After linebacker Patrick Willis signed a five-year, $50 million extension with the 49ers, coach Mike Singletary proclaimed that the three-year veteran “may go down as one of the best” to play the position.
So why isn’t Willis being paid better than any of the men who currently play the position?
After details as to the Willis deal were reported, several league insiders expressed surprise regarding the fact that the contract fails to set a new high-water mark for linebackers. Some believed that Willis ultimately would be paid not as the best linebacker in the game, but as the best defensive player in the game, regardless of position.
It didn’t happen. Our goal in this regard isn’t to trash the deal or praise the contract, but to set forth both sides of the story, because we think each side has some appeal.
The naysayers point out that, when it comes to cash paid out after the first three and four years, Willis lags behind three other linebackers: Karlos Dansby, Bart Scott, and DeMeco Ryans. Though the gap based on three and four years isn’t huge, the objectively undeniable fact that Willis is better than any of the others makes the objectively undeniable fact that he didn’t get more than each of them glaring.
“Willis is the next Ray Lewis,” one league source said. “This is like the contract Ray Lewis signed in 2003. It isn’t much better.”
But there’s an important difference to keep in mind. Dansby got his deal as an unrestricted free agent, after six years in the league and two under the franchise tag. Scott received his contract as a unrestricted free agent. Ryans was a restricted free agent, but the fact that he had no contract allowed him to be paid without regard to the 30-percent rule.
Willis had two years left on his rookie deal. Apart from the complications presented by the 30 percent rule, Willis was saddled with the risk — for 32 regular-season games, eight preseason games, many offseason, preseason, and in-season practices, and up to eight postseason games — of a serious injury that would have dramatically harmed his market value. So he instead inked a deal after only three seasons and at age 25 that will pay him nearly $30 million over four years.
Could he have gotten more if he’d played for roughly $800,000 in 2010 and $2.5 million in 2011 and (most likely) the franchise tender in 2012 (and possibly 2013)? Sure. But at some point in the next two, three, or four years, he also could have gotten seriously hurt — and thus never received the kind of monster payday that sets him and at least a generation after him up for life, especially if he invests the money conservatively and doesn’t spend lavishly or recklessly.
So while other agents may regret that Willis didn’t blow out the market, since it would have helped other players get more money, the fact remains that Willis had to make the best decision for himself and his family. Under the specific circumstances that he faced, we probably would have made the same choice.