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. Patrick Chung, New England Patriots
Years remaining: Three
Average remaining cap hit (per year): $3.629 million
Reuniting with Bill Belichick was likely the wisest move of Patrick Chung’s career. He finished 2015 with an 88.4 overall grade, ranking sixth among his NFL positional peers. Including the postseason, Chung allowed a QB rating of only 78.3 when targeted. Opposing signal-callers completed just 55.8 percent of passes for an average of just 9.0 yards per catch (13th-best) into his coverage. He also performed well against the run, finishing among the top-10 in both total stops (34) and tackling efficiency (two misses from 41 attempts).
Chung’s decision to chase immediate financial reward in the 2013 offseason did not end well. Although he earned $4.25 million in guarantees, he struggled in Philadelphia, ultimately getting cut at the end of his first season with the Eagles. His understanding of the Patriots' scheme likely motivated Chung to take a below-market-value contract to return to New England. Both sides will be ecstatic with the deal: the player has earned long-term job security, while the team has a starting safety on reasonable money. Chung was given a mere $2.4 million in guarantees, while his cap hit of $3.2 million in 2016 makes him cheaper than 25 other NFL safeties. Belichick is ruthless when it comes to value (ask Chandler Jones), but on this contract, Chung has little to fear.
2. Morgan Burnett, Green Bay Packers
Years remaining: Two
Average remaining cap hit (per year): $6.478 million
Morgan Burnett signed a back-loaded extension three years ago, yet still has the second-best-value contract at his position in the NFL. Burnett was given only $8.25 million guaranteed prior to the 2013 season, and his $6 million cap hit in 2015 is just 15th amongst safeties. The Packers’ reluctance to invest in free agents frees up cap space to re-sign their drafted players with expiring contracts, yet they still seem to find bargains. Burnett’s contract is just another example.
Although he is not the most durable, Burnett is an impact-player every time he takes the field. He finished 2015 as our fourth-highest-graded safety, despite starting only 13 games last season. He was most effective against the ground game, ranking in the top 10 in both tackling efficiency and run-stop percentage. The Packers’ starting safety was also solid in coverage, finishing with an 81.2 grade in that facet of play.
3. Darian Stewart, Denver Broncos
Years remaining: One
Average remaining cap hit (per year): $3.25 million
Stewart was one of the most overlooked contributors on the Broncos’ Super Bowl-winning defense. In a secondary featuring Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward, though, it's perhaps unsurprising that Stewart’s season was underrated. The former undrafted free agent has developed nicely the past couple of years, finishing as the league's 16th-highest-graded safety last season. Stewart picked off two passes and deflected a further five on course to a 77.1 coverage grade. He was even better defending the run, ending the season with an 80.4 grade against the ground attack.
The Broncos were able to tie Stewart down without having to commit to him long-term. The former Ram and Raven signed a two-year, $4.25 million contract with just $1.25 million guaranteed. If the Broncos were uncertain as to whether Stewart could handle a full-time role, he’s addressed their concerns emphatically. At just 27 years old, his development may not be complete.
4. Reggie Nelson, Oakland Raiders
Years remaining: Two
Average remaining cap hit (per year): $5.125 million
Signing Nelson was one of the best pieces of business conducted this offseason. Despite entering his mid-30s, the former Bengals safety enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career. A two-year commitment from the Raiders is far from excessive for the productive veteran, especially considering the lack of dead money in 2017 should the move fail to work out. The $6 million cap hit he’s due in 2016 makes him cheaper than 13 other players at his position. It’s not a bad contract for 2015's ninth-highest-graded safety.
Nelson finished second at the position with eight interceptions last season, adding a further five pass deflections. He gave up an NFL passer rating of only 61.8 from his centerfield position, in part because he allowed a completion percentage of just 50.0. Nelson was less effective against the run, but still graded positively in that facet of play.
5. Kurt Coleman, Carolina Panthers
Years remaining: One
Average remaining cap hit (per year): $2.184 million
Kurt Coleman is an excellent example of the patience required for developing safeties. Although he’s benefitted from a more clearly-defined role, Coleman has improved markedly from his previous stint as a starter, where he graded amongst the worst safeties in the league. The nine interceptions might prove a statistical anomaly, but he should still be effective for the Panthers next season. Coleman ended 2015 as our 14th-highest-graded safety, allowing a passer rating of 87.2 (including the playoffs).
Scratching for offers in free agency in 2015, Coleman could not have expected to start—and play well—on a Super Bowl-contending team. He was given only $600,000 in guarantees, and only $2.8 million over two years. Coleman will earn the majority of that salary in his second season, where he will attempt to prove that 2015's production was no fluke.