Tuesday, February 9, 2010

2010 Free Agency Top Fives: Outside Linebacker

Teams always need outside linebackers, regardless of what defensive scheme they run. They may be asked primarily to rush the passer in the 3-4 scheme, or play the run and cover in the 4-3.

These are my top five free agent outside linebackers, including all potential 3-4 outside linebackers (possibly current 4-3 defensive ends) as well as your traditional 4-3 linebackers.

(Note: This series of lists only includes unrestricted free agents, as those are the only type that can be signed without giving up compensation. Restricted free agents—especially the best ones—will cost valuable draft picks.)

Julius Peppers, Carolina Panthers

While it is true that Peppers has never played linebacker in the NFL, he does project at least somewhat as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and expressed interest in playing such a position with a new team last offseason.

Holding him back could be his size (roughly 6-7, 280), which is pretty big even for a 3-4 linebacker, and the fact that he'd be asked to drop back in coverage quite often.

That being said, there is no better sack artist hitting the free agent market this offseason, and every 3-4 team will at least consider Peppers as an outside linebacker prospect.

Jason Taylor, Miami Dolphins

In his second stint with the Dolphins, Taylor played his first full season at outside linebacker in the team's 3-4 defense. (He played some linebacker in Nick Saban's hybrid defense in 2005 and 2006.)

To the surprise of some given his age and injury troubles in Washington the season before, Taylor was absolutely fantastic in all facets for the Dolphins in 2009.

Even in his mid-30s, Taylor is still a productive pass rusher and plays the run very well too. The Dolphins got him cheap on a one-year deal last offseason, but teams around the league might be willing to reach deeper in their pockets after the way he played this past season.

Aaron Kampman, Green Bay Packers

Kampman struggled with the transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker in 2009, recording just 3.5 sacks and one forced fumbles through nine games before being lost for the season with a torn ACL.

That being said, he was still an overall productive player for the Packers' defense in 2009, and his sheer talent and work ethic make him a worthy pickup no matter what scheme you run. Although he'll probably land with a 4-3 team so he can return to end, 3-4 teams will surely be interested in him as an outside linebacker as well.

Tully Banta-Cain, New England Patriots

After flashing as a situational pass rusher with the Patriots between 2003 and 2006, Banta-Cain was a free agent bust during two subsequent seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.

Banta-Cain was as productive as ever in his return to New England in 2009, however, with 10 sacks and two forced fumbles in just over 500 defensive snaps.

While he's already shown he's not really full-time starter material, Banta-Cain is still just 29 and has the skills to be a highly-productive situational pass rusher.

Keith Bulluck, Tennessee Titans

A model of consistency for a good part of the last decade, Bulluck has recorded over 100 tackles six of the past eight seasons, and hasn't tallied fewer than 88 tackles in a season since he was a second-year player in 2001.

Bulluck now enters free agency coming off a knee injury that prematurely ended his 2009 season, and he will be 33 by the time the 2010 season rolls around.

While he is no longer the pass rusher or cover man he was in his prime, Bulluck is still a reliable tackler and experienced veteran that can handle leadership responsibilities in a locker room. If he's not brought back by Tennessee, he should find a new home that will allow him to start for at least the next year or two.

Beyond the Top Five
  • Jason Babin, Philadelphia Eagles — A former first-round pick by the Houston Texans in 2004, Babin has bounced around with little success as both a linebacker and defensive end. He's pretty much peaked and the fact that he doesn't contribute on special teams hurts his value, but he has the talent to be a reserve pass-rusher.
  • Derrick Burgess, New England Patriots — A two-time Pro Bowler and the NFL sack leader in 2005, Burgess' transition to 3-4 outside linebacker did not go smoothly in New England, as he started just six of 16 games and recorded only five sacks. He's clearly better suited for 4-3 defensive end, and still has some juice left at 31.
  • Scott Fujita, New Orleans Saints — Fujita is a fairly average linebacker that projects outside or inside in the 4-3, and inside in the 3-4. He is a serviceable starter at age 30, but is unlikely to maintain a starting job in the NFL for much longer.
  • Leonard Little, St. Louis Rams — A career 4-3 defensive end, Little has always projected very well to 3-4 outside linebacker. A position change this late (he'll be 36 in October) seems unlikely though, and he's notched double-digit sacks only once since 2003.
  • Adewale Ogunleye, Chicago Bears — Ogunleye has never stood up in the NFL, but like a lot of guys on this list, he at least projects as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He's had some durability concerns and was at his best when playing opposite Jason Taylor in Miami, and is really just an average starter at this point.
  • Chike Okeafor, Arizona Cardinals — Okeafor struggled mightily for the Cardinals in 2009, and the soon-to-be 34-year-old doesn't have much left in the tank. He might latch on somewhere as a backup defensive end or outside linebacker, but he'll likely be out of the league within the next year or two.
  • Pisa Tinoisamoa, Chicago Bears — Tinoisamoa topped 90 tackles three times during a six-year span with the Rams, but injuries have always prevented him from staying on the field year in and year out. He's a strict 4-3 player that really doesn't offer much more than an experienced backup at this point.

Which free agent outside linebackers do you like best? Share your thoughts on the forum here!