Whether a team runs the 3-4 or 4-3, the inside/middle linebackers are tasked primarily with making tackles, stopping the run, and covering backs and tight ends.
A lot of teams need upgrades to this area, but is there much talent to go around in free agency?
These are my top five inside linebackers on the market in 2010:
(Note: This series of lists only includes unrestricted free agents, as those are the only type that can be signed without giving up compensation. Restricted free agents—especially the best ones—will cost valuable draft picks.)
Karlos Dansby, Arizona Cardinals
Arguably one of the players available at any position this offseason, Dansby is a great, young talent that could help any one of the 32 teams in the National Football League.
Just 28 years old, Dansby is an excellent tackler, cover linebacker, and pass rusher. His versatility is difficult to match, as he could feasibly play any linebacker spot in both the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.
With the Cardinal unlikely to place the franchise tag on him for the third consecutive year, Dansby is poised to finally hit the open market and receive a huge pay day.
Larry Foote, Detroit Lions
After seven total seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers that included five as a starter and two Super Bowl rings, Foote returned to his hometown of Detroit as a free agent in 2009.
Foote was one positive producer for the lowly Lions last season, recording 99 tackles and two sacks in 14 games played.
An experienced linebacker in both the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, Foote isn't a playmaker, but is a more-than-capable starter and should find a home this offseason.
Gary Brackett, Indianapolis Colts
An undersized tackling machine, Brackett has recorded at least 99 tackles each of the past five seasons, including three years with over 115 stops.
Brackett (5-11, 235) will be 30 during the 2010 season and isn't much of a playmaker, but offers plenty of experience and is at least an average starter.
Danny Clark, New York Giants
Clark recorded back-to-back 100+ tackle seasons with the Oakland Raiders in 2005 and 2006, but he hasn't come close to matching that production since as a part-time starter.
He has just two interceptions in 154 games, but he recorded two sacks with the Giants in 2009 and is still a quality tackler. He's probably best suited for a No. 2 inside linebacker job, but you could do worse for a short-term starter in the middle.
Scott Fujita, New Orleans Saints
Although he played outside in New Orleans, Fujita has experience inside and certainly has the size (6-5, 250) for the job and has played there before.
He's never been a tackling machine, but he's solid against the run and has plenty of experience. His best role at this point in his career is probably that of a fourth linebacker that can back up all the three positions in the 4-3 scheme.
Beyond the Top Five
- Chris Draft, Buffalo Bills — An experienced veteran at all of the 4-3 linebacker positions, Draft hasn't been a full-time starter since 2006. He has two 100+ tackle seasons to his credit, but he's strictly a backup at age 33.
- Nick Greisen, Denver Broncos — Now 30, Greisen is coming off a knee injury that forced him to miss the entire 2009 season. He's well below average as a starter, though he has experience in multiple defensive schemes and should latch on somewhere as a backup and special teamer.
- Paris Lenon, St. Louis Rams — Lenon is a solid tackler, but that's about it. He has experience as a starter, but most of it has been overall poor play. He profiles as a backup, and may not last much longer in the NFL even in that role.
- D. D. Lewis, Seattle Seahawks — Lewis hasn't been a full-time starter since 2005 and has never recorded more than 65 tackles in a season. At age 31, Lewis is strictly a special teams player, and probably doesn't have much of an NFL career left.
- Jeremiah Trotter, Philadelphia Eagles — Re-signing Trotter was a sign of desperation for the Eagles, because he really doesn't have a place in this league anymore. A four-time Pro Bowl selection, Trotter is still a solid tackler, but has an extensive injury history and is a big liability in coverage. Expect him to resume his full-time job as major of Oblivion in 2010.
- Matt Wilhelm, San Francisco 49ers — It was just three seasons ago that Wilhelm racked up 97 tackles, a sack, and three interceptions as a starter for the San Diego Chargers, but he's had trouble keeping a job since. An adequate tackler that can also play special teams, Wilhelm is strictly an inside linebacker in the 3-4 or 4-3, and isn't starter material.
Who do you think are the best inside linebackers in free agency? Share your thoughts on the forum here!