NFL Defenders Who Deserve Big Contracts in 2021

| August 1, 2021 2:26 am PDT

We’ve all heard the saying that defense wins championships. No good defense is complete without at least one great player, and teams are learning to value those players a lot more now than they used to.

Right now, 10 players on defense make $20 million a year or more. It’s mostly pass rushers, but cornerback Jalen Ramsey is on the list with Marlon Humphrey not far behind at $19.5 million a year.

I have four players in mind who may join this list within the next year. With that, let’s go over the NFL defensive players looking at big contracts soon.

4. Jamal Adams: Seattle Seahawks

Jamal Adams isn’t your typical safety. He isn’t the type of player that’s going to go out and get a ton of interceptions. He plays more like a linebacker because he specializes in making tackles and going after the quarterback.

The New York Jets drafted Adams in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

During his rookie season, he had five games with eight or more tackles. He recorded a season-high ten tackles in his final game of the season against the New England Patriots. He finished the season with 83 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and six pass deflections.

Adams really elevated his game in 2018. He kicked off the season with his first career interception against the Detroit Lions. Adams recorded a career-high 12 tackles in a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He also had three games each with three passes defended.

He went on to finish the season with 115 tackles, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and 12 passes defended.

Adams’ final season with the Jets was outstanding despite the fact that he missed two games. He had his first career touchdown on a 61-yard pick six. He also scored a touchdown later in the season on a stripsack against the New York Giants. Adams finished the season with 75 tackles, 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception, and seven passes defended.

New York traded him to the Seattle Seahawks ahead of the 2020 season. He failed to force a turnover during the season, but he recorded 83 tackles for the second time in his career. Adams’ 9.5 sacks set an NFL record for most sacks by a defensive back in a single season.

Obviously, Adams isn’t much of a ballhawk with just two career interceptions. But look at how well he gets to the quarterback compared to other defensive backs.

  • Jamal Adams: 21.5 sacks
  • Logan Ryan: 9.5 sacks
  • Mike Hilton: 9.5 sacks
  • Desmond King: 8.5 sacks
  • Malcolm Jenkins: 7.0 sacks

So, his contract situation is a bit different than for most safeties. Right now, Justin Simmons is the highest-paid safety at $15.25 million per year.

In terms of a contract, Adams wants teams to view him as an all-around defender as opposed to just a safety. He wants $20 million a year but I honestly don’t think he reaches that mark. His struggles in coverage can be a liability.

I do think he will beat Simmons’ contract next offseason, but he may not get as much as he wants.

3. Jaire Alexander: Green Bay Packers

The Green Bay Packers drafted cornerback Jaire Alexander in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Alexander made his presence known as a rookie in a big way.

He recorded his first career interception in Week 4 against the Buffalo Bills. Alexander also recorded a career-high 10 tackles late in the season against the Atlanta Falcons. He finished the season with 66 tackles, one interception, and a team-high 11 passes defended.

In 2019, Alexander put up similar numbers with 58 tackles, two interceptions, and 17 passes defended. He continued to be the star of the Packers secondary.

Alexander really put himself into the best cornerback in the league conversation in 2020.

You may look at his 51 tackles and one interception and wonder what’s so special about him, but it goes well beyond the stat sheet.

His 90.6 coverage grade ranked best in the NFL. He also allowed a 68.3 passer rating when quarterbacks targeted him. Just to put that into perspective, Sam Darnold finished last season with the worst passer rating in the league at 72.7.

I can’t talk about his 2020 season without mentioning he intercepted Tom Brady twice in the NFC Championship Game. I think it’s pretty clear Alexander has established himself as one of the best corners in the league.

According to Pro Football Focus, he had an overall grade of 90.5. Look at how that compares to his first two years in the league.

  • 2018: 72.4
  • 2019: 73.0
  • 2020: 90.5

That 2020 number ranked best in the league among cornerbacks.

Green Bay picked up Alexander’s fifth-year option ahead of this season. That means he won’t hit free agency until after the 2022 season. However, I can’t imagine Green Bay letting him get there.

When it comes to contract numbers, Alexander’s camp is likely going to push for $20 million a year. We know the top paid cornerback is Jalen Ramsey, but I believe Alexander deserves to be in the same category.

I don’t think Alexander will sign this season, which means he has another year to increase his value. It certainly helps that he only turns 25 in February.

Alexander has plenty of prime years ahead of him. Look out for him to reset the cornerback market.

2. Darius Leonard: Indianapolis Colts

The Indianapolis Colts drafted linebacker Darius Leonard in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. What he has done in his three seasons in the league is unbelievable. It all started with a fantastic rookie season.

Leonard recorded 19 total tackles in just his second career game. That mark was just five short of the record for most tackles in a single game. Leonard went on to have six more games that season each with ten or more tackles.

He finished his rookie season with a league-high 163 tackles. He also had seven sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and two interceptions.

Leonard not only won Defensive Rookie of the Year but he also made the All-Pro First-Team.

Despite missing three games in 2019, Leonard recorded 121 tackles. His tackles per game pace would’ve put him in the top five had he played in all 16 games. Leonard also showed off his coverage skills with five interceptions. He had an 80-yard pick six late in the season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In 2020, Leonard continued his All-Pro play. He recorded ten or more tackles in eight games, including three with 14 or more. He finished the season with 132 tackles, three sacks, three forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. Leonard failed to intercept a pass, but he did have seven passes defended.

It’s clear Leonard isn’t a big sack guy, but look where he ranks in tackles and interceptions among linebackers since 2018.

Tackles (Ranked Among LBs) Interceptions (Ranked Among LBs)
416 (Fourth) 7 (Second)

Because Leonard missed six games since 2018, his 6.38 tackles per game actually leads all linebackers.

In case you haven’t been able to tell, Leonard is an important component of the Colts defense. There’s no doubt he deserves to be the top-paid inside linebacker. He leads the defense on a Colts team that is one of the best bets to make the postseason.

Now, there’s a gap between inside and outside linebackers.

Typically, outside linebackers get more money because of their sack production. Bobby Wagener is the highest paid inside linebacker at $18 million a year. Khalil Mack is the highest paid outside linebacker at $23.5 million a year.

I can’t imagine Leonard gets to Mack’s number but $20 million a year should be on the table. His contract will be large, but it will be worth it. His production is something that you can’t replace with other good linebackers.

He’ll be 26 years old at the start of this season, so there’s no telling when his elite production will slow down.

1. T.J. Watt: Pittsburgh Steelers

T.J. Watt is the younger brother of J.J. Watt. That’s how people knew him when he joined the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017. However, the youngest Watt brother has carved out his own legacy in just four seasons in the league.

Watt’s NFL career got off to an amazing start. This is what he did in his first career game.

  • 7 tackles
  • 2 sacks
  • 1 interception

Not bad for your NFL debut. He went on to finish his rookie year with 54 tackles, seven sacks, one fumble recovery, and one interception.

In 2018, Watt began the season with another big game against the Cleveland Browns. He had a career-high ten tackles and three sacks. He then recorded his second three-sack game just four weeks later, and also had a pair of games with two forced fumbles.

He finished 2018 with 68 tackles, 13 sacks, and six forced fumbles.

If you thought he forced a lot of turnovers in 2018, wait until you see his 2019 numbers. Watt recorded eight forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and two interceptions. However, his sacks total is what really impressed everyone. He recorded at least a half-sack in 13 of 16 games en route to a 14.5 sack season.

The turnovers came down in 2020, but his sack total went up to a league-high 15. He recorded at least two sacks in four games, and also had 53 tackles and two forced fumbles.

Watt’s ability to get to the quarterback and force turnovers is extremely valuable to any team. He ranks third in the NFL with 49.5 sacks since 2017, and his 17 forced fumbles in that same span lead all players. Both stats are a big reason why the Steelers have allowed the fewest yards since 2017.

Pittsburgh exercised Watt’s fifth-year option last offseason, meaning he will be a free agent after this season.

We talked about how outside linebackers like Watt make more than inside linebackers. However, defensive ends Myles Garrett and Joey Bosa both make over $25 million a year. There are a lot of people who think Watt can leap those two, despite not being a defensive end.

In my opinion, I think Watt deserves a contract of that stature. His numbers basically match Bosa’s, and Watt is leading a better defense.

It’s not a matter of if, but when Watt will sign the biggest contract for a linebacker in NFL history.

Other NFL Defenders to Get Big Contracts Soon

  • Fred Warner, LB, 49ers
  • Marshon Lattimore, CB, Saints
  • Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Steelers
  • Nick Bosa, EDGE, 49ers
  • Chase Young, EDGE, Washington

The only player I can think of that may join this list is linebacker Fred Warner. Warner is the best coverage linebacker but his sacks and tackles aren’t quite on the same level as Darius Leonard.

Guys like Marshon Lattimore and Minkah Fitzpatrick should get big paydays, but won’t get to that $20 million mark.

Down the line, Nick Bosa and Chase Young have a good chance to join the club.

If you like reading about NFL contracts, check out my previous columns exploring which quarterbacks and wide receivers could break the bank next.

Nicholas Sterling
Nicholas Sterling

Nicholas has been a Sports Writer with since May 2021. He has a rich sports background, writing about NASCAR, NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, Golf, etc. Nick is always ready for a new challenge.

He enjoys rooting on D.C. sports teams, including the Commanders, Wizards, and Capitals.

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