How the 2020 ILB Market Affected Broncos' Future Dealings with Alexander Johnson
Off-ball linebacker is a position that Denver Broncos fans have been fixated on for some time. Often, when we see a tight end have a big game against the Broncos, fans think about the linebackers in coverage and wonder what happened.
While off-ball linebacker is an important position for the defense, it hasn’t usually been valued as high as other positions — though that changed a bit in 2019 after several players re-set the market.
But what’s happened since then? And what does that mean for Todd Davis, whose contract expires after 2020, and Alexander Johnson, who will be a restricted free agent in 2021? Let’s examine the marketplace.
The 2019 Market
C.J. Mosley and Kwon Alexander each agreed to contracts in 2019 free agency that some would describe as surprising. Alexander, who had talent but an injury history, got $27.5 million in total guarantees on a four-year, $54M contract.
Then along came Mosley — a player the Broncos liked — who set a new standard for off-ball linebackers with a five-year, $85M contract with $43M in full guarantees and $51M in total guarantees.
These unheard-of prices pushed up the cost for one of the best off-ball linebackers in the NFL, Bobby Wagner. The Seattle Seahawks extended Wagner through 2023, giving him $24.5M in full guarantees on a deal totaling $54M, or $18M APY.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons agreed to extend Deion Jones, giving him $18.8M fully guaranteed on an extension through 2024 totaling $57M. While Mosley’s contract didn’t push up the price, Alexander’s certainly did.
With prices driven up, the expectation might have been that comparable players would push the market even further, or at least come close to it.
The 2020 Market
Toward the end of the 2019 season, the Carolina Panthers extended Shaq Thompson for four years at $54M with nearly $28M in total guarantees. This wasn’t a deal that re-set the market, but it was similar to Alexander’s deal, and some might have thought it was going to set the stage for those about to hit free agency in 2020.
But a strange thing happened: The market wasn’t strong, despite some good talent available.
Cory Littleton signed with the Las Vegas Raiders for four years at $35.25M with $22M in full guarantees. Joe Schobert signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars for five years at $53.75M with $21.5M in full guarantees. And Blake Martinez signed with the New York Giants for four years at $30.75M with $19M in full guarantees.
In each case, the full guarantees were the total guarantees, meaning none of those players got the total guarantees or the APY salary that Alexander got in 2019, despite all three players being comparable to Alexander to some degree — if not better players in some cases.
I don’t think the soft market is entirely attributable to COVID-19. There were big contracts handed out at other positions, after all. Instead, it appears teams didn’t value the off-ball linebacker position as much as expected – perhaps thinking some of the 2019 deals were too high.
What It Means for the Broncos
Davis is set to make $5M in 2020 in the final year of his contract. While some may wonder if he’ll be a training camp cut given uncertainty about the future of the salary cap, I just don’t see it happening.
Davis’ salary isn’t unreasonable for a player of his talents, plus it would mean giving playing time to players who either aren’t as good as him or don’t have the experience. Also, Davis is a good influence on the locker room and a strong leader, so cutting him would strike me as a panic move.
With that said, the Broncos will allow Davis to test the market in 2021, but the team might be open to bringing him back. Given that the market for off-ball linebackers wasn’t strong in 2020, I can’t see Davis getting more than $6M APY on a new deal, and he might have to take less than that as a two-down run-stuffer.
As for Johnson, he’ll be a restricted free agent in 2021 and the second-round tender will cost Denver at least $3M. Barring a sharp decline in his play this season, the Broncos will tender him at that level.
From there, it’s a question of what happens with the off-ball linebacker market elsewhere. Looking ahead to 2021, nearly every player who would become an unrestricted free agent is either older or a rotational player.
Given that situation, I would be shocked if anyone re-set the market next season. Therefore, it’s possible the Broncos could keep Johnson on a deal that doesn’t go higher than that for Alexander, and might even be less than that.
In fact, a soft market means there’s a chance Davis sticks around. I’d be open to paying him $5M on a one-year deal, if the Broncos think younger players need more time to develop.
After a wild 2019 market for off-ball linebackers, that market has appeared to come back down to earth. Between that and uncertainty about the salary cap’s future, the Broncos shouldn’t have to go crazy in either extending current off-ball linebackers on the roster or signing another if they want to explore free agency.
The Broncos, at the very least, will have to compensate Johnson well if he keeps proving himself. But it at least looks like the Broncos won’t have to re-set the market to do that.