News & Analysis

5 best NFL interior defender contracts

NEW ORLEANS, LA - SEPTEMBER 21: Linval Joseph #98 of the Minnesota Vikings screams after a big play during a game against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on September 21, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Saints defeated the Vikings 20-9. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

The term “interior defender” can mean many things. Whether it’s a run-stuffing nose tackle (think Linval Joseph or Damon Harrison), a penetrating 3-tech (Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins), or a versatile 3-4 defensive end (J.J. Watt, Muhammad Wilkerson), accumulating interior players that can put pressure on a quarterback from the inside, as well as stop an opponents’ rushing attack, is of high importance in today’s NFL. Acquiring such talent economically is an achievement greatly rewarded in the league’s salary cap structure, where high-end dollars are often needed for other, more glamorous positions. Below we give the top-five interior defender contracts (with rookie deals excluded).

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

1. Nick Fairley, New Orleans Saints

Years remaining on current deal: One

Average remaining cap hit: $3 million (a combined $1.49 million of which prorated to 2017 and 2018) 

Since the conclusion of his rookie deal following the 2014 season, Fairley has received surprisingly measured interest on the free-agent market, settling for a one-year, $5 million deal with the St. Louis Rams last season and a one-year, $3 million deal this offseason with the Saints. He turned 2015's modest deal into one of the best free-agent values in the league, producing the 17th-best run-stop percentage (9.2) and the 18th-best pass-rushing productivity (6.7) among defensive tackles in limited duty (427 snaps). His run-stop percentage last season was higher than Ndamukong Suh’s, despite a salary that was worth roughly one-sixth of the Dolphin's on a per-year basis. Fairley graded positively in all but two of his 15 games last season, tallying 19 total pressures in the process.

Off-field concerns and injuries have undoubtedly impeded Fairley’s ability to land a long-term deal, but after a year of backing up Aaron Donald in St. Louis, Fairley figures to start alongside rookie Sheldon Rankins in New Orleans this season. If he can continue to be the player that has graded positively in all five of his pro seasons—while staying on the field for the entire campaign—this deal will be a steal for the rebuilding New Orleans’ defense, which finished last season with the second-worst grade in the NFL.

2. Linval Joseph, Minnesota Vikings

Years remaining on current deal: Three

Average remaining cap hit: $6.68 million 

While there were hints that the Vikings’ defense was in the process of becoming a top-tier unit in the first season under Mike Zimmer, the unit did not really take off until Linval Joseph emerged as not only one of the top interior defenders in the league, but one of the best defensive players in the league . After grading positively in every season but his rookie year, Joseph produced six games last season with cumulative grades of +3.0 or above (remember that 0.0 is considered average on PFF's cumulative scale), managing 30 stops and 26 pressures in the process. He almost single-handedly shut down Todd Gurley and the Rams in their Week 9 matchup, with an impressively-positive grade for the game, tallying a sack and seven stops.

Joseph finished last season with the third-highest grade (94.4) among interior defenders (behind only Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt), despite being just the 12th-highest-paid 4-3 defensive tackle. With three years left on this modest deal, the Vikings have the ability to allocate resources towards other areas of their defense, further fortifying a unit that has the potential to be one of the league’s best. If Joseph can remain healthy (he missed four games last season with a foot injury), this will continue to be one of the most team-friendly contracts in the league for the foreseeable future.

3. Ian Williams, San Francisco 49ers

Years remaining on current deal: One 

Average remaining cap hit: $4 million

The 18th-highest-graded interior defender (85.6) in the league last season, Williams was a bright spot in an otherwise down year for the 49ers. Having played just 271 snaps in his first four seasons, Williams emerged as a dominant force against the run, finishing last season with the ninth-highest run-stop percentage (10.6) among defensive tackles (tied with Linval Joseph). He finished the year particularly strong; his run defense grade over the last six weeks of the season was third among defensive tackles, with his overall grade being fourth. He added a respectable 19 pressures as a pass-rusher, as well.

As the 49ers work to rebuild their defense, the combination of Williams, 2015 first-round draft pick Arik Armstead, and 2016 first-round pick DeForest Buckner show substantial promise along the defensive line. Armstead and Buckner will be under their rookie deals for some time, with Williams (at least this year) making modest money, giving the team possibly one of the most economical defensive fronts in the league.

4. Terrance Knighton, New England Patriots

Years remaining on current deal: One

Average remaining cap hit: $2.02 million

After finishing ninth and 11th among defensive tackles in total grading in 2013 and 2014, respectively, Knighton left the Denver Broncos to join Washington on a one-year, $4 million deal in the 2015 offseason. While his play fell off a bit in 2015, he was still a valuable run defender, producing 18 stops in 408 total snaps. This offseason, he signed another modest deal, this time with the New England Patriots, where he will play defensive tackle in their 4-3 defensive scheme.

Bill Belichick and the Patriots have a knack of finding productive players at the right price, and they’ve certainly acquired Knighton on the cheap. He figures to play predominantly on first and second downs in New England, where if he can return to the form that saw him finish 20th and 11th in 2013 and 2014, respectively, in run-stop percentage among qualifying defensive linemen, they will be getting substantial value on the interior of their defense.

5. Chris Baker, Washington

Years remaining on current deal: One

Average remaining cap hit: $4.28 million

In his fourth season in Washington, Baker set a career-high in every statistical category, finishing 22nd among interior defensive linemen with an 82.7 overall grade in 2015. Equally solid as a run-defender (81.9) and pass-rusher (81.1), Baker helped a defense that went from dead last in the league in total grades in 2014 to one that helped Washington make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Among 3-4 defensive ends, he was fifth in run-stop percentage (10.6) and 12th in pass-rushing productivity (9.1). His run-stop percentage was 0.1 ahead of J.J. Watt last season, while his pass-rushing productivity was higher than the more-financially-rewarded Derek Wolfe (Broncos), Cam Heyward (Steelers), Jaye Howard (Chiefs), and Corey Liuget (Chargers).

With one season left on his deal, it’s up to Baker to show that 2015 was the beginning of a trend in his play. If he does, he will unquestionably cash in, as 3-4 defensive ends with the ability stop the run and rush the passer like Baker did last season are profoundly valuable. Until Baker signs a new deal, he is wonderfully-economical asset for the improving Washington defense.

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