NFL1000: Free-Agency Rankings for the 2017 ILB Market

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2017

NFL1000: Free-Agency Rankings for the 2017 ILB Market

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    Welcome to Bleacher Report's NFL1000 free-agency preview, a series where we'll use the power of the 17-man NFL1000 scouting department to bring you in-depth analysis of every NFL free agent this offseason. In this installment, lead scout Doug Farrar and linebacker scout Jerod Brown dive into this year's inside LB class.  

    Positional needs in the NFL are generational and strategic, and few positions have changed in terms of what they require from their players more than the inside linebacker position. Once dominated by men like Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke, glass-eaters who moved forward to the ball almost exclusively, the position now demands unprecedented versatility. Pure run-stoppers are going the way of the dinosaur, replaced by slot cornerbacks and hybrid safeties.

    The inside linebacker who wants to be a three-down factor in the modern game must do a host of things well. Yes, he needs to flow through gaps and blocks to create negative plays in the run game, but that’s just the start. He must also be able to bail into coverage easily and seamlessly, and not just crossing routes. The best inside linebackers can run with tight ends up the seam and deep post receivers up the middle.

    Additionally, the best inside linebackers are great blitzers and counter their blitz looks with the kind of consistent coverage excellence that forces quarterbacks to guess which way is this linebacker going? Pre-snap, if the opposing quarterback doesn’t know whether you’re blitzing or dropping, and you’re just as good either way, you create a schematic advantage unseen in previous eras.

    Yes, there’s still room in situational roles for the specialists, but if you’re not a do-it-all guy, you’re going to lose your place in the NFL. This free-agent class of inside linebackers is a big one, and there are all kinds of players. And there are a few of those multitaskers who make defenses go.

    Previous Installments

    NFL1000 Free-Agent Quarterback Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Tight End Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Fullback Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Kicker/Punter Rankings
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    FL1000 Free-Agent Left Tackle Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Offensive Guard Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Center Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Right Tackle Rankings

    All advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

25. Rolando McClain

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Incomplete: Rolando McClain did not play enough in 2016 to receive full grading

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Rolando McClain is one of the great mysteries of the NFL world; how fantastic athletes and young men with bright futures seem to throw those opportunities away with off-field issues. McClain is currently suspended indefinitely and, if he is reinstated sometime in 2017, it’s hard to see him signing with a club.

    He’ll have to spend time committed to his own personal health and convince the league office and owners that his substance abuse issues are behind him. When on the field, McClain is an above-average player. In limited time as a Cowboy, he showed an aggressive versatility that the Dallas defense could use. Of course, as with many players who battle off-field issues, the risk investment will be directly tied to his own value.

    McClain is no longer the young and athletic player that he was when he entered the league. Years ago, McClain’s behavior may have been dismissed while he could physically compete. After looking out of shape when he last played, McClain not only has to erase doubts about his substance abuse but will also have to show he’s worthy of a spot moving forward. Young athletes that can play special teams are a dime a dozen, further pushing McClain from having any sort of meaningful impact on the field.

    As his age increases, his on-field returns diminish and the headache of another suspension looms, it’s hard to see teams contacting McClain prior to him being reinstated by the league. It’s safe to take McClain off the table as a free-agent candidate worth watching as he’ll likely be struggling to get back into the league before he even has to worry about finding a roster spot.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Sadly, McClain's story is one of great physical potential upended by off-field issues, and now that his skills have declined, there's little for him to offer NFL teams, except as a cautionary tale. 

    Potential Suitors: None    

24. Nate Palmer

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Incomplete: Nate Palmer did not play enough in 2016 to receive full grading

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Nate Palmer played in 14 games for the Tennessee Titans in 2016, starting zero and adding two tackles on the year. It doesn’t take a genius to see that those numbers don’t paint a pretty picture for a player seeking a contract somewhere in 2017. In 2015, as a member of the Green Bay Packers, Palmer started 10 games and had 47 solo tackles. Green Bay opted to replace Palmer with rookie Blake Martinez and second-year player Jake Ryan. Neither Martinez nor Ryan is a top-notch inside ‘backer, which is to say that Palmer is finding himself lower on the depth chart with each progressing year.

    As he enters free agency, Palmer is likely going to find a roster spot as the third-string linebacker for a team. He’ll turn 28 in September and is likely past any athletic prime that may have earned him a legitimate shot at even a backup role. As a starter, Palmer lacks the necessary instincts and upper-body strength to get off blocks when he can’t beat offensive linemen to the hole. As a sixth-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, Palmer has done well to stay in the league, but he'll be limited to a special teams role moving forward.

    Don’t expect to see his services highly sought after, as he could wind up being a player that signs late because of injuries among teams. The team that signs Palmer will be without obvious holes inside and can bring him on without the allure of being a starter or immediate backup. As teams fill out special teams charts late in the summer, Palmer’s best chance to latch onto a club will be through quietly working the veteran process and remaining largely unnoticed. He’ll be the player that stands out in the fourth preseason game when the majority of players are third-stringers and undrafted free-agent rookies trying to make an impression.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Palmer's primary value is as an in-the-box thumper with occasional pass pressure in a linebacker rotation. His starting days may be behind him, though.

    Potential Suitors: Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions    

23. Christian Jones

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Incomplete: Christian Jones did not play enough in 2016 to receive full grading

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Christian Jones never saw playing time in Chicago this year and it’s likely that he’ll be leaving the Bears for an opportunity to compete as an immediate backup. Jones was stuck behind Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkoski and John Timu on the Bears depth chart and should be interested in finding a team that has less of a settled depth chart.

    In preseason study, Jones was an intriguing player that offered athleticism but lacked the upper-body strength to engage offensive linemen and maintain leverage inside. Against gap schemes, Jones will struggle to fill alleys because of a lack of diagnosing skills and instincts. By the time he’s figured out what’s happening, offensive linemen are already in his lap.

    The Chicago Bears have two guaranteed starters at inside linebacker and a young player behind them that looks like a nice developmental project. The apparent lack of instincts and play recognition from Jones could be because of the lack of live reps he saw in 2016. He started 13 games for the Bears in their six-win 2015 season, but he does have that experience to hang his hat on. As they approach teams, Jones and his agent should pitch that he could develop into a solid backup with more live playing reps, giving him an opportunity to clean up processing skills with valuable time spent on the field.

    He’ll likely fall into the bottom tier of inside linebackers searching for deals and rightfully so. Prior to the Bears' bringing in Freeman and Trevathan, Jones was one of the linebackers that they leaned on, and his performance was poor enough to encourage the front office to look elsewhere for talent. Jones’ best hope is to hit a team that has no linebacker depth so that he might be able to carve out a role as a primary backup and core special-teamer.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Jones is a fairly rangy guy who might be better in space than as a run-stopper. The team with the right scheme could take a shot on him as a depth prospect.

    Potential Suitors: San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers    

22. Josh McNary

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 17.2/25
    Run Defense: 23.2/35
    Pass Rush: 8/15
    Tackling: 9.8/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 64.2/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 64/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Josh McNary began the season deep on the Indianapolis Colts depth chart but was given an opportunity to start after D’Qwell Jackson was suspended for four games in early December. McNary played sparingly, and mainly as the third linebacker that specialized in coverage, before being supplanted altogether by Edwin Jackson and rookie Antonio Morrison.

    McNary’s role throughout the season appeared to be the third-down ‘backer for the Colts, but he lacked the fluidity to cover backs one-on-one and often didn’t have the instincts to impress as a zone defender. His coverage grade is reflective of a handful of reps but also a limited scope of playing ability. He has a package of tools that can be developed, but he’s far away from being considered starting material and needs to find a way to be a more complete player if he anticipates challenging for even an immediate backup role.

    With roster sizes limited, McNary will likely find himself one of the last cuts to be made as teams decide that his limited range of skills doesn’t justify saving a spot. The Colts gave him more than one opportunity to make an impact, and he failed to do so. On a roster that had almost no continuity, the lack of standout play from McNary will hurt as he looks to sign somewhere. The Colts lost their starter and had no suitable backups behind him. McNary didn't take advantage of the opportunity.

    He could latch on, perhaps with the Colts again, but don’t expect to see consistent play from him anytime soon. Ideally, he’d land somewhere with concrete starters, allowing him to make an impact on special teams while continuing to develop the fundamental technique to compete every play at the NFL level.

    Doug's Quick Take

    McNary had a decent rookie season in 2013 with limited snaps, but he doesn't hold up well as a starter. He may have to wait for training camps as teams look for linebacker depth and special teams help.

    Potential Suitors: Atlanta Falcons, Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens

21. Nick Bellore

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 15.7/25
    Run Defense: 23/35
    Pass Rush: 8.4/15
    Tackling: 9.4/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 62.6/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 65/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Nick Bellore is a standout special teams player and rightfully so. He was routinely one of the first players down on coverage and has the physicality and tenacity to compete on the return team. Bellore can’t be faulted for being thrust into a starting linebacker spot in San Francisco after injuries ended both NaVorro Bowman and Ray-Ray Armstrong’s seasons.

    Against starting competition, Bellore clearly looks out of his element and beyond his skill set. As a tackler, perhaps the most important trait for an inside linebacker, Bellore is underwhelming. He lunges in gaps, loses leverage and generally looks like he’s diving in situations that don’t call for it. Bellore has the lateral agility and competitive toughness to stay on his feet, roll his hips through contact and finish plays, but he rarely does. Bellore graded out as the worst inside linebacker in 2016, but he’s essentially a third-string player that was forced to start.

    As a run player, Bellore prefers to dance around blocks, lacking the upper-body strength or punch timing to disrupt offensive linemen as they climb to the second level. As Bellore gets reached, he easily loses balance and fails to disengage in any manner. The San Francisco 49ers were working with few quality pieces on defense, but Bellore’s play was consistently among the worst in the league. He’s good for a couple of plays a game that pop off the screen, often due to simply diving underneath the action at the line of scrimmage, but it’s an inconsistent technique that often leaves him helpless as ball-carriers scamper by.

    As Bellore and his agent negotiate for a contract, teams will likely be viewing him primarily as a special teams guy. Niners fans won’t like it much, but the team should re-sign Bellore. Provided that he is a backup inside linebacker and serves as a captain on special teams, Bellore would be a great find relative to his price tag.

    Doug's Quick Take

    There are times when Bellore shows athletic potential, especially when moving from sideline to sideline, but he has a lot of work to do when it comes to consistency. He'd be best-served signing with a team that has sure-thing starters at linebacker and can take time to develop him.

    Potential Suitors: San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets

20. Audie Cole

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Incomplete: Audi Cole did not play enough in 2016 to receive full grading

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Audie Cole backed up Eric Kendricks, a top-five player at the position when healthy. Cole saw playing time in 2016 when Kendricks missed Week 9 with a concussion. The Vikings altered their nickel package when Cole was forced into the starting role, opting to keep Chad Greenway and Anthony Barr on the field and removing Cole.

    When Kendricks is healthy, he’s a three-down linebacker that is the primary man in coverage for the Vikings. The personnel difference with Cole indicates the Vikings don't trust Cole as a three-down player. The Vikings likely aren’t preparing to move forward without Kendricks or Barr, meaning that they’re not necessarily on the market for another starter at linebacker, or at least not above other positions to be filled. 

    Cole has the requisite athleticism and aggressiveness to compete in the NFL but lacks the mental processing skills to be a routinely efficient player. At a level where most players are athletic freaks, Cole’s inability to have a trait that separates him is essentially the deciding factor on the depth chart. Whether in Minnesota or elsewhere, it’s unlikely that Cole would ever establish himself as an average starter and is better off signing a multiyear deal that can keep him settled as he makes a career as a backup.

    Teams may reach out to Cole’s agent about a rotational role, but the likelihood that he is offered any chance to start is slim. Cole is lucky to be seen as the primary backup in Minnesota, a place that likely values him over the rest of the league. Minnesota is the best place for Cole to see special teams snaps and have some sense of security on the roster.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Cole is a decent backup and occasional injury starter in a base 4-3 defense, but his tape doesn't suggest a ton of upside. Most likely, he'll be relegated to special teams duty if everyone in his rotation stays healthy in 2017.

    Potential Suitors: Carolina Panthers, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers    

19. LaRoy Reynolds

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Incomplete: LaRoy Reynolds did not play enough in 2016 to receive full grading

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    If not for the rise of Atlanta Falcons rookie sensation Deion Jones, LaRoy Reynolds might have had an opportunity to spend 2016 as the starter at inside linebacker for the Falcons. Reynolds served as the starter for three games while Jones battled an injury and looked productive enough to become a starter elsewhere.

    Reynolds was a core special teams player, providing value to the Falcons, but he’ll likely be interested in a contract that projects him as a starter. He’s entering free agency at the right time, falling outside of the top tier of inside ‘backers but providing enough value that warrants competing offers.

    Reynolds is solid in run support when he relies on first-step instincts. Any hesitation in his game and he’s often looking to avoid blocks rather than stacking and shedding offensive linemen. With consistent game reps as a starter, Reynolds should learn to trust his eyes more and play at the flashes of speed that he showed in limited time. He’ll never be an above-average player, but Reynolds is someone that you can plug in and win with.

    Reynolds likely won’t be a starter by the end of 2017, but he’ll field offers that appear to be starter-level compensation for teams with a need. Reynolds is much like A.J. Klein, a linebacker you can win with if you surround him with better players. He does enough to help secure wins, but he’s far from an impact player. Reynolds likely won’t be signed early and lacks the dominant trait to hang his hat on, but he’s more than serviceable as a high-level backup that can succeed in limited starting time.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Reynolds is a fine special-teamer, but when he was on the field in 2016, it was clear that he didn't possess the speed required to play in a Dan Quinn defense—especially when you saw rookies Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell flying all over the place. He's not going to see a ton of snaps with the Falcons as they continue to develop their young defense; if he wants a shot as a starter, it would be with a team that values in-the-box tackling more and pure athleticism less. Given that more and more teams are using nickel as their base defense, his skills are less in demand.

    Potential Suitors: Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons

18. Kelvin Sheppard

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 15.8/25
    Run Defense: 25.2/35
    Pass Rush: 8.7/15
    Tackling: 10.4/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 66.1/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 57/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Kelvin Sheppard is the New York Giants' run-stopping linebacker. He plays an average of about 20 snaps a game and has a relatively limited impact on the outcome. With the Giants often employing a nickel defense and using safety Landon Collins in a variety of manners, the team primarily uses two linebackers on the field, leaving Sheppard on the sidelines.

    At inside linebacker, the one-trick guys that usually see the field are coverage players that can minimize the damage of receiving running backs. Few players carve out a role as being an average run defender and below average in coverage. Sheppard is working with a skill set that wasn’t put on display in New York and will hurt him in this free-agency cycle.

    As an inside linebacker, he rarely shows the aggressiveness or ability to diagnose and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. In a limited role, he possesses the athleticism to provide quality depth on a team with unsettled starters, but he falls out of the arena of a starting inside linebacker in the league.

    Given the coverage expectations that teams demand with varied offenses, Sheppard’s skill set is too limited to be considered an average starter. He’d be best utilized as an immediate backup. In red-zone packages, he has the thickness to be solid against the run provided that he isn’t expected to read keys and can instead play downhill at the snap.

    Sheppard will be best-served to find a team without established starters. His name and experience alone may warrant a seat atop the depth chart, and he may be able to parlay that into a heightened sense of value. Long-term contracts are the goal, but Sheppard should consider signing somewhere in the short term and hoping that he earns enough playing time to prove himself as a more valuable commodity. In this free-agency cycle, he doesn’t offer anything that can’t be found elsewhere and likely for a cheaper price.

    Doug's Quick Take

    A run-stopper and occasional blitzer, Sheppard is the kind of limited linebacker specialist that saw a lot more playing time back in the days when teams didn't see range in space as a necessary attribute for every linebacker. Perhaps a 3-4 base team will like him as a run defender in certain packages.

    Potential Suitors: New York Giants, Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons

17. Michael Wilhoite

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    Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 16.5/25
    Run Defense: 23.8/35
    Pass Rush: 8.7/15
    Tackling: 10.1/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 65.1/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 61/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    As a backup inside linebacker, Michael Wilhoite is one of the best in the league. He knows his responsibilities, can stay on the field for all three downs as a run-stopper and in coverage and is a core special teams player for the San Francisco 49ers. Unfortunately, Wilhoite has been called into action far too often over the last three seasons.

    Wilhoite will point to that valuable playing time and likely ask a team to give him a shot to be an unquestioned starter. If his time as a starter for the 49ers is an indication, he may always be a career backup that sees spot starts due to injuries or weak roster depth.

    Wilhoite’s value as an immediate backup can’t be understated, as the inside linebacker position saw some of the best in the game sit out due to injury or suspension in 2016. Luke Kuechly, Eric Kendricks and Jerrell Freeman all missed time, and qualified backups like Wilhoite are hard to come by. The issue will fall with the compensation that Wilhoite expects relative to the actual value he brings to a team.

    Wilhoite is a former safety who has bulked up to play inside linebacker and has toiled as a backup for years. He’s a sound tackler, but he offers little as a pass-rusher and is only marginal in run support. Where Wilhoite excels is as a zone defender who can drop and read a quarterback's eyes. The San Francisco defense as a whole was a mess in 2016, limiting any type of positive impact Wilhoite might have. While he can point to the starts (six in 2016, 36 in his career) as proof of his value, the performances were underwhelming at best. Wilhoite is a classic case of a guy being an above-average backup and below-average starter. There’s a place for those guys in the league, but Wilhoite may face a reality check when he approaches teams about compensation.

    Doug's Quick Take

    There's no question that Wilhoite pops off the tape at times. He can show a ton of open-field range, and when he flows to the ball correctly, he's an estimable player. As long as he stays assignment-correct and has the right kind of talent around him, he could unearth potential we haven't yet seen from him. 

    Potential Suitors: San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts    

16. A.J. Klein

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 16.2/25
    Run Defense: 23.4/35
    Pass Rush: 9.2/15
    Tackling: 9.8/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 64.6/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 63/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    A.J. Klein is the backup to Carolina Panthers star Luke Kuechly and, quite frankly, it’s the perfect role for him. Klein started a handful of games following Kuechly’s midseason concussion that forced him out for the remainder of the year and, when given an opportunity, Klein was impressive. Certainly, it’s all relative as Klein is a backup and happens to be replacing the best in the league.

    Klein has impressive athleticism but also demonstrates the power upon contact to be an interior run defender in the Panthers defense. Certainly, Klein will field offers to come to other teams, but it’s unlikely that those are offers to start. As a backup, Klein is one of the best inside linebackers in the league. He rarely looked out of place and showed the mental processing to step in immediately after Kuechly’s injury.

    If Klein is able to continue as a core special teams player and immediate backup to Kuechly, who unfortunately may see more concussion issues as his career prolongs, he has an opportunity to carve out a nice career in Carolina. Klein’s scores throughout the 2016 season pushed him toward the bottom of the NFL1000 rankings, but much of that is because of how Carolina used him and altered its defense once Kuechly was injured. Had Klein been used in the same role as Kuechl—i.e. rushing the passer, playing all three downs—he likely would’ve regressed toward the mean and landed somewhere just outside of the top 35 inside linebackers.

    Klein has a knack for finding the ball and managed to look engaged in run support every play. The Panthers took Klein off the field often as they used nickel looks with Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson at linebacker. With more reps, Klein may have stood out more and improved his score. As it stands, Klein will garner interest, but his best bet is to remain in Carolina as Kuechly’s primary backup.

    Doug's Quick Take

    When Klein subs in for Kuechly, his relative limitations are clear. He's at least a full step behind Kuechly in most things—diagnosing the action, flowing to the ball and certainly when dropping into coverage, he can get caught short rather quickly. He can be a starter, but not a special one, and his best role is as a high-quality backup.

    Potential Suitors: Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers

15. Perry Riley

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 17.2/25
    Run Defense: 25.1/35
    Pass Rush: 9.1/15
    Tackling: 10.2/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 67.7/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 47/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Perry Riley wasn’t the Oakland Raiders starter at inside ‘backer to begin the season. He was a street free agent that came in to replace Ben Heeney, who was at the time one of the worst starters in the league. Aside from Heeney, the Raiders gave rookie Cory James at shot to earn the role and, while he improved, it was clear that an upgrade was needed.

    The signing of Riley steadied the ship, but the Raiders defense as a whole wasn’t nearly as effective as one might hope with Khalil Mack leading the way. The high-profile players on the team will command plenty of the salary cap over the coming years, and inside linebacker will likely be a position that the team looks to solidify through the draft. As such, take the top names of players out of consideration for the Raiders. All things considered, provided they can draft a replacement high, paying a veteran like Riley to come back for another season or two wouldn’t be a terrible move.

    Riley is an average athlete, but he can stay on the field for all three downs and has spent time in the league as a starter. As a top-tier rookie takes the expected lumps, having a veteran presence like Riley around would benefit the defense greatly. Riley is likely beyond being a starter in the NFL, but he is one of the best backups in the league.

    The Raiders should expect competition for his services, particularly with teams that are trying to fill out rosters that have holes everywhere. Teams like the San Francisco 49ers will have to negotiate which positions to target in the draft, which are worth spending on top-tier free agents and which will be built around second- and third-tier players who are looking for an opportunity to stay in the league. Riley meets that third category, and his ability to step in for the Raiders shortly after being signed points to his mental processing and comfortability in the league. 

    Doug's Quick Take

    The light did go on to a point for Riley in Oakland in 2016, in part because the Raiders used him in a way that maximized his skill set. He's best-served as a drop-and-cover linebacker, which makes him valuable in rotation for any number of 4-3 teams playing more nickel defense.

    Potential Suitors: Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans    

14. Sio Moore

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 16.4/25
    Run Defense: 25.6/35
    Pass Rush: 9.1/15
    Tackling: 9.5/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 66.6/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 54/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Sio Moore bounced between two teams in 2016, earning NFL1000 grades as a member of both the Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals. He finished the season as a starter after Deone Bucannon was sidelined with an injury.

    As a Colt, Moore looked generally lost and put out some of the worst tape of any player all season. He seemed timid, confused and generally uninterested in playing the interior run with any intensity. He lacked force upon contact and could be swallowed up with relative ease by offensive linemen. As a result, the Indianapolis Colts defense as a whole suffered.

    As a Cardinal, however, Moore looked like a completely different player. He ended the season showing an impressive ability to rush the passer, defend edge runs and shoot gaps in zone schemes for losses. The defenders around him in Arizona were much better, but Moore looked significantly more comfortable in his assignments and more decisive as a player. In the NFL, half-step delays can be the difference between a tackle for loss or a 15-yard gain. As Moore played more decisively, he demonstrated athletic ability requisite of a starting linebacker.

    Whichever team signs Moore will be betting the second half of his season is more indicative of what type of player he can be consistently. Either way, he’s not someone who will demand a hefty paycheck, and he’s a spot-starter at best. With limited reps, Moore can use his energy to be successful, but his consistency in effort clearly decreased late in games. He’s on the same tier as a player like Perry Riley, someone who may impress in limited playing time but is not a weekly starter in the NFL.

    Moore will likely be able to stick with one team all year, provided that whichever team signs him is realistic in its expectations. The team won’t be getting a game-changing linebacker, but rather a serviceable replacement who won’t lose you games every week. Once the top guys are signed, Moore should have a couple of options for 2017.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Moore is best in a scheme where his responsibilities are limited to blitzing, covering short passes and covering ground to the ball-carrier from side to side. As long as he's doing those things, he's a decent asset to any linebacker rotation. 

    Potential Suitors: New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos

13. D'Qwell Jackson

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 17.3/25
    Run Defense: 26.4/35
    Pass Rush: 8.8/15
    Tackling: 10.4/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 68.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 38/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown 

    D’Qwell Jackson wasn’t scheduled to be a free agent but, after being released by the Indianapolis Colts on February 9, he finds himself searching for a new team in 2017. He immediately becomes one of the more intriguing options in this group. Jackson was released after ending the 2016 season serving a four-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, a mistake that teams will use as leverage in bargaining with Jackson’s agent.

    The Indianapolis Colts are far from set at inside linebacker. In addition to his off-field mistake, Jackson was aging and not worth the financial obligations of his contract. On a Colts defense that was atrocious in 2016, Jackson was a veteran player that provided leadership and average play, but the team desperately needs to find young talent moving forward.

    As a player, Jackson sits in the middle of the pack among inside linebackers. He can do everything at a requisite level, but he is past his prime and won’t make the impact plays that have highlighted some of the recent stars at inside linebacker. As a run defender, Jackson has the thick frame and necessary aggressiveness to handle interior runs, but he’s far from the sideline-to-sideline defender that teams will prefer in a starting inside linebacker.

    If Jackson has any hope of claiming a starting spot, he’s going to have to sign with a team that has other more pressing needs to address. Teams like the Cincinnati Bengals can be taken of the list, as they’re looking for athletic upgrades and youth. Jackson is the perfect one- or two-year spot-starter while other players develop underneath him for a franchise that might have long-term growth in mind. Any team competing immediately will probably stay away from Jackson as a confirmed starter.

    Expect Jackson to deal with a dose of reality to start free agency as other linebackers are heavily pursued.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Jackson's PED suspension will give teams pause, but his tape from the last few seasons will also do that. At this point in his career, he's an inline run defender and not the best one on the open market. He's a good fill-in veteran for inflated tackle totals, but he's not going to have a transcendent effect on your defense.

    Potential Suitors: San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints, Detroit Lions

12. Gerald Hodges

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    Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 16.2/25
    Run Defense: 25.9/35
    Pass Rush: 8.8/15
    Tackling: 10.3/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 67.2/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 48/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    If the San Francisco 49ers decide to retain the services of any of the three inside linebackers on this list, they ought to choose Gerald Hodges. Hodges played well to end the season and, with an established starter next to him, would be an average player. The 49ers have needs throughout the roster and will have to concede to upgrade certain positions now while waiting on others.

    The inside linebacker position is one that should see an upgrade this season. Hodges is a high-level backup and average starter, but his inconsistencies game to game make it difficult to rely on him long term. The 49ers will likely target linebackers in the draft, but that won’t be enough to fill out the holes in this positional group. Hodges should be one of the team's primary re-sign targets, especially given the mediocre contract he should expect.

    Hodges has shown just enough to make the pro evaluation process relatively simple while simultaneously not doing enough to have significant leverage in the negotiation process. He’s an average player who will have impressive games here and there but usually has little impact. If he’s able to develop as an interior pass-rusher, something that teammate NaVorro Bowman excels in, Hodges could increase his value significantly. In coverage, Hodges lacks the fluidity to drop and redirect consistently and often looks to be processing a half-step slower than you’d prefer, but he has a knack for finding the football with two interceptions, two passes defended and a forced fumble in 2016.

    In a rotating group, Hodges offers the value the 49ers front office should be interested in, with a backup depth role being the best-case scenario as the team finds an immediate replacement.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Hodges was a highly underrated player in San Francisco's disaster of a defense. He will take whatever you ask him to do and do it at a high level. In a better system and with more talent around him, he has plus-starter potential.

    Potential Suitors: San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants

11. Manti Te'o

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    Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Incomplete: Manti Te'o did not play enough in 2016 to receive full grading

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Manti Te’o may never be an above-average player in the NFL. After Te’o suffered a season-ending injury, the San Diego Chargers replaced him with a rotation of rookies Jatavis Brown and Joshua Perry, Korey Toomer and even Kyle Emanuel for a moment. Each of those players looked as comfortable, if not more comfortable, than Te’o did as a starter.

    Specifically, Jatavis Brown stepped in and flashed an immediate upgrade in athleticism and ability in coverage that the Chargers should see as a legit defensive weapon moving forward. Te’o combines average-at-best athleticism with a somewhat reckless style of play that makes it difficult to see how the Chargers would consider bringing him back. Throw in a season-ending injury and Te’o is hitting free agency at the worst of times.

    Te’o’s worst trait is that he isn’t a particularly impressive tackler. Sure, he can make plenty of tackles, but they’re often well beyond the line of scrimmage and lack any sort of force. Inside linebackers catching running backs five yards downfield rarely turn out to be valuable assets.

    When he first came out of school, Te’o was championed for his intensity and competitiveness while at Notre Dame. In the NFL, those traits are prevalent on every team, and Te’o doesn’t have the skill set to trump other competition. He’ll find a home because of his commitment and work ethic, but it's unlikely he'll be starting because of potential difficulties from coming back from injury and the realities of his skill.

    If Te’o is interested in landing somewhere with a shot to start, he’ll likely have to take less money and commit to being a special teams captain before impressing in camp. Rosters with weak depth could be Te’o’s target as he tries to sneak his way into a starting spot. Te’o fails against even solid competition along the offensive line, lacking the functional strength to disengage from blockers and maintain balance and gap leverage while bringing force into contact against solid backs. His work ethic and competitiveness aren't valuable enough for him to be worth a starter-level contract. 

    Doug's Quick Take

    Te'o was gassed against Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, which was the first indicator that against NFL-level rushing attacks, he was not going to be powerful enough to counter big-boy offenses on a consistent basis. That's proved true throughout his NFL career, and his work against the pass isn't good enough to make him a plus starter in a base nickel or dime defense. He's on the outs as a starter unless he can buck his injury history and come up with a plan to be above average in one dimension of his game.

    Potential Suitors: Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions, New York Giants

10. Sean Spence

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 17.2/25
    Run Defense: 24.6/35
    Pass Rush: 9.2/15
    Tackling: 10.2/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 67.2/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 50/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Sean Spence spent 2016 as the third inside linebacker in Tennessee, but he was often used in the rotation as the primary coverage ‘backer. Spence is solid in coverage, but he will have to demonstrate an ability to play against the inside run for an entire game.

    The Titans often moved him over receivers and allowed him to play in non-traditional areas that hid some of his ineffectiveness against the run. Spence may never be a three-down linebacker, but there is plenty of value for a player like him in the NFL today.

    Teams are moving toward three linebackers and using rotations that maximize the strengths of their players without expecting every player to be a well-rounded performer. A great example of this is the way that the Denver Broncos used linebacker Corey Nelson in the middle of the year. Spence will directly benefit from the changing player usage as someone that doesn’t do everything well but can hang in coverage and offers impressive athleticism to develop.

    Where Spence fails to keep up with teammates Avery Williamson and Wesley Woodyard is in aggressiveness against the inside run. As teams would spread the Titans out and run inside, Spence lacked the physical presence to routinely take on guards. He managed to get lucky and win an occasional rep, but he was losing more often than not. As teams employ nickel defenders, linebackers have to be able to stop the run. Spence’s skill set is the reverse of what might’ve been able to put him on the field more.

    Williamson and Woodyard hold the starting spots in Tennessee, but Spence may elect to stay and challenge one of the two for the playing time. The gap in ability between the three linebackers is relatively little, and the usage often depends on the team that Tennessee is playing. If Spence is willing to sign for backup money, Tennessee would be the ideal location for him to continue carving out a role that suits his skill set. Expect Spence to have a few suitors who view him primarily as an immediate backup and rotational player.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Teams want different things from their linebackers. Not everyone is a three-down guy, and with teams working to make sub-packages their default formations, a good pass-rusher like Spence who can work in coverage might have a few suitors. 

    Potential Suitors: Tennessee Titans, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs

9. Bruce Carter

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    Al Pereira/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Incomplete: Bruce Carter did not play enough in 2016 to receive full grading

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Bruce Carter is the surprise name on this list who could wind up being an impressive starter in 2017. He played in spots throughout 2016 while the New York Jets attempted to figure out what to do with rookie Darron Lee and how to play him next to David Harris. Carter was pushed down the depth chart but, in limited snaps, looked aggressive and hyped up for contact.

    Carter should field plenty of offers, and he’d be wise to find another team that gives him an opportunity to start. Carter could ask for less than established starters like Lawrence Timmons, Kiko Alonso and Kelvin Sheppard, and he’s likely better than all three when given a starting position. The Jets struggled to identify a coverage plan with linebackers, and Carter likely wouldn’t have been in coverage had he seen significant playing time. As such, projecting how Carter will fare in coverage is difficult, but there’s no lack of competitive toughness.

    With a game that looks eerily similar to Mason Foster's of the Washington Redskins, Carter may earn a starting role by flashing impressive toughness and strength at the point of attack every so often. He’ll surely get washed and guess wrong at times, but with a handful of snaps a game that jump out, Carter will likely get some interest on the market. 

    Top teams likely won’t be calling Carter, instead looking for replacements that can be found in the draft. However, teams with multiple holes on their rosters can sign Carter for a couple of years while they fill out the rest of the roster with draft choices. Carter comes as an experienced player (36 career starts) with a slightly higher price tag than a rookie, but teams may be able to sign him to a cheap deal because of his lack of playing time over the last two seasons. 

    Doug's Quick Take

    Carter put up some solid tape for the Cowboys in 2013 and 2014 (especially the latter season, in which he had five picks), and he's still a good all-around player who will help any defense for a relatively low price.

    Potential Suitors: San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts    

8. Kiko Alonso

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    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 17.1/25
    Run Defense: 23.3/35
    Pass Rush: 8.8/15
    Tackling: 9.9/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 65.1/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 60/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Kiko Alonso is one of the most overvalued players in the league and, given the list of free-agent inside linebackers, expect that to continue throughout this cycle. Although he’s a restricted free agent, Alonso will likely have at least another team or two checking up on the price to pull him from the Miami Dolphins. Whether it is the Dolphins or another team in the league, someone will end up overpaying for Alonso’s services.

    Alonso’s athleticism is his calling card and, prior to a difficult stretch of knee injuries, it made him look like a part of the next wave of inside linebackers in the league. He has the competitiveness to stay on the field for all three downs and the speed to defend edge runs, but there is no toughness in between the tackles whatsoever. The Pittsburgh Steelers embarrassed Alonso and the middle of the Dolphins defense in their Wild Card Round matchup, and it was a fitting representation of Alonso’s season. He lacks the power to stack and shed offensive linemen inside and fails to fight through blocks cleanly.

    As a tackler, Kiko is the best in the league at pulling high numbers that influence the opinion of many. As Alonso's stats stack higher, his play skews further from the actual impact he has. Many of his tackles are often a result of “cleaning up” obvious finishes from teammates or making up for his mistakes earlier in the play. Is it nice to have a guy that can run sideline to sideline to make tackles? Sure. But it’d be a lot nicer if he was able to make the inside plays with any sort of consistency.

    Alonso specializes in making one or two flashy plays a game that intrigue teams into believing he is a top-tier player. He was routinely one of the worst-graded linebackers throughout 2016 because of missed tackles, an inability to display cohesive pass-rushing plans and an inability to defend gap-scheme runs with any intensity. Alonso will have suitors, but they’d be wise to invest their money elsewhere on an inside linebacker.

    Doug's Quick Take

    We'll never know what Alonso's career might have been without those injuries—he was on a path to be one of the more freakish athletes in the NFL. To date, he has not been able to reconcile a dip in athleticism with a more accurate and fundamentally sound tackling style, but that doesn't mean he can't. A lot of teams will kick the tires on him, and for good reason. The question is, how much will they pay?

    Potential Suitors: Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans

7. Akeem Dent

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Incomplete: Akeem Dent did not play enough in 2016 to receive full grading

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Brian Cushing isn’t getting any younger and, after dealing with nagging injuries in 2015, it’s easy to see the Houston Texans listing inside linebacker as a primary need for the team moving into next season.

    With money tied up into the contracts of quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller, the Texans may opt to go the cheap route for linebacker depth. If so, Dent is the perfect candidate and wouldn’t have to move at all.

    Dent served as the Houston Texans primary backup this season and, in limited reps, looked anxious and twitched up while defending the run. In a league where fewer players seem to fill downhill with violence, Dent’s toughness immediately stands out on film as a run defender. He showed enough skills in coverage to warrant development and, at 6’1” and 242 pounds, he has the body type that can handle the interior run game of the division rival Tennessee Titans. Houston’s stud linebacker Benardrick McKinney is one of the most versatile in the league, leaving Dent’s responsibilities to be much less of a playmaker and more of a consistent presence inside the Texans variable defense.

    Dent likely won’t cost the Houston Texans much, and they wouldn’t have to worry about a new player fitting in their relatively settled defense. Additionally, Dent can battle Cushing for a starting role or serve as the immediate backup, and seemingly neither would signal a power struggle on the defensive side of the ball. With the Texans defense being more than enough to get the team to the playoffs, the coaching staff and front office should focus on the other side of the ball. As such, Dent should field an early, cheap offer from the Texans to remain in a comfortable situation.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Players like Dent, who are fundamentally limited to work against the run and with the occasional blitz, will struggle to see a high number of snaps in today's NFL defenses. But he plays his role well enough to get a starting job with a team in need of fortitude against the run in a base 4-3.

    Potential Suitors: Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos    

6. Lawrence Timmons

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 16.6/25
    Run Defense: 26.6/35
    Pass Rush: 9.6/15
    Tackling: 10.9/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 69.6/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 29/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Lawrence Timmons is the quintessential Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker. He’s played all 10 seasons for the Steelers and, despite playing at 30 years old, he seems like a perfect candidate for the team to bring back.

    Timmons isn’t a top-tier linebacker anymore but is the perfect complement to Ryan Shazier’s hectic and wild style of play. While Shazier uses above-average athleticism to shoot gaps, Timmons is left a step behind, trusting keys to clean up any potential misses from Shazier. The Steelers have found a way to maximize what Timmons does well by using him to stop the interior run and asking him to rush the passer a handful of times each game. He’s adequate in coverage and demonstrates the competitive toughness to compete in meaningful games in the AFC North each year.

    The variability of Timmons game is limited, and he won’t have the types of games that leave lasting impressions, but he can be highly efficient and provide spark plays every so often. As a pass-rusher, Timmons shows an impressive ability to time blitzes and isolate offensive linemen to set them up for sacks. The Steelers identified this trait and have successfully made it an integral part of the way Timmons is used each week.

    To the benefit of the Steelers, Timmons will likely go under the radar during this free-agency cycle as 10-year vet who doesn't offer a ton of upside or intrigue. Pittsburgh should be interested in bringing him back to compete for the starting spot next to Shazier again. Timmons’ consistency helps steady the Steelers defense, a young group that is developing at multiple areas.

    Even if he doesn't grab headlines, Timmons is one of the top-tier linebackers available, and he may be able to use that as leverage to try to get more money in the short term as he winds down his career. Although Pittsburgh is probably the best place for him, money may become a factor as his agent tries to maximize what time in Timmons’ career is left. The Steelers will have competition, but they should be the favorites to keep Timmons around.

    Doug's Quick Take

    The ways in which the Steelers used Timmons in 2016 were baffling at times—you don't generally want your 30-year-old inside linebackers having to catch up with speed receivers on vertical routes—and the veteran would benefit from a more stationary role in a 3-4 defense. He can play multiple gaps well and can still cover in the short-to-intermediate areas, and he has a tremendous awareness in some complex schemes.

    Potential Suitors: Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs    

5. Zach Brown

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 18/25
    Run Defense: 26.8/35
    Pass Rush: 9.6/15
    Tackling: 10.8/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 71.2/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 23/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown 

    Zach Brown might be the most inconsistent player in the league. Where he goes and how much a team spends will largely depend on which plays that team watched and bought into. Turning on game film of Brown at various parts of the season paints the picture of an entirely different player. That inconsistency is, and will continue to be, his major flaw.

    Brown’s best reps flaunt him as an athletic, run-stuffing versatile player that can defend the run inside and out and pressure the quarterback when asked to. His worst reps, however, show a lethargic and disinterested player lacking the aggressiveness to defend interior runs with any weight behind him. Zach’s play was the NFL’s equivalent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with one play highlighting a player dominating his competition and the next showing a player that looked lost and overwhelmed.

    Additionally, his last half of the season was an example of a player mentally checking out, often looking disinterested in playing with passion whether it was because of his upcoming contract situation or the general dysfunction of the Buffalo Bills organization. Brown has more than enough traits to become an above-average linebacker in the league, but he’s failed to control his own recklessness to be an efficient and consistent player.

    Teams will call because he’s shown flashes of being very good, but he’ll have to answer questions about his inconsistent play and his end to 2016. Many players see regression in their play throughout the years, and it isn’t surprising to see players have random career years, but Brown’s fluctuating performance has to be a cause for concern. He may have no choice but to sign a deal with a couple of years on it at the most.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Brown had 97 tackles last season and was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 4 after a 14-tackle spree against the Patriots. He is highly inconsistent, and his 2016 season can be split in half—he was marvelous in the first half and fell off precipitously in the second. I'm willing to cede some of that regression to a coaching staff that had a lot of players looking sideways at Rex Ryan, but Brown will have to shore up a few things before he's worth elite money.

    Potential Suitors: Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens

4. Will Compton

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    Rob Leiter/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 17.7/25
    Run Defense: 26.8/35
    Pass Rush: 9.1/15
    Tackling: 10.8/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 70.4/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 25/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Will Compton should be back with the Washington Redskins next season. He missed some playing time with insignificant injuries, but the Redskins have a trio of linebackers in Mason Foster, Su’a Cravens and Compton who are more than enough to compete against the Dallas Cowboys offensive line.

    Compton is the unquestioned leader of that defense, calling out others’ assignments and setting the defense well before the snap. Compton plays fired up and shows the competitive toughness on every down that makes him an ideal inside ‘backer for the 3-4 scheme that Washington uses.

    Compton is a slightly above-average starter that should see plenty of offers on the market from teams looking for an inside player in either scheme. He shows the coverage ability to stay on the field all three downs and has a knack for dropping with the QB’s eyes and tightening throwing lanes. In one-on-one coverage, Compton has the change-of-direction skills to cover most running backs and tight ends down the seam but will succeed far more often in zone coverage that allows him to trust his eyes before breaking on underneath routes.

    The issue will come down to how the Redskins view Cravens moving forward. He’s entering just his second year in the league, and the team may see him as a long-term starter at inside linebacker, eliminating the need to carry both Foster and Compton. If the Redskins decide that a rotating trio is best, Compton may take slightly less than he’d receive elsewhere to stay in a familiar situation. If they decide that Cravens and Foster are enough, Compton may be forced out simply due to timing. For another team, he won’t have a problem finding playing time and should be a starter in 2017.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Compton would be a great fit in any young defense in need of veteran leadership—the Falcons come to mind. Yes, his physical attributes are limited, but he still has a decent window of time before that becomes an obvious issue on the field.

    Potential Suitors: Washington Redskins, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons

3. Kevin Minter

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 17.8/25
    Run Defense: 27.3/35
    Pass Rush: 9.9/15
    Tackling: 10.7/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 71.7/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 21/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Kevin Minter is one of the most consistent linebackers in the league, and few people know about him. On an Arizona defense that is loaded with names and talent, Minter is the unsung hero who keeps things together in the middle of the field for the Cardinals. Deone Bucannon receives recognition for being an undersized linebacker—and he's average at best—but Minter is a much better player and has a skill set that can be maximized in Arizona’s aggressive defense.

    Minter is a solid tackler and comfortable both in coverage and run support. While his tackle numbers were down from 2015, Minter contributed 3.5 sacks and played all 32 regular-season games for the Cardinals over the last two seasons. At 6’0” and 246 pounds, Minter has the frame to compete as an inside linebacker in a 4-3 or 3-4 and a skill set that is still developing as he enters the prime of his athleticism and NFL career.

    Much like Timmons in Pittsburgh, Minter is the steadying source next to a relatively reckless play style from Bucannon. The Arizona defense has explosive playmakers at every level, and Minter remains the piece that shows continuity and consistency in his play style and effect on the game. He’ll never be Luke Kuechly, but, at the right price, he can be a long-term starter who gives the Cardinals financial flexibility at other positions.

    Minter is hitting the free-agent market at an excellent time and should be one of the more sought-after players in this group. The Cardinals would be wise to lock him up. If they’re interested in experimenting with bargain players at linebacker, let Bucannon be the bait. Arizona’s aggressive play on defense relies on players like Minter being able to clean up some of the mess that is created.

    Given he stays healthy, Minter could remain a starter for at least another five years. While many players on this list are hitting free agency looking for an opportunity to showcase themselves, Minter has two years of solid tape that can be used as leverage in negotiations.

     

    Doug's Quick Take

    Minter was an absolute beast of a run-stopper at LSU, and though it took him a while to make that same claim at the NFL level, he's done that over the last couple of seasons. He's limited to run-stopping and pass-rush duties for the most past, as he's not especially quick in space, but he'd be an asset to any 3-4 or hybrid team looking for toughness up the middle.

    Potential Suitors: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets

2. Todd Davis

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 18.4/25
    Run Defense: 26.6/35
    Pass Rush: 9.7/15
    Tackling: 10.8/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 71.5/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 22/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown 

    Todd Davis is one of the most intriguing young inside linebackers in the league, and he’s hitting the free-agent market at the perfect time. He’s coming off his first season as the starter for the Broncos next to Brandon Marshall. Davis showed enough to warrant looks from other teams, but he won’t be the big-money free agent that often scares some teams from even giving a call.

    Davis may be just underneath the top guys this cycle and, as such, will likely see the most suitors of all as teams see him as a developmental player that can be had for a few dollars less than some of the other “proven” commodities. Davis shows impressive instincts and has no fear defending the inside run. He’s comfortable enough in coverage to be a three-down player, provided the team isn’t trotting out the Atlanta running backs. Davis shows the sideline-to-sideline athleticism to play runs to the edge, with the toughness to take on offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage.

    While playing inside linebacker for the Broncos, Davis showed a versatile enough skill set that could make him a target for any team looking to fill an inside role as well as playing Will in a traditional 4-3 defense. The Broncos should consider retaining Davis in a long-term role while his stock is still relatively low. He’s an emerging player that, with quality coaching and experience, should be considered a long-term starter.

    The Baltimore Ravens lost starter Zach Orr to retirement because of injuries, and Todd Davis would be the perfect player to replace him. With similar size, age and playing style, the Ravens could plug Davis in next to C.J. Mosley and replace Orr seamlessly. Expect the Ravens to go heavy at Davis to create a young core at inside linebacker to build around as veterans like Terrell Suggs slowly fade as the faces of the Baltimore defense.

    Doug's Quick Take 

    Davis was a good backup his first two years in the NFL, and he finally got his shot as a recurring starter in 2016. He's not an every-down 'backer just yet, but he could develop into that type of player as he expands his pass-coverage abilities. The team signing Davis could well get a bargain over the next few seasons.

    Potential Suitors: San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys    

1. Dont'a Hightower

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores 

    Pass Defense: 17.8/25
    Run Defense: 27.6/35
    Pass Rush: 10.5/15
    Tackling: 11.1/15
    Positional Value: 6/10 
    Overall: 73/100
    2016 NFL1000 Inside Linebacker Rank: 12/65

    NFL1000 ILB scout Jerod Brown

    Dont’a Hightower will be one of the hottest names in the entire free-agency group, and he should stand head and shoulders above the rest of the inside linebackers. Defining Hightower’s role in the New England defense has been a challenge all season and, when it’s time to be paid, his agent will be able to point to his versatility as a justification for his price tag.

    New England moves Hightower more than almost any linebacker in the league, asking him to rush the passer, set the edge as a linebacker on the line of scrimmage, playing him inside and off the ball or asking him to drop into coverage. He’s most effective when he’s able to play downhill, either defending the run or putting pressure on the quarterback, but the Patriots experimented with moving him around often.

    Hightower’s athletic versatility separates him from most linebackers in the league and, despite grading just outside of the top 10 in NFL1000 rankings, he is comfortably in the top tier of inside ‘backers in the league. Due to the scoring system, Hightower’s variance in responsibility each week makes his grade equally as variable. If the grade was purely reflective of traits and overall ability, Hightower would fit nicely into the top group.

    He is the best pass-rushing inside linebacker in the league and shows a compact punch, good upper-body strength and the footwork and lower-body explosiveness to fire off at snaps and leverage the ball against edge runs. The Patriots were willing to let Jamie Collins go to Cleveland likely knowing that they could only pay one of their inside players. Hightower seems to be the choice. It’d be a shock to see Hightower leave New England as he is Belichick’s new versatile weapon that can play any role in that defense. The price tag should be high, but the Patriots have plenty of cap space and shouldn’t waste time in securing Hightower moving forward.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Hightower is an outstanding run defender, but what makes him such a huge part of the Patriots' defense is how well he blitzes. Bill Belichick started using him more in that capacity over the last three seasons as New England moved back to a base 4-3 defense, and he's probably the best blitzing inside linebacker in the NFL. He can also cover well in short-to-intermediate areas, and I'd be shocked if the Patriots don't bring him back. They could afford to trade Jamie Collins; losing Hightower would be a much bigger hit to their linebacker corps.

    Potential Suitors: New England Patriots