Just like every other NFL team, the K.C. Chiefs have a lot of players whom they are rewarding with top-shelf deals in exchange for (hopeful) production on the field. But one place in which the Chiefs have chosen the right time to go young (which also means cost-controlled) is at linebacker where the going rate for very good to great contributors is escalating considerably.
On Wednesday, the San Francisco 49ers locked up the impressive talents of inside linebacker Fred Warner through the 2026 season with a five-year deal worth more than $95 million. Mike Garafolo has some more details:
At this point, the Niners have rewarded one of their own, the engine to the defense there in San Fran with a deal that now puts any potential drama to rest before training camp begins.
The K.C. Chiefs went young at the right time at linebacker.
From the Chiefs perspective, however, it’s important to note that Warner was one of a few dominoes to fall at linebacker this offseason. Jerome Baker was a lesser talent who already received a nice pay raise in the form of a three-year deal worth up to $39 million from the Miami Dolphins. Still to come is a looming extension for Darius Leonard from the Indianapolis Colts which should set the new ceiling even beyond what Warner is going to get paid.
If Zach Hicks is right, and he is, then that means linebacker is suddenly a position where $20 million annually is the new market rate for a Pro Bowl performer. Leonard is worth keeping happy at whatever the price and is one of the NFL’s best young defenders at any position. That said, it wasn’t that long ago that linebacker felt financially stuck behind pass rushers, just as the safety market felt stalled behind cornerbacks.
Remember just a few years ago, the Chiefs paid through the nose for Anthony Hitchens on a deal worth $45 million over five years or less than half of what Warner just received. That’s how high prices are climbing at the position as bright new performers become eligible for long-term contracts.
Back to the Chiefs. With consecutive second-round selections at linebacker in the last two draft classes in Willie Gay Jr. (2020) and Nick Bolton (2021), the Chiefs have an exciting young tandem upon whom they can rely for years to come if things go according to plan. Hitchens should still be in the mix for the next year as Bolton adjusts to the pros, but he also comes with loads of experience at Missouri as a tackler, leader, and communicator, so it’s possible he sees more time early than expected.
Either way, Bolton and Gay are going to form a nice impactful duo in the heart of a defense that plays more often in sub packages than not—typically with two linebackers. If we say that Bolton takes this year to learn the position and Gay starts this year for Steve Spagnuolo, then that means the Chiefs have six total seasons of starting linebacker play on rookie deals for those players.
The total cost for Bolton’s final three years on his contract and Gay’s final three years comes to a lump sum of approximately $9 million. Yes, that’s a TOTAL of $9 million, good for an average of around $1.5 million cap hit per season.
In short, for about half of what the Colts will pay Leonard or the Niners will pay Warner per season, the Chiefs are going to get Bolton and Gay in the heart of their defense through the 2023-24 campaign. That’s a perfect time to shift to cost-controlled talent at a position with a rocketing market value.
Of course, the Chiefs are paying guys in places where other teams are saving money. That’s just the way things work, so this isn’t to say the Chiefs are pulling some genius move here that no one else saw coming. However it is interesting that the team has chosen to make long-term investments at the heart of the defense only to see the market correcting and making it more expensive if the team had not chosen to invest in the draft.
If the Chiefs had decided to pursue help at linebacker via free agency, they’d be lining up lesser-caliber players at much higher prices. Hopefully Bolton and Gay both look the part and turn into the sort of impact defenders the Chiefs need to take over the heart of the defense for years to come.