Tuesday, February 7, 2012

2012 Free Agency Top Fives: Non-Rushing Linebackers

Over the next month leading up to the free-agent signing period on March 13, I'll be taking a look at the best players slated for free agency this offseason.

Because different players play different positions in certain schemes, it's difficult to compare all defensive ends or all outside linebackers. Therefore I'm splitting up my rankings into non-rushing linebackers (3-4 inside linebackers and all 4-3 linebackers) and pass rushers (3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends.)

It should also be noted that this series focuses only on players that will become free agents in the next league year, and not players that are released by their teams (ex. Peyton Manning) before it begins.

In this entry, I'll examine the top non-rushing linebackers expected to hit the open market next month, as well as some other notable names at the position.

1. Stephen Tulloch, Detroit Lions

Despite three highly productive seasons with the Titans capped off by a 160-tackle performance in 2010, Tulloch was only able to land a one-year deal with the Lions in free agency. Now coming off a great season in which he racked up 111 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions while grading out as a top-10 inside linebacker. Someone should give this guy the four-year deal he deserves.

2. Curtis Lofton, Atlanta Falcons

Since being drafted in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft, Lofton has played in all 64 games while starting all but one. He's also totaled at least 118 tackles in each of the past three seasons, including a career-high 147 stops this past season. If the Falcons are forced to franchise tag cornerback Brent Grimes, Lofton will hit the open market with a bevvy of suitors.

3. London Fletcher, Washington Redskins

He'll be 37 this offseason and stands a ridiculously undersized 5-foot-10, but Fletcher is showing no signs of slowing down just yet. Fletcher once again led the NFL in tackles with 166 stops while adding in 1.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions as one of the best middle linebackers in the game. He's not going to get a long-term deal or big money at his age, but he can still start for a lot of teams and should have no trouble finding work for another couple years.

4. D'Qwell Jackson, Cleveland Browns

A vastly underrated player since he entered the league as a second-round pick back in 2006, Jackson got off to a hot start to his pro career before injuries limited him to six games in 2009 and forced him to miss the entire 2010 season. But Jackson returned as good as ever in 2011, racking up a career-high 158 tackles (second in the NFL behind Fletcher), 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. The 28-year-old has some durability concerns, but he could easily be a quality starter in the NFL for another four or five years.

5. David Hawthorne, Seattle Seahawks

Undrafted out of TCU in 2008, Hawthorne established himself as a starter by his second season while making three-time Pro Bowler Lofa Tatupu expendable in the process. Hawthorne has amassed 100+ tackles each of his last three seasons and also grades out positively in coverage with seven interceptions and a touchdown return during that span. He doesn't have ideal size at 6-feet even, but he's got plenty of ability and is certainly an appealing free agent at just 26 years old.

Beyond the Top Five
  • Keith Brooking, Dallas Cowboys — A five-time Pro Bowler, Brooking was relegated to a reserve role in 2011, racking up 50 tackles in 16 games (three starts) while grading out as a sub-par linebacker. Turning 37 later this year, Brooking's playing days are about over.
  • Dan Connor, Carolina Panthers — A product of Linebacker U, it's taken Connor some time to earn a starting role as he opened a career-high 11 games in 2011 and totaled 75 tackles. Still just 26, Connor has the talent to compete for a starting job, but he doesn't have the pro resume to be handed one.
  • Andra Davis, Buffalo Bills — One of the league's best run-stuffing linebackers just a few years ago, Davis has started just seven games over the past two seasons. Now 33, Davis is at best a short-term starter but is nobody's first option.
  • Jo-Lonn Dunbar, New Orleans Saints — A former undrafted free agent out of Boston College, Dunbar set career highs with 16 games played, 14 games started, and 79 tackles. However, he graded out as a below-average linebacker in just about every category, making him much better suited for a speical-teams and backup role.
  • Jonathan Goff, New York Giants — In four pro seasons, Goff has a career-high of just 80 tackles and missed the entire 2011 season with a torn ACL. He's still just 26, however, and earned positive grades during a full 2010 campaign, so he should be able to compete for a starting job.
  • Gary Guyton, New England Patriots — Guyton was a full-time starter in 2009 and opened six contests for the eventual AFC Champions this past season, but his play leaves a lot to be desired. He's best suited for a top backup role.
  • E. J. Henderson, Minnesota Vikings — Now three years removed from a gruesome leg injury, Henderson continues to be a quality linebacker and was nearly in my top five. He'll be 32 in August, but Henderson can stop be a thumper against the run and should be able to start another two or three years, barring injury.
  • Erin Henderson, Minnesota Vikings — The younger brother of teammate E. J. (above), Erin Henderson has really come into his own after going undrafted in 2008. Primarily a special-teamer during his first three seasons, Henderson opened 11 of 15 contests in 2011 and totaled 70 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles as Pro Football Focus' No. 4 outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme and No. 3 against the run. He's still relatively inexperienced, but he should have more starts ahead of him.
  • Bradie James, Dallas Cowboys — Much like Keith Brooking (above), James took a backseat to Sean Lee in 2011 and totaled just 44 tackles in 16 games (13 starts). He's been a starter since 2005 and is still just 31, so he could be a serviceable short-term inside linebacker for somebody.
  • Manny Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals — Drafted as a pass-rushing defensive end converted to outside linebacker in San Francisco, Lawson played the 4-3 outside linebacker spot in Cincinnati in 2011 and graded out surprisingly well against the run. He may have found his calling at an unexpected position and his physical tools will appeal to many teams.
  • Jameel McClain, Baltimore Ravens — Overshadowed by Ray Lewis in Baltimore, McClain has started 31 of 32 games over the past two seasons and set a career high with 84 stops in 2011. He does everything fairly well but nothing great, profiling as a serviceable starter or great backup.
  • Rocky McIntosh, Washington Redskins — McIntosh was a quality starter for the Redskins over the previous four seasons, but a loss of motivation and an extended bout of pouting saw him have his worst season yet. He has some starting ability, but he may have a hard time finding a team that will hand him a job.
  • Joe Mays, Denver Broncos — A 12-game starter for the Broncos in 2011, Mays totaled 75 tackles in his first full-time gig in the NFL. He's a bit one-dimensional in that he's great against the run but not so good in coverage, but he can start in the middle or be a top backup.
  • Kirk Morrison, Buffalo Bills — Morrison opened his pro career with five 100+ tackle seasons, but totaled just 89 tackles in Jacksonville in 2010 and was limited to special teams in Buffalo this past season. He's still a quality run-stuffer but somehow he's fallen out of favor. I personally believe he has starting ability, but he'll soon be 30 and it's fair to wonder how many more chances he'll get to prove it.
  • Barrett Ruud, Tennessee Titans — Ruud was once a stud linebacker for the Buccaneers, but was only able to secure a one-year deal in free agency and got decimated in the running game in nine games with the Titans. Injuries cost him his job against a hot-shot rookie and Ruud will struggle to find a guaranteed starting job, though he still does have some ability.
  • Ernie Sims, Indianapolis Colts — Sims appeared to be a stellar first-round pick for the Lions back in 2006, but he hasn't had a good season in four years and he's quickly running out of chances. I don't know if it's motivation or what, but Sims has busted for the last three teams that have given him opportunities and I think his career could be over soon if he doesn't do something drastic.
  • Philip Wheeler, Indianapolis Colts — A third-round pick in 2008, it took Wheeler a while to get going but he's coming off his best season yet, recording 84 tackles in 13 games while grading out as a strong run defender. He's still only 27 and should be able to start throughout his next contract.

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