When I grade big money signings, I like to do it by comparing it to other recent deals given to players at the same position. The middle linebacker position is an especially interesting one. In today’s NFL, the position is devalued a little as this is a pass friendly league and middle linebackers don’t have as much to do with the passing game as pass rushers and defensive backs. One of the best middle linebackers in the league is Derrick Johnson and he plays on the 1 win Chiefs.
The first big money deal given to a middle linebacker was a deal in May 2010 given to Patrick Willis, a 5 year, 50 million dollar deal with 29 million guaranteed. Also that offseason, DeMeco Ryans and Karlos Dansby were given sizable contracts. Ryans was given 48 million over 6 years with 21.75 million guaranteed, while Dansby got 43 million over 5 years with 22 million guaranteed. Dansby is still with the Dolphins and while he may be a little bit overpaid, the Dolphins probably don’t regret the move. Ryans, meanwhile, was traded 2 years into his deal, to the Eagles, in a cost saving move by the Texans.
The following offseason, the Jets and Panthers attempted to copy the 49ers, giving comparable deals to David Harris and Jon Beason respectively. Harris got 36 million over 4 years from the Jets and Beason got a 5 year, 50 million dollar deal with 25 million guaranteed. I criticized both of these contracts at the time because neither of those players were on the level of Patrick Willis. They were barely on the level of Ryans and Dansby. Also that offseason, Lawrence Timmons got 50 million over 6 years from the Steelers (undisclosed guaranteed), a deal I liked because, at the time, Timmons was coming off a season in which he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ top rated middle linebacker and he appeared to be a top tier linebacker.
Harris and Beason were both 2nd tier middle linebackers and now not even a year later, both of those contracts look like mistakes. Harris is currently ProFootballFocus’ 51st ranked middle linebacker out of 52, while Beason can’t even get on the field thanks to injuries. Both are candidates to be cut this offseason. Timmons, meanwhile, has been slowed by injuries of his own and while he won’t be cut or anything, he is slightly overpaid right now.
This past offseason, two more comparable deals were handed out, one by the Cardinals to Daryl Washington and one by the Rams to James Laurinaitis. Washington got 32 million over 4 years (guaranteed money was not disclosed) and Laurinaitis got 41.5 million over 5 years with 23.5 million guaranteed. I once again criticized these deals as neither player was on the level of Willis.
I felt all of these players should have been paid comparable to Derrick Johnson, who got a very reasonable 5 year, 34 million dollar extension with 15 million guaranteed in the middle of the 2010 season. I also cited that 3rd tier linebackers like Curtis Lofton, Stephen Tulloch, and David Hawthorne got 27.5 million, 25.5 million, and 19 million respectively in total money over 5 years this offseason.
Looking back on those deals 3 months later, I stand by what I said about the Laurinaitis deal. Laurinaitis is a talented player and a key part of St. Louis’ surprising young defense, but he he’s getting paid like an elite linebacker when really he’s just an above average player. Washington proved me wrong a little, breaking out into an elite level player this year, his 3rd in the NFL. He’s not Willis, but he’s definitely a Pro Bowler.
However, part of my criticism of that deal was that it was premature and that still stands. Washington had 2 years left on his deal and probably could have been signed to a comparable deal this offseason, even if he became a Pro-Bowl caliber player, given that Willis was only making 10 million per year, with 25 million total guaranteed.
All this being said, it is just possible that the Willis extension was so shrewd that it’s making deals that aren’t so bad look bad by comparison. When the 49ers locked up Willis, they were locking up one of the top-10 defensive players in the NFL (something none of the other linebackers could say) for just about 10 million per year, which comparatively was a bargain. This wasn’t a case of a team speculating that a player would emerge as someone worth this deal in a year (like the Washington deal). This was someone who knew what he was accepting a very reasonable amount of money from an organization who knew what he was.
If we accept that premise, I can’t criticize this deal. NaVorro Bowman is not as good as Patrick Willis, but he still deserves this 5 year, 42.5 million dollar deal with 25.5 million guaranteed (more than Willis). As a player, he’s right now on the level of guys like Daryl Washington, Derrick Johnson (who has proven to be well worth the deal the Chiefs gave him 2 years ago), and the injured Sean Lee, not Patrick Willis, but not 2nd tier guys like DeMeco Ryans, Karlos Dansby, Lawrence Timmons, and the emerging young Bobby Wagner and Brandon Spikes.
He does have two years left on his rookie deal (including this season), but this isn’t a speculative extension like Washington’s was. Bowman arrived last season and has backed it up with his play this season. This move wasn’t as shrewd as the Willis extension, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good move. As long as Willis doesn’t mind that his “little brother” got more guaranteed money than he did (I doubt it), this is a good move.