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Von Miller’s mega-contract illustrates rising emphasis on elite defenders

With $70 million guaranteed, Von Miller becomes the eighth defensive player with a guaranteed money over $50 million. Look for more elite defenders to join him. 

Heads up, quarterbacks: The defensive superstars are comin’.

Von Miller’s new six-year, $114 deal with $70 million guaranteed by March of 2018 means that there are now 18 players holding some form of guaranteed money (either fully guaranteed or for injury) totaling at least $50 million. Nine of those players are QBs. The other nine are tasked with trying to make those QBs lives’ miserable.

Miller on Friday joined Fletcher Cox, Marcell Dareus, Ndamukong Suh, Olivier Vernon, Justin Houston, J.J. Watt, Gerald McCoy and Josh Norman among the $50-million-guaranteed club.

Miller's guaranteed figure provides even more evidence that momentum is with the defense. Andrew Luck’s sparkly new $122 million contract came with $47 million fully guaranteed at signing—a massive number, to be sure, but still a touch below expectations.

There was some thought that Luck would be the first player with $100 million guaranteed on his contract; he landed at $87 million. He’s setting the bar, but the defensive players are not all that far behind.

Franchise tag tracker: Following negotiations as deadline nears.

The lesson? Perhaps NFL teams are increasingly realizing it is almost as difficult to find a transcendent defensive talent as it is to find a franchise quarterback.

Granted, it has proven easier to win with an unheralded group on defense than it usually is to get by with a below-average quarterback. Just about every team in the league has at least a handful of players it believes it can build around defensively, and that’s just not the case for all 32 teams under center.

The Millers and Watts and McCoys are very much game-changers in their own rights, though, and difficult to come by. It was Miller, you’ll recall, who was named Super Bowl MVP after Denver stifled Carolina’s high-powered offense in February.

“He’s a hell of a player,” Denver coach Gary Kubiak said afterward, “but he has become a great pro, great man and a big leader on this football team. So, I’m just very proud of everybody, but I’m especially proud of him.”

There is no way the Broncos could replace Miller’s impact without tweaking their defense or witnessing a massive, sudden breakthrough from one of their young pass-rushers like Shane Ray. Miller, still just 27, forces opposing offenses to account for him on every single play, even more so on passing downs.  He is known for the sack totals but he is just as valuable for helping to free up his teammates.

He knew he had a little bit of leverage here for once, too. Hit with the franchise tag on March 1, Miller vowed to sit out the season before the one-year deal at $14.1 million.

“No, I’m not going to play on the franchise tag,” Miller told ESPN on Monday. “It just doesn’t make sense in any way.”

As always, it may be difficult to drum up much sympathy for multi-millionaires like Miller, but until the NFLPA can make major in-roads in collective bargaining the deck remains somewhat stacked against them. Miller, off that brilliant Super Bowl 50 performance and smack-dab in his prime, had almost no shot of hitting the free-agent market. Any team hoping to sign him away from Denver would have had to cough up a first- and third-round draft pick, and the Broncos could have matched any offer sheet.

Playing out a season on the tag also comes with the built-in risk that an injury could leave a player high and dry. Plus, Miller could have found himself in the same situation again next off-season, with Denver able to tag him (at an increased price), thus preventing him from finding out his true worth.

In hopes of avoiding all that, Miller made the Broncos come to him with a record-setting contract.

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The resulting money does not do much for most of the league’s other defenders—this was an elite play in a specific situation. However, it does keep the ball rolling forward for those who are in or near his class. Muhammad Wilkerson and Calais Campbell, for example, are set to be free agents after this season. Eric Berry is, too, after failing to reach his own long-term extension Friday, relegating him to a 2016 season spent under the franchise tag.

The NFL’s money still goes through the QB position, on the surface—there are a dozen $100 million contracts out there total, of which eight belong to quarterbacks. A quarterback likely will be the first to break the $100 million guaranteed barrier and that position will remain the highest-paid on the whole.

Cox, though, reset the market for star defenders earlier this off-season. Miller just gave it another nudge northward. Wherever those QB contracts go, the top defenders won’t be far behind.