5 best NFL linebacker contracts

Carolina Panthers Luke Kuechly during an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns on December 21, 2014 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte,NC. (Tom DiPace /AP Images for Nike)

We continue our series on the best and worst contracts at each position, this time with the most underpaid veteran linebackers. For each player named, we give the years remaining on his contract, as well as the annual average cap hit for the remainder of his deal.

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

1. Jerrell Freeman, Chicago Bears

Years remaining: Three

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $4.0 million

In 2015, Jerrell Freeman earned the fourth-highest overall grade among linebackers, at 90.6. He had shown in previous years that he can be great in coverage, but in 2015, he cut down on his missed tackles and was exceptional against the run. After missing 13 or more tackles in each of his first three pro seasons, he only missed five last year. His 12.8 run-stop percentage was third-best among inside linebackers. Against the pass, his 0.61 yards per coverage snap mark was the second-best behind just Kansas City's Derrick Johnson for inside linebackers.

The Bears were able to add Freeman this offseason for a simple contract that has a cap hit of exactly $4 million over each of the next three seasons. The biggest concern for the former Indianapolis Colt is that last year was his only good season against the run, and he is already 30. Most linebackers over 30 have seen more than Freeman’s 3,989 career snaps, so there is reason to believe Freeman can last longer than other LBs at that age. If Freeman is able to maintain his play from last year, he should be making more than twice as much as he will be with Chicago.

2. Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers

Years remaining: Six

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $11.7 million

In 2014, Luke Kuechly earned the highest grade for any inside linebacker, and was rewarded for it. Before the 2015 season, Kuechly signed a five-year extension with Carolina, which left him under contract longer than any other NFL LB, and made him consistently among the highest-paid linebackers in the game. The only problem with that is in 2015, Kuechly had the best season we’ve seen from a linebacker in the Pro Football Focus era (since 2007). He allowed a 57.8 passer rating, the lowest at the position. His run-stop percentage of 14.0 was second-best, and his tackling efficiency ranked No. 1 among linebackers.

He is so far ahead of any other linebacker that he consistently deserves to be making a lot more than anyone else at the position, but that isn’t the case. In 2016, seven linebackers have a higher cap hit. In 2018, Bobby Wagner has a higher cap hit, and in 2019, Wagner is in the same ballpark. In 2020, the only other linebacker under contract is Brandon Marshall, but by then with the constant increases in the cap, it wouldn’t be surprising if someone comes along and passes Kuechly’s value in 2020 and 2021. After these last two seasons, Kuechly looks like a once-in-a-generation linebacker, but the Panthers are able to pay him like he’s simply a very good one.

3. K.J. Wright, Seattle Seahawks

Years remaining: Three

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $7.1 million

K.J. Wright was drafted in the fourth round by the Seahawks in 2011, found a role with the defense in Week 1, and has graded well every year. He has made his mark in recent years thanks to his performance against the pass, but his 2015 play in coverage was his best yet. For the first time in his career, he didn’t allow a single touchdown. What really made 2015 stand out for Wright, though, was his play against the run. Every other 4-3 outside linebacker with 25 or more run stops also had five or more missed tackles against the run; Wright had 27 run stops with only two missed tackles.

Like a number of players that have appeared on team-friendly contract lists, Wright signed his deal before we saw his best play. It was in December of the 2014 season that the Seahawk inked a four-year contract extension. He is getting paid like a top-15 linebacker, but should be earning that of a top-five LB.

4. Karlos Dansby, Cincinnati Bengals

Years remaining: One

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $2.0 million

From 2010 to 2014, Karlos Dansby was consistently one of the better linebackers in football. In 201,5 his play against the run slipped, but he remained one of the best LBs in coverage. Opposing quarterbacks had an NFL passer rating of 65.3, which was second-best to Kuechly for those thrown at 40 or more times. That was in large part thanks to his three interceptions, which was tied for third-best for linebackers, and no touchdowns allowed. He was also simply good at not allowing many yards. His 0.65 yards per coverage snap was third-best for inside linebackers.

At 34, Dansby is the oldest NFL linebacker under contract, so it’s not all that surprising that he couldn’t land a long-term deal. Even if Dansby only plays in passing situations—where he excels—with the Bengals, and even if he regresses a little more in coverage, he is still worth more than $2 million for the year.

5. Koa Misi, Miami Dolphins

Years remaining: Two

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $4.2 million

Year after year, Koa Misi plays between 400 and 800 snaps and grades out favorably, even though he doesn’t always post high tackle numbers. In 2015, Misi posted career-highs in snaps and stops. His 85.7 run-defense grade was 13th best among linebackers. He was able to get pressure on over 20 percent of his pass rushes, which was fourth-best for 4-3 outside linebackers with at least 50 pass rushes.

The combination of his consistency and decent play means that Misi should be getting paid like a top-20 linebacker, while in reality he’s only getting paid like a top-30 linebacker. That isn’t a huge difference, which just speaks to the fact that there aren’t many veteran linebackers who are getting paid less money than they deserve.

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