Free Agent Preview: Linebacker

Posted Mar 4, 2013

The value of the linebacker in today’s NFL can be hard to figure, especially considering the proliferation of multiple receiver sets that require additional defensive backs.

But considering the continued evolution of the quarterback position and the expansion of the read option offense around the league, linebackers with instincts and athleticism carry with them an inherent value they didn’t previously have. Problem is, those types of players are increasingly difficult to find.

With free agency set to begin on March 12, there don’t appear to be many of those types of linebackers available but the handful that are figure to walk away with more dollars than they might have in the past.

From a Rams perspective, they are just fine at middle linebacker after giving captain James Laurinaitis a lucrative, long term contract extension on the day before the start of the 2012 regular season.

Heading into last season, the Rams had big needs at both outside linebacker positions but found a tag team partner for Laurinaitis by making one of the best under the radar free agent signings of the offseason in Jo-Lonn Dunbar on a two-year deal.

That leaves the Rams with Laurinaitis and Dunbar locked in to two of the positions after Dunbar spent his first season in St. Louis on the weak side.

Laurinaitis was his usual, productive self in 2012 after making the adjustment to coach Jeff Fisher’s defensive scheme which asked him to drop in coverage more and drop some weight to be quicker in it.

By the time the year was over, though, Laurinaitis had posted a team-leading 174 tackles with a half sack, two interceptions, eight passes defended, five quarterback pressures, seven quarterback hits and a fumble recovery.

Dunbar nearly matched that rock solid production as he took full advantage of his opportunity to be a starter and operate day to day knowing he’d be a starter after four seasons in New Orleans.

For the year, Dunbar put up 157 tackles (second on the team), 4.5 sacks, two interceptions, five passes defended, two quarterback pressures, 16 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles.

Meanwhile, at the strong side position, the Rams went with a combination of older veterans in Rocky McIntosh and Mario Haggan to fill a spot that in a general sense isn’t on the field nearly as much as Dunbar and Laurinaitis because of the need for an extra defensive back more often than not.

McIntosh finished with 52 tackles, a sack and an interception in his nine starts while Haggan had 12 tackles and a sack in two starts. Josh Hull and Justin Cole also made cameo appearances on the strong side during the season.

Regardless, the Rams enter this offseason with a need for another outside linebacker to complement Dunbar and Laurinaitis. Whether they land a true strong side ‘backer to plug in or a weak side ‘backer that would slide Dunbar to the strong side, the Rams will almost certainly look to add another linebacker one way or another.

That’s because both Haggan and McIntosh are set to become unrestricted free agents. And while it’s possible they could bring one or both back to have another veteran presence for special teams, there is a need to add some fresh legs that can help the Rams keep up with the likes of San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Seattle’s Russell Wilson.

Under their control, the Rams have Laurinaitis, Dunbar, Hull, Cole and practice squad player Jabara Williams. Cole is a restricted free agent and the Rams would need to offer a tender to retain him, though.

While true 4-3 linebackers with the size and speed to fit the bill for Fisher’s defense are becoming more and more difficult to find, there could be some intriguing options on the free agent market should the Rams look to go in that direction.

Set on the inside, the Rams won’t be in the market that includes the likes of Baltimore’s Dannell Ellerbe, Green Bay’s Brad Jones or Cincinnati’s Rey Maualuga.

They could, however, kick the tires on some potential outside linebacker prospects. While the draft provides cheaper alternatives than free agency, positions like outside linebacker can provide a bit better value than trying to sign, say, a top wide receiver, especially if you wait until after the first couple of waves of free agency to pass.

It’s unlikely the Rams will jump on any of the top linebackers on the free agent market in the opening days. But after the smoke clears and the dust settles, it’s possible they could look into some options in April and May.

Oakland’s Phillip Wheeler is a true strong side linebacker with solid athleticism and coverage skills to. He appears to be one of the few true 4-3 ‘backers who will hit the market and could land a nice deal because of it.

Jacksonville’s Daryl Smith would likely be one of the more sought linebackers on the market were he not recovering from a serious groin injury that limited him to two games in 2012. He’s also set to turn 31 two days after the free agent period begins.

One other name to keep an eye on is Detroit’s Justin Durant, who had 103 tackles for the Lions last year, is only 27 and has worked with new Rams defensive coordinator Tim Walton the past two seasons in Mo-Town.

Aside from that trio, most of the other top outside linebackers project as better fits in 3-4 defenses as pass rushing specialists. That group includes Baltimore’s Paul Kruger, Houston’s Connor Barwin and Dallas’ Anthony Spencer.

Outside Linebacker

1. Paul Kruger, Baltimore: Picked a great year to have one of his best seasons. In depressed market for pass rushers, he’ll cash in.
2. Connor Barwin, Houston: Struggled during 2012 season after a breakout 2011. Like Kruger, will find a nice deal because of lack of pass rushers.
3. Daryl Smith, Jacksonville: Were it not for continual injury issues, he’d probably be at the top of this list. Getting up there in age but could still have some good football left.
4. Phillip Wheeler, Oakland: Good athlete with the speed to cover and solid tackler. Thought of as a true strong side ‘backer in a 4-3 who could potentially stay on the field all three downs.
5. Shaun Phillips, San Diego: Still has value as a pass rusher though not what he once was and will be 32 before next season begins.

Others to Watch: Erik Walden, Green Bay; Kaluka Maiava, Cleveland; Manny Lawson, Cincinnati; Nick Barnett, Buffalo; Justin Durant, Detroit.

Inside Linebacker

1. Dannell Ellerbe, Baltimore: It was Ellerbe, not Ray Lewis who was Baltimore’s best inside ‘backer in 2012. Ravens must keep him but might not be able to afford him considering their other free agents.
2. Brad Jones, Green Bay: One of the league’s most pleasant surprises stepping in last year because of injury. Will be rewarded for his work.
3. Rey Maualuga, Cincinnati: A big, punishing tackler but struggles in coverage and has been inconsistent. He is versatile enough to play SLB, though and might be better served in a 3-4.
4. Brian Urlacher, Chicago: He’s 35 and has had major injury issues in recent years. But he might be able to produce for another year or two if he can stay healthy.
5. Bart Scott, New York Jets: Not the player he once was but still a solid, productive run stuffing type with leadership skills.

Others to Watch:  Larry Foote, Pittsburgh; Brandon Siler, Kansas City; Jasper Brinkley, Minnesota; Demorrio Williams, San Diego; Larry Grant, San Francisco; Bradie James, Houston.

Rams Free Agents: Rocky McIntosh, Mario Haggan, Justin Cole (restricted).