Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends

Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends

by J.I. Halsell

Now that we've moved to the defensive side of the ball, we’ll start our analysis with the highest-paid starters at defensive end. It’s clear that the NFL is a copy-cat league; one of the latest trends in the league is the proliferation of the 3-4 defense. As we all know, in this scheme the outside linebackers operate more as defensive ends who additionally have pass coverage responsibilities. For the purpose of this study we’ll therefore consider 3-4 outside linebackers as defensive ends, as it would not be fair to compare Terrell Suggs to Lance Briggs.

To illustrate the premium paid for elite pass rushers, the table below shows that there are more defensive ends than players at any other position -- aside from quarterback -- with averages per year of at least $10 million (six).

The most recent addition to the $10-plus million club is the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware, who recently signed a contract extension worth $78 million in new money and $40 million guaranteed for six new years. Ware’s $6.7 million guarantee per year matches that of the Ravens’ Terrell Suggs, who signed his lucrative contract extension this summer. Comparing Ware's contract to Suggs shows that Ware will only make $1.6 million more than Suggs in the first three new years, but over the life the contract will make $15.5 million more than Suggs.

Two players who have surely taken notice of the Ware and Suggs deals are the Panthers’ Julius Peppers (who was franchised) and the Raiders’ Richard Seymour. Short of being franchised in 2010, both players stand to become unrestricted free agents after this season. It seems that both players should be handsomely rewarded, but with both players being 29 years old at the start of this season could potentially deter a club from compensating either at the same total price point as Ware. The table below shows that elite defensive ends tend to be extended when they’re roughly 26 years of age and are typically extended for six new years. Given their age, it would not be surprising to see Peppers and Seymour extended for only four new years, at averages on par with their younger but comparable elite pass rushing peers. Based on the current defensive end market, a four year extension with $28 million guaranteed ($7 million guarantee per year) and $56 million ($14 million per year) in total new money would hardly be surprising.

The Steeler nation may be wondering why James Harrison is not on this list in light of his contract extension this past offseason. Harrison just missed making the top ten with an average per year of $8.76 million, ranking him 11th in the league.

Early in his career, San Diego’s Shawne Merriman looked like a lock to become one of the highest paid defenders in the league, but recent injuries and inconsistent play have, it would appear, placed the Chargers in no hurry to sign Merriman to a lucrative extension. With the prospects of the uncapped year in 2010 making Merriman a restricted free agent this coming offseason instead of an unrestricted free agent, Merriman could be waiting longer than expected for his next multi-year contract.

Other potential free agents this coming offseason include Denver’s Elvis Dumervil, Tennessee’s Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Green Bay’s Aaron Kampman. Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley, despite his rookie contract not expiring until after the 2010 season, could potentially be in line for an extension this coming offseason, and the Giants’ Osi Umenyiora ($5.5 million average per year), despite being under contract until 2012 on a contract he signed in 2005, has been lobbying for a new contract for a while now. I wouldn’t think that any of the aforementioned would approach the DeMarcus Ware contract, but the two guys to keep an eye on are Peppers and Seymour.

Here are the top ten starting defensive end contracts in the league:

Top Ten Starting Defensive End Contracts (in millions of dollars)
Rank Player Club Age at
Guarantee Guar./
New Money
1 Peppers, Julius CAR 29 6/24/2009 1 $16.7m $16.7m 100.0% $16.7m $16.7m --
2 Ware, DeMarcus DAL 27 10/27/2009 6 $40.0m $6.7m 51.3% $78.0m $13.0m $45.0m
3 Allen, Jared MIN 26 4/23/2008 6 $31.8m $5.3m 43.3% $73.3m $12.2m $38.4m
4 Freeney, Dwight IND 27 7/13/2007 6 $30.0m $5.0m 41.7% $72.0m $12.0m $37.7m
5 Suggs, Terrell BAL 26 7/15/2009 6 $40.0m $6.7m 64.0% $62.5m $10.4m $43.4m
6 Smith, Will NO 26 6/11/2008 6 $14.0m $2.3m 23.0% $60.8m $10.1m $27.0m
7 Long, Chris STL 23 7/22/2008 5 $25.0m $5.0m 52.1% $48.0m $9.6m $35.0m
8 Schobel, Aaron BUF 29 8/25/2007 4 $20.3m $5.1m 54.0% $37.5m $9.4m $16.0m
9 Seymour, Richard OAK 26 4/12/2006 3 $12.0m $4.0m 42.9% $28.0m $9.3m $26.2m
10 Williams, Mario HOU 21 5/1/2006 6 $26.5m $4.4m 49.1% $54.0m $9.0m $29.5m

Next week, we’ll continue our tour along the defensive line and analyze the top ten starting defensive tackle contracts in the league.

Follow J.I. Halsell on Twitter: @SalaryCap101


15 comments, Last at 14 Nov 2009, 4:14pm

3 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends

Aaron Schobel's deal is a little bit complicated. He had three years left on his existing deal, which they recognized that he had outperformed, and wanted to reward him a little for his performance to date. So, they basically bumped his compensation over the remaining three years up from $9.5 million to $16.5 million, and tacked on four more years for another $30.525 million, but really no guarantee that he'd ever see any of that money. They also wrote in quite a bit of injury protection, with club-purchased insurance policies and split salaries and injury-only guarantees.

As for Long, that's just the hazard of drafting that high.

2 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends

I heard an interview with Bill Polian last year that detailed his list of "most important" positions in the NFL. Not surprising he listed QB as the most important. However, I thought it was insightful that he listed an elite pass rusher (be it DE or OLB) as the second most important.

4 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends

It stands to reason that if the most important position is qb, then the position which can most directly harm a qb's performance, an edge pass rusher, is the second most important position. Now, if you have a dominant pass rusher who can regularly require the attention of more than one blocker, and that pass rusher also plays then run well, then you have a plaer whose value is only exceeded by the very elite quarterbacks.

5 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends

And the next logical step, ably supported by the Michael Lewis book, would be LT. (And that Oher kid is doing alright so far his rookie year.)

I wonder, but don't have the time to rsch it, where the positions rank in terms of average salary overall, and then average salary for the top-5 or 10 at each position. In other words, do the top 5 at one position skew things? Because a seasoned, super-elite player should, I'd think. One position that stands out for skewness from a handful is CB. I bet the overall average--because a lot of rookies, PRs, ST players, nickel and dime backs lower the average--is mid-pack, but if you look at the top-5 salaries of the "shut down corners" they might rank as positon #4 behind the above-mentioned three. Maybe #5 if you throw some mammoth DT salaries in there (thanks, Dan Snyder).

6 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends

Yeah, bobman, I think the picture gets muddled after the offensive tackle position. Give me good enough defensive ends, and I can get by, even win a championship, with pretty average, or even below average corners. Not saying such a corner isn't very valuable, just that it is hard to say that such a player is more valuable than a great player at another position. On the other hand, Tampa Bay won a title with pretty average offensive tackles.

9 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends

What you really want is to see that the entire salary distribution looks like for each position. I.e. is it reasonably linear or does it "hockey stick" at the top (or bottom), abruptly turning up to reward the elite guys disproportionately.

I bet there's some positions that would actually be bimodal...the top 15-30 players are in one high salary bracket, and everyone else lives in a much lower bracket. I bet DT and WR would look something like that.

14 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends

In fact, it's not just the NFL, but also most pro sports that award elite players better than even average players in a non-linear fashion.

If you really want to go out there, that's also the case for most other industries that operate in a fairly open market. It's one of the reasons given for why CEOs are paid so much more than middle-managers (imperfect comparison, as CEO pay has a ton of other factors).

15 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends

I actually think that it's even more complicated than that. You have to consider the possibility that both the marginal value equation for additional talent at a position and the distribution of talent at that position vary from position to position. It seems to me that at some high value positions, including DE and WR, there is a fairly smooth, normal talent gradation. At others, including LT and CB, there seems to be a really sharp drop-off somewhere very close to the top. Asomugha, Bailey and Revis just seem to be streets ahead of the rest, as Ogden, Pace and Jones once were. This could be a random effect that varies over time, or it could be a perception effect stemming from certain positions being harder to assess than others, but I'm not convinced. Out of every position in football, CB and LT are the two where it is simply impossible to be an elite player without being an order of magnitude more freakish a physical specimen than even an "average" top NFL player. They are also both reactive positions, meaning that dominant performance requires excellence in every relevant skill, rather than just brilliance in one (see Freeney, Dwight). Great LTs, in particular, are only ever found at the top of the first round, and are incredibly scarce. I'd give up more to get a top LT than a top DE even if the DE would improve my team more in the short term, because I'd like my chances of finding another excellent DE in the not too distant future better. Other players who I suspect may break the value curve at their positions are Reed, Polamalu, and the four monster-huge DTs with the athleticism to generate pressure in the passing game: Jenkins, Haynesworth, Rogers and Ngata.

7 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends

Schobel isn't elite, but he's worth it to the Bills. He can reliably get pressure on the QB. The last season or two he's been hurt, but I'd still pay him.

8 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends


With the possible exception of Long, I think every guy on this list deserves to be in the top ten paid players at their position. I know some people question Schobel, but I see him play at least twice a year, and often more (I'm a Pats fan but have a soft spot for the Bills), and he is easily one of the best defensive players on their team and certainly one of the better ones in the league. The only other one I would even question (other than Will Smith, who I just don't know enough about to have an opinion), is Seymour. He's definitely upper half of DE's in the league, but I don't think he's quite as elite, any more, as the rest of the guys on this list.

Question, though. If you're including OLB's who play in a 3-4, shouldn't you EXCLUDE DE's who play in a 3-4...since most 3-4 DE's actually play more like 4-3 DT's?

11 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends

Regarding Seymour, valid point regarding his position. If he were still in NE, I would've lumped him in with the DTs, given the 3-4 defense(& you'll see this next week, the 3-4 DEs will be with the DTs), but in OAK's 4-3 he's playing DE and sliding him down to DT on occassion, which is why I put him with the DEs.

J.I. Halsell
Salary Cap Analyst | "Under the Cap"
Twitter | @SalaryCap101

10 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Defensive Ends

Presumably Woodley, though likely to get extended, is not likely to get too much money absent a new CBA, since he is only looking at UFA until 2013, right?