Matching Top Free-Agent Linebackers on the Market to Best Team Fits
Less than a week ago, it was running backs.
On Saturday, it was quarterbacks.
But we saved the best for last as we take a look at what could be a deep free-agent pool at the linebacker position come March 9.
Be it inside or outside, the 3-4 or the 4-3, we are taking a look at the top 12 linebackers who may be or already are available for hire (listed in alphabetical order).
From pass-rushers to tackling machines to those with some good, old versatility, it’s a deep enough group that includes David Hawthorne (New Orleans Saints), Sean Weatherspoon (Arizona Cardinals), Chad Greenway (Minnesota Vikings) and Calvin Pace (New York Jets). You can check out the complete list here, courtesy of Spotrac.
There could be a flurry of activity over the next few weeks for all 32 NFL teams when it comes to this deep, vital group of defenders.
OLB Justin Durant (Released by Atlanta Falcons)
After finishing dead last in the NFL in total defense in 2014, the Atlanta Falcons hired former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as their head coach.
The team made strides on that side of the football in 2015, improving to 16th in the league in yards allowed per game. But it accumulated a league-low 19 sacks.
While outside linebacker Justin Durant finished second on the Falcons with 82 tackles and totaled three passes defensed and one forced fumble, he didn’t grade out as one of the better defenders in the league or on the team. When Pro Football Focus ranked 90 outside linebackers in the 4-3 scheme, Durant came up at No. 85, and last week the Falcons let him go after one year with the club.
The nine-year pro has made his way around the league with four teams (Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys and Falcons). His versatility is a plus, and he could add a little veteran savvy to any unit, most notably a Chicago Bears defense that is still trying to find itself after one year under 3-4 specialist Vic Fangio.
But how about a mini-reunion of sorts with former Jaguars teammate Daryl Smith in the land of crab cakes?
Best Fit: Chicago Bears
Prediction: Signs with Baltimore Ravens
ILB Jerrell Freeman (Potential UFA, Indianapolis Colts)
It’s hard to believe that the Indianapolis Colts were porous on defense (again) in 2015 with a player who was as productive as inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman.
What more could the four-year pro and former undrafted free agent do for a unit that ranked 26th overall in total defense (25th vs. the run, 24th vs. the pass)? Freeman graded out as the second-best inside linebacker in the league in 2015, finishing second on the Colts with 112 tackles. He also contributed three sacks, one fumble recovery and an interception return for a touchdown.
Conversely, fellow inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson racked up a team-high 150 stops and didn’t grade out nearly as well.
This is a no-brainer. Now, all Colts general manager Ryan Grigson has to do is get a lot of help for his emerging performer on defense.
Best Fit: Indianapolis Colts
Prediction: Re-signs with Colts
OLB Dwight Freeney (Potential UFA, Arizona Cardinals)
The total resume speaks for itself, but it has been an odd few years for former pass-rushing terror Dwight Freeney.
In 11 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts (the franchise that made him the 11th overall pick in the 2002 draft), he amassed an impressive 119.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl seven times. But the team transitioned to a 3-4 defense in 2012, and the longtime defensive end just wasn’t as effective.
There would be a two-year stint with the San Diego Chargers where he totaled only four sacks in 20 games and missed a dozen contests in 2013. Then came the Arizona Cardinals this past season, and a revitalized Freeney rang up a team-high eight sacks in just 11 regular-season outings.
The Cards could use him considering he had nearly one-fourth of the team’s 36 sacks in 2015. But one club may need him even more as we see the defending NFC West champions going in a different direction (stay tuned). And it won’t be the only move this club will make in free agency to address its woeful pass rush.
Best Fit: Arizona Cardinals
Prediction: Signs with Atlanta Falcons
OLB Tamba Hali (Potential UFA, Kansas City Chiefs)
He was the 20th overall pick in the 2006 draft and has lived up to billing.
But could his days with the franchise that selected him in the first round 10 years ago be over?
Former defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Tamba Hali has been one of the Kansas City Chiefs’ steadiest defenders for a decade. The five-time Pro Bowler has missed just four games in 10 seasons and has racked up 86 sacks and 33 forced fumbles.
But will the Chief re-sign him, or are they ready to let him test the market? Hali spoke last month about his health and football future.
“I love the game, and I’ll give it my all every time I have the opportunity to play,” Hali said, according to Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star following the club’s divisional playoff loss at Foxborough. “First I’ve got to get healthy, I’ve got to make sure my body’s in shape to be able to play at the level these young guys are coming in playing at. A couple of months from now, we’ll find out where my mind is.
“But my heart is always with Kansas City, added Hali, “and that’s where it’s going to end.”
We’re not so sure. The Chiefs have an emerging pass-rusher in outside linebacker Dee Ford, the team’s first-round pick in 2014. Kansas City also has a lot of notable potential free agents on defense in safety Eric Berry, cornerback Sean Smith, linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive linemen Jaye Howard and Mike DeVito.
And there’s Hali, who we sense won’t be around for a second decade in Kansas City simply because there may not be enough money to spread around. But there’s a team in the desert that would welcome him with open arms, one that totaled only 36 sacks this past season.
Best Fit: Kansas City Chiefs
Prediction: Signs with Arizona Cardinals
OLB Bruce Irvin (Potential UFA, Seattle Seahawks)
It makes too much sense, and who are we to ignore logic?
You may recall last May that Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin made some noise about being in Atlanta in 2016. As we found out (and are reminded here via the Associated Press and ESPN.com), it was not a declaration that the four-year pro would sign with the Falcons.
Still, our theory is less about a declaration and more about a team need. Over the past two seasons, the Falcons have a total of 41 sacks in 32 games. That’s 11 fewer than the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos (52) amassed in 2015. Atlanta ranked dead last in the league this past season with 19 sacks, just 1.5 sacks more than league leader J.J. Watt (17.5).
In four seasons with the Seahawks, Irvin has totaled 22 sacks in 58 games and another 3.5 sacks in 10 postseason contests. He can play at numerous positions and could show second-year pro Vic Beasley the ropes.
Irvin would reunite with former Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. And the Falcons would have to be feeling so good.
Best Fit: Atlanta Falcons
Prediction: Signs with Atlanta Falcons
ILB Derrick Johnson (Potential UFA, Kansas City Chiefs)
As we have already noted, the Kansas City Chiefs have a lot of work to do when it comes to bringing back several key members of one of the league’s better defensive units.
In 2014, we basically saw Andy Reid’s team play without inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, who was injured in the early stages of a Week 1 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
But the four-time Pro Bowler came back strong this past year. Johnson led the Chiefs with 166 tackles, to go along with four sacks, two interceptions, a pair of forced fumbles and eight passes defensed. Only Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and Indianapolis’ Jerrell Freeman graded out better last season at inside linebacker.
Following his team’s 27-20 playoff loss to the Patriots last month, Johnson was asked if he planned to play another year. “I haven’t really thought about it much, but you know, I’m a Chief—I’m a Chief at heart,” said the 11-year pro, per Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star. “The offseason is here now, but we’ll figure all that out. But I’m a Chief.”
We tend to think he will be a Chief once again as well.
Best Fit: Kansas City Chiefs
Prediction: Re-signs with Chiefs
ILB James Laurinaitis (Released by Los Angeles Rams)
When you think about the storied history of the Rams franchise, regardless of where it has played, it always comes back to defense.
The recent version of this club, now headed to Los Angeles, has featured a potent pass rush and productive linebackers. But one of those mainstays of the front four and a performer who didn’t miss a game in seven seasons is no longer with the club.
As reported by Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Friday, the Rams released defensive end Chris Long, tight end Jared Cook and linebacker Jim Laurinaitis. Via Instagram, the linebacker had this to say:
After seven unforgettable seasons with the St. Louis Rams, I am saddened that my time with the team has come to an end. I would like to thank the Rams organization for giving me the opportunity to live out my dream of playing in the NFL! I am forever grateful for the time I spent playing alongside my incredible teammates who have become brothers and lifelong friends.
As Thomas notes, Laurinaitis led the Rams in tackles in each of his first four seasons in the league. And it’s interesting to note that those first three years were spent under the guidance of head coach Steve Spagnuolo, who is currently the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants—owners of the worst defense in the league in 2015 in terms of total yards and passing yards allowed per game.
Laurinaitis could wind up in any number of places, notably Detroit as the Lions are preparing to release middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. But it makes far too much sense for Spagnuolo (and the Giants) not to kick the tires on someone who played for the coach in the past.
Best Fit: Detroit Lions
Prediction: Signs with New York Giants
ILB Rolando McClain (Potential UFA, Dallas Cowboys)
If you’re keeping score in this piece, you can tell we are playing a bit of musical chairs with the inside linebackers on this list.
It’s not unusual come free-agency time as teams shuffle to improve their teams, filling holes as players opt for greener pastures.
The eighth overall pick in the 2010 draft by the Oakland Raiders, linebacker Rolando McClain has played five seasons in the league, the last two with the Dallas Cowboys. It’s added up to a total of 24 games (11 in 2015), 161 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions and six passes defensed.
But McClain has had his ups and downs. Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com offered his own evaluation of the talented but erratic pro.
As for us, we get the feeling it’s time for the Cowboys to go in a different direction, while McClain benefits from playing for Teryl Austin, one of the better defensive coordinators in the game.
Best Fit: Dallas Cowboys
Prediction: Signs with Detroit Lions
OLB Von Miller (Potential UFA, Denver Broncos)
It’s a statistic that speaks volumes about the Denver Broncos’ 2015 postseason run, which resulted in a Super Bowl title.
In three games versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers, Gary Kubiak’s offensive unit scored a total of four touchdowns, while outside linebacker Von Miller racked up five sacks.
The eventual Super Bowl 50 MVP enjoyed quite a playoff run. In addition to his sack total, he had 13 tackles, two forced fumbles, two passes defensed and one interception.
In five seasons with the Broncos, Miller has totaled 60 sacks and 16 forced fumbles in 72 regular-season contests. His contract will expire next month, and the popular scuttlebutt is that the four-time Pro Bowler will get the franchise tag by the club.
And as far as a long-term deal with the Broncos? Miller recently spoke with Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com:
I put in all the work I can possibly do. If I was with any other organization, if I was with any other team, maybe I’d be worried about everything, but I’ve got [executive vice president of football operations/general manager] John Elway. He’s played, he’s had experience with this whole process. I feel comfortable. Me and John’s relationship is great: He was there when I was going through stuff and he never wavered. I feel like we won’t waver now either. It will be a great experience, and it will be peaceful—there’s no reason for it not to be.’
The only matter here is whether Miller does indeed get tagged before the parties can work things out. It’s an ideal situation for both Miller and the defending Super Bowl champions.
Best Fit: Denver Broncos
Prediction: Re-signs with Broncos
ILB Vincent Rey (Potential UFA, Cincinnati Bengals)
The Cincinnati Bengals have a lot of work to do over the next few months.
They have a total of 14 potential unrestricted free agents, and nine of them are on the defensive side of the ball. That includes safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, cornerback Adam Jones and defensive linemen Pat Sims and Wallace Gilberry.
It also includes linebacker Vincent Rey, who led the team with 98 tackles for a unit that ranked 11th in the NFL in total defense and seventh in run defense. The Bengals rely on their depth because they have it. But they will also be without linebacker Vontaze Burfict for the first three games of 2016 courtesy of his action in the team’s AFC Wild Card loss to the Steelers, according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.
Best Fit: Cincinnati Bengals
Prediction: Re-signs with Bengals
ILB Danny Trevathan (Potential UFA, Denver Broncos)
The good news is that while Marshall's contract expires soon, he will become a restricted free agent. The bad news is that Trevathan, who led the club with 109 tackles this past season, can test the open market in a few weeks.
The Broncos have their share of big names who can leave on March 9. On defense alone, outside linebacker Von Miller, defensive end Malik Jackson and Trevathan are all eligible for free agency next month. As much as the Broncos may be hoping they can keep the old gang together, especially on defense, don’t be surprised if they can’t afford Trevathan, especially if a team makes an extraordinary offer that Denver feels it just can’t match.
And in the AFC, there happens to be a long-suffering club with a storied defensive coordinator that looks to continue its upward surge on that side of the football.
Best Fit: Denver Broncos
Prediction: Signs with Tennessee Titans
OLB Courtney Upshaw (Potential UFA, Baltimore Ravens)
It was an odd year for the Baltimore Ravens, who suffered through their first losing season under head coach John Harbaugh.
Despite the early-season loss of outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the defense remained a top-10 unit. Still, this group could use some depth and a little youth as well.
While he’s totaled only five sacks in four seasons, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw has been one of the better run-stopping 3-4 outside linebackers in the league the past two seasons. In 2015, he tallied 51 tackles, two sacks, a pair of forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
When it comes to stopping opponents on the ground, both the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears could use some help. Only three teams in the NFL allowed more rushing yards than the Niners this past season, and the Bears were tied for 22nd in the league in this category in 2015.
A move to the Windy City would put Upshaw with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, one of the best in the business, and give him the opportunity to reunite with former Ravens teammate Pernell McPhee, giving the Bears a nice pair of bookends and some versatility as well.
Best Fit: San Francisco 49ers
Prediction: Signs with Chicago Bears