5 worst NFL linebacker contracts

PFF Director of Analytics Nathan Jahnke identifies the five least team-friendly NFL linebacker contracts entering 2016.

| 3 months ago
(AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

(AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

5 worst NFL linebacker contracts


We continue our series on the best and worst contracts at each position, this time with the most overpaid veteran linebackers. For each player named, we give the years remaining on his contract, the average cap hit he has against the team for the remaining years of his deal, and the season in which the team can cut him and have more cap savings than dead money.

[Editor’s note: All cap numbers are from Over the Cap. To see the best five linebacker deals, click here.]

1. Brian Cushing, Houston Texans

Years remaining: Four

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $9.4 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2017

From 2009 to 2011, Brian Cushing looked like he would be one of the league’s best linebackers for years to come. As a pass-rusher, he recorded 11 sacks, 28 hits, and 46 hurries; in coverage, he notched six interceptions and eight passes defended. In 2012, Cushing only played 253 snaps over the first five games of the season before missing the rest of the year due to injury. The Texans saw what life was like without Cushing, which led to a six-year contract extension.

In 2013, Cushing only lasted seven games before missing the rest of the season with injury, and in 2014, the LB missed two games in the middle of the season and was only playing a part-time role. Last year, Cushing finally played the entire season, but it was nothing like the player we saw in 2011. His 2.8 pass-rushing productivity was the worst for the 24 inside linebackers with at least 55 pass rushes. He recorded 28 missed tackles over the last two years after just 29 missed tackles over his first five pro seasons. Cushing is among the five highest-paid inside linebackers over each of the next four years, which he deserved at the time of the signing, but thanks to injury, he is nowhere close to living up to that. The Texans can let him go in 2017 with close to $4 million in dead money, or they could wait until 2018 and only have $1.2 in dead money.

2. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers

Years remaining: One

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $15.1 million

Lawrence Timmons has been one of the better inside linebackers during the PFF era (since 2007), but his play has been on a steady decline, and in 2015, it got significantly worse. His pass-coverage grade has declined in each of the last five years, and his 21 missed tackles were tied for the third-most among all linebackers in 2015. After finishing third in run-stop percentage in 2014 for inside linebackers, he dropped to 30th in 2015. Timmons is now on the wrong side of 30, so even if he has a bounce-back, it’s unlikely he returns to his previous production levels.

Before the 2015 season, Timmons had his contract restructured, which helped the team’s cap situation then, but made it harder to cut Timmons now. If the Steelers had wanted to cut him this year, they would have had $6.4 million in dead money. With him on the roster, Pittsburgh has a $15.1 million cap hit, which no other linebacker is within $5 million of. In terms of just 2016, Timmons is one of the most overpaid players in the league. He falls to No. 2 on this list just because the contract expires after the year, while the Texans will need to deal with Cushing’s deal for years to come.

3. NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers

Years remaining: Three

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $9.5 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2017

Bowman returned from injury last year after missing the entire 2014 season, but wasn’t quite the same player he was in 2013. Against the run he was still a dominant, however; his 50 run stops were second-most for inside linebackers. Part of what made Bowman an All-Pro in the past was his play in coverage, but the 49er wasn’t anywhere close to as good in coverage in 2015 as he had been in the past. From 2011 to 2013, he averaged six passes defended per year, but only had one in 2015. His 9.3 yards per catch allowed was a career-high. His 604 receiving yards allowed was fifth-most for all linebackers. He also recorded a career-high 19 missed tackles. With the NFL being more of a passing game, a linebacker’s coverage skills are more important than ever, and Bowman wasn’t as successful there as he used to be.

Bowman is getting paid like a top-four linebacker over each of the next three years. If his play in coverage can rise again to his pre-injury form, he deserves that contract—certainly a real possibility. It’s unlikely the 49ers give up on Bowman anytime soon due to his past play and good performance against the run, but if he can’t rebound in 2016 or 2017, he can easily be cut in 2018 when his cap hit is north of $10 million.

4. D’Qwell Jackson, Indianapolis Colts

Years remaining: Two

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $5.8 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2017

If you just looked at Jackson’s highlights, you would be very surprised to see the Colts LB on this list. In fact, his 52 run stops led all inside linebackers last year. The problem is that his 15 missed tackles against the run were also the most for inside linebackers, and he was too often getting blocked, which led to a below-average run-defense grade. In coverage, he’s coming off of back-to-back negatively graded years, and has allowed over 1,000 receiving yards over the two years combined (as well as nine touchdowns).

The Colts can very easily cut Jackson next year if they like, or could have easily this year had they wanted to. What makes the contract a little more embarrassing is that Indianapolis was unable to keep Jerrell Freeman, who left for the Bears. Freeman was among the league’s highest-graded linebackers last year, and is younger than Jackson. If the Colts would have cut Jackson and signed Freeman to the same contract he received in Chicago, that would have counted less against the cap in both 2016 and 2017 than it does keeping Jackson.

5. Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars

Years remaining: Two

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $5.2 million

Year he can realistically be cut: 2017

For the sixth straight year, Posluszny earned a below-average grade against the run, and for the third straight year, had a below-average grade in coverage. Over the last few seasons, Posluszny has been among the most overpaid linebackers, but his 2016 cap number is significantly lower than it has been over the past four years, and it doesn’t go up in 2017. Because Jacksonville has often had a lot of cap room, they’ve been able to live with Posluszny’s cap hit in the past, and at least can continue to do so this year.

After drafting Myles Jack (UCLA), it wouldn’t be surprising to see Posluszny’s playing time decrease this season, and Jacksonville won’t carry much dead money if they release him in 2017. After all the money the Jags spent in free agency the past two years, they might need to do so in order to help their cap situation.

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • johnforamerica

    I’d suggest Mark Barron…

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    • Zachary Mills

      Yeah, I didn’t understand that contract at all. Let most of the secondary walk and overpay (bidding against no one) for a tweener S/LB who had 1 good season last year?

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  • AB81Rules

    Highly disagree with all due respect, Bowman’s deal is team friendly, since day it was signed, he has no guaranteed money after 2016 in his deal. And he is a top LB in the NFL. Bad list IMO

  • dawgnme

    Unfortunate for Cush. Not injury-prone, just the victim of two really devastating freak plays. We saw flashes of what he was toward the end of last season, this will be the first TC that he’s fully healthy since ’12. Doubt he’ll be on your list next year.

  • Joel Brody

    Despite Bowman’s decline in coverage in 2015, it was his first year returning from a devastating knee injury. He was still elite in run defense as stated and led the league in tackles. The 49ers have 50 million dollars in cap space, so even if a few million is overpaid to Bowman, I would hardly call it a top-5 worst contract at the position. Obviously my fandom is coming out here, but there has to be more severely overpaid players at his position with far less value being provided. Stats can be evaluated ad nauseum, but what is the price of elite leadership?

  • PetEng

    Would the 9ers improve if Bowman left? I doubt it. We’d have crappy coverage *and* crappy run defense.

  • Andy Monnot

    You’re drawing a false equivalency with Timmons – His salary isn’t $15 million, they restructured his contract multiple times converting each year’s salary to bonus thus spreading it out over the course of the contract. His actual average per year on the contract is under $10 million.

    • Zachary Mills

      Yes, but the numbers determining how bad the contract is are just solely off of remaining cap hits and not average annual value or cash paid out.