2012 NFL Free Agents: Ranking the Top Free Agent Linebackers

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystMarch 1, 2012

2012 NFL Free Agents: Ranking the Top Free Agent Linebackers

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    We're less than two weeks away from the opening of free agency in the National Football League, as players across the NFL become "guns for hire" and begin shopping their services to the highest bidder.

    That group of free agents includes a relatively deep class of linebackers (especially on the inside).

    Here's a look at the top options who could generate a bidding war when the proverbial floodgates open.

5. David Hawthorne: MLB, Seattle Seahawks

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    David Hawthorne had a fairly productive season manning the middle for the Seattle Seahawks in his fourth season in the National Football League, racking up 115 tackles, two sacks and three interceptions even though he missed a game and battled a nagging knee injury much of the year.

    However, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has reportedly stated he would like to get "faster" at linebacker, and given the strong play of K.J. Wright in Seattle last year, it appears that the Seahawks will at the very least let Hawthorne test the open market.

4. London Fletcher: ILB, Washington Redskins

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    Washington Redskins inside linebacker London Fletcher led the National Football League with 166 tackles last year, and although the 36-year-old is the definition of a grizzled veteran, Fletcher hasn't recorded fewer than 120 tackles since 2001.

    Early indications were that the Redskins had every intention of keeping Fletcher in the fold, but talks have progressed slowly, and even Fletcher, who recently switched agents, now concedes that it's a possibility that his days in D.C. could be numbered.

3. Curtis Lofton: MLB, Atlanta Falcons

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    Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton of the Atlanta Falcons enjoyed the best season of his four-year career in 2011, as the former Oklahoma standout tallied 147 tackles, two interceptions, a sack and a forced fumble while prowling the heart of the Falcons defense.

    However, given the $42.5 million contract extension recently signed by Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, there's a very real chance that Lofton will be allowed to depart in free agency, as there have been grumblings that the Falcons coaching staff considers Lofton a liability against the pass.

2. Stephen Tulloch: MLB, Detroit Lions

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    Stephen Tulloch signed a one-year contract to man the middle for the Detroit Lions last year.

    The six-year veteran certainly lived up to his end of the deal, logging 111 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles while helping to lead the Lions to their first playoff appearance since 1999.

    The Lions have expressed interest in bringing Tulloch back, and the two sides are reportedly negotiating an extension, but given Detroit's sticky salary-cap situation, if a deal can't be reached by March 13 it's quite possible that Tulloch could find himself on the move again in 2012.

1. Mario Williams: DE/OLB, Houston Texans

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    Mario Williams of the Houston Texans seemed to have little trouble moving from defensive end to outside linebacker in Houston's new 3-4 defense last year, notching five sacks in five games before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season prematurely.

    Williams' $22 million franchise-tag number makes tagging him cost prohibitive for the Texans.

    Given the great deal of interest that Williams will generate from both 4-3 and 3-4 teams, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Mario Williams emerge from free agency as the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.