NFL1000: Free-Agency Rankings for the 2017 3-4 OLB Market

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2017

NFL1000: Free-Agency Rankings for the 2017 3-4 OLB 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 Zach Kruse dive into the 3-4 outside linebacker class. 

    3-4 "endbackers" still have the primary responsibility of rushing the passer from the edge, but as is the case for all defensive linemen in the modern era, the overall list of tasks for these players has expanded in the last decade.

    Oakland's Khalil Mack, the best such player in the NFL right now, became the first player in league annals to be voted to the Associated Press All-Pro team at two positions—linebacker and defensive end. Joey Bosa, the top rookie 3-4 line defender in name to be sure, played a ton at 3-4 end in addition to his responsibilities outside. Over the last couple of years, the Packers have moved Clay Matthews, long one of the better 3-4 base edge-rushers in the NFL, to inside linebacker and back again.

    To be a truly dominant outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense in 2017 is to be able to do a lot more than that. You may be expected to kick inside. You may be expected to drop into coverage—not just from the line in a zone blitz, but also from second-line depth. You may be asked to provide pressure from multiple gaps, and if you can't stop the run from a two-point stance, you'll be considered expendable as a player who isn't truly valuable on every down.

    This particular free-agent class of players who are classified as 3-4 outside linebackers is packed with talent, from the rotational guys who do one or two things well to the true all-purpose giants to players on the rise.


    Previous Installments

    NFL1000 Free-Agent Quarterback Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Tight End Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Fullback Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Kicker/Punter Rankings
    FL1000 Free-Agent Left Tackle Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Offensive Guard Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Center Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Right Tackle Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Inside Linebacker Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent 3-4 Defensive End Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent 4-3 Defensive End Rankings
    NFL1000 Free Agent Defensive Tackle Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent 3-4 Outside Linebacker Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent 4-3 Outside Linebacker Rankings
    NFL1000 Free-Agent Running Back Rankings

21. Lerentee McCray

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 13.9/25
    Run Defense: 14.1/25
    Coverage: 9.6/15
    Tackling: 16.9/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 61.6/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 64/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    Lerentee McCray changed teams twice before the 2016 season even began. Green Bay signed him away from the Broncos in April, and the Packers traded him to Buffalo in late August. He stayed with the Bills, but the results weren't pretty. He played in 13 games, registering just 16 tackles and no sacks. A rotational rusher for the Bills, McCray often looked in over his head when attempting to take on starting NFL offensive tackles.

    His 13.9 pass-rush grade finished as the worst among the 65 qualified 3-4 outside linebackers in 2016. McCray doesn't have the speed, power or countering ability to win at the point of attack. He was only slightly better in terms of stopping the run, although his opportunities there were limited.

    McCray doesn't turn 27 until August, but his best bet to stay in the NFL is likely on special teams. No team can trust him to play consistent snaps at outside linebacker after witnessing his struggles at the position in 2016.


    Doug's Quick Take

    McCray did have 10 quarterback hurries in 163 snaps last season, but he hasn't posted a sack since Week 6 of the 2015 campaign, when he played for the Broncos and had a world of talent around him. He's an OK depth player, but there are far better options out there.


    Potential Suitors: Washington Redskins, Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers

20. Tourek Williams

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 15.2/25
    Run Defense: 14/25
    Coverage: 8.9/15
    Tackling: 16.3/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 61.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 63/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    Tourek Williams bounced back from missing the entire 2015 season to play in all 16 games for the Chargers in 2016. He tallied only one sack, but he re-established himself as one of the Chargers' core special teams players. They asked very little of him on defense, even when injuries ravaged the linebacker position. Rookie Chris Landrum eventually took most of the backup snaps at outside linebacker late in the season.

    Williams is the classic try-hard backup who sticks on the roster because he'll fight every snap he's on the field and bust his chops on special teams. The Chargers could bring him back for those very reasons, but the hiring of Gus Bradley as defensive coordinator might complicate a reunion. Without big upside as a backup pass-rusher, Williams may need to find a new home for the 2017 season.


    Doug's Quick Take

    Williams might stick as a "Leo" end in Bradley's system, but it's more likely that he'll find a home in a more traditional 3-4 front—Bradley prefers guys who can create more pressure. He is indeed a fine special-teamer, which will help his case.


    Potential Suitors: Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs

19. David Bass

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 15.7/25
    Run Defense: 14.5/25
    Coverage: 8.9/15
    Tackling: 16.6/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 63.1/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 56/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    David Bass has served as depth for the Titans behind starters Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. Over 29 games and seven starts with the Titans since 2015, Bass has just 1.5 sacks, including zero over 13 games in 2016. He possesses the size most teams want on the edge of the 3-4, but the majority of his snaps were empty this past season.

    His pass-rushing skills are unrefined, and he lacks the athletic traits to overcome his lack of technical proficiency. Bass is average against the run, and teams often went after him in the passing game when he was asked to drop into coverage. He's still only 26 years old, but Bass looks like he'll need to hang on as a special teams player moving forward. The Titans may move on, especially with rookies Kevin Dodd and Aaron Wallace on the roster at the position. Wallace often saw more of the field than Bass late in the season.


    Doug's Quick Take

    Bass gets decent pressure on the outside, but the fact that he's a relative liability against the run will limit his opportunities. He won't get a ton of looks from 4-3 teams that need end depth.


    Potential Suitors: Chicago Bears, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills

18. Dekoda Watson

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Incomplete: Dekoda Watson did not play enough in 2016 to receive full grading. 


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    Dekoda Watson will enter free agency having already played for five teams since entering the NFL in 2010. He has 139 total tackles and four sacks over 89 career games, including 17 tackles and one sack over 16 games with the Broncos in 2016.

    Watson found himself as the fifth option within Denver's stable of talented outside linebackers, which made it difficult for him to get on the field. He played just 42 snaps on defense during the regular season despite a dominant preseason in which he tallied four sacks—including 2.5 against the Los Angeles Rams in the third game.

    Watson has some of the speed and agility necessary to win around the corner, but there's very little evidence of his beating starting quality offensive tackles. In recent years, his value has been maximized on special teams, where he's developed into a reliable player covering punts and kicks.

    The Broncos may look into bringing him back, especially if DeMarcus Ware leaves in free agency. If not, Watson could interest a team looking for depth on the edge. His preseason tape from this past year may excite those searching for a cheap edge player with potential upside.


    Doug's Quick Take

    Watson has struggled to climb up depth charts throughout his career. Even though he had a fairly impactful season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013, he'll need more counter and speed moves to transcend his current situation regardless of where he lands.


    Potential Suitors: Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams, Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns

17. Corey Lemonier

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 16.3/25
    Run Defense: 13.3/25
    Coverage: 9.2/15
    Tackling: 17/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 63.2/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 54/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    The 2016 season was a whirlwind for Corey Lemonier, who played for four different teams. Waived by the San Francisco 49ers in early September, Lemonier found himself claimed by the Cleveland Browns just a day later. He went on to play eight games in Cleveland, tallying two sacks and a forced fumble as a rotational rusher.

    The Browns waived him in December, which led to a short stint with the Detroit Lions. He didn't see any game action with Detroit before another release and another new team, this time the New York Jets. He played in New York's season finale against the Buffalo Bills.

    This offseason should provide even more uncertainty for Lemonier. Once a third-round pick of the 49ers, Lemonier has only produced 46 tackles and three sacks over 51 career games. All of his opportunities in 2016 prove teams are still intrigued by his size and skill set, but at some point, potential means nothing and production becomes everything. Lemonier is blessed with rare athletic gifts, but he doesn't have the production to warrant more many chances at the NFL level.


    Doug's Quick Take

    The 49ers took Lemonier in the third round of the 2013 draft because they were enamored with his pure speed. Unfortunately, he has been unable to add the necessary array of pass-rush moves to succeed in the NFL. Until he does, he'll be an expendable backup and special-teamer.


    Potential Suitors: New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals, Washington Redskins, Pittsburgh Steelers

16. Akeem Ayers

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 16.6/25
    Run Defense: 12.5/25
    Coverage: 10.3/15
    Tackling: 16.5/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 63.5/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 51/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    Akeem Ayers signed with the Colts after being released by the Rams during final cuts. He saw action in all 16 games for Indianapolis, but the former strong-side linebacker in the 4-3 defense looked like he was playing out of position in 2016.

    His game is built almost entirely on speed, which made him a hit-or-miss pass-rusher and a total liability against the run in the Colts' three-man front. Oftentimes, offensive tackles would steer Ayers out of the play as he attempted to run around them. In the run game, large offensive tackles would smother him, collapsing the edge and opening up huge holes to the outside. Ayers' biggest strength is dropping into coverage, where his athleticism became an asset.

    The Colts may want to bring him back for another year and continue his transition, but Ayers should look to get back to a 4-3 defense. He doesn't play big enough to last on the edge in the 3-4, and the coverage aspect of playing the position isn't a priority for most three-man fronts.


    Doug's Quick Take

    Ayers has never been the sackmaster some projected him to be when he came out of UCLA, but he's an aware player who can get it done against the run, and he will provide a bit of pass pressure out of multiple gaps as long as there are openings. He's best suited as a second-level linebacker and occasional blitzer in a 4-3 or 4-2-5 base defense.


    Potential Suitors: Detroit Lions, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons

15. Sam Acho

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 16.2/25
    Run Defense: 13.8/25
    Coverage: 9.7/15
    Tackling: 16.6/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 63.7/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 50/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    The Bears brought Sam Acho back to Chicago on a one-year deal for 2016, and he responded by playing in all 16 games for the fourth time in his six-year NFL career. Acho has only one sack over 31 games with the Bears, but he's turned himself into a key special teams contributor in Chicago. His value on defense has been minimized by his inability to get to the quarterback.

    Producing just one sack—despite making 13 starts and playing plenty of snaps since arriving in Chicago—is a good way to become a career special teams player. With limited speed and power, Acho lacks a go-to attribute in beating offensive tackles. Rushers without a dominant physical skill need to develop an understanding of countermoves, and it doesn't look like Acho possesses a backup plan when blockers stop his initial surge.

    Given his reliability on special teams, it seems reasonable to think the Bears would want him back on another short-term deal. Acho would probably welcome a return because teams aren't going to line up to sign him in free agency. His value remains highest in Chicago.


    Doug's Quick Take

    Acho's best NFL season came in 2014 for the Arizona Cardinals, who used him as a multi-gap blitzer in a rotation. He can do that in any kind of defense, and he's an underrated run defender, but his inability to match technique to his athletic gifts makes him a very inconsistent player on the edge.


    Potential Suitors: Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals

14. Alex Okafor

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 17.2/25
    Run Defense: 13.1/25
    Coverage: 9.2/15
    Tackling: 16.8/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 63.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 47/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    The Cardinals received big years from Chandler Jones (11 sacks) and Markus Golden (12.5), who both look like long-term starters for the team at outside linebacker. Arizona will now have to make a decision on Alex Okafor, a 2013 fourth-round pick who provided quality depth behind Jones and Golden in 2016. Okafor tallied 3.5 sacks in a rotational role, but he was most effective when the Cardinals employed all three outside linebackers on the field at once in obvious passing situations.

    The unique package allowed him freedom to attack the quarterback from different positions and angles. However, Okafor's overall role in Arizona has decreased significantly over the last two years. He'll need to decide if he's comfortable as nothing more than a backup for the Cardinals or if he'd prefer to pursue a starting job elsewhere. He has some pass-rushing talent with a decent burst off the line and the agility to turn the corner.

    Okafor is far from an elite rusher, but a team in need of depth on the edge could do much worse in free agency, especially considering he is only 26 years old.


    Doug's Quick Take

    If Chandler Jones moves on from the Cardinals, general manager Steve Keim would be nuts to let Okafor go. Last season, he amassed 3.5 sacks and 24 quarterback hurries—in just 231 snaps. Okafor is not a world-beater, but he can get consistent pressure off the edge and in overload blitzes as long as there are other rushers around him to help occupy gaps. He's an ideal backup and spot starter in any 3-4 base defense.


    Potential Suitors: Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Buffalo Bills

13. Jayrone Elliott

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 17.8/25
    Run Defense: 12.9/25
    Coverage: 8.9/15
    Tackling: 17.6/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 64.8/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 43/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    Jayrone Elliott has teased the Packers since signing in Green Bay as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He has always been good for a few flash plays a year, but the jump from obvious potential to consistent production has been a difficult one, like it is for many young, unrefined players. Elliott has four sacks, one interception and one forced fumble over the last three seasons, and most of those numbers have come in a handful of games.

    In 2015, Elliott intercepted a screen pass and forced a fumble during a Green Bay win over the Seattle Seahawks. This past season, he notched his only sack of the year during another win against Seattle. Elliott looks the part at 6'3" and 255 pounds, and he runs well for a man his size. As a result, the Packers have kept him around as a core special teams contributor. A lack of snaps has likely contributed to his stunted growth on defense, but teams generally don't stash away talented pass-rushers without a good reason.

    Still only 25, Elliott has time to grow, but the clock is ticking. He will likely stick around in Green Bay, where the Packers greatly value his ability on special teams. A shuffle at outside linebacker may finally give him his opportunity in 2017. If not, Elliott should find work elsewhere. Young pass-rushers with potential always find a home in the NFL.


    Doug's Quick Take

    Grabbing three sacks in just 176 snaps in the 2015 season did a lot for Elliott's profile, but he wasn't able to capitalize on it last year. His best bet to get more reps is the possibility that both Nick Perry and Julius Peppers leave Green Bay in free agency, but Elliott will have to match any availability with his own development.


    Potential Suitors: Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers

12. Trent Cole

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 19.6/25
    Run Defense: 13.6/25
    Coverage: 9.3/15
    Tackling: 17.4/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 67.6/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 32/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    Once a star for the Philadelphia Eagles, Trent Cole delivered only five sacks over 21 games after signing a two-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts before the 2015 season. He missed nine games this past season after hurting his back, returning in December to notch two sacks over the final five games. A 12-year veteran with 90.5 career sacks, Cole still knows to use his best skills—like his burst off the line—to get around blockers and pressure the quarterback.

    However, his days of playing a full game's worth of snaps every Sunday are long gone. Cole can get pushed around in the run game, making it possible he'll be nothing more than a situational pass-rusher the remainder of his career. It's a role that could suit Cole well. Cutting down on snaps and providing opportunities to get after the passer would help keep him healthy and allow him to play to his remaining strengths.

    There's still some gas left in the tank, but it has to be used correctly, or Cole could flame out in a hurry. Any contender with a need for a rotational rusher (regardless of scheme) could have interest in adding the veteran this spring.


    Doug's Quick Take

    There are aging pass-rushers like James Harrison and Dwight Freeney who have found the ideal situations for the skills they have left. Cole's ideal situation at this point is probably in a four-man front where he can tee off around the edge. He doesn't have the burst required of a 3-4 endbacker to get around and through the pocket from a wide edge consistently, which is why his total pressure numbers plummeted in 2016. In-season back surgery didn't help, but that's one more sign of mortality.


    Potential Suitors: Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers

11. Erik Walden

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 18.8/25
    Run Defense: 14.1/25
    Coverage: 8.9/15
    Tackling: 17.4/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 66.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 35/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    Don't let the numbers fool you. Walden finished the 2016 season tied for eighth in the NFL in sacks with 11, but he's not a gifted pass-rusher capable of producing double-digit sacks every season. In fact, 2016 was the first year he delivered more than six. In terms of NFL1000's pass-rush grades, 32 players at 3-4 outside linebacker scored higher this season.

    Still, no player lucks into 11 sacks in the NFL. Walden plays with leverage, power and pure determination. He's improved significantly in his ability to set up countermoves, which has allowed him to win more one-on-one battles late in games. Without better options, the Colts were all but forced to give Walden the snaps he required in 2016—and the veteran used those plentiful opportunities to get his volume numbers. Smart teams will see through the numbers and understand Walden's abilities. He's an average rusher, a slightly below average run defender and a liability in coverage.

    Walden can still be an asset for a number of teams, but those thinking he can step in and consistently deliver 10 or more sacks for a defense will be sorely mistaken. His best role would likely be as a No. 2 or 3 option behind an elite rusher, where his positives could be maximized and his liabilities minimized. Expect a team desperate for pass rush to spend more than it should to get Walden after an 11-sack season.

    Doug's Quick Take

    Walden does display impressive strength for his size (6'2", 238). He has a formidable understanding of how to beat blockers with power and agility and a nice palette of pass-rush moves. Any 3-4 team that is looking for veteran depth at OLB, or a handful of 4-3 teams that prefer lighter Leo ends, will be checking him out.


    Potential Suitors: Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns

10. Jarvis Jones

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 17.2/25
    Run Defense: 15.1/25
    Coverage: 9.5/15
    Tackling: 18.6/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 67.8/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 31/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    The Pittsburgh Steelers made Jarvis Jones a first-round pick in 2013, but the former Georgia star has struggled to produce up to his draft status over his first four seasons. Despite making 35 starts and playing in 50 games, Jones has just six career sacks, including one sack over 14 games and nine starts in 2016. Late in the season, the Steelers all but shelved Jones in favor of James Harrison and Bud Dupree. He lacks the athletic prowess to consistently beat tackles and finish at the quarterback.

    While Jones will likely never develop the burst and bend necessary for becoming a top pass-rusher, he does possess skills in other aspects of playing outside linebacker. His best attribute is stopping the run, where his energy and strength make him an ideal player for setting the edge. Jones graded out 12th among 3-4 outside linebackers in run defense.

    He's also well versed in dropping into coverage and a proficient tackler capable of delivering big hits on the ball carrier. Jones has an interception in each of the last two seasons, and his tackle grade of 18.6 finished 11th at the position.

    His inability to pressure the quarterback will severely damage his value, especially as most teams will struggle to project significant improvement in Jones as a pass-rusher. He's not an explosive player, and teams pay for the future production that only natural explosion can consistently create. But for a team in need of help stopping the run, Jones could make sense. He won't cost much.


    Doug's Quick Take

    Jones will go down as one of general manager Kevin Colbert's biggest draft misses. His 4.88 40 at his pro day, diagnosis of spinal stenosis and limited palette of moves were all warning signs. Six sacks in four seasons—and just one season with more than 20 quarterback hurries—tell the tale. Jones is a rotational player, but his inability to grow into a complete pass-rusher will likely impact the entirety of his NFL future. He'll be a very scheme-specific addition wherever he goes.


    Potential Suitors: Chicago Bears, Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns

9. Datone Jones

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 18.9/25
    Run Defense: 14.1/25
    Coverage: 9/15
    Tackling: 17.5/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 67.3/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 34/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    Originally drafted in the first round as a down lineman, Datone Jones successfully converted to outside linebacker to play on the edge for the Packers. The move has been a beneficial one for Jones, who has a violent, powerful game well suited for setting the edge and collapsing the pocket. His ability to rush the passer has improved, but the numbers don't reflect the progression. Jones has only nine sacks in four years, including just one in 2016.

    His power allows him to consistently beat blockers, but he lacks the closing speed and agility to finish at the quarterback. Several of his pressures and hits were very close to sacks this past season. It's possible that cutting another 5-10 pounds would help him become a better finisher.

    Both Jones and the Packers have questions to answer about his future. Does Jones want to stay in a 3-4 scheme as an edge player? He might be better suited to play a number of positions in a four-man front. And do the Packers want to give up on a first-round pick before a second contract? Green Bay has big question marks at outside linebacker, and Jones has produced enough flashes of disruption to warrant another look.

    The Packers would almost certainly bring him back at the right price, but there could be several teams outside Green Bay interested in adding the former first-round pick.


    Doug's Quick Take

    Jones is an interesting player. Projected as an interior pass-rusher because of his size (6'4", 285 pounds), he only came alive in the NFL when he was moved outside as a giant edge-rusher in Dom Capers' multiple fronts. A good run-stopper on the inside and a consistent (if not entirely dominant) pass-rusher on the outside, Jones has the kind of gap versatility prized in today's NFL, and he'll get a lot of looks from teams that run 3-4 base fronts with hybrid sub-packages.


    Potential Suitors: Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas Cowboys

8. Julius Peppers

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 19.7/25
    Run Defense: 13.8/25
    Coverage: 9.1/15
    Tackling: 17.8/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 68/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 29/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    The Packers signed Julius Peppers, then 34, to a three-year deal back in 2014. He went on to produce 25 sacks over three years in Green Bay, including 7.5 in 2016. There's no telling if Peppers will return to play next season, but he's still chasing an elusive Super Bowl ring.

    The incentive for him to play another year is there, and a few teams could be interested in adding him in a limited, situational role. The Packers used Peppers at outside linebacker and as a down lineman in pass-rushing packages, but his play time decreased every year since 2014—mostly as a way to keep him fresh down the stretch. He can still beat a tackle around the corner and use his huge frame to disrupt a passing window, but those big plays are often separated by long stretches of inactivity.

    While Peppers was excellent during Green Bay's win over the New York Giants in the NFC Wild Card Round, he faded in subsequent playoff games against the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons. Now 37, Peppers hasn't missed a game since 2007. He's reliable, but the athletic traits that helped create his Hall of Fame career are starting to erode.


    Doug's Quick Take

    The Packers have used Peppers well, extending his career as a premier pass-rusher beyond its logical conclusion. Like Clay Matthews in recent years, Peppers has found additional success as a pass-rusher from the inside at linebacker depth, and he's remained a good run defender. He's likely to further extend his career with a series of one- or two-year deals, but there's enough left in the tank to make that an attractive possibility. The best case in this case for both player and team is a Green Bay reunion.


    Potential Suitors: Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants

7. John Simon

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 18.4/25
    Run Defense: 15.8/25
    Coverage: 9.8/15
    Tackling: 18.2/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 69.5/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 19/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    The Texans are loaded with big-name stars on defense, but don't forget about the vastly underrated John Simon. He isn't a star, and he hasn't produced big numbers, but Simon was consistently a bright spot for the Texans over 11 games and five starts in 2016. His best asset is defending the run. Simon was one of only 12 3-4 outside linebackers to finish the season with a run defense grade above 15.0. He's both strong at the point of attack and consistent in rallying to the football.

    His pass-rushing has steadily improved, but his ceiling as a rusher remains limited, which will lower his potential on the open market. Smart teams will realize his true value is in stopping the run, playing zone coverage and making plays on special teams.

    There's a spot on every roster for glue guys like Simon. The Texans have developed him over the last three years, making a return to Houston entirely possible—especially if Simon doesn't like offers from other teams in free agency. His performance in 2016 should attract teams willing to give him a real shot at a starting job.


    Doug's Quick Take

    Simon is a plus player for any team that runs hybrid fronts, especially two-down-linemen fronts, because he's so good against the run with his hand off the ground. It's a rare talent, and when you add his pass-rush skills to the equation, Simon should be a highly prized player on the free-agent market. He's not a big name among fans, but you'd better believe coaches and coordinators know how good he is.


    Potential Suitors: Houston Texans, Los Angeles Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills

6. Lorenzo Alexander

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    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 20.2/25
    Run Defense: 14.8/25
    Coverage: 10.2/15
    Tackling: 18.2/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 70.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 10/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    A role player and a special teams stud for the first nine years of his career, Lorenzo Alexander put together one of the more improbable breakout seasons in recent memory in 2016. He tallied 10 sacks during the Bills' first nine games, or one more than the nine career sacks he had coming into the season. His 12.5 total sacks eventually finished tied for third in the NFL, trailing only Vic Beasley and Von Miller.

    Alexander isn't the biggest, fastest or strongest edge-rusher on the market. He'll also turn 34 in May. But with versatility, a willingness to do anything he's asked and an insatiable hunger for special teams, he's everything you want in a player on your 53-man roster.

    The Pro Bowler also showed enough burst around the corner to help quiet any concerns about his being a one-year wonder, even if he's unlikely to come close to 12.5 sacks in a season again. A team in need of a scheme-versatile pass-rusher with above average coverage skills could entertain the idea of giving Alexander a short but sizable contract, especially if a more highly coveted player like Melvin Ingram gets signed early in free agency. His price shouldn't get out of control given his age and past production.


    Doug's Quick Take

    When I reviewed Alexander's tape after Week 5 of the 2016 season, I was impressed both by his versatility to create pressure from all over the field and the openness of Buffalo's coaching staff to put him in those multiple positions. Some would call Alexander a one-year wonder—I'd be more likely to say he's a player who was finally in the right place for his abilities. It's a shame that Alexander had to turn 33 before it happened, because his age will limit his free-agent payday in a way if certainly wouldn't if he was 27.


    Potential Suitors: Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns

5. DeMarcus Ware

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    Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 20.8/25
    Run Defense: 13.6/25
    Coverage: 8.9/15
    Tackling: 17.8/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 68.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 24/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    DeMarcus Ware's third season in Denver saw the veteran register a career-low four sacks over just 10 games. Arm and back injuries forced him out of six games, and the back issue eventually required surgery. He'll also turn 35 years old in July, making it possible the rest of Ware's career—however long it lasts—will require him to be a situational pass-rusher. That reality shouldn't scare off interested teams.

    Ware was still highly effective as a rusher in 2016, even if his sack numbers fell sharply. His pass-rushing grade finished 10th among all 3-4 outside linebackers, proving he could still threaten 10 or more sacks if he finds the right situation and stays healthy for 16 games.

    Ware's explosion off the ball has declined with time, but he's still one of the best at using his hands and length to beat blockers and get around the edge. Returning to Denver makes a lot of sense for Ware, especially as a rotational rusher behind Von Miller and Shane Ray. If the Broncos decide to move on, a number of contending teams should have significant interest.


    Doug's Quick Take

    Injuries blew apart Ware's 2016 season after a marvelous 2015 campaign, and at age 35 before the 2017 season starts, he's a guy teams will investigate with caution. As a rotational pass-rusher with all the wisdom in the world that he's more than happy to impart on his younger teammates, Ware is a huge asset. Expecting him to be a 10-sack, 60-hurry terror at this point in his career might be a bit much, though.


    Potential Suitors: Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers

4. James Harrison

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 19.4/25
    Run Defense: 14.9/25
    Coverage: 10.5/15
    Tackling: 18.4/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 70.7/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 13/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    Father Time might be undefeated, but James Harrison is giving him one hell of a fight. Even at age 38, Harrison recorded five sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception over 15 games—helping him finish 13th overall among all 3-4 outside linebackers in our NFL1000 rankings. He was even dominant at times in the postseason, tallying 20 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble as Pittsburgh advanced to the AFC title game.

    His performance against the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Wild Card Round graded out as one of the best by any player at the position during the entire 2016 season. What Harrison lacks in youthful athleticism he makes up for with unrivaled strength, toughness and awareness, plus a complete understanding of how to play the position. His pass-rushing was understandably off and on in 2016, but he also enjoyed long stretches of disruption, especially to end the season.

    Even after 14 years in the NFL, Harrison continues to make himself indispensable to the Steelers by setting the edge against the run and dropping into coverage, a staple of Pittsburgh's defense. He finished the year with the position's top grade in coverage. Harrison hasn't hinted at retirement, so expect him to be back with the Steelers for the 2017 season. If his body cooperates, Harrison can be expected to produce.


    Doug's Quick Take

    Harrison's brutal workout regimen has paid untold dividends, as the former undrafted free agent has improved in both snap count and overall performance each of the last four years. To see this from a pass-rusher in his late 30s is just about unprecedented. Teams will be watching for when the other shoe drops, but this is the rare edge-rusher who could well be effective into his early 40s. It takes a look at the entirety of the history of the league to understand how impossible that is to do.


    Potential Suitors: Pittsburgh Steelers

3. Nick Perry

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 20.3/25
    Run Defense: 16.4/25
    Coverage: 9.1/15
    Tackling: 19.1/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 72.4/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 7/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    Nick Perry finally overcame his annual injury problems to produce a breakout season. The former first-round pick led the Packers with 11 sacks, nearly doubling his career total (12.5 his first four seasons) in the process. Perry didn't stay completely healthy, as a broken hand in early December cost him two games. But he returned with a large cast to protect the hand and managed to register four sacks over Green Bay's final five games, including the playoffs. While injuries might have stunted Perry's early growth as a player, he's as tough as they come when on the field.

    He can set the edge, beat double-teams with strength and collapse the pocket with power. Perry graded out as the third-best 3-4 outside linebacker against the run this season, a testament to how consistent he was controlling one side of the defense. He should also have positional versatility with real potential to thrive as a 4-3 defensive end. Perry clearly has the profile (premium position, still young, coming off a great season) of a high-priced, highly coveted free agent, but teams will have to weigh his positives against a lengthy injury history and his overall quality as a pass-rusher.

    Is he a game-changing player worthy of a huge contract? The Packers have big needs on defense, but they may have to let him determine his worth on the open market before attempting to bring him back.


    Doug's Quick Take

    Perry picked the best possible time for his breakout season, but don't make the mistake of thinking he's a one-year wonder—although he only had 3.5 sacks in 2015, he's always been a stellar run defender. What makes his free-agent turn so interesting is that he's not limited to any scheme—he'll be able to mess quarterbacks up in 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, as well as hybrid fronts, as long as he stays healthy. Don't be surprised if a team with a ton of cap space and a desperate need for edge pressure ignores the injury history and backs up a truck full of money.


    Potential Suitors: Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns

2. Chandler Jones

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 21.7/25
    Run Defense: 15.2/25
    Coverage: 9.6/15
    Tackling: 18.9/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 72.9/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 5/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    A tumultuous year of change should conclude with Chandler Jones' signing a lucrative deal to stay with the Cardinals, regardless of whether it's the one-year franchise tag or a multiyear contract.

    Traded from New England to Arizona before a contract year, Jones produced 11 sacks and four forced fumbles for the Cardinals during a productive 2016 season. He graded out as NFL1000's fifth overall 3-4 outside linebacker, largely due to the fourth-best pass-rushing grade at the position. He has the long, athletic frame every team craves on the edge, and he uses his physical traits to win with both speed and power. His long arms create natural separation at the point of attack.

    Jones has now tallied at least 11 sacks in three of his last four seasons, and he's also averaged almost three forced fumbles a year over his five-year NFL career. His market would be substantial in free agency, especially since he'll only be 27 years old next season. In reality, the Cardinals won't allow it happen. His future certainly looks like it will involve the franchise tag, which is understandable given Arizona traded a second-round pick and guard Jonathan Cooper to the Patriots for Jones last March. He's too valuable for the Cardinals to let him sniff free agency.


    Doug's Quick Take

    Jones wasn't just a great pressure player in James Bettcher's aggressive Arizona defense—he was consistently dominant in all facets of the game. He had an utterly ridiculous 66 total pressures in 2016, without any playoff games to buttress that total, and he's become a plus run-stopper as well. Agreed that the Cardinals will do anything possible to keep him on the roster; if he does hit free agency, he'll immediately become one of the most prized assets on the market.


    Potential Suitors: Arizona Cardinals

1. Melvin Ingram

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    Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    NFL1000 Scores

    Pass Rush: 22.2/25
    Run Defense: 15.9/25
    Coverage: 10.3/15
    Tackling: 19.5/25
    Positional Value: 8/10 
    Overall: 75.4/100
    2016 NFL1000 3-4 OLB Rank: 3/65


    NFL1000 3-4 OLB scout Zach Kruse

    Melvin Ingram is the top pass-rusher and one of the best all-around players available in free agency. He finished the 2016 season ranked 50th overall in our NFL1000 scores, including a No. 3 finish among 3-4 outside linebackers—trailing only Von Miller and Jadeveon Clowney at the paramount position.

    Ingram's unique versatility makes him one of the league's few elite edge-rushers. He is relentless in getting to the quarterback (18.5 sacks over last two years) and a playmaker when dropping into coverage (11 passes defended since 2015). He graded out as the second-best 3-4 outside linebacker in both pass rushing and pass coverage last season. Ingram is also more than capable of setting the edge and making tackles for losses against the run.

    Some teams might be scared away by the injuries and inconsistency of his first three seasons, but few at the outside linebacker position have been better than Ingram over the last two years. He's also only 27 years old and in the middle of his athletic prime, and he hasn't missed a game the last two seasons.

    The Chargers would be playing a risky game by letting him test the open market, where young and disruptive players like Ingram—or Olivier Vernon last spring—can create the interest required to land a mega contract. Expect Ingram to become a very, very wealthy man in the coming months. He's a game-wrecking force at a premium position in today's game.


    Doug's Quick Take

    When I watched Ingram's college tape before his 2012 draft selection, I was extremely impressed by his ability to disrupt from any gap—he'd get sacks from the nose tackle position at 270 pounds, which doesn't happen a lot. I believed him to be the finest defensive player in his draft class.

    Injuries slowed his progress in the NFL, but he's been dominant over the last two seasons, and he's been able to show some of that gap versatility. Only Von Miller and Khalil Mack had more quarterback hurries than Ingram's 54 in 2016, he's a plus run defender and he can drop into coverage pretty well. Ingram has become one of the truly well-rounded pass-rushers in the NFL regardless of scheme. Ancillary concerns about his health aside, he's about to get paid accordingly.


    Potential Suitors: Los Angeles Chargers, Atlanta Falcons, Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, New Orleans Saints

    All advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.


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