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5 best NFL edge defender contracts

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 28: James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers lines up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Heinz Field on September 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Pass-rushers are worth a premium in the NFL, but shrewd franchises can still find bargains. Here are five outstanding edge defender contracts.

[Editor’s note: All cap numbers are from Over the Cap.]

1. James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers

Years remaining: One

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $1.5 million

Harrison has been punishing quarterbacks for close to a decade and a half; his longevity is remarkable. Despite the pay-grade of a washed up vet, Harrison remains a dominant pass-rusher. He ranked 14th-overall amongst edge defenders a year ago, recording an 83.7 pass-rush grade. He amassed 45 combined pressures in just 276 snaps, ranking fifth in pass-rush productivity. Harrison also made a positive impact against the run and in coverage.

There is a strong case that Harrison’s two-year, $2.75 million deal signed prior to the 2015 season is the best contract handed out the past couple of years. There are 36 3-4 outside linebackers with higher cap hits in 2016 alone. Considering the enduring quality of his performances, the Steelers’ have an absolute steal in Harrison.

2. Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks

Years remaining: Two

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $8.25 million

Bennett traded short-term financial security for long-term benefit when he signed his four-year extension a couple of years ago. His contract totaled only $32 million, with only $16 million guaranteed. Bennett’s $7 million 2015 cap hit is 10th-highest amongst defensive ends behind the likes of Robert Ayers, Cameron Wake, and Jason Pierre-Paul. Success has made it difficult for the Seahawks to keep all their defensive players happy, and it’s no surprise Bennett is seeking a new contract.

Bennett is a wrecking ball with the versatility to rush from the inside or off the edge. His 90.2 overall grade in 2015 ranked him fifth overall among edge defenders. Bennett is at his best when he can attack, finishing with 27 combined knockdowns and a further 57 pressures. Few edge defenders can better Bennett’s +132.1 cumulative grade over the past three years. He has proven consistency and playmaking-skills, suggesting he’s in line for a pay raise.

3. Pernell McPhee, Chicago Bears

Years remaining: Four

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $7.02 million

Pernell McPhee’s contract looks better every season. John Fox added a key piece to his defense a year ago, signing McPhee to a five-year, $38.75 million contract with only $15.5 million guaranteed. The vast majority of those guarantees have already been paid. Starting in 2017, the dead money in McPhee’s contract falls to just $1.5 million. The Bears tied down a pass-rusher in his prime to a great-value contract in free agency a year ago.

Production-wise, McPhee did not quite reach the heights he managed in Baltimore. He ranked 10th overall last season, registering an 87.6 overall grade. He McPhee suffered a slight dip in pass-rush production—ranking 13th among edge defenders, with an 84.2 grade—but continued to make an impact in the other two facets of play. He is both dependable and disciplined, finishing fifth in run-stop percentage a year ago. Although McPhee is less flashy than some of his peers, he is just as effective.

4. Cliff Avril, Seattle Seahawks

Years remaining: Three

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $6.66 million

The Seahawks have enjoyed incredible success with their personnel decisions at defensive end. As well as Bennett, Cliff Avril has proved an outstanding addition. He signed a deal very similar to Bennett’s, averaging just around $7 million per year with only minimal guarantees. Although he’s starting to age (now 30 years old), the former Detroit Lion remains an impact pass-rusher.

Avril ranked a handful of spots below his teammate in our overall grades a season ago. He checked in at ninth, with an 87.7 overall grade. It was his best season grade of his career, and the first year in which he graded positively against the run. While still maintaining his level of disruption as a pass-rusher (73 combined pressures), Avril was able to evolve his game to better defend the run. The 38 stops he recorded is 12 more than in any previous season.

5. Tamba Hali, Kansas City

Years remaining: Three

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $7 million

The Chiefs entered free agency with a number of key defensive players set to hit the market. Despite such a difficult position, the organization managed to strike an agreement with Tamba Hali on a below-market contract. The veteran managed 75 combined pressures, collapsing the pocket with frequency in 2015. Overall, Hali ranked 11th in our edge-defender grades (87.2).

Hali may be aging, but he still has plenty left in the tank. $7 million per season is not excessive for a talented pass-rusher, and he has a cap hit of only $3.8 million in the first year. The Chiefs were required to hand over $11.5 million up front, a fair chunk of change, but that is offset somewhat by the relatively low cap values. He may not see the final year of the contract—when he can be cut for a savings of $7 million—but Hali will have a chance so long as he remains productive.

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