Despite the fact that Seattle Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner recently signed a four-year, $43 million contract to become the highest paid mike linebacker in the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a chance to set the market with weakside linebacker Lavonte David, provided they get a deal done soon.
David has consistently been one of the best 4-3 outside linebackers (a true will linebacker whose responsibility in a two-gap system is to move freely from the backside and clean up) in the NFL since entering the league in 2012. And even with the linebacker market softening in the past decade, David figures to demand something close to a record salary for a player at his position.
Over the course of the last three seasons, David has registered 429 tackles with 10 sacks, six forced fumbles, six interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He was named First-Team All-Pro by the Associated Press in 2013 and Pro Football Focus has rated him as the No. 6, No. 2 and No. 7 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL in each of his three seasons in the NFL, respectively. And of the players that have ranked ahead him, guys like Von Miller and Khalil Mack are asked to do entirely different things.
David plays the Derrick Brooks role in the Buccaneers’ Tampa 2 defense, and you could make the case that few have done it better than David has in his first three seasons since Brooks, save perhaps former Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs. Now, as he enters the final year of his rookie contract, David is in the process of negotiating a new deal and there’s really no telling what he’s worth.
Players who actually are asked to play similar roles within similar defenses include K.J. Wright of the Seahawks and Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The average annual value of the deal Wright signed comes in at $6.75 million and Burfict’s is in line with an average annual value of $6.14 million. Both Wright and Burfict were signed in the summer of 2014, with Wright getting four years and Burfict getting three.
David is a better (or at least more consistent) player than both Wright and Burfict and with guys like Wagner and Kuechly in the middle bound for massive deals, it’s entirely possible that David continues to see these new linebacker contracts as potential benchmarks. So the sooner the Buccaneers can wrap up a deal, the more likely it is that they can avoid having a guy like DeAndre Levy in Detroit, another, older 4-3 outside linebacker, set the market for the position and give David an idea of what he’s really worth on the open market.
Because if Levy signs a deal that’s worth $7-8 million a year, David, being three years his junior, is going to come in asking for a number closer to $10 million. As Kuechly seeks his new deal in the middle of the Carolina Panthers’ defense and the debate rages on over how large the gap between mike and will linebackers in a 4-3 should remain in regards to salary, that number is only likely to rise.
Right now, with head coach Lovie Smith showing David plenty of love and insisting that a deal will get done soon, the sooner the Buccaneers can ink David for a salary that falls somewhere between Wright and Wagner as a baseline, the more money they’ll save in the long run.