There are a few talented pass-rushers up for big paydays after Justin Houston raised the bar on July 15, signing the richest contract in league history for a linebacker. His deal, which made him the second-highest paid defender in the NFL, is a six-year contract worth $101 million, $52 of which are guaranteed.
Players who can bring consistent pressure and who rack up sacks are among the most valued commodities in the league. With the rules now significantly favoring offenses in terms of what is legal after the ball is in the air, these men are the greatest weapons defenses have to combat them.
These are the pass-rushers next in line to rake in the cash.
Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
As soon as Houston inked his big contract, news outlets around the country began printing articles about what his deal means for Miller. Simply put, it means Miller, provided he continues to pile up sacks and quarterback pressures, could potentially push the envelope next year and overtake Houston as the highest-paid linebacker in the game.
Pro Football Focus (paid subscription) credited Miller with 15 sacks, 11 additional quarterback hits and 47 hurries last year. His 49 sacks in the first four seasons of his career is astounding when you consider nearly half the 2013 season was missed due to suspension.
With the quickness of a coiled viper and a nose for the ball, Miller scares the heck out of opposing offensive tackles. In the final year of his contract, Miller is due for a significant raise next year.
Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers
Given the legal and personal problems Smith has dealt with the past two seasons, the young outside linebacker must have a big year in 2015 to land a big contract. Not only must he perform up to his potential on the field, but he must also prove his days of trouble off it are completely in the past.
“There’s been some things that have sidelined me, and prevented me from showing it,” Smith said on a local radio show in mid-July (via 49ers.com). “But I’m coming back healthy this year and ready to put together a full year. And I’ll show everybody how I feel and put it on display. I believe that I’m one of the best players in this league, and it’s time for me to show everybody.”
Smith is in phenomenal physical condition entering training camp, by all accounts. Former 49ers great Charles Haley has taken him under his wing, as well, which should excite 49ers fans greatly. He is in the final year of his contract, which was recently augmented to safeguard against off-field troubles.
With 44 sacks in 50 career starts, Smith has proven himself as a dominant force in the league. If he can slay his demons off the field, then he’ll certainly get back to sacking quarterbacks on a regular basis and will earn a huge new contract after the season.
Chandler Jones, DE/OLB, New England Patriots
2014 was supposed to be the big break-out year for Chandler, who notched an impressive 11.5 sacks in his second season. Unfortunately, the former Syracuse standout battled with injuries all year and only managed six sacks in 10 games.
Jones is in the fourth year of his five-year rookie deal, and the Patriots picked up his fifth-year option this spring, to nobody’s surprise. The option will pay him $7.8 million in 2016. If Jones bounces back and performs the way most experts predicted he would last year, then there’s a good chance he’ll receive a big extension next summer.
When healthy, Jones is a keystone player for the Patriots, and they would be smart to lock him up before any hint of a contract impasse exists.
Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins
Approaching his mid-30s, Wake is still one of the most dominant outside rushers in the game. Pro Football Focus (paid subscription) acknowledges this, as he was the top-rated 4-3 defensive end in football last year. With 63 sacks in six years of work he has earned the right to rake in one more big score before he retires.
The former CFL star certainly hasn’t lost a step, and he’ll likely receive a big boost in production this year with opposing offenses double-teaming defensive tackle Ndmukong Suh on a regular basis.
With that in mind, don’t be surprised if Wake ends up holding out next summer if the Dolphins don’t see fit to extend his contract another few years. His base salary in 2016 is set at just under $8.3 million. While this certainly is a lot of money, it’s about half what Houston will earn on average with his new contract.
Licking Their Chops
These young bucks could see even more money than their predecessors in the next couple of years. Look out for Khalil Mack (OAK), Ezekiel Ansah (DET), Anthony Barr (MIN) and Aaron Lynch (SF).
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