Salary Growth on Defense Since 2009

With Jamal Adams unhappy with his contract and some wild numbers being thrown around I figured this was as good a time as any to tackle one of the questions I get often- “is player X worth a record contract”.  To keep this to the defensive side of the ball I’ll look at how much defensive players at the top have seen contract growth since whatever records we have going back to 2009.  In general the NFL has done a really good job of allowing the “market” define contract offers which has made it hard, but not impossible, for the players to break through the “market” and we’ll go position by position to see which have done well and which have not.

Linebacker

YearPlayerAnnual Value% Increase
2010Karlos Dansby$8,492,000
2010Patrick Willis$10,000,00017.8%
2015Bobby Wagner$10,750,0007.5%
2015Luke Kuechly$12,359,05915.0%
2017Jamie Collins$12,500,0001.1%
2019CJ Mosley$17,000,00036.0%
2019Bobby Wagner$18,000,0005.9%

When I started my research for this one I did not expect this position to show such growth especially since, if anything, I would have thought this position would have been considered a de-valued position in today’s NFL. Most of the growth is all recent with the Mosley contract, really an absurd deal by the Jets, just obliterating the going rate by 36% (a few linebackers signed in the $13M range days before Mosley but the dates were so close I did not include them- the increase there was massive too). The trends have been pretty clear with this one- it stands relatively pat for years and then someone makes a big move. Willis stood for 5 seasons and then the Kuechly range stood for around 4. My guess is it is awhile before we see a big increase over Mosley and Wagner, but the average increase here is 13.9% and since Dansby signed the big contract in 2010 we have gone up 112% (80% from Willis) way above the rate of salary cap inflation.

Interior Defensive Line

YearPlayerAnnual Value% Increase
2009Albert Haynesworth$11,428,571
2011Haloti Ngata$12,200,0006.8%
2014Gerald McCoy$13,600,00011.5%
2015Ndamukong Suh$19,062,50040.2%
2018Aaron Donald$22,500,00018.0%

I guess you can argue some of the names not on the list (JJ Watt and Richard Seymour in particular) but I thought this captured the way that the players were viewed better. This was a position that was moving along slowly when the Dolphins came along, backed a giant truck of money into the driveway of Ndamukong Suh while pitching him on how great it would be to play in Miami. At the time nobody else was involved to this level and not surprisingly no other players came close to this until Aaron Donald signed his extension in 2018. In both cases Suh and Donald successfully made the argument that they transcended the position and should be rated as “best defensive player” when signing the contract. The individual moves here have all been pretty big so you are either going to get a big raise over the top guy or come in under it.  Overall the position has grown by about 96% since Haynesworth signed with Washington in 2009.

Edge Rusher

YearPlayerAnnual Value% Increase
2009DeMarcus Ware$13,000,000
2010Julius Peppers$14,000,0007.7%
2011Seymour$15,000,0007.1%
2012Mario Williams$16,000,0006.7%
2014JJ Watt$16,666,6674.2%
2015Justin Houston$16,833,3331.0%
2016Olivier Vernon$17,000,0001.0%
2016Von Miller$19,083,33312.3%
2018Khalil Mack$23,500,00023.1%

This runs a bit more like what we expect from say a quarterback with someone making a case almost every year to be the highest paid player from 2009-2016. That seems to have changed when Miller signed the monster $19 million contract which in reality was compared against Suh’s highest defensive player number signed the prior year. Mack’s contract, which was being negotiated at the same time Aaron Donald above was doing his deal, was a massive move and the contract that has pulled the market over $20 million though its questionable when we will see him get jumped. Probably next season. The average jump here is about 7.9% but most of that is based on the two at the end. Mack’s deal should be in line to be surpassed either on an extension this year or next year but I would expect a more traditional jump in the 5% range.

Safety

YearPlayerAnnual Value% Increase
2011Troy Polamalu$9,866,667
2014Earl Thomas$10,000,0001.4%
2016Harrison Smith$10,250,0002.5%
2016Tyrann Mathieu$12,500,08122.0%
2017Eric Berry$13,000,0004.0%
2019Collins/Mathieu$14,000,0007.7%
2019Kevin Byard$14,100,0000.7%
2020Eddie Jackson$14,600,0003.5%

This is again one of those positions where some contracts have stood for awhile. We had three seasons before the Polamalu to Thomas jump, two years until the Matieu jump and then a few years before the next significant jump. Other than Mathieu no player has ever made a big jump at this position which doesn’t bode well for Adams. Mathieu’s big claim was that he was a hybrid player being a corner masquerading as a safety which worked. Adams may be able to make a similar claim as he is used to rush the passer a lot and isn’t bad in coverage either. A jump similar to Mathieu would put him in the $17.8M per year range. I’d think its more likely he hits closer to the 6% average growth range if he is traded which would put him at $15.5M a year. Safety has lagged the growth in the salary cap somewhat.

Cornerback

YearPlayerAnnual Value% Increase
2009Nnamdi Asomugha$14,296,000
2013Darrelle Revis$16,000,00011.9%
2020Byron Jones$16,500,0003.1%
2020Darius Slay$16,683,3331.1%

No position has been devalued more over the past 10 years than cornerback. Asomugha signed a blockbuster contract with the Raiders in 2009 and after years of trying to peg himself to the top paid defensive player Revis finally did that when he signed for $16 million a season with the Buccaneers in 2013. It took until just this past offseason for another corner to pass the $16 million a year mark which Byron Jones did as a free agent. To match what Asomugha and Revis received a corner would need to be between $23 and $25 million, numbers that have no chance of being realized in the next few years. The question I have is whether or not corners can earn over $18 million a season or if this is going to still see almost no growth now that they are close to $17 million. There is no reason for non-rush linebackers to earn more than a top corner.

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @Jason_OTC