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Browns one-upped Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower’s contract in big extension with LB Christian Kirksey

Cleveland must have waited for the Patriots to make their move before extending Kirksey.

The Cleveland Browns are apparently going to trot out a pair of linebackers for the next four years that will be linked to the New England Patriots. One of those linebackers is no surprise as the Browns acquired LB Jamie Collins from the Patriots mid-2016 and inked him to a four-year extension.

The other is LB Christian Kirksey and his connection to the Patriots isn’t made on the field, but at the negotiating table. The Browns just signed Kirksey to a four-year extension of his own and his deal is rooted in the Patriots contract with LB Dont’a Hightower.

NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Kirksey’s new deal and announced some of the terms.

Now a four-year extension isn’t rare- it’s what Collins received- but it’s also the same length as what Hightower received.

That $20 million guaranteed for Kirksey is just a hair greater than the $19 million total guaranteed in Hightower’s contract, and a little more than the $17 million Hightower was guaranteed at signing (Hightower has an additional $2 million bonus due in 2019). It also edges out the $18.5 million guaranteed to Miami Dolphins LB Kiko Alonso this offseason.

That $38 million total value for Kirksey falls short of the $43 million given to Hightower, but $4 million of Hightower’s deal is linked to making the All Pro First Team and making the Pro Bowl on the first ballot, and an additional $1.5 million is linked to playing more than 75% and 80% of snaps every year. Hightower has exceeded 75% of the snaps just once in his career (2014) and made his first and only Pro Bowl in 2016.

While we need to see if Kirksey has any incentives of his own baked into the deal, that $38 million aligns with the $37.5 million that Hightower would receive if he plays every game, hits 70% of his snaps, but fails to crack 75% playing time or receive any postseason honors- which is basically the baseline expectation for Hightower.

Now Kirksey is one of the better run-stuffing and pass-rushing linebackers in the league, but the Browns needed to give Kirksey the same premium that they gave Collins in order to retain his services in a rebuilding franchise. That’s why the Browns now have two of the highest paid off-the-ball linebackers in the NFL. But I find it interesting that Kirksey’s contract totals and guarantees seem extremely similar to that of Hightower’s underlying deal.

And since Collins and Hightower are the two highest-end off-the-ball linebackers to receive extensions this year, there’s no question that Kirksey’s deal relied on those contracts- linking the Browns linebackers to the Patriots.

Now we just have to wait and see which of the trio will provide the most value over the length of their deals.