Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB
Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by J.I. Halsell

First and foremost, I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving and enjoyed spending time with their family and friends. In this week's edition of "Under the Cap," we take a look at the top ten starter contracts at outside linebacker. As we look at this position, keep in mind that essentially we’re only analyzing the contracts of 4-3 outside linebackers, as the 3-4 outside linebackers were included in the defensive end analysis.

As I looked at the table below, the first thing that stood out to me is that in order to crack the top ten at outside linebacker it only took an average of $4 million per year, which is the lowest of any of the positions that we've looked at thus far. Also, the pedigree of the top ten does not exactly wow you; aside from Chicago's Lance Briggs, Tennessee’s Keith Bulluck, and Detroit’s Julian Peterson, the group isn’t exactly comprised of names that the casual fan would be familiar with. As a matter of fact (and highlighting the prominence of 3-4 outside linebackers compared to their 4-3 counterparts), only two of the six linebackers voted to last season’s Pro Bowl (Briggs and Tampa’s Derrick Brooks) were 4-3 outside linebackers.

The Seattle Seahawks have executed some of the more expensive linebacker contracts in the league; three of the top five contracts below were written by the Seahawks. Peterson’s contract was executed when he was a Seahawk and he was subsequently traded to the Lions. Then the Seahawks drafted Aaron Curry number four in the 2009 draft; Curry's contract instantly made him the highest-paid outside linebacker in the league. The Seahawks then signed Leroy Hill to a contract that equaled Briggs' and Bulluck's in average per year ($6 million per year) and surpassed both in guaranteed money ($13 million). Between Lofa Tatupu ($14 million), Curry ($34 million), Hill ($13 million), and Peterson ($13.5 million), the Seahawks have paid nearly $75 million in linebacker guarantees.

There aren't any 4-3 outside linebackers who really stand out in the free agent market this coming offseason. Perhaps, if a new collective bargaining agreement is put in place, Oakland's Thomas Howard could be in line for a relatively lucrative contract. It will be interesting to see what the Titans do with Bulluck, as his contract expires at the end of the season. Bulluck is unquestionably a leader on the Titans, but you have to wonder what's the right price for a 33-year-old linebacker.

Here are the top ten starting outside linebacker contracts in the league:

Top Ten Starting Outside Linebacker Contracts (in millions of dollars)
Rank Player Club Age at
Guarantee Guar./
New Money
1 Curry, Aaron SEA 23 8/8/2009 6 $34.0m $5.7m 56.6% $60.1m $10.0m $35.5m
2 Peterson, Julian DET 27 3/27/2006 7 $13.5m $1.9m 25.0% $54.0m $7.7m $23.5m
3 Bulluck, Keith TEN 26 3/2/2004 6 $12.5m $2.1m 34.7% $36.0m $6.0m $19.3m
4 Hill, Leroy SEA 26 5/1/2009 6 $13.0m $2.2m 36.1% $36.0m $6.0m $20.0m
5 Briggs, Lance CHI 27 3/7/2008 6 $7.8m $1.3m 21.5% $36.0m $6.0m $21.6m
6 Witherspoon, Will PHI 25 3/13/2006 6 $15.0m $2.5m 45.5% $33.0m $5.5m $19.0m
7 Boley, Michael NYG 26 2/28/2009 5 $11.0m $2.2m 44.0% $25.0m $5.0m $16.3m
8 Smith, Daryl JAC 24 1/19/2007 5 $10.0m $2.0m 41.7% $24.0m $4.8m $12.3m
9 Thornton, David TEN 27 3/14/2006 5 $8.0m $1.6m 36.0% $22.3m $4.5m $13.0m
10 Leber, Ben MIN 27 3/13/2006 5 $7.0m $1.4m 35.0% $20.0m $4.0m $12.0m

Next week, we’ll analyze the top ten starting inside linebacker contracts in the league.

Follow J.I. Halsell on Twitter: @SalaryCap101


32 comments, Last at 30 Nov 2009, 10:23am

1 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

That's probably the least inspiring top ten yet - a lot of mediocre players there.

I don't know what the titans will do, but I know what they should do. Cut him, and fire any parking-lot attendant that protests.

2 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

I have a few simple observations that any fool could make:

First, wow that Curry deal looks huge here. I don't have time to look it up right now, but is there another position where the top contract is this much bigger than the next one (let alone compared to third)? It's 130% of Peterson's contract in avg/year, 151% in 3-year-total, 300% in guarantee per year--that's just a huge difference.

Second, Briggs is a bargain for the Bears, isn't he?

Third, I thought Julian Peterson was about 4 years older than he is for some reason. I wonder why.

23 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

The Curry deal's absurd. I thought he was a great prospect (haven't seen the Seahawks enough this season to have much idea how he's playing in the pros), but he is not the calibre of pass-rusher that would justify that kind of money.

Briggs is clearly the best 4-3 OLB in the league, but I hesitate to say the Bears got a steal. He's getting $7.2m a year through the first three years, at the end of which time he will be thirty, and that's a hell of a lot of money for a front seven player who doesn't rush the quarterback.

Looking at that list also makes me feel even better (as a Texans fan) about Brian Cushing. Maybe it's the homer in me talking, but I honestly don't see a player on that list other than Briggs who I think is as good as Cushing, or even close enough for it to be much of an argument. Conceivably Hill, I suppose.

25 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

I've gotten the impression (and I'm not sure where, so maybe it's just a figment of my imagination) that, in addition to being a great OLB now, Briggs is the eventual replacement for Urlacher.

On p-f-r, their similarity scores say that to this point, his career is most similar to, in order: Zach Thomas, Ted Hendricks, Willie Lanier, Randy Gradishar, Derrick Brooks, Bill George, Phil Villapiano, Greg Lloyd, Bobby Bell, and Brian Urlacher. Hendricks, Lanier, Gradishar, George, and Bell are all in the Hall of Fame. Urlacher and Brooks will be. Zach Thomas is at least arguable (I would be on the "yes" side of that argument). Gradishar would be if he played anywhere else. Lloyd and Villapiano are the only two who have no real Hall of Fame case (though I'm sure Raiderjoe will say Villapiano belongs in).

However, after looking at that, I was curious how everyone's career went after the point where Briggs is now, so I looked at each. Zach Thomas would be good for another five years and make three more first-team all-pro teams. Hendricks would play another nine years, making four pro bowls and two first-team all pros. Lanier would make three more pro bowls and one more first-team all-pro but fall of a cliff at that point. Gradishar would only play four more years, but make three pro bowls. Brooks would play another eight years, making seven pro bowls and three all-pros. George would play another nine years, making four pro bowls and five all-pros, though it looks like he fell off the cliff six years after this point. Bell would play six more years, making four more pro bowls and two more all pros. Urlacher has so far played 3.5 more years, with one more pro bowl and one more all-pro. Villapiano would miss almost a full year with an injury and then only start for two more seasons. Lloyd would have two more first-team all pro seasons, then get hurt and wasn't the same for his two remaining healthy years.

I think those are too all over the map to say much, but it was interesting anyway.

31 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

Briggs is the eventual replacement for Urlacher.
It depends what you mean by this. If you mean the next middle linebacker, no Lovie Smith is keeping him at weakside same as Derrick Brooks did. If you mean face of the defense, jersey selling machine, then yeah I would say he is.

3 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

Admittedly, this Top 10 was very uninspiring; coupled with writing this column after Thanksgiving dinner, needless to say it was a challenge trying to write this analysis. Although, prior to writing the column, I didn't know Seattle had spent so much of Paul Allen's Microsoft money on linebackers.

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

4 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

David Hawthorne good LB too, but cheap. Seattle maybe go to 3-4 next seaosn cause have good Lbs. curry, hill, hawthorne, tatopo.

6 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

* Where would James Harrison be? Didn't he sign an extension last year?
* Witherspoon now an Eagle?
* Would it be possible to do (say) top 20, so we can see where the good deals are for teams? Top 10 picks out outliers, esp for a position where teams can have more than one.

12 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

You are correct Witherspoon is now an Eagle; the Eagles traded for the contract executed by STL, so the numbers in the table are still accurate & current regarding his compensation, but the team cell has been corrected. Thanks.

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

8 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

Well this column has serious issues if they have Ware and Harrison as DE's. I don't care what they are listed at. They are 3-4 OLBs. It doesn't exactly take a rocket surgeon to figure that out.

10 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

I'm pretty sure that those players have more in common with DEs than with 4-3 OLBs. It doesn't exactly take a rocket scientist to :
1 - Read the first paragraph before sayin "OMGZ WHERE R WARE N HARRISONZ"
2 - Understand that both in the game, and in terms of contracts, top 3-4 OLBs are way closer to DE than to 4-3 OLBs.

11 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

Before signing his extension, I think Terrell Suggs would've had a problem with you calling him a LB; so much so that he filed a grievance to be classified as a DE instead of a LB for the purpose of the franchise tender. I'm just a cap guy, but Suggs actually plays the game, and despite his OLB title, clearly considers himself from a compensation standpoint as a DE. I'm not going to argue with Terrell Suggs.

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

20 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB


R O do seem like drunk guy. Maybe had a little too muvh red wine yesterday or tryptofam got to him

Questuom for cap guru. can Raiders restructure Russelk cointract? hasnt played consistent good yet

(good at times only like buffalo game last year, Chargers week 1 game and some others). maybe Raiders can talk him into fixing contraxct because got benched for crappy playinh. Then raiders can save some money yto bring in good def lineman and then Russell might play better becsasuse pride hurt anf wallet lighter

13 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

Oops. I must admit I only skimmed through the first part of the article so I missed the part about only doing 4-3 OLBs.

It still seems rather silly. An OLB is an OLB. They do more of the glory work in the 3-4 so they get paid more. If they were going to do that, they should have included 3-4 DEs with the 4-3 OLBs since they do almost all the dirty work and little of the stat hogging.

14 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

Actually for a true comparison they should have included 3-4 DEs in with the DTs. I don't suppose they did that?

15 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

Actually, the 3-4 DEs, such as SFs Justin Smith & KCs Tyson Jackson, are included with the DTs; take a read: http://www.footballoutsiders.com/under-cap/2009/under-cap-top-ten-defensive-tackles

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

16 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

Got it. I'm all caught up now. Sorry for the insults.

On another note, I'm a Chargers fan. I knew Castillo had a good contract, but I didn't realize quite HOW good.

Since you're a cap guy, what do you think the odds are of the Bolts being able to afford to keep Shawne Merriman? This assumes a new CBS making him a UFA, which I actually don't think will be the case.

18 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

Merriman is a great example of a club hoping a new CBA doesn't get done, because he's the type of player you want to see play on a 1-year RFA tender for cheap before making the decision to pay him a lucrative extension. Even then, maybe he only gets a 3-year extension instead of the 6 years that Suggs & Ware got because of the concerns over his injury history & questionable off-the-field. I'd be VERY leary of giving him $40M guaranteed; on a 3 year deal, maybe he's a $18M guaranteed player, whether that contract comes in SD or elsewhere.

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

21 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

Two "wow moments", in no particular order:

1. Ben Leber is in the top 10. Nice player, Ben, but this demonstrates the mediocrity (and, really, shallowness, because of the number of 3-4 teams) of the category.

2. This is, I believe, Raiderjoe's first public admission that JaMarcus Russell might not be a world-beater. This is a significant breakthrough for Joe.

And, J.I., you are not the only one leery of committing big $ to Merriman (and I'm sure you meant "leery" as in "wary", not "leary" as in LCD-dropping professor). There were several credible reports of A.J. Smith shopping Merriman this off-season; A.J. has been accused of many things, but undue loyalty and sentimentality are not among them. Also absent is the idea that he can admit he was wrong. I would not plan on seeing Merriman sport lightening bolts past his FA year (whichever it turns out to be).

28 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

He's talking about Timothy Leary, counterculture icon. He used to drop liquid crystal displays all the time, before moving on to harder displays such as LCOS and Plasma projectors. He was eventually imprisoned for crossing the US-Mexico border with several pounds of CRTs.

24 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

Forgot to mention that on Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for you guys, the regular readers & commenters of "Under the Cap." Yeah, I crunch the numbers and provide the analysis, but that really just tees it up for you guys & your comments. I can honestly say that I've never read more insightful & football-intelligent comments from readers on any other blog/column. So thanks everyone!!

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

30 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten OLB

JI, your column adds a needed dimension to FO, the monetary one. Its hard to imagine the incredible pressure the front office is under(even guys like Polian) to keep proven performers, be willing to let players that can be replaced with a low rounder or UDFA go, injuries to stars in contract years and deal with the "keeping up with the Joneses" effect. It makes for fascinating reading, keep up the great work.

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