Under The Cap
FO's Salary Cap Analyst looks at the economics of the NFL

Under the Cap: Top Ten ILB/MLB

Under the Cap: Top Ten ILB/MLB
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by J.I. Halsell

This past offseason, one of the bigger story lines in free agency was whether Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis would return to Baltimore or end his career in another city. In the end, Lewis signed what appears to be a five-year contract with options for two additional years to remain in Baltimore; the agreement between Lewis and the Ravens, however, is structured to very easily be a one-year arrangement.

The table below shows that Lewis' contract, when factoring in the exercising of options, ranks seventh amongst inside linebackers, with an average per year of $6.4 million and a guarantee of $14.3 million. It is important to recognize, however, that of the $14.3 million guaranteed, $4.3 million is guaranteed only for injury, meaning if the Ravens were to terminate Lewis due to skill, he would only be entitled to $10 million. In year two of Lewis' contract, the Ravens have the right to exercise an option that would pay Lewis a $1.25 million option bonus; however, if the Ravens elect to not exercise this option, they would owe Lewis a $3.25 million non-exercise fee, as the Lewis contract also contains a $2 million option bonus in year three. Therefore, if the Ravens do not exercise the option, Lewis gets the full $3.25 million in year two instead of potentially receiving it over years two and three.

That said, if the Ravens feel that Lewis' play has declined in 2009, they then can walk away from the deal having paid Lewis $10 million for one year, and then absorb a $5 million hit in dead money for 2010. In order to avoid the non-exercise fee, the Ravens must release Lewis prior to the expiration of the option exercise period at the beginning of the 2010 league year (March 2010). If the Ravens choose to bring Lewis back for 2010 and pay the $1.25 million option bonus and then choose to terminate him after the 2010 season, then Lewis will have earned $15.5 million over two years ($7.75 million average per year). It'll be interesting to see what the Ravens do after this season and whether or not they bring Lewis back for another season.

(Ed. Note: Lewis has been involved in 17.9 percent of Baltimore defensive Plays this year, seventh in the NFL and second among 3-4 linebackers behind only Patrick Willis and just ahead of David Harris. I think he's still got it. -- Aaron Schatz)

Lewis' former teammate, Jets linebacker Bart Scott, signed the most lucrative long-term inside linebacker contract this offseason as he followed former Raven defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to New York. Scott's contract, particularly from a guaranteed-money standpoint, is a market-setting contract for the elite inside linebacker market. Scott's $21.6 million guarantee and three-year total of $27 million definitely distinguishes the Scott contract, and serves as benchmarks for players such as the Niners' Patrick Willis and Texans' DeMeco Ryans as they anticipate their lucrative second contracts.

As one looks at the table below, the Bears' Brian Urlacher's guarantee stands out at $6 million, but one must keep in mind that this contract signed in 2008 essentially ripped up his 2003 contract that was set to run through 2011 and paid Urlacher a guarantee of $14 million. Moreover, the 2003 deal over 2008 through 2011 would pay Urlacher $22.6 million; the 2008 deal would pay Urlacher $35.5 million over those same years, an increase of $12.9 million.

The top 10 starting inside linebacker contracts are littered with players such as Lewis, Urlacher, and Washington's London Fletcher, who signed their contracts at age 30 or older, which speaks to the longevity of high-end players at the position. As young linebackers such as Willis, Ryans, and Carolina's Jon Beason eye their next contract, depending upon the term of their second contract, these players could easily sign a third lucrative contract at age 30 or 31 if they continue to play at a high level quarterbacking the defense.

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

Top Ten Starting Inside Linebacker Contracts (in millions of dollars)
Rank Player Club Age at
Guarantee Guar./
New Money
1 Dansby, Karlos ARI 27 3/4/2009 1 $9.7m $9.7m 100.0% $9.7m $9.7m --
2 Urlacher, Brian CHI 30 7/23/2008 5 $6.0m $1.2m 13.8% $43.5m $8.7m $25.4m
3 Scott, Bart NYJ 28 2/28/2009 6 $21.6m $3.6m 45.0% $48.0m $8.0m $27.0m
4 Vilma, Jonathan NO 26 3/4/2009 5 $13.5m $2.7m 39.6% $34.0m $6.8m $22.5m
5 Barnett, Nick GB 25 4/10/2007 5 $6.4m $1.3m 19.5% $32.9m $6.6m $17.9m
6 Tatupu, Lofa SEA 25 3/24/2008 6 $14.0m $2.3m 36.5% $38.4m $6.4m $18.0m
7 Lewis, Ray BAL 33 3/9/2009 7 $14.3m $2.0m 32.0% $44.5m $6.4m $22.0m
8 Williams, D.J. DEN 26 9/27/2008 5 $11.5m $2.3m 37.7% $30.5m $6.1m $15.5m
9 Hawk, A.J. GB 22 7/29/2006 5 $16.1m $3.2m 62.0% $26.0m $5.2m $17.9m
10 Fletcher, London WAS 31 3/3/2007 5 $10.5m $2.1m 42.0% $25.0m $5.0m $15.0m

Next week, we'll analyze the top ten starting cornerback contracts in the league.

Follow J.I. Halsell on Twitter: @SalaryCap101


8 comments, Last at 05 Dec 2009, 9:58am

1 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten ILB/MLB

I have a feeling that once David Harris hits FA next year, he's going to want at least as much money as the guy playing next to him, Bart Scott. That could definitely be a problem

3 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten ILB/MLB

Ray Lewis is signed through Age 40? Wow, that's an indictment on how silly NFL contracts can be, as even the most strident Ray Lewis supporters would doubt he's worth $7M in 2014.

4 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten ILB/MLB

I would more call it an insight into how silly it is to look at long-term contract length and total value as a meaningful measure of NFL deals without considering the total context. Lewis almost certainly won't be worth $7 million in 2014 (or $6.3 million, as he's actually slated to be paid in that year), and he almost certainly won't see that money, anyway. That contract is a poster child for the consideration of three-year payout.

5 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten ILB/MLB

I enjoy that you discussed a little bit more of the mechanics of some of the deals, Jimmy... great stuff this week. I'd love to get a little bit of the guts of the Asomugha contract next week, that one has to be a real whopper.

6 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten ILB/MLB

The name that intrigues me, although I'm probably a year ahead on this, is Stewart Bradley. He's still under his rookie contract next year, but he's at about that point in his career where the Eagles usually like to lock up their players. With his injury, it'll probably be next season, when they see how well he comes back, that the new deal happens. His agent will argue that he's on track to be one of the premier young LBs in the league. But throughout the Reid era (for better and for worse), Philly has steadfastly refused to pay top-dollar for their LB corps. Could make for some interesting negociations.

7 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten ILB/MLB

Stewart Bradely has no leverage at all, coming off 2 ACLs. Knees are important for a MLB (see Trotter, Jeremiah).

Meanwhile, let me say as an Eagle fan, that I absolutely love London Fletcher, who could probably make the top 5 of the most underrated players of the decade.