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Is Morgan Burnett really going to get a huge pay day in free agency?

Some projections suggest Burnett could get as much as $10 million on the open market, but would a team really offer him that much?

Green Bay Packers v Cleveland Browns
Morgan Burnett has been one of the few bright spots on this defense the last few years, but is he really headed for a blockbuster safety contract?
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Being the best doesn’t always mean being paid the most. In fact, it rarely does. Once a top player gets paid top-of-market value, the next elite guy at the position to get paid will insist on more and suddenly the No. 1 spot belongs to someone else.

That’s how someone like Matthew Stafford sits at the top of the quarterback pay scale.

So when Spotrac suggested Packers free agent safety Morgan Burnett could command $9.8 million on the open market, more than a few people raised an eyebrow.

This writer included.

The last contract Morgan Burnett signed, a four-year $24.75 million extension, paid him just over $6 million per year, but that was in 2013 when Burnett was 24 years old and coming off a season in which he was one of just two players to play every single snap of the 2012 season.

Does he now, at 29 and coming off an injury-plagued season, really deserve a 60-plus-percent raise?

Contracts reflect future value, not past and no one knows that better than Russ Ball.

Spotrac uses historical contract data to set these projected market values, a solid way to view how the league could react to a player.

Micah Hyde, who wasn’t even a full-time starter for the Packers, got $6.1 million per year. Even though he was 26 when that contract signed, it’s likely fair to suggest that a guy with a proven track record as a reliable safety is worth that much. Barry Church signed last year with the Jaguars for $6.5 million at age 29, and as a former Cowboys starter who is viewed as an enforcer safety with some limitations in coverage, Burnett probably could command more.

After all, Burnett has experience as a deep safety and a box safety, and he played slot corner last season. Despite not putting up gaudy interception totals, his coverage skills may be his best attribute.

But the two players who really push up Burnett’s value in this calculation are Reshad Jones and Kam Chancellor, who each signed for $12 million per year at Burnett’s same age.

Here’s the critical difference: each is a Pro Bowl safety, and though Jones wasn’t a multiple-time Pro Bowler when he signed that deal, he is now. Chancellor has been one of the best safeties in football for years.

Burnett simply isn’t in the same realm as those players in terms of his ability to impact the game. At least he hasn’t shown he is.

Perhaps Dom Capers has been holding these defensive backs down more than we realized. Micah Hyde flourished last season for the Bills as a playmaking deep safety. Casey Hayward became one of the best corners in the league after leaving the Packers.

Would just switching out Capers for Pettine makes all these players more valuable? Sure, that’s possible. But either way, Burnett’s value relative to the rest of the league is highest in Green Bay, a team that knows him and that has watched him practice.

Mike McCarthy praised Burnett effusively last season as he bounced around roles and struggled with injuries. In short, he’s worth more to Green Bay.

That said, Burnett is only worth what he has the leverage to demand, and that’s relative to the Packers options.

Ted Thompson planned for this moment over a year ago when he drafted Josh Jones. Even if the plan wasn’t for him to replace Burnett, Green Bay’s front office can certainly paint it that way, mitigating some of Burnett’s leverage.

At No. 14 overall, the Packers could draft a player like Derwin James, a Florida State standout who played in the slot, as a safety, and as a linebacker, much like Burnett would for Green Bay. The difference is he would do it on a rookie contract and would be just 21 when the Packers take him.

And on the open market, players like Eric Reid and Kenny Vaccaro, former first-round picks with superior athleticism and the benefit of youth, will almost certainly demand higher price tags with their upside and playmaking ability less in question.

Reid had more interceptions in his first two seasons in the league than Morgan Burnett has in his last five seasons combined. Kenny Vaccaro has more in his last two seasons than Burnett has in that same five-year window.

Why would a team pay Burnett $10 million a year, when they could give that money to younger, more dynamic playmakers?

Last offseason Tony Jefferson received $8.5 million per year at 25, and it’s hard to believe teams would value him less than Burnett — even a year later adjusted for the cap’s growth and market inflation.

More likely, someone thinks he’s worth in the $7-8 million range, and he probably is. That said, even Reshad Jones, a Pro Bowl player who got serious money on a per-year basis, only received a short-term deal.

Can a player who has dealt with injuries throughout his career — Burnett hasn’t played all 16 games since that 2012 season when he never came off the field — really get a four-year deal at age 29?

All of these factors come together to suggest a three-year deal somewhere in the same total value range of his last contract, perhaps $22 or $23 million.

The question then becomes is that deal coming from Green Bay or somewhere else?