Breakdowns

Buyer Beware: Investing in Off-Ball Linebackers

Buyer Beware: Investing in Off-Ball Linebackers

The LB position is less valued than other positions, as LBs are not usually picked highly or given premium contracts.

However, while the market is closer to the bottom of the league in price than other positions, LB is still a position that is highly invested in by some teams. Each offseason, we see teams spending premium picks on LBs, giving them large extensions, or signing them to lucrative deals as free agents.

In recent years, the decision to spend valuable capital on off-ball LBs by teams has not paid off. Below, we will look at the track records of drafting and paying off-ball LBs.

First Round Picks Spent on LBs

When looking at drafted LBs, we focused on the first-round selections from 2013-17, as these players have played out the entirety of their second contracts. The LBs were deemed hits if they reached a second contract with their team, highlighted in green, while the LBs highlighted in red did not sign a second contract with their team.

As shown in the table above, we can see the 11 off-ball LBs drafted in the first round from 2013-17. The players highlighted in red, eight of them, did not agree to a second contract with their team. In some cases, while the player could have played well for spans, the LB did not play well enough to gain a second contract, making the pick a miss. The remaining players, just three of them, did sign a contract extension with their teams, which made them hits. That said, one of the hits was Alec Ogletree who was traded and then cut shortly after his extension.

While looking at the 2013-17 classes was useful, the time span may not fully represent the recent years of draft picks. As a result, we also looked at LBs selected in the first round in the past four drafts, not including 2022. While it is too early to determine the status of many of these players, we can at least give an update on most of these players

Buyer Beware: Investing in Off-Ball Linebackers

Looking at the recent draft picks, Roquan Smith will likely get an extension in the near future, while Tremaine Edmunds had his fifth-year option picked up, so an extension could come soon. Devin White looks promising and, as of now, could get an extension, and Micah Parsons looks like a superstar who will one day get paid. It is hard to say the same about the rest of the group.

While Vander Esch technically re-signed with Dallas, it was a very cheap deal, as he and Evans both had their fifth-year options declined. Bush, Simmons, Murray, Brooks, and Queen, all have struggled at various points throughout their career, so an extension may not come, even though it is still too early to tell. It is certainly too soon to tell for Zaven Collins and Jamin Davis, but Collins spent much of his rookie season on the sideline, and Davis struggled throughout most of his appearances.

While it is too soon to decide on many of these players, the results look to be aligning with what we saw from the 2013-17 draft classes, when most of the first picks were not hits.

Spending Money on LBs

Next, we will take a look at the LBs that did have success on their rookie contracts and earned new contracts. Like the first-round draft picks, paying LBs via extension or free agency did not seem to pay off either. The majority of these LBs played well prior to being paid, but once paid, failed to play at the same level for various reasons.

LB Extensions

First, we will look at the LBs that were signed to significant contract extensions. We used the number of $8M APY and highlighted which players received these extensions. While the drafted players were from the 2013-17 classes, for the contract extension players, we focused on the players paid from 2017-20, as the LBs extended in 2021 and 2022 were too recent to look at.

Buyer Beware: Investing in Off-Ball Linebackers

Above, we can see the 13 LBs that signed extensions with their team from 2017-20. Out of the 13 players from the time span, just four are still playing on the original contract, while Bobby Wagner would be a fifth since he played out the length of his contract.

Outside of those five “successes”, one LB retired, two were traded and then cut shortly after by their new teams and five were cut after signing extensions, which is not an impressive rate.

Looking deeper into the successful extensions, out of the four, Deion Jones has not played well as of late and could be cut soon. In addition, Shaq Thompson’s play has only declined since he signed his extension.

Like Jones and Thompson, the majority of the extended players, whether cut or not, just three of the 13 players had their average AV increase after signing the extension compared to the season before signing.

All in all, LBs that signed contract extensions did not play as well after signing, as the majority were cut, traded, or retired.

Free Agent LBs

Next, we will look at the LBs who were signed to significant contracts through free agency, focusing on the signings from 2017-20.

There were 10 significant free-agent signings at LB. Like the drafted and extended LBs, the free-agent signings also did not have much success.

Out of the signings made from 2017-20, just three out of the 10 LBs are still on their team. Since signing, all three of the players have missed significant time with injury and saw their play decrease by looking at their AV, compared to before they signed.

Of the remaining seven LBs that were signed as free agents from 2017-20, five were cut and the other two were traded and then cut. Jordan Hicks was the only player to join a new team and not have his AV decrease, but he still did not make it through his whole contract, as he was cut. The remaining nine free-agent signings all had AV decreases.

Takeaway

It is uncertain why, but in the large part, investing heavily at LB has not been a good idea, as it is unlikely an LB picked in the first round, signed to a large extension, or signed to a large contract as a free agent will have success.

Maybe it has to do with the different systems that LBs have to master when going from college to the NFL or team to team once in the league, or maybe it could have something to do with declining athleticism and speed that comes with age, which is so vital for NFL LBs.

With the exception of Bobby Wagner, Eric Kendricks, and a few others, it is rare that investing high draft capital and financial resources works out.

It will be very interesting to see how the first-round picks from 2018 and beyond turn out once their rookie deals are up, as well as the recent contract extensions and free agency signings, especially Darius Leonard and Fred Warner, who are both in their primes and fresh off signing record-breaking deals.