookie running back Giovani Bernard. Note that despite his fifth highest salary, and despite missing six games, Miller’s contract is still a steal for the Broncos. Here are the Bottom 5 contracts:

  • 29. Lance Briggs, CHI (-1.46)
  • 30. Thomas Davis, CAR (-1.61)
  • 31. Philip Wheeler, MIA (-2.41)
  • 32. Jerod Mayo, NE (-2.89)
  • 33. Chad Greenway, MIN (-4.65)

Obviously, after pulling a Flacco, Greenway was destined for the bottom. In fact, Greenway is only the second player to pull a “Full Flacco” by being the absolute most paid and the absolute worst player on the field, among his position. Enough of that, onto inside linebackers!

Top 5 performing inside linebackers:

  • 1. Patrick Willis, SF (14.6)
  • 2. Stephen Tulloch, DET (13.3)
  • 3. Derrick Johnson, KC (12.5)
  • 4. Brandon Spikes, NE (11.1)
  • 5. NaVorro Bowman, SF (8.3)

As a 49er fan, I know Willis is our most expensive player, and Bowman is not far behind after signing an extension last season. I definitely recall a pundit or too wondering why the 49ers were spending so much at inside linebacker when, with the passing game still becoming more and more featured, rushing the quarterback from the edge seemed the way to adapt. Still, with the 49ers getting good value from their outside guys, if they are going to spend a lot on their inside guys, at least Willis and Bowman are the best in the league. Here are the Bottom 5:

  • 48. DeMeco Ryans, PHI (-15)
  • 49. Mychal Kendricks, PHI (-15.7)
  • 50. Moise Fokou, TEN (-15.8)
  • 51. Craig Robertson, CLE (-16.2)
  • 52. London Fletcher, WAS (-21.4)

The average grade is a -3.31, with a standard deviation of 8.03. That is the lowest average grade of any position so far. Apparently it has been a rough year for inside linebackers. Well, at least on the field. As for the negotiating room, here are the Top 5 paid inside linebackers:

  • 1. David Harris, NYJ ($9m)
  • 2. Jon Beason, NYG ($8.822m)
  • 3. D’Qwell Jackson, CLE ($8.5m)
  • 4. Lawrence Timmons, PIT ($8.333m)
  • 5. James Laurinaitis, STL ($8.3m)

So while the 49ers pay Willis and Bowman a lot (about $7 and $6 million, respectively), they somehow escaped making them the most paid, I suspect by resigning them in the middle of the season, well before their current contracts were up.2 Here are the Bottom 5 paid inside linebackers:

  • 48. Vince Williams, PIT ($0.56m)
  • 49. Jerrell Freeman, IND ($0.493m)
  • 50. Josh Bynes, BAL ($0.48m)
  • 51. Spencer Paysinger, NYG ($0.466m)
  • 52. Craig Robertson, CLE ($0.435m)

The average salary is $3.218 million, with a standard deviation $2.996 million. How strange, that is right in between the two types of outside linebackers. And who is getting the most value?

The Top 5 inside linebacker contracts (so far):

  • 1. Brandon Spikes, NE (2.6)
  • 2. Sean Lee, DAL (2.14)
  • 3. Josh Bynes, BAL (1.91)
  • 4. Daryl Smith, BAL (1.77)
  • 5. Kiko Alonso, BUF (1.76)

Congratulations to Bill Belichick, General Manager (and coach) of the New England Patriots. Spikes, Lee, and the rookie Alonso are all still on their rookie deals, while Bynes and Smith are veterans. And here are the Bottom 5 contracts:

  • 48. Jon Beason, NYG (-1.97)
  • 49. Paul Posluszny, JAC (-2.14)
  • 50. A.J. Hawk, GB (-2.59)
  • 51. London Fletcher, WAS (-2.97)
  • 52. DeMeco Ryans, PHI (-3.05)

And that is it for linebackers! The remaining defensive positions (cornerbacks and safeties) will be up next week.


  1. Measuring things like “popularity” and being “a good guy in the locker room” is really difficult. Not all players have a Twitter account for people to follow; mentions in the newspaper can be bad or good; players are paid separately for any commercials they appear in. I have tried to acquire jersey sales and pro bowl vote tallies for every player in the league before (not just the Top 5 or Top 10 you see in the news), and while surely somewhere they exist, it may be impossible. If anyone knows how to obtain those figures, I would LOVE to have them. 
  2. SPOILER, while not making the top five, Willis and Bowman do in fact both have positive contract qualities, with a 0.75 and 0.31, respectively. 
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