Evaluating the Free Agent Linebackers: 10 the Philadelphia Eagles Should Pursue
The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles were marked by inconsistency, fourth quarter collapses, and poor play at both the linebacker and safety positions.
The team played most of the season with just six linebackers on the 53-man active roster, and none of them had more than five years experience. Rookies Casey Matthews and Brian Rolle were thrust into the starting lineup early, and while Rolle held his own for 16 games, Matthews was clearly overmatched and benched in Week 3.
Andy Reid has never drafted a linebacker in the first round, and his attempts to draft a linebacker in the second round haven’t worked out well. Barry Gardner, Quinton Caver and Matt McCoy were all picked in the second round, and none of the three developed into the impact-type player the Eagles were hoping for. Stewart Bradley in the third round was a good pick, but he struggled with injuries and now plays for Arizona.
The 2012 NFL draft is stocked with quality linebackers—Vontaze Burfict, Luke Kuechly, Courtney Upshaw, Melvin Ingram and Whitney Mercilus, to name a few—but Reid has never been able to spot a linebacker with good talent in the draft. I would much rather have the Eagles try to sign a player in free agency, and there are a good group of free agent linebackers that could step in and provide an immediate impact for the Eagles in 2012 and beyond.
10. Jameel McClain, OLB, Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens are like Penn State University—they always seem to have a ton of good linebackers, and with Jameel McClain and Jarret Johnson both hitting free agency, the Ravens may not be able to pay both.
McClain is a restricted free agent, which is why I ranked him significantly lower than Johnson, even though McClain is still just 26 years old. McClain is from Philadelphia, and the prospect of returning to the city of his birth could be intriguing for him.
He’s excelled as a 3-4 outside linebacker for the Ravens, but switched to a 4-3 outside linebacker this past season and excelled. Johnson is strong against both the run and in rushing the quarterback.
9. Erin Henderson, OLB, Minnesota Vikings
Erin Henderson got a chance to start for the Minnesota Vikings in 2011, and he responded with a breakout season. Henderson proved to be a dynamic player in stopping the run, grading as one of the best in the league per Pro Football Focus.
Henderson—who had previously been known as just E.J.’s little brother—is just 25 years old and will almost assuredly get some interest around the league. He would be a good fit for the Eagles, a team that has watched far too many linebackers whiff on tackle attempts in recent games.
8. D’Qwell Jackson, MLB, Cleveland Browns
After missing 10 games in 2009 and the entire 2010 season after two separate tears of his pectoral muscle, D’Qwell Jackson played at a Pro Bowl level for the Cleveland Browns in 2011.
He started all 16 games at middle linebacker, setting a career-high with 3.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and 115 tackles. Jackson is a phenomenal run stopper, and that’s precisely the type of player the Philadelphia Eagles desperately need.
Jackson has said he wants a five-year deal to stay in Cleveland, and if the Browns decide that is too many years given his injury history, Jackson may look elsewhere for a new deal.
7. Manny Lawson, OLB, Cincinnati Bengals
Lawson played in all 16 games as a strong side linebacker in the 4-3 formation, playing well as a run defender. He is 27 years old and could be counted on for probably four to five years of solid production for the Philadelphia Eagles, should they be interested.
Lawson may never have fulfilled the first-round pick the Niners spent on him in the 2006 NFL draft, but he’s a solid linebacker, one that would instantly upgrade the Eagles’ unit.
6. E.J. Henderson, MLB, Minnesota Vikings
E.J. Henderson has spent his entire nine-year career in Minnesota, but like his brother, Erin, E.J. is a free agent and may test the market.
Henderson says he wants to stay in Minnesota, but that he has not heard from the Vikings yet. He was a Pro Bowl player in 2010 at middle linebacker and had another strong season in 2011, although he has dropped off in pass coverage to the point that he is almost a liability.
Henderson is still phenomenal in run defense, and the Vikings will almost surely want to retain one of the Henderson brothers for the future. If they go younger and keep Erin, let’s hope the Philadelphia Eagles have their wallets open for E.J.
5. London Fletcher, MLB, Washington Redskins
I mentioned that the Philadelphia Eagles should pursue London Fletcher in an earlier article, and it was met with overwhelmingly negative responses. That surprised me: I know he is 37 in a month and a 14-year NFL veteran, but the Eagles are a win-now team with no playmakers in the linebacker corps, and Fletcher would instantly solidify that unit.
If he can only give the Eagles three more years, that’s fine. I’ll gladly take that. I would rather have a guy like Fletcher than the Eagles take a chance and try to draft a player in the fifth round and start him out of necessity. Fletcher has made three consecutive Pro Bowls even at this age, and he’s phenomenal as a run stopper, but still well above average in playing against the pass.
He is the kind of guy I would want playing middle linebacker for my team. He’s outspoken and brash. Remember when he called out Albert Haynesworth? Fletcher reminds me a little of Brian Dawkins—he wants to win football games, and if you’re not doing your job, he’s going to tell you.
Do you think the Eagles’ five fourth-quarter collapses would have happened with Fletcher playing middle linebacker? No chance. He would provide heart to a team that has none.
4. Jarret Johnson, OLB, Baltimore Ravens
Jarret Johnson is 31 years old, but he is a Pro Bowl caliber player and he excelled this past season when the Baltimore Ravens switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3.
Johnson was rated as the sixth-best 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. He is a nasty run stopper, and that is exactly what the Philadelphia Eagles need. Johnson was often overlooked in Baltimore, playing with future Hall of Famers like Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, but he has been one of the league’s better linebackers for the past five years.
3. David Hawthorne, MLB, Seattle Seahawks
Remember David Hawthorne from the Philadelphia Eagles’ miserable 2011 season? He’s the guy that picked off Vince Young late in the season and took it 77 yards to the house, wrapping up an embarrassing "Thursday Night Football" contest that all but eliminated the Eagles from the playoffs.
Hawthorne is 26 years old and he’s a quality middle linebacker, but the Seattle Seahawks seem uninterested in signing him long-term. Management apparently wants an inside linebacker with more speed and less durability concerns. That’s fine with me; let him go and have him sign with the Eagles.
Hawthorne has missed just one game in the previous three seasons. He was at his best in pass coverage in 2011, and also played well against the run. I’ll take him for five years, no questions asked.
2. Curtis Lofton, MLB, Atlanta Falcons
I can’t imagine the Atlanta Falcons allowing Curtis Lofton to walk. He’s too good of a player, and he’s still young enough (25) that he has his whole future ahead of him. Then again, Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Falcons may let Lofton walk, particularly because they feel he is too much of a liability in pass coverage.
Lofton has never missed a game in four NFL seasons. He has quietly played at a Pro Bowl-caliber level since the Falcons picked him in the second round in the 2008 draft. He’s definitely not one of the better players in pass coverage, but he’s phenomenal against the run, and he should have many more years ahead of him.
1. Stephen Tulloch, MLB, Detroit Lions
I don’t think Stephen Tulloch is the best player of the linebackers on my list. But I put him No. 1 because of one big reason: He plays in the wide-nine defense already in Detroit, and a transition to Philadelphia would be easy for him.
The Detroit Lions signed Tulloch for a mere $3.25 million in 2011, and now he is set to hit the free agent market again. Pro Football Focus rated Tulloch as the No. 1 most attractive inside linebacker in free agency.
He is good in pass coverage and in playing the run, and probably his best attribute is that he has experience in playing in the wide nine, a defensive formation that: A) the Philadelphia Eagles currently use, and B) one that places extra pressure on the linebackers.
Tulloch would be a steal if the Eagles could get him, and as long as they plan to utilize the wide-nine defense, they need to look for a linebacker with experience playing in that type of defense.
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