2014 NFL Free Agents: Exploring the Linebacker Market
With NFL free agency starting on March 11, several teams will be interested in adding talent to their linebacker corps.
Whether it's a pass-rushing outside linebacker or a run-stuffing inside linebacker, the position holds a significant amount of value on a defense.
In this column, I've broken down seven of the top linebackers (four outside, three inside) who are set to hit the market. The players on this list were chosen via a series of criteria, including age, pass-rushing ability, coverage skills, leadership and future NFL prospects.
It's time to explore the linebacker market for the upcoming free-agency period.
Note: This article has been modified from its original version for free agents who have been given the franchise tag or transition tag.
All salary-cap information courtesy of Spotrac.com.
Brian Orakpo of the Washington Redskins is the headliner as the most coveted linebacker of the bunch.
He is coming off a fabulous season with 10 sacks and a pick-six. The three-time Pro Bowler finished the year ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) fourth-best 3-4 outside linebacker and will be 28 at the start of next season.
Everyone knew he'd be paid handsomely. The only question was whether it would be to stay in our nation's capital or offer his services elsewhere. The Redskins, who are currently $20 million under the cap, clearly realized a chunk of that unused cash would be best spent retaining Orakpo for another year and hit him with the franchise tag.
The Redskins did what they had to do to keep the ascending, young pass-rusher in the fold, as he's now set to earn $11.5 million in 2014.
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds is perhaps the most underrated member of this group.
The former second-round draft pick came on last season to lead the Steelers in sacks with eight. He just turned 26 and finished 2013 ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 12th-best 3-4 outside linebacker.
Because the Steelers are cash-strapped heading into free agency, the popular belief at the onset of the offseason was that they couldn't afford to keep both Worilds and fellow outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley. As a result, I felt that the team would keep Worilds.
But CBS NFL insider Jason LaCanfora recently joined 93.7 "The Fan" in Pittsburgh and had this to say about the Worilds/Woodley conundrum:
I don’t think (the Steelers are) cutting Woodley. I think there’s going to be a real strong market for Jason Worilds. I don’t think it’s limited to 3-4 teams, either. I think there are some 4-3 teams that are intrigued by him as well. I think he’s gone, I do. I think (the Steelers will) have a hard time retaining him.
Well, LaCanfora predicted wrong. The Steelers opted to use the rare transition tag on Worilds, setting them back about $9.8 million.
He is an ascending talent who can rush the passer. That gets you paid in the NFL.
Last season, Denver Broncos linebacker Shaun Phillips was akin to a stud relief pitcher in Major League Baseball. He came off the bench in the absence of fellow linebacker Von Miller to record 10 sacks and play a crucial role in the team's Super Bowl run.
He lined up quite a bit at 4-3 defensive end as well, and he finished the year ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 18th-best at the position.
His specialty remains rushing the passer, as he's accumulated 79.5 sacks over his 10-year career. But he turns 33 this offseason, so age is a concern.
His versatility and ability to play with his hand in the dirt or standing up will make him attractive to potential employers, especially given his pass-rushing ability. It's unclear if the Broncos will be able to keep him, given their financial situation and the numerous other players on the roster who are set to hit the market.
Bleacher Report featured columnist Russell Baxter recently wrote that Phillips would make a lot of sense for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Like a fine wine, it appears that linebacker Karlos Dansby is getting better with age.
Last season in Arizona, he totaled 6.5 sacks, four interceptions and two defensive touchdowns and finished the year ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) fifth-best inside linebacker. That's not bad for a guy who will turn 33 during next season.
In a recent interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio (h/t Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com), Dansby said, "I definitely expect to be an Arizona Cardinal next year. We don’t have long here (before free agency) so we’ll get to talking and try and hammer something out.”
It's clear that he would like to stay in the desert and continue playing on a defense that turned heads last season.
But it's unclear how the financials will work out on a potential deal for Dansby, who played last season on a one-year contract worth $2.25 million and turned in arguably the finest campaign of his career. There's no chance he'll take a similar bargain deal again, as he told Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com, "(I'm) playing for what I’m worth."
The Cardinals don't have a ton of cap space to work with, so fitting Dansby in could prove tricky, but expect general manager Steve Keim to do what he can to retain his services. If not, Dansby will find a willing suitor once free agency opens.
New England Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes had one of the strangest (and most off-putting) endings to a season in recent memory.
Despite finishing third on the team in tackles and ranking as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) sixth-best inside linebacker, Spikes was placed on injured reserve by the Patriots before the club's divisional-round game against the Colts.
And as ESPN's Chris Mortensen tweeted, the decision was only partially due to Spikes' recurring knee injury, which wasn't severe enough to keep him out of any of the team's 16 regular-season games.
Tom E. Curran of Comcast Sportsnet New England recently wrote that he believes Spikes is through with the Patriots.
But despite his apparent disconnect with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the fact remains that he'll turn 27 during next season and is one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the league. There's little doubt that there will be a market for his services once teams are free to begin bidding.
After starting the season 0-4 in hideous fashion, the New York Giants consummated a trade for Panthers linebacker Jon Beason.
And despite finishing the season ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 47th-best inside linebacker, he played well for Big Blue and helped stabilize what had been an awful defense, contributing 104 tackles and an interception.
Speaking at the combine (h/t Rich Cimini of ESPN.com), Giants general manager Jerry Reese lumped Beason into a group of impending free agents whom the team will take a "wait-and-see" approach with.
Michael Eisen of Giants.com recently wrote that he doesn't expect the Giants to overpay for Beason's services.
Beason is 29 and proved his worth last season, injecting professionalism and leadership into a Giants defense in desperate need of both. He's not as fast as he once was, coming off a torn Achilles in 2011 and microfracture surgery in 2012, but he made an impact on his teammates during his time in Gotham. Safety Antrel Rolle told Jordan Raanan of NJ.com that he considers it "a must" that the Giants bring Beason back.
He has a lot left in the tank, and he'll receive ample playing time next season regardless of where he ends up.
It took the Green Bay Packers four years, but they finally figured out that the best position for Mike Neal is outside linebacker, and he registered five sacks and an interception from that spot in 2013.
He finished the year as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 40th-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, but there is always a market for edge-rushers who can bring down the quarterback.
Count former Packers linebackers coach Kevin Greene among those impressed by Neal's transition from defensive lineman to outside linebacker, as he told Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette:
Mike Neal, his transition from a one- and three-technique interior defensive tackle to a stand-up, two-point stance outside backer, and then having to see the entire field and having coverage and knowing exactly where you need to fit in the grand scheme of things in your coverage, all the checks and adjustments, he really has had a remarkable transition.
Neal knows that he improved markedly and is set to make some cash, telling Rob Reischel of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "I don't know what the market's going to be like. But I do think I had a pretty good year. First year at a new position. I'm only going to get better."
Neal will be 27 at the start of the season and seems to be scratching the surface of his ability as an outside linebacker. If the Packers don't retain him, expect him to land somewhere else quickly.