D'Qwell Jackson is the leader every team wants in its locker room, and he's not a bad player either.
Jackson has put up some fantastic numbers during his eight-year career, but he simply got too expensive for the Cleveland Browns. He is now 30 years old and isn't playing as well he as once did.
He isn't a star, but he's still a reliable player. That fact was evidenced by the flurry of teams that set up visits with him once he was released. According to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, Jackson has visits set up with the Denver Broncos, the Tennessee Titans and several other teams.
The Broncos have a hole at middle linebacker, and there aren't many middle linebackers who can fix their issue. Wesley Woodyard is a better fit at outside linebacker than middle linebacker, and the Broncos need to complement utility player Nate Irving with another reliable option.
It's nearly a sure thing that the Broncos will sign or draft a middle linebacker, and Jackson could be that player.
In fact, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller expects Jackson to end up with the Broncos.
If I had to bet on where D'Qwell Jackson signs, I'd put money on Denver. #Broncos— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) February 27, 2014
That's because Denver is an attractive destination for free agents, especially ones like Jackson. He signed a five-year, $42.5 million extension before the 2012 season, and he will keep cashing in on that deal due to the guaranteed money. Jackson now has plenty of money, but he doesn't have a ring.
The Browns have been mired in mediocrity (at best) for a long time, and they haven't made the playoffs during Jackson's career. The Titans haven't made the playoffs since 2008, and they haven't won a playoff game since 2003.
Where should D'Qwell Jackson sign?
With Jake Locker at quarterback, it seems unlikely that the Titans are going to contend for a Super Bowl. The Broncos, on the other hand, have secured the first seed in the AFC in two consecutive years, and they represented the AFC in the Super Bowl in 2013.
Yes, the Super Bowl didn't go as the Broncos had hoped. But they have arguably the easiest path back to the Super Bowl in the weak AFC, and that's something Jackson's other suitors clearly can't offer.
If the Broncos put a decent offer on the table, it's likely Jackson would accept. But should the Broncos offer him that contract?
There are more talented middle linebackers hitting the market. Daryl Smith, who was phenomenal in coverage last season, is an intriguing option, and the same goes with Karlos Dansby. Dansby is a talented three-down linebacker, and Smith is great in pass coverage.
The Broncos would love to have the choice of all of these linebackers, but there's a problem. Unlike Dansby, Smith and the other free agents, Jackson can sign before March 11 (when Smith, Dansby and the other middle linebackers become available).
Jackson likely will sign before then, too. He visited with the Tennessee Titans on Friday, and according to CBS's Jason La Canfora, he will visit with the Broncos on Sunday. Many teams are interested in Jackson, and if one proposes a good offer, Jackson might sign.
In other words, he is likely to sign before the free-agency period starts. The Broncos will have to make a decision on him before being able to gauge the interest other talented linebackers have in playing for Denver.
If the Broncos sign Jackson, they would miss out on potentially bringing in Smith or Dansby. Jackson isn't a bad alternative, but he isn't the best free-agent middle linebacker. In fact, Walter Football has him ranked as the fourth-best free-agent middle linebacker (third-ranked Donald Butler recently re-signed with San Diego).
Should Denver wait until free agency to sign a middle linebacker?
Smith, Dansby and Cincinnati's Vincent Rey are ranked higher. Smith and Dansby will be expensive, but the younger Rey would be relatively cheap. Rey, however, is inexperienced and a restricted free agent.
Jackson, on the other hand, would be a perfect balance of experience and talent. He's lost a step, but he can still rack up tackles and make plays. Opponents posted an average 91.3 passer rating against him last season, showing that he isn't bad in coverage.
He finished 23rd among 55 middle linebackers in opponents' passer rating in 2013, and he finished 11th among 53 linebackers in 2012. His run defense is poor, but the Broncos already have a great run defense and a solid run-stopping middle linebacker in Nate Irving.
Jackson's coverage skills, however, are needed in Denver. He can play well in other facets, too.
Additionally, he posted 141 tackles. He finished seventh in the whole league in that category, showing that he can still play. Unfortunately, Jackson combined for just two forced fumbles and interceptions. Denver forced zero turnovers in the postseason, and it needs drastic improvement in that area.
Smith and Dansby could both help in that phase, but Jackson isn't as likely to do so. Even though he combined for six fumble recoveries, fumbles forced and interceptions in 2012, his decline in 2013 is disconcerting.
However, the Broncos should still take a flier on Jackson. He would help team chemistry, which is now proving to be more and more instrumental. Additionally, he would create a nice tandem with Irving.
Will D'Qwell Jackson sign with Denver?
Signing Jackson would also allow Denver to pay up for a playmaking safety like Donte Whitner or a talented receiver like Hakeem Nicks, which they wouldn't be able to do with Smith or Dansby. Jackson would be able to help out at the right price while allowing other talented players to help the team.
With that said, however, the Broncos must not overpay. There are other capable middle linebackers in free agency and in the draft, and if no one else is signed, Denver can always use Irving. It isn't desperate to sign Jackson.
If he is willing to take a slight discount to play for a championship contender, the Broncos should sign him. However, if they don't, it wouldn't be the end of the world.
All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).