It has been a relatively quiet free agent market for linebackers this offseason. More than likely, Paul Kruger's contract with the Cleveland Browns will stand as the largest signed at his position in 2013, and it still falls well short of the $9,169,000 franchise tag number for linebackers.
As the NFL becomes more pass-oriented, a trend is emerging, as well. A premium is being placed on outside linebackers who can rush the passer rather than inside linebackers who may specialize in scraping off linemen to stuff running backs. Of the seven linebackers who have signed contracts worth at least $3 million per season so far, just two can be considered full-time inside linebackers.
Here's a look at the biggest contracts signed so far at the linebacker position, and what those numbers may mean for those still floating around unsigned on the free agent market.
1) Paul Kruger, OLB, Cleveland Browns - five years, $41 million ($8.2 million per season)
2) Dannell Ellerbe, ILB, Miami Dolphins - five years, $34.75 million ($6.95 million per season
3) Connor Barwin, Philadelphia Eagles - six years, $36 million ($6 million per season)
4) Philip Wheeler, OLB, Miami Dolphins - five years, $26 million ($5.2 million per season
5) Erik Walden, OLB, Indianapolis Colts - four years, $16 million ($4 million per season)
6) Brad Jones, ILB, Green Bay Packers - three years, $11.75 million ($3.92 million per season)
7) Nick Roach, ILB/OLB, Oakland Raiders - four years, $13 million ($3.25 million per season)
Even at 34 years old, Harrison still produced like an impact linebacker last season. He had six sacks among his 70 tackles in 13 games played last season, and forced two fumbles. That said, the Steelers wanted no part of his $6.57 million base salary next season (and $10.035 million cap hit), nor is any NFL team apparently interested in signing him even at a reduced price. Reports indicate that Harrison will have to sign for less than half of what he was paid with the Steelers due to concerns about his advancing age and slower step as a pass rusher.
The Bears shed Urlacher and his $8.71 million cap hit, and signed Broncos castoff D.J. Williams for one year and $900,000 instead. Like Harrison, Urlacher's age (also 34) and salary coupled with injury concerns and declining production were enough to convince the Bears to move on despite the linebacker's history with the organization. Urlacher will also be looking to get a short-term deal at a cut-rate price.
Smith is three years younger than Harrison and Urlacher, but may be suffering more on the free agent market due to a groin injury that kept him out of all but two games last season. The good news is that Smith had a pretty solid bill of health before 2012, missing just four games over his previous eight seasons. He probably isn't worth the $5.5 million he was paid last season, which is why it will take him longer to come off the board than others. That said, he can still be plenty of productive and his relative youth may make him worth a longer contract than Harrison or Urlacher.
Hill is having a rough year. He had just 47 total tackles in 13 games last season, and his arrest for on domestic violence charges last January make him a long-shot to re-sign with the Seahawks. He still has some tread at 31 years old, however, and isn't far removed from more productive days on defense. The precedent for Hill is D.J. Williams, who signed a one-year contract worth $900,000, none of it guaranteed, to play with the Bears next season. Williams is also 31 and also coming off a disappointing year further marred by off-field issues.
Karlos Dansby, ILB, Miami Dolphins
Dansby played just fine for the Dolphins, and in fact was released a year earlier than most were expecting. Relative to what his 2014 cap hit would have been, the 2013 figure wasn't particularly egregious. Miami made a hard push and acquired Dannell Ellerbe, however, making Dansby expendable. Like all of the names on this list, Dansby is also in his 30s, which will make it difficult for him to earn a long-term contract. That said, he doesn't have a history of injury and is coming off the most productive season of his career. There's a good chance that Dansby will still be a handsomely paid man next season.
2012's Biggest LB Contracts
1) Curtis Lofton, LB, New Orleans Saints - five years, $27.5 million ($5.5 million per season)
2) Stephen Tulloch, LB, Detroit Lions - five years, $25 million ($5 million per season)
3) Jarret Johnson, LB, San Diego Chargers - four years, $19 million ($4.75 million per season)
4) London Fletcher, LB, Washington Redskins - two years, $10.75 million (5.375 million per season
5) David Hawthorne, LB, New Orleans Saints - five years, $19 million ($3.8 million per season)
Pass rushers headlined this year's group of free agent linebackers, some more experienced than others. That explains the richer deals for the top free agent linebackers over last year's group, which was mostly dominated by inside linebackers. Even in a year of declining free agent contract values, it still pays to be a pass rusher.